Friday, May 18, 2007

Profiles in Courage 

Hi, I just wanted to point out two recent examples of courage I came across.

The first is from Diane Feinstein, calling for a [meaningless] vote of no confidence in Gonzales.

FEINSTEIN: I join with Sen. Schumer in saying I think the time has come for the Senate to express its will. And that will is simply to say that we lack confidence in Attorney General Gonzales. I don’t like saying this. I very much regret saying it. I want to say exactly the opposite. But in view of what I know, I can’t.
Hm, yes, the will of the senate is to say that they lack confidence in Gonzales. Wow. Clearly they are still riding strong on the mandate of the 2006 elections.

The second is from the Washington Post's editorial today.

The president would like to make this unpleasant controversy disappear behind the national security curtain. That cannot be allowed to happen.
I totally agree. Fortunately, you are one of the nation's premier newspapers. So I assume this means that you are going to assign reporters to stay on this case to the bitter end, and continue to publish their stories on the front page? Because if there was anyone who could prevent this controversy from disappearing, it would be you.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Notes on Lord of War 

Here's the IMDB "what the critics" said on Lord of War

Critics are warring over the Nicolas Cage satire Lord of War about the international gun market. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calls it "a misfire" even though Cage's performance, she remarks, is "watchable." The problem, she writes, is that writer-director Andrew Niccol "never resolves the disconnect between this star's function (to entertain) and that of his character (to repel)." Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune remarks: "The film is morally unsettling on its surface, and then you realize the surface is all you're going to get." Bob Longino in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes it as an "often heavy-handed and terminally dull depiction of the violent world of unscrupulous international arms deals." On the other hand, Phillip Wuntch in the Dallas Morning News finds the film compelling. "Lord of War definitely aims to be something more profound than brain candy. It gives moviegoers something to think about," he writes. "If that recommendation sounds too dutiful, let it be known that it's exciting as well as thought-provoking."

They also noted that Just Like Heaven got better reviews.

So when we were watching it today, and I was immediately captivated, I kept waiting for the movie to take its big turn and start sucking. That never happened, it was great to the very last moment. Walking out of the movie, Claire and I were shocked at the reviews. Did we see the same movie? What the hell are they talking about it being only surface-level and dull? This could be the best movie so far this year.

The critics have entered another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A wonderous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. They've just crossed over into the twilight zone.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Really Bad Software 

I'm having a really hard time figuring out what Google was thinking with their Sidebar in Google Desktop Search.

As Microsoft's Windows UI has gotten older and older (Windows XP was available in 2001) without any change, I've found it hasn't really kept up with what I'd like my OS to be doing. Its battery and WiFi status applets are pretty much useless, despite how important they are to the way I use my computer. There are many repetitive tasks I need to do on the web that I'd love to have automated. Advanced computer users I have talked to recently have dismissed desktop search products as useless, but I like the idea and find it useful (and both MacOS and Linux have very good implementations now).

Yahoo's Konfabulator has actually been a welcome addition to my desktop. Its battery status and WiFi monitors are much better than the ones Windows provides, and have a permanent place on my desktop, where they look entirely like they fit in. As someone who lives on the east coast, I also frequently have to check the weather, and so the Weather widget is quite welcome on "Konspose," where I can access it by simply pressing F8, along with a few other applets. (I know most of my readership is west coast, and this weather-checking seems like strangely fussy behavior to you, but if you live in a climate-controlled high-rise on the weather-enabled east coast, checking the weather first-hand can be more of a hassle, and besides, it's quite likely to change throughout the day).

I've had a few complaints with Konfabulator. Each widget is its own process, which annoys me when I look through my process list, the only widgets worth using are those that come with Konfabulator, as the user-designed widgets are always ugly and poorly designed, and I dislike the fact that I can only choose to put something on my desktop or in Konspose. So I've been waiting and hoping that Google would come out with something similar and, in the long tradition of Google Maps and Gmail, much better.

Well, they did, and it totally sucks. Well, not totally. I like that it is a part of Google Desktop, and provides Spotlight-like real-time search capabilities. Using this feature seems to be faster than navigating through the Start menu or folder heirarchy for most things I am looking for. Love it, it's great. Everything else is all wrong, though.

With Google Desktop, you have two options: keep the sidebar on the side of your screen, taking up the entire vertical length, or have it auto-hide. Well, clearly I am not going to cut off a significant fraction of my screen for a weather applet, so mine is on auto-hide. But there is no short-cut key to reveal it, as far as I can tell, so I potentially have to wheel my mouse all the way across my screen to get to it.

What's worse is how they chose to build this thing: It's built out of COM components. I can see why this would seem appealing to a programmer: write the plugins in any language you want! But it makes writing plugins a total pain in the ass: "We recommend using Microsoft Visual Studio for developing the plug-in." I consider myself an able developer, comfortable in C++ and Visual Studio and all that, and this just strikes me as too much effort for the payoff of a little widget for this thing (try looking at the SDK examples, and while you're at it, check out the simplistic-looking stuff that all this effort buys you).

In contrast, Konfabulator widgets are written in XML and Javascript, and Dashboard widgets are written in HTML with Javascript. This is a piece of cake, and any web developer can do it. Since Javascript can access COM, these widgets seem just as capable of interacting with system functions as well. Furthermore, these bundles of XML and Javascript come in their own package format, which Konfabulator or Dashboard registers itself as a handler for. The user simply clicks the download button and the widget can pop right up on their screen. What I am about to say next is so stunning that I'm going to give it it's own paragraph.

Google's Sidebar widgets use installers. That's right, the usual Installshield-style things, with entries in your Add/Remove Programs and Start Menu and everything.

Why is an OS company like Apple, with no significant web properties, doing this The Web Way, and a web company, whose products make it to the user's eyes entirely through the cooperation of the OS companies doing this the difficult, painful, non-cross-platform Windows-only way? What the heck was Google thinking?

High-Def DVD 

There's a lot of fretting right now about a next-generation format war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, and a lot of warm remembrance about the way the movie studios all banded together and agreed to a standard for DVD, and there was no format war and everything was wonderful.

This is not how it happened. If you try to do a search for "DivX" these days, all you'll pull up is the video codec, but before that codec existed, DIVX was something entirely different. There was tremendous fear in the early days of DVD that DIVX was going to gain traction, and split the market, or eventually win, due to the appeal it would have to the greedy movie studios. Especially because several studios (like Disney) signed on to release DIVX discs and not DVDs.

HD-DVD poses about as much threat to Blu-Ray as DIVX did to DVD. The number of device manufacturers and movie studios signed on to Blu-Ray far outnumber the number attached to HD-DVD. But this hardly matters, as in the next few years, there's a very good chance that these discs could be drastically reduced in importance, as online movie distribution eventually gets sorted out.

Friday, July 22, 2005

On Movie Ratings 

The other night, we watched Back to the Future again, which I had not seen in many years. Holy crap, I said to myself, he said said "Shit!" I heard "shit" at least 5 times, and there was an "asshole."

Now, I remember being shown this movie when I was 6 at the YMCA. So I was like, "Wow, I never knew this movie was PG-13." Cuz, you know, you can bust out a few "shits" and still slide in as PG-13, you know, when it's funny and Will Smith is saying it. So imagine my surprise when I checked, and Back to the Future was actually PG. How times change.

Speaking of movies rated R, Wedding Crashers is fantastic. It's rated R, it's hilarious, it's charming, and it's much better than you expect.

Notes on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 

I'm trying to think of other examples of memorable musicals being remade, and I can't. The oompa loompa song? Everyone knows that song, right?

Anyways, this movie is a remake, so I believe I've already written about that. The only reason for this post, really, is to point out that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sort of really obvious allegory about proper child-raising technique. I mean, I shouldn't have to point this out; it's like a kiddy version of Se7en.

So the irony dial was at 11 when this little kid behind us talked throughout the movie. Not that he was carrying on a conversation, but he would blurt out his little observations really loud, like "He got small!" or "He's got braces on!" I don't know how old this kid was, so maybe he's a genius for his age, but I distinctly recall from as long as I can remember, it was made very, very clear to me that you do not talk during a movie. Can't recall ever going to the movies and feeling free to just shout out something like "It's a river of chocolate!" while the movie is showing a river of chocolate. The parents seemed to think this was cute or something, because they made no effort at all to hush this kid.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

On Remakes 

Have you ever seen a movie that intrigued you with some original notion, but for whatever reason just failed to come together and you couldn't truthfully call it a "good movie" in the end? David Fincher said that the reason we get bad movies is that every one is the prototype; you're figuring out how to make it work as you make it, but by then it's too late. Occasionally a good concept just fails to come together for whatever reason, and it's not necessarily anyone's fault.

You might think that this sort of movie would be the perfect candidate for a remake. Occasionally, this sort of movie has been remade with spectacular results; a movie that you thought "Why would anyone remake that?!" only to be pleasantly surprised by the potential that some creative person saw in some piece of crap. The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, Father of the Bride, The Ring, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and True Lies all spring to mind; even if they didn't turn out amazing, they managed to add something fresh to the originals.

If you think this way, you'll never make it in Hollywood. At least, not these days; Defamer summarized last weekend's box office as "remake, new idea, superhero movie, remake, superhero movie." What Hollywood instead prefers to do is take their most successful movies ever and squeeze out a little more money: why not just make it again?

This is obviously a really bad idea. A movie that was fortunate enough to turn out really well is unlikely to go as well if you try it a second time. Yet, these movies seem to have an audience, and often do make money. After all, if you want to find the True Lies out there, you might have to sit through some Psychos. Still, there's nothing really illogical about this behavior from the studios so far. If you have a good property, and you understand why it worked, why not do it again? You might be able to open a movie up to an entirely new audience who might not have been able to relate to its original, due to age or language or a woefully small budget or what not. Or, you might just have some original spin on a good idea (like The Magnificent Seven vs. The Seven Samurai).

What I don't understand is why Hollywood can't just stick to the formula that made the original so great. Perhaps it is some unconscious guilt at how little they're doing for the movie, but invariably, when they're remaking a great movie, they must always make the same remake mistakes. The most common one of which is attempting to expand on the original material.

An interesting case study for me is Abre Los Ojos versus Vanilla Sky, because they were made just a few years apart, and had the same actress playing the same role. Abre Los Ojos is a damn fine film, by my estimation, and very original. All that is good about Vanilla Sky, down to some of the very striking shots, are from the original. However, when they remade it, the remake wound up 20 minutes longer (and it felt like it was 40 extra minutes). Every little offhanded remark that a character makes in Abre Los Ojos, little things that add flavor and depth to a character, is expanded into a ridiculous subplot in the remake. An offhanded remark about his business partners being out to get him is blown into a running subplot, and a nervous statement on the edge of a cliff about fear of heights is turned into an almost debilitating neurosis from the very beginning of the movie. It's silly.

In general, flashbacks and prologues are added to expand on the background of some character or place. In general, doing this sort of thing doesn't add anything important, and horribly screws with the pacing. Imagine, for example, a fantastical, whirlwind tour through the world's most amazing chocolate factory punctuated with boring flashbacks to Willy Wonka's childhood!

Or, another way to feel like you're earning your keep is to change the ending (also a typical book-to-movie change). You could turn a beloved character into the villain (Mission Impossible), or add another sequence after the original end. Obviously, this rarely improves on a good movie, but for some reason, studios just can't help themselves.

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