Ethereality News & Weblog

May 19, 2011

Big In Japan Concert: Yellow Magic Orchestra, Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, Towa Tei

Filed under: Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 7:15 pm

WEBLOG:
If I was in the States, I’d definitely go see this once-in-a-lifetime concert, featuring Yellow Magic Orchestra, Cibo Matto, Buffalo Daughter, DJ Towa Tei, traditional taiko and Kabuki.

Sunday, June 26, 2011, 7:00PM
Hollywood Bowl (Map/Directions)
2301 North Highland Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90068
323.850.2000

I’m a huge fan of YMO, and have been following the careers of its members since I was a teenager (especially Sakamoto Ryuichi, who I feel is one of the most talented and interesting composers of his generation). I feel really torn; part of me wants to fly back to the States just to see this concert, but part of me is so tired of international flights and jet lags.

I’ve been playing Dragon Age 2, and just made it into the Deep Roads. So far, the game’s been mostly disappointing compared to the first game as there’s no sense of epic adventure whatsoever, and most of the quests and characters are not as interesting as the first game. I’ll probably finish it anyway, since even a bad Bioware game tend to be better than most other games.

Quickie TV and Movie reviews:

Red Cliff / 赤 壁 – I’m sure I’m not the only person who has noticed that John Woo‘s Chinese films are always far better than his American films. In fact, I would say that his American films are pretty much a waste of my time overall, as they are all disposable popcorn flicks that don’t have nearly the depth of his Chinese films. I had high expectations when he first went to Hollywood, I thought maybe he’d turn into an intelligent action/thriller filmmaker in a similar vein as Michael Mann, but he became Hollywood’s lapdog–a yes man. So needless to say, I’m glad he’s making Chinese films again.

Red Cliff was in general quite enjoyable. It is certainly over-the-top, but then again, there’s so much myth and legend mixed in with the history that most directors would likely depict the heroes as super-humans, and considering it’s John Woo, it’s totally expected. The military strategies and combat scenes were a lot of fun, although the over-the-top martial arts stuff gets a bit cartoony, especially when it seems like all the armor the soldiers worn seemed to be made of butter, because weapons went through them so easily, without exception. Makes you wonder why they even bothered to wear armor when it’s completely useless.

I hope John Woo stays in the east and does not return to Hollywood, because I really don’t think he’ll ever make a decent film while in Hollywood.

Knight & Day – Over-the-top and meant to be shamelessly entertaining, like most other Hollywood blockbusters that borders on being cartoony in their impossible action sequences. If you don’t mind that sort of highly commercialized and mainstream movies, then you’ll likely enjoy this one. Personally, I like to balance out the serious arthouse films with popcorn flicks like this one.

Battle: Los Angeles – For a visceral action flick, it was a lot of fun. Although it’s very derivative, with some clichéd and overly sentimental scenes, it was at least better than Skyline.

Love & Other Drugs – A disappointing film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s one-third a lighthearted slapstick satire on the medical industry, one-third a romantic comedy, and one-third of clever dialogues used to convey a tender love story, and the director did not strike a good balance between the three, as many scenes fall completely into one genre or the other, and thus the whole felt schizophrenic instead of a seamless hybrid. This is something Charlie Kaufman could probably pull off, but not many others could. Well, at least Anne Hathaway got a chance to show off her luscious body again. Good for her that she’s not shy about such things.

Cold Comfort Farm – I had never seen the earlier films that Kate Beckinsale starred in, and I don’t remember how this one came across my way. Somebody must’ve recommended it at one point and I put it on my “to watch” list. It was basically a parody of the Jane Austin style of storytelling, and while not a bad film, it also lacked a certain level of finesse that I felt would’ve given the film more charm. In this film, Kate is nothing like how she is in the later roles she played, and in fact, I would say that most people back then probably could not have predicted that she’d become a sex symbol one day, since she really wasn’t much to look at back then.

Blades of Glory – The only reason I watched this was because of Jenna Fischer, since I’m a big fan of The Office and think Pam is adorable. Personally, I find low-brow crass comedies like this usually embarrassing and idiotic, but for Jenna, I was willing to suffer through it.

Rabbit HoleNicole Kidman was very good in this drama about recovering from a tragedy. She’s aged a lot since I last saw her in a film (The Invasion), and I think that gave her the extra vulnerability she needed to convey the grief of the character. Miles Teller, who played the teenager that accidentally killed her son while driving, was also surprisingly good.

And so the iDevices have taken over

WEBLOG:
I finally pulled the trigger and got an iPod Touch 4 (32 GB). I was really tempted to jailbreak it right off the bat, but after reading up on the benefits of jailbreaking, I didn’t really see anything I “must” have, so I didn’t bother. Shortly after I got the iPod Touch, Elena got two iPhones as gifts, so I ended up getting the extra iPhone (16 GB). The iPhone came pre-jail-broken, and I must say, once I tried the jailbroken version, it’s really hard to go back. My previous assessment of not needing to jailbreak was wrong. You don’t “need” to jailbreak, but once you do, you’ll be really glad you did.

Elena and I are both giant klutzes, which means we had to get protective cases so we don’t break our new toys. Elena got a fancy pink girly one, and I ended up getting very simple black and white ones. Soon after getting the black one (for the iPod Touch), I had an accident and messed up a corner of the cover, and the only way to remedy the mistake was to maybe design something on there to cover up the accident. As many of you artistic types know, often once you start, you can’t stop, and before I knew it, my simple black cover turned into this (painted with Elena’s nail polish and thin-tipped paint pens):
ipodtouch4
It’s not the prettiest thing, but it kind of have it’s own clumsy charm.

The iPhone’s cover was less tragic–I simply scribbled my signature on it so I can easily identify it, if I happen to run into someone with the exact same iPhone cover one day:
iphone4

Easy to tell that one of the covers was a lot more expensive and with superior workmanship:
idevices

So far, I’m really enjoying being able to write my novel on them when I’m away from a computer, and being able to read books on them is also a very nice feature, not to mention being able to compose music on them as well. I still wish they had play/pause, and forward/rewind buttons so I can operate the player by feel only, but the benefits of having essentially a tiny computer (though limited in what it can do) in the palm of your hand definitely trumps over any traditional portable media players. I don’t even think of the iDevices as a media players or phones–they’re more like a little computer that you can install a ton of different apps on, so depending on who you are as a person, your iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad’s usage could be wildly different from mine.

My main reason for getting the iPod Touch was so I could compose music on it while away from the computer, and for that, I’m currently using Xewton Music Studio. It’s a great app for composers, and is essentially like a very simplified MIDI sequencing workstation with a selection of sampled instruments and simple effects. I can compose on the iPod Touch with it and then either render out the audio as a finished track, or export the MIDI data to a full-blown DAW sequencer (I use Sonar X1 Producer Edition). Here are some great videos showing what Music Studio is capable of.

My main issue with Music Studio is that it’s basically a ROMpler and doesn’t do synthesis, so it’s not that useful for any kind of serious electronic music, but it’s usable for other genres that don’t require creative synthesis, modulation, automation…etc. The upcoming update will include audio tracks, sampling, step-sequencer, pad-styled drum machine, and so on. Xewton was even contracted by Image-Line to develop FL Studio Mobile, which is essentially a reskinned version of Music Studio with all new Image-Line sample content.

Other music-making apps I’m using are:

NanoStudio – Also a sequencing workstation, but it’s synthesis based instead of sample based. It allows 4 instances of its Eden subtractive synthesizer, and 2 drum tracks (sample-based). It can do resampling so if you run out of tracks, you can resample what you need (basically bouncing down the synths to audio and then triggered as samples) to free up room for more tracks. I hate bouncing though because I dealt with it so much back in the 90’s when I used a hardware two-track sequencer (Roland PR-100) with my Roland D10. Once you bounce, you can’t separate the bounced tracks again or do any deep editing, and that’s just not very flexible.

Chords Pro – A nice chord progression composition tool. It’s not the most flexible because it doesn’t do inversions and alternate voicings, but it can be handy for certain things.

iTrombone – Fun little app that lets you play the trombone with the touch interface. I’d never actually use it in anything serious, but it’s a fun little app for developing melodic ideas.

MorphWiz – From the mind of Dream Theater keyboardist, Jordan Rudess, this is a pretty neat performance synthesizer app. It’s essentially kind of like the Hakken Continnum for iDevices. A lot o the presets are just sound effects/noisescape, but there are some useful melodic presets as well.

MultiTrack DAW – This app essentially does what I originally wanted to buy a new handheld device for–to just hum or beatbox into the device and record musical ideas before I forget them. With multiple tracks, I can actually record an entire arrangement, but they tend to sound unintentionally funny because it’s just me trying to mimic how different instruments sound with my voice. Maybe one of these days I’ll post one of them so you guys can get a good laugh out of it.

There are a bunch of different virtual drums apps out there, but the ones I liked the most were the free ones like uDrummer Lite and iDrumStar Pro. They were the most responsive and ergonomically laid out. I really don’t need anything more fancy because the composing apps I use all have full-blown drum machines included already.

WI Guitar – This is a nice app for playing guitar on iDevices, but you’re limited to whatever chord library you’re given, and that’s a bit annoying, because if you use really complex and advanced chords, you won’t find them in WI Guitar. Other similar apps like Guitarist and Bassist are also fun, but you can’t really do anything serious with them beyond playing around.

TonePad – This is a really nifty little Tenori-On-esque free app. You don’t have to know a damn thing about music to make music on it, and it’s amazing how no matter what you do, the result always sounds good.

Audio Tools – A really nice set of audio measurement tools like SPL meter, spectrum analyzer, and so on.

There are many other music-making apps out there, and I pretty much have seen them all during my long search. Some have great potential but with glaring faults, or simply didn’t fit my workflow. For example, modular tracker apps are off-limits because I can’t stand trackers and their hexadecimal numbers. I find it ridiculous for musicians to have to think in hexadecimal numbers instead of actual musical notes in a pianoroll or notation staff. To those who champion it and fancy themselves as some kind of badass demo scene hax0r musician, all I can say is, whaterver. I have heard all the reasons why trackers are great, and I even tried to use one once, but it just annoyed the fuck out of me, and would be pointless to force myself to learn hexadecimal numbers just so I can work in a way that seems so alien and unintuitive to me. Some say trackers are a lot faster, but I’ve seen pianoroll composers who are insanely fast, so again, whatever.

I’ll probably give XENON Groove Synthesizer, SunVox, and BeatMaker 2 a shot too, but already feel like I have way too many apps I’m never going to really use seriously.

What surprised me was how I ended up doing a lot more writing on the iPod Touch than composing music. I first used Quick Office, which allows you to read and edit Microsoft Word and Excel files (but frustratingly, you can’t edit Rich Text Format files). Typing on the iPhone Touch takes a bit getting used to, but it’s certainly doable and I’m able to type on it at least as fast if not faster than my handwriting speed (though far slower than normal keyboard typing).

When I got frustrated with how Quick Office lacked the ability to quickly navigate large Word files (you’d have swipe/scroll the pages until the cows come home), I looked into Documents To Go, and it was far better in that regard. Word files in Documents to Go have a scroll bar on the right, so you can simply grab it and navigate very quickly though any number of pages. I cannot for the life of me understand how the people behind Quick Office could have overlooked something so fundamental and essential. Documents To Go cannot read Rich Text Format files though, which is annoying. Why is RTF files such a problem? Isn’t it an open-format? Why can’t these apps read or edit them? Is there some complication regarding licensing? And how ironic that RTF is actually the native format for Mac’s, yet iDevices cannot read or edit them.

I have uploaded all of my novels and screenplays into the iDevices and have been working on my post-apocalyptic novel on it whenever I’m answering nature’s call. The symptom is that I end up staying in the bathroom for unusually long periods of time. I try to remember that my full-sized keyboard and mouse is just about fifteen steps away, and I should only stay in the bathroom for as long as it takes to take care of nature’s business, instead of getting into the “flow” and keep writing on a device that’s not optimal for typing. I find that on the iDevices, I typically write a paragraph here and there each session, but when on the computer keyboard, I can type pages and pages without stopping.

For dictionary and thesaurus, I use Dictionary.com’s free app, and it’s really good (though to hear the pronunciation, you must be connected to the internet).

I’m also really enjoying reading books with the Kindle app on the iDevices. It’s in some ways an easier read than with a normal book, because the pages are much shorter, and the size is so convenient, but I hate that it’s much harder to navigate to specific pages. Kindle also comes with a New Oxford English Dictionary, which can be used by simply highlighting words in the book you’re reading. It’s the most convenient implementation of a dictionary I’ve ever seen, which makes reading on an electronic device more enjoyable than a traditional book.

For me, I think at this point, unless large and detailed graphics are involved, I prefer to read with the Kindle app than paper books, and I’m saying this as someone who currently has 6 large bookshelves filled with books that I’ve been collecting since about 1986. I think in the near future when even graphics heavy books like artist monographs or coffee table books are digitized as high-resolution books for tablet devices like the iPad, it’ll be the final nail in the coffin of paper books–at least for those who prefer convenience over the tactile feel of books or being able to display them as some kind of proof of being cultured.

One thing I don’t like about ebooks is how it’s much harder to flip through pages to find what you want. The search feature is almost useless because that’s not how our brains work when we are flipping through pages looking for something–it’s a different kind of intuition. Right now, nothing beats thumbing through the pages of a real book, and it’ll remain that way until one day they implement some kind of fast-forward flipping feature which mimics that action.

For listening to music, I’m really enjoying this great app called simply Equalizer. It allows you to use a parametric EQ and customize your own EQ setting to get the most ideal sonic signature out of your headphones. I can’t believe Apple still doesn’t allow this natively in the damn iPod–it’s been something I hated about Apple for many years. Having custom EQ settings makes a world of difference in the level of enjoyment you get, because there are extremely few headphones in the world that is actually good enough to have sonic signatures that are close to ideal, and these headphones usually cost four digits. Even headphones that cost hundreds of dollars (which is already shocking to the average person who doesn’t know anything about the head-fi world) are very often lacking something–either too bright and fatiguing, or have bloated and muddy bass, or have recessed mid-range, or have splashy and squeezed treble, and so on.

With Equalizer, my Shure SE535 and Westone 3 are completely transformed and sound much closer to my Audez’e LCD-2, which is widely considered one of the finest headphones ever made. I still prefer not having to use EQ if I can help it though, because it’ll drain the battery faster. (I ended up getting the Westone 4 for that reason, and I’ll do a proper review of the W4 next time.)

There’s another EQ app called EQu, and it’s not nearly as intuitive as Equalizer. I don’t recommend it, unless you don’t mind that it’s very hard to create precise settings in it. It’s a linear phase EQ, but it’s not really necessary in general. Just plain ol’ vanilla EQ will do the job if you know what they hell you’re doing.

For useful utilities, Xe Currency, Convert Units, iTools, Decibel Ultra, Flashlight, and System Manager has been really useful. For tasks/to-do list, I’m still trying to decide between ThingsToDo and Errands. Notice that I try to use free apps only if I could help it, and very often, if you looked hard enough, you’ll find free apps that do the same things that commercial apps do. It’s funny how that works, but I think most of us are already familiar with that phenomenon, as we have seen plenty of it in the normal computer software world, where many free software do just as a good job, if not better, than commercial alternatives.

For visual stuff, Adobe Ideas and SketchBook MobileX are both free and handy to have for quick scribbles. Personally, I don’t like how it feels to draw/paint with the touch screen, so I probably won’t try to do anything beyond simple scribbles like drawing someone a map or a quickie design idea. For photo editing, PhotoPad is nice (also free), but I can’t really see myself ever using the cameras on the iDevices, unless it’s an emergency or rare Kodak moment and I just happen to have an iDevice in hand and my cameras are not near me.

For creating ringtones, I highly recommend RingTone Wizard Pro. I tried a few different ringtone creator apps, and this one was my favorite one because it allowed detailed control.

When I saw the SAS Survival Guide, I just had to get it because I always have this fear that one day I’ll crash onto a desert island or something along those lines, and I would be totally helpless because I don’t know all the cool survival tricks that the special forces and survivalist types know. With this book, if I happen to have an iDevice on me when I crash, I’ll have a higher chance of making it out alive.

As far as games go, I’ve played some, and it’s not surprising that the “big budget” games are a lot less enjoyable to play on iDevices, because they are just not the right kind of games that suit such a device, where people want to simply jump in and out of a quick game while waiting for a ride or something. I tried games like Infinity Blade, Mirror’s Edge, Dead Space, and Modern Combat 2: Black Pegasus, and while I admire what they were able to cram into a game for a small handheld device while utilizing the touch-screen mechanics, they just weren’t as addictive and fun as games that were really simple like Angry Birds, Age of Zombies, or even the free Zombie Flick, which was surprisingly exciting once you start to get surrounded.

Anyway, after all these years of resisting Apple products, I’m now a member of the horde. I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m going to make the most of these new toys.

I was a bit skeptical when Portal 2 was first announced because I loved the first game so much, and it was so perfect that I didn’t think a sequel could ever live up to it. Now that I have played Portal 2 (I haven’t had a chance to play the co-op mode yet, so I can only talk about the single-player mode), I feel that I was right, but at the same time, there were certain moments of brilliance in Portal 2.

The problem with Portal 2 is that it simply cannot reproduce the charm of the first game. It’s sort of like how a lovable precocious child (think Dakota or Elle Fanning) can only exude that sort of charm during a certain age, and once they cross into teenage years and adulthood, they could never regain that kind of charm. The first Portal game is like that cute precocious child, delightful and surprising in how witty she is, as you don’t expect that kind of intelligence or humor from a “filler” game in The Orange Box package deal. With Portal 2, that child has grown up, and acting the same way is no longer as charming because it’s not coming from a precocious child anymore, and in fact, can sometimes feel like she’s trying too hard to be funny.

I know a lot of people love Wheatley, and while I liked him, I’m not so sure if it was a good idea to have him sound completely human instead of having some kind of a robotic filtering to his voice (I can’t be the only one who felt that the robotic filtering is part of the reason people loved the first portal game’s characters such as the turrets). I tend to think a totally human voice tacked onto a robot generates cognitive dissonance. Also, the style of Wheatley’s humor can be a bit annoying at times, because it’s like watching a standup comedian bombing and floundering on stage, trying to think of something to say that will win the crowd back, and while that in of itself can be amusing for a short period of time, prolonged exposure to it can be a little grating.

GLaDOS was kind of a mixed bag this time. I thought her passive-aggressive lines were a bit tired this time around, and not nearly as pitch-perfect as in the first game. I liked her transformation and personality change throughout Portal 2, but I felt the transitions were somewhat abrupt, and the writers could have pushed it a bit more so that when the ending twist happens, we would mourn the loss of GLaDOS as an ally a lot more.

I enjoyed Cave Johnson, but I think perhaps he was a bit too slapstick and unbelievable, especially when you consider the fact that Aperture Science is a company that exists in the Half-Life universe.

The gameplay in Portal 2 has evolved with more toys and new mechanics, such as the gels with different properties, the tractor beams, the spring plates that shoot you across large spaces, and so on. I pretty much was able to figure out all the puzzles, except that a couple of times when even though I had the right solution, because my execution was off by a tiny bit, it didn’t work, which lead me to think my solution was wrong, but after consulting online walkthroughs, it turned out I was right all along, except I just had to keep trying until the execution was perfect. I think this is frustrating because you could be trying the same solution many times and thinking that’s probably not the right method, except it is, and you only have to maybe change your timing or position by just a tiny fraction. The levels in Portal 2 have more variety, and some of the levels are awe-inspiring because they are so gigantic and ominous, and can make you a bit nervous trying to navigate across such huge and dangerous structures. The length of the game is also a lot longer than the first one, but it never felt like the game was dragging on.

Overall, I really enjoyed Portal 2, but I don’t think it’s possible for me to love it the way I love the first game. But then again, maybe I’ll change my mind after I play the co-op mode.

I gave Fable III a try recently and I just couldn’t get into it. I stopped after a couple of hours, and decided I didn’t want to waste any more time on it. I disliked the first Fable game when I played it years ago, and I never bothered with Fable II. All the things I disliked about the first Fable game are still present in Fable III. The tone, visual style, and game design just rubs me the wrong way. The art direction is either unintentionally corny looking or rather pedestrian–from the character designs, costume designs, to the clumsy animation (that very first spell cast animation was just hilariously to look at). The tone of the writing felt contrived, simple-minded, and heavy-handed, to the point of cognitive dissonance because some of the choices you are forced to make are adult choices.

For example, it seems to me that being a royal prince(ss), if you needed to overthrow a tyrant of a king who’s your brother, the first thing to be done is probably to sit tight and sniff out those in the government who will back you in a coup d’état, as well as get the word out to the underground organizations that might be organizing a rebellion. If it’s obvious that the king has lost his mind and became a cruel monster, then it shouldn’t be hard to find supporters for the coup. But no, Peter Molyneux makes you run away and find allies in the mountains who are starving to death, and then try to win over other groups in the kingdom one-by-one by performing all these tasks for them. I have never heard of a single revolution which worked like that. The logical plot progression should have been first political maneuvers, then perhaps the king finding out about it and wanting to kill you, and THEN you escape. I read online that later you find out the real reason why the king has been so cruel to his people (it’s to protect them against a serious threat), but by then it’s too late–the plot progression already stopped making sense far too early on.

The other thing that annoyed me was the game’s definition of a so-called hero. According to the game, you’re a hero only if it’s predestined, and if magical doors or items respond to you, then you’re a hero. Really? I thought heroes were made, not born. A hero only emerges after he’s been tested to be courageous, noble, selfless, just, fair, compassionate, and wise. But nope, according to Peter Molyneux’s world, you are determined a hero because a magical artifact responded to you. I don’t care if the rest of the game ends up testing your capacity for heroic deeds, because the beginning of the game already ruined it with lazy and simple writing.

Character interaction is equally bad. You basically either shake someone’s hand (and try to do it to the right timing to get the best handshake possible), or you belch in their face in order to come off as rude. No, I’m not joking. This is Peter Molyneux’s idea of character interaction. Yeah, don’t bother with dialogs and just reduce interaction to two all-encompassing gestures with no nuance, depth, or anything else memorable. Way to go dumbing down video games.

Compare the tone of the Fable games to Bioware’s RPG’s and it’s glaringly obvious which ones are superior. Peter Molyneux might be a good designer when he develops other genres of games, but in the RPG world, I just don’t see how his clumsy sensibility could have translated into any kind of commercial or critical success, especially when other successful RPG’s are far superior in their overall sensibilities.

Quickie Movie/TV reviews:

Kamisama Mou Sukoshi Dake / 神様、もう少しだけ – It’s been years since I paid any attention to Japanese TV dramas (often referred to as simply “doramas’). Part of the reason is that there aren’t any reliable sources of reviews for “doramas” where I trust the collective taste and intellect of the reviewers. In Asia, television reviews are not nearly as sophisticated, and this includes the fanbase as well. Often the online reviews are quite shallow and most are completely uninformed when it comes to the craft of fiction writing and directing, focus mainly on how cute an idol is. In contrast, American TV shows have raised the bar to amazing heights in the last fifteen years or so, and I barely have time to keep up with all the critically acclaimed American TV shows. American television reviews are also of very high quality and readily available, so it’s much easier to identify quality shows that you know you’ll enjoy.

I watched this dorama mainly because I was curious about how Kaneshiro Takeshi did in the series. I don’t know if I’d call myself a fan, but I think well of him, mostly for his demeanor as a person, not necessarily for his acting. He strikes me as a no-nonsense and down-to-earth guy who dislikes fanfare, and always seemed humble and polite. Even early on in his music career, he took music seriously and tried to shed his idol image by writing his own songs and playing guitar. Most good-looking idols are happy just being idols, and they dabble in creative work more or less as a form of marketing gimmick, but never with sustained interest. I liked that even back then, Kaneshiro was more serious than his peers.

The show itself was decent. The plot twists and general tone is fairly standard for J-doramas. If you’ve seen a few, you’ll likely have a good idea how the whole thing will play out. The ending in these doramas are always tragic–that’s the template. It’s the same just like Korean or Chinese TV dramas–the male or the female lead always dies in the end. For whatever reasons, Asians have this fascination with tragic love stories. Culturally, I think they see it as the most beautiful and powerful, because what’s more moving than a love story that involves life and death? The way the series dealt with the topic of HIV and AIDS was a fairly positive one, but I felt it was sometimes trivialized and not presented with enough gravity. For one, they never really conveyed the horrors of what it’s like to actually die of AIDS, and they never dealt with the subject of whether there’s even a support system for HIV and AIDS patients in the Japanese society. But then again, it’s an idol-driven show, so it’s not exactly a serious attempt at some kind of social message.

The acting was decent, but no one really blew me away. Kaneshiro was perhaps one of the better actors in the series, while Fukada Kyoko was a lot more green in comparison. The directing wasn’t anything to write home about–in fact I found it a bit clumsy compared to the typical directing I see in J-doramas. I don’t really recommend it as there are better J-doramas out there. If you are a Kaneshiro fan, then maybe you’ll watch it just for him, but objectively speaking, I don’t think Kaneshiro’s acting is at the level where people will follow his career just to watch him act. Overwhelmingly, I think it’s mostly about his adoring female fanbase who are mesmerized by his good-looks.

The Secret In Their Eyes – An overrated film that splits its time between a story about unrequited love, and a rape/murder case, and the two stories really don’t belong together in the same film because putting them together does not yield any additional emotional or intellectual satisfaction than if the stories were to be told separately in two different films. In fact, putting them together only dilutes or confuses the poignancy and the focus of both stories.

Ninja Assassin – For a mindless popcorn flick, this was fun to watch, although you must turn your logic off in order to enjoy it. I have no idea why they chose a different actor to play the slightly younger version of the lead before he left the clan though, because he looks about the same age as the main lead, except he was prettier and spoke fluent English. I think that was a really bad idea because it was distracting and inconsistent. I can see why they wanted Rain to play the adult version of the lead, since they probably wanted his awesome body and physical abilities, but why not just have him play the slightly younger version too? It not as if he looks that much older than the slightly younger version. Although they tried to find someone who looked like Rain to play the slightly younger version, it’s still very obvious that it’s a different person with a different accent. Maybe they think “these Asians all look alike and no one can tell”?

Secretariat – Certain genres of movies have a set formula that never changes, and race horse movies is one them. It’s always about some underdog or has-been that makes it to the top against overwhelming odds. This one is no different. As much as I try to be genre-agnostic, I do feel that if you have seen one race horse movie, you pretty have have seen them all. Not that Secretariat is a bad movie (especially considering that I’m a Diane Lane fan), but it is like any other race horse movie I have ever seen.

The Rite – Exorcism is another genre of movies that follow a set formula that’s highly predictable–a priest who’s unsure of his faith, and how the exorcism he performs tests his faith. He either wins or loses, and that’s pretty much it. Maybe I’m being unfair, since many genres of movies have established formulas, but some genres have more variety in their set formulas than horse racing or exorcism. For example, bank heists or cop movies could have wildly different approaches from one film to the next.

There really wasn’t anything new or interesting in this exorcism movie. If The Exorcist remains the only exorcism movie you have ever seen, then rest assured that you haven’t missed out on anything in the decades since it was released–it is still the only one really worth watching.

The American – A spy thriller for arthouse fans that’s surprisingly serene, and has some very nice moments. Today’s movies tend to be paced too fast, without enough room for scenes to breathe, and I was glad this film took its time to develop the tension and the drama.

Under the Hawthorn Tree / 山楂樹之戀 – Zhang Yimou returns to the period rural drama genre he built his career early on. The logline for this film is “The cleanest love story ever in history,” which is kind of tacky. Fortunately the film itself isn’t, and was quite understated and innocent, without crass sentimentality. The lead actress was perfectly cast as the innocent and naive girl, and according to all the press, that’s who she is in real life, and that’s why the director picked her.

According to Zhang Yimou, he wanted to make a film that contrasted against the materialistic and fast-speed world of modern love, where promises and forever means absolutely nothing and true love is something most people no longer believe in, especially in the kind of materialistic society of modern China. I think he succeeded.

The Next Three Days – An unlikely thriller, but because of the caliber of the actors, it was entertaining. I couldn’t understand why the wife would choose to not tell her husband that she wasn’t guilty though–was it to make him give up trying to fight for her freedom so he could carry on with his life? It annoyed me that she constantly tried to kill herself, even when her husband is risking his life trying to save her. Made her seem a bit selfish and weak.

The Arrival – The X-Files meets Contact, but not as good as either, and with barely passable CG effects.

The Green Hornet – For a film that remained in development hell for so many years, the final result was disappointing. It tried to be a hybrid of bromance comedy and superhero action flick, but doesn’t do either one very well.

Jay Chou was a terrible choice because he’s not much of an actor, and his English is hard to understand sometimes. The only reason he was hired was because of his popularity in Chinese-speaking countries as a popstar, and the studio wanted the movie to do well in Asia.

Seth Rogen was just…Seth. If you’ve seen him in one movie, you’ve pretty much seen all he’s capable of; he has no range whatsoever.

Michel Gondry was a bit of a surprise because you’d think after having made some thoughtful films over the years, he wouldn’t be interested to go back and take on this type of highly commercialized mainstream film that he was originally slated to direct as his debut film all those years ago.

May 1, 2011

Princess Ruu, headphones, and virtual instruments

WEBLOG:
The one painting of mine that I have continually gotten emails about over the years is the Princess Ruu character portrait, titled Melancholic Princess.

Princess Ruu
Link to alternate version and details

Now, after almost ten years, I still constantly get emails about her. Some of the emails are about that ridiculous urban legend that people have made up about her over the years (how if you stare into her eyes you’ll see horrible things or commit suicide–you know, basic idiotic nonsense), but most of the emails are simply about falling in love with her or wanting to find out if Tellurian Sky, the story I wrote that she’s the lead female character of, will ever be see the light of day (as in, get produced or published).

Recently, I got an email about her that really moved me, and I wanted to share it with you:

Dear mister Robert Chang,

It might be possible you get a lot of emails about this picture, because of the rumors that goes thru the Internet, but please, would you be kind to read mine?

It is a waste that i have never really heard of your work before, because, so far i am aware of, you are a professional artist, and i love to look at things that force me to have my attention, but there are so many things to look at.

I heard somewhere that, people have beautiful eyes because they look at beautiful things, so of course, i try to keep up with that.

You know it yourself, well, that is what i am thinking that you know, if you see something beautiful, you are passionated about it and would like to cherish it and share with the world.

From this part i would like to talk about the painting that is called the Melancholic Princess, a painting you made of Princess Ruu, from the fantasy science fiction screenplay that you’ve wrote/written called Tellurian Sky.

I think the first time i came in touch with this picture is, when i was looking for a fantasy themed illustration of a girl on the Internet.

When i was little, i had an imaginary friend called Falke, she had bright dark eyes, her straight long hair, sometimes long, then in a knob, or in a tail. The expression on her face was strong, mighty, but soft, tender and lovely. She had a powerful personality compared to mine.

Falke protected and accepted me in every way and didn’t judge me for the errors i did but pointed me out that i wouldn’t fall for the same mistakes again. She was the older girl next door in my imagination.

When i became older in years, she grow away from me,
no, i mean, i grow away from my imaginary friend Falke. I guess people can get over particular things like dreaming, and carry on with life.

I think it would sound weird, or it is actually weird that i recognize every bits and piece of Falke in Princess Ruu of the painting you made. Well, that is what i believe then, because it is possible that the character Princess Ruu is totally different then my imaginary friend Falke.

Anyhow, you are probably wondering why i am writing you this e-mail.

I think a few years later after i found your painting i found a video about this picture, claiming it had a horrible background story. In a way i got a little bit angry about it, because that was not how it goes and i remember that the picture itself was in a portfolio website.

Everyone of course does know the urban legend hoax about the painting, and i read today that you are aware of that talk but, oh well.

but I am writing you this email because i appreciate that there are artists out there that actually knows how to freeze a moment, a feeling and express it thru a picture. Princess Ruu had caught my heart and sparked the flame in my soul to look again for Falke and express it thru art as you do with your work.

Thank you very much mister Robert Chang.

Someone who loves your work, Vincentsedubun.

I’ve got a folder filled with emails about Ruu, but I think this is one of my favorites because it’s so heartfelt and personal.

This was my reply to him:

Vincent,

Thank you for the lovely email. It really made my day. I periodically get emails from people who were moved and touched by something on my website, and I treasure these emails because they represent the joy of sharing your creative vision and self-expression with the rest of the world. When your work resonates with others, a connection is made, and these connections are precious in life. When I create, I’m lost in my own little world, and when my work can bring others into that special place, it only gets richer and more vivid, because I’m no longer the only person who gets to enjoy that wonderful imaginary world.

Falke sounds like a wonderful friend to have. Ruu actually is a lot like Falke–she has an old soul despite her youth, and she’s wise beyond her years. While Ruu is gentle and compassionate, with a big heart, she’s also strong-willed, courageous, just, and fair. If she had a choice, she’d live a simple and carefree life, full of creativity and close to nature, and of course, being with the one she loves. But because she has the weight of a kingdom on her young shoulders, she does not have the luxury to live as she wishes, thus the title “Melancholic Princess.” Perhaps one day I’ll turn that screenplay into a novel instead, since it’s unlikely the screenplay will ever be made into a film.

I didn’t have an imaginary friend like Falke when I was younger, although I did often imagine the perfect soulmate, down to the last bit of detail. With each failed relationship, she’d turn up again, reminding me of what a soulmate should be like. Fortunately for me, I haven’t thought about that imaginary soulmate ever since I met my wife, because in a way, I think she became a real person, and I get to be with her everyday. Where there used to be a gaping hole in my heart, it is now whole. It’s amazing how much effort some of us spend on finding our soulmates, and once you finally find that person, it frees up a lot of your time and energy, allowing you to spend them on other things in life instead. Life before meeting my wife was very different, that’s for sure.

Anyway, I enjoyed your email very much. If you don’t mind, I’d like to post it in a blog entry (don’t worry, I’ll correct your spelling and grammar before I do it). I get emails about Ruu periodically, but I think yours was the most interesting one.

Rob

(I ended up not changing the spelling and grammar in his email, because I feel it’s really not a big deal. Obviously, English is not his first language, so I’m sure anyone reading would be understanding of that.)

As the person who created her, part of me thinks her popularity isn’t merely her beauty, as there are lots of paintings of beautiful female characters out there, and I don’t they all get such an overwhelming response. I think it’s the extra layer of depth about her that draws people in–that melancholy and old soul I gave her that makes her unique. If Ruu was just some random hot chick, I doubt I would’ve gotten all these comments about her over the years.

Will Tellurian Sky ever see the light of day? I really don’t know. I have other stuff I’m working on, such as a post-apocalyptic novel, new music, and other screenplays. Maybe Tellurian Sky will never go beyond just a bunch of concept art, illustrations, story treatment, and an unfinished screenplay. I really don’t know. All I know is that I’m happy she’s touched so many people over the years, even if her story has never been properly told.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. I hit my best record recently when I wrote for thirteen hours straight in a day. I think that’s the longest I have ever spent on writing in a day. I would like to finish this novel sometime this year (I’m about 23,000 words in at this point), and hopefully keep the momentum going and finish other novels and screenplays I’ve been working on for far too long (some going back to the late 90’s or earlier). I’m certainly not getting any younger, and at this point in my life, I feel I’ve gained enough maturity as both a creative talent and a human being, to be able to fully express what I intend to express. If I don’t march forward in this current push to finish things, I’ll end up in my old age, regretting that I never gave it my best shot.

I’ve been looking to replace the Westone 3 In-Ear-Monitor (ear canal headphones) for a while now, and I had hoped that the Shure SE535 would be the one, but unfortunately, it had its own share of flaws, and I must continue for search for the ideal universal IEM.

In terms of ergonomics, the SE535 is a bit annoying because its cable is so thick and hard to manage, especially compared to the very thin and flexible braided cable of the Westone 3. Both IEM’s fit flat against the ears, so they can be worn to bed when you are sleeping on your side (this may not be a big deal to some, but I think it’s pretty important).

The sonic signature of the SE535 is one that is a bit too bright in the upper-mids (7KHz range), and I can’t stand fatiguing sounding headphones. The treble can also be a bit more airy, while the bass is actually not bad, reminding me a bit of the HD650, in that both are missing a bit of sub-bass presence.

Here’s the EQ curve I created for the SE535 to make it sound closer to my ideal sonic signature (using my best headphones and my trusty Klein + Hummel O 300D’s as references):
SE535 EQ

Here’s the EQ curve for the Westone 3:
Westone 3 EQ

You can find my EQ curves for other headphones here (Audez’e LCD-2, Sennheiser HD650, Audio-Technica ATH-M50, Stax 007mk2).

As you can see, the W3 is similar to the SE535 in that they both have a bit of sibilance problem near the 7KHz range and missing a bit of air in the treble, but the W3’s bass is very different from the SE535–it’s bloated and muddy. With my EQ curve for the W3, it sound far more balanced, detailed, and smooth.

I asked around head-fi.org about possible candidates to end my IEM search, and many recommended the Westone 4. I was skeptical because I’ve heard the UM3X and while it was more balanced than the W3, it was still not ideal (not enough air in the treble), and in general, the Westone house sound seems to me a muddy and unbalanced. But all the reviews about the W4 says it doesn’t have the typical Westone sonic signature, and in fact fixes all the problems of the typical Westone sound.

Although I hate buying audio gear without auditioning them first, it’s simply impossible in many cases due to where I live, so I have to rely on online reviews to assess whether something might fit my ideal.

I have always wanted the Korg Mono/Poly softsynth, and after debating whether I should get it for years, I finally pulled the trigger and bought it. Now myKorg Legacy Collection is complete (both analog and digital editions). There are some nice presets in Mono/Poly, and although I haven’t had time to design any patches with it, I really like how it sounds. I’m probably not going to get any more synths for a long time, but I have a feeling when Imposcar 2 is finally released, I won’t be able to resist it (I’m a big fan of Imposcar and have been waiting for the updated version for years).

Another purchased I made recently was the Addictive Drums ADPaks. XLN Audio is one of those companes that never have sales during holidays, and it always pissed me off–as if their products are so damn good that they’d never devalue them with discounts. I was shocked when audiomidi.com had a flash sale for the ADPaks, and I just had to jump on it (unsurprisingly, the sale was never mentioned on the XLN Audio site, and only available from audiomidi.com). I already had Addictive Drums, Jazz Sticks, and Reel Machines, and now I have Retro, Jazz Brushes, and Funk as well. I should have held off on Reel Machines since I bought it not long before the audiomidi flash sale.

Overall, I’m fairly happy with all the ADPaks, but I think Reel Machines should’ve been much more varied, since electronic drums/percussion don’t require nearly as many velocity layers, and XLN should have given us far more variety, like what Toontrack did with the Electronic EZX. After using Addictive Drums for years now, I also feel that its effects section is a bit lacking compared to BFD2 or Superior 2.0. There are some basic but essential effects missing like delay, chorus, phaser/flanger, auto filter, and so on. There are also some things I wish it could do, such as altering the volume of individual articulations, or have brush sweeps be cut-off by brush hits if both hands are playing hits. It makes no sense whatsoever to hear a brush sweep continuing when both hands are playing brush hits. I’ve brought up all these suggestions to XLN Audio, but I doubt they’ll implement them for any future versions.

I played Halo: Reach recently and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I’m one of those people who always found the Halo franchise highly overrated, mainly due to the lack of a cohesive creative vision and ineffective storytelling techniques.

The main issue I have with the Halo franchise is the silly dwarf aliens running around with cartoon voices. It’s one of the worst creative calls I’ve ever seen a company make, because the tone of it is completely out of context with a very serious and somber story about the survival of the human race. I’ve brought this up in the past and I’ve heard all kinds of excuses for why Bungie did it (from gameplay reasons to wanting to have some humor–both ridiculous and unreasonable excuses), and after playing Reach, I’m more certain than ever of my opinion, because obviously someone at Bungie who called the shots felt the same way; in Reach, the cartoony alien voices were altered to sound more menacing and less silly, and they also had more intimidating looking armor.

The second issue is the way the story is told in the Halo franchise. I never liked Bungie’s decision to tell the stories of the alien races, their cultures and politics, or to allow players to play as the aliens, because it dilutes the intensity of that desperate struggle for survival the human race is going through. The story should always be focused on humanity’s struggle, because that’s what the players identify with emotionally, and if you take a detour and get into the story of the aliens, that emotional connection gets severed. Again, after playing Reach, I noticed that someone at Bungie must’ve felt the same way, because in Reach, not a single scene was shown of the aliens and their culture, and they were kept as mysterious and ominous invaders as the story focused on the survival of the human race. I’ve always found the whole religious aspect of the alien race a bit silly as well, because I don’t believe such technologically advanced alien races could be religious (but this probably says more about my views about religion than it does about the effectiveness of Bungie’s storytelling).

I’m glad that Bungie changed their minds with Reach. If they had approached the entire franchise in the same way as Reach (and although I haven’t played ODST, from what I’ve heard, it’s like Reach, where the focus is on the human race, and does not get into the alien races and their story), I believe Halo would’ve been a superior I.P., but at least they wrapped up their ten-year run with a bang. By the end of Reach, I was moved as the story went in full circle, with the Cortana being delivered to Pillar of Autumn, which kicks off the first Halo game. The post-credit ending was also very nice, giving the franchise a poetic conclusion.

Quickie Movie/TV reviews:

The Wonders of the Universe – Brian Cox is always entertaining and inspiring, because he has so much passion and that infectious child-like curiosity. Really well photographed and excellent visual effects. Definitely one of the better documentaries series I’ve seen.

Burn Notice (season one and two) – Entertaining premise and some pretty clever McGyver moments, but I think the “client of the week” episodic structure is slightly annoying, even if it allows a lot of variety. I have always tried to avoid shows where every single episode is a new client, case, or problem that have nothing to do with the most intriguing main story arc, because there just isn’t enough sense of engrossing continuity.

Although television creators/writers have established this formula of including a little bit of the main story development into each episode, it’s still not nearly enough. Shows like these can never compete against really addictive shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Dexter…etc, because these individual cases/clients are never given more than an hour to develop, and they always end up feeling like fillers. When an entire show is made up fillers, it’s just not as intriguing anymore. This is why I never watch those weekly courtroom/crime/forensic dramas, because I can’t stand the fact each episode always feel like fillers.

With all that said, I have to say that the show has its moments, and it’s especially fun when the writers are teaching you technical details about spycraft and how to pull off very creative things using everyday household items. Just for that alone, I think I’ll stick with the show.

High School of the Dead I had high hopes for this anime series because the premise seemed really fun, and the first episode was actually not bad, but it went downhill fast from there. Annoying and trite characters, ridiculous plot, embarrassing obsession with pornographic male fantasies–it had all the things that I dislike about the trend of modern anime since the early 1990’s. Sad to see an art form that was once so innovative and fresh sink so low.

Afghan Star – I’ve always felt that a world without music would be a mistake, yet there are those who live in societies where music could possibly get you killed. I think this documentary showed clearly that what artists express differs greatly depending on what kind of a world they live in, and there will always be those who stand up to tyranny and oppression with their art.

Pontypool – An interesting premise and clever spin on the zombie/epidemic genre, but sometimes felt too contrived and inconsistent. It never explained why some people were infected and some weren’t, or someone like the DJ who talked endlessly everyday wouldn’t be infected much sooner than others.

Tangled – Nothing about it was really surprising–it’s the same Disney formula we’re all so familiar with–song and dance, romance, comedy, good vs. evil, misunderstandings, selfless sacrifice, miracles, magic, and so on. The main reason to watch this film is for the animation.

Ever since I first heard that Glen Keane was working on a film about Rapunzel almost ten years ago, and that it’ll be his debut as a director as well as his first all 3D animated film, I had been waiting for it ever since. Years later, when I found out he had been replaced as a director, I was disappointed, but at the same time I gave the decision the benefit of the doubt, because I have no idea whether Glen is even a good director–my respect for him solely rests on his history as a legendary animator.

Now that I have seen the film, I will say that I enjoyed it and the animation was great, but aesthetically it wasn’t what I imagined in my head all these years. What I imagined was more dramatic and sensual, as opposed to a feel-good comedy with a fairytale premise. I was hoping for a return to the golden era of Disney classics, but I suppose the cinematic landscape has changed so much that such an old-fashioned approach would be seen as unhip and dated. These days, it’s all about witty dialogs, breathtaking action sequences, and pop culture references if you can squeeze them in.

Tron: Legacy – The story was paper-thin, but I supposed that’s not why we watch films like this–we watch it for the visuals, and it certainly had a very distinct and hip look. Too bad there was so little substance to build the visuals on though.

The Daft Punk score was very fitting and created the right kind of mood to accompany the visuals. This type of popcorn flick doesn’t require any sophisticated underscoring, themes, leitmotif, or creative timing to match the moment-to-moment happenings on the screen, so it was fine to hire dance musicians who knew essentially nothing about cinematic scoring to take on the challenge. I’m not saying the duo didn’t work hard and tried to learn on the job, just that if this was a different film that required the experience of an expert composer, they would never have been offered the job. The fact they were offered the job so early also sounds to me like they studio knew they had to cover their asses in case Daft Punk failed–they’d still have plenty of time to hire a proper composer to come in and do the job.

Season of the Witch – Predictable story with lackluster execution. It’s the kind of film where it seemed no one was really trying too hard to do push beyond the conventions of what we all already have seen. It could have been an interesting psychological thriller, but due to the lack of effort, it’s ended up another disposable piece of entertainment.

Skyline – The Brothers Strause are a classic case of people with talent and skill for visuals, but lack the creative vision or talent for compelling narrative and storytelling. Unfortunately, it has become a trend for people with visual special effects background to become film directors, and some of these people should never have made the jump and should have remained in visual effects.

The first film they directed (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) showed all their weaknesses as directors and storytellers, and in this second film, it was the same. Even though they don’t write, the problem is, if a director is a good storyteller, he would know what the screenplay is missing and will be able to do something about it, so whenever I see bad writing, I blame the director along with the writer (and the producer too). These three key figures behind the scenes–all of them should have razor-sharp instincts for what a good story is, and obviously, the Brothers Strause don’t and neither does their producer.

The moments of character development that happen in the film were completely irrelevant and meaningless, and because they are so hollow, by the time the credits roll, you realize it was all just pointless filler because they had to stretch the running time somehow. Even the key conflict of whether they should run for the marina or not is completely illogical. They decided to risk their lives and run for the marina just because one character said that he didn’t see any aliens above the water, but how could anyone think that’s a legitimate reason to risk lives? There wasn’t a single thing that happened in the film that pointed to the waters being safe or the aliens couldn’t be near water, yet much of the film was centered around their decision to run for the marina. How could the writer not see that in even the first rough draft of the screenplay? How could the producer and the directors not see it? Hell, even the actors should have noticed it and said something.

Monsters – Even though Monsters is also an alien invasion sci-fi film like Skyline, and it was also made on shoestring budge by a tiny crew (of five), but oh what a difference. It only took the first few minutes to immediately see that Gareth Edwards actually has talent as a storyteller, and guess what–he did all the special effects too–all by himself. The Brothers Strause should be embarrassed when they watch Monsters because it makes Skyline look like a clumsy mess with complete lack of soul and poetry, while Monsters almost felt like a soulful indie arthouse film that just happened to have alien creatures in it.

The pacing of the film, the cinematography, the acting, the editing–everything had a distinct feel that was natural and organic, as opposed to everything looking and feeling contrived in Skyline. Even the dialogs were much better written–the characters felt real, and their relationship with their surroundings had a sense of gravity not only due to the fact that Monsters probably used a lot less green screen during shooting, but also that the locations were inherently more natural than the high-rise apartment of Skyline.

Whitney Able, who played Sam, really mesmerized me, and that took me by surprise because she’s not exactly my type in terms of physical characteristics. What surprised me was that she had this ethereal radiance about her–this feminine softness that I just loved. The look on her face in all situations–whether a smile or a melancholic gaze–there was just something very soulful about her. The chemistry between her and Scoot McNairy also felt very natural (I found out later that they were actually a couple, and ended up getting married two months after shooting the film, so the on-screen chemistry must have been very real).

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version) – Not as good as the 2007 remake, and I’d have to watch the first one and then the one made in the 90’s to see how they compare. Personally, I don’t know why people slam the 2007 remake. It really wasn’t that bad.

Always – I had actually never heard of this film by Spielberg, and it was fairly enjoyable, although this was made during a period in his career when he hasn’t learned restraint yet and still indulged in overbearing sentimentality.

Brazil – I’ve been trying to get around to watching this film for decades now, and I have finally done it. I tried to watch it once when I was a teenager and I was so bored that I turned it off before I even finished the first half. Now that I’ve watched the whole thing, I can understand why it has a cult following, but personally, I’m not a fan of the style–that absurd slapstick comedy approach. I like black comedies, but I prefer them without the cartoony crassness (for example, I like the Coen Brothers, as they know how to get silly but not into the realm of cartoony). I also enjoy satires, but I enjoy them when they aren’t so heavy-handed. I’m glad I finally got around to watching this film, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

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