Ethereality News & Weblog

July 24, 2011

Zeitgeist Movement & Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Purity First trailer

Filed under: Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Writing — Rob Chang @ 5:46 pm

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I recently watched all three of the Zeitgeist: The Movie, Zeitgeist: Addendum, and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.

It’s impossible not to care about the issues discussed in the films, especially in many ways, I felt like the films were preaching to the choir on my end. (I’m mostly talking about the second and third films, not the first film, which was really just the ranting of a conspiracy theorist. Starting from the second film, the whole thing became much more goal oriented and organized, searching for actual solutions to the ongoing problems of human civilization.)

I’m one of those people that have always felt there are some thing about our society and civilization as a whole that’s fundamentally wrong, but because of the momentum of historical developments of our cultures, we are helpless being carried in a set direction as if we’re on a speeding train and cannot change course.

During some parts of the documentaries, my heart stopped because the very same issues being brought up were the same ones I’ve been writing about in one of my novels–the disappointment in our governments, religion, monetary system, wasteful use of energy, the entire human civilization and societal structure in general–it was like my mind was being read and played out on the screen. The feeling is both exciting and depressing at the same time.

In past interviews, author William Gibson said that when he watched Bladerunner for the first time, he was thrilled but also depressed, because he was writing Neuromancer at the time, and Bladerunner looked exactly like what he envisioned in his head. Someone else had beat him to that cyberpunk vision of the near future, and he almost gave up on finishing Neuromancer. Good thing he didn’t because it became an instant classic and elevated Gibson to the highest rank of sci-fi authors immediately.

I guess that means I should finish my novel no matter what.

I don’t know about other writers, but it’s impossible for me to just forge ahead and finish the entire first draft, and then go back and do extensive revisions and rewrites. I have this habit of starting a new writing session by reading what I wrote in the previous session, and sometimes going back all the way from the beginning and re-read the whole thing to look for problems. I always find something I don’t like and would make changes before moving on to writing any new material. So technically, I’m always in the middle of writing, revision, and rewriting, all at the same time.

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do this, as it depends on your personality and creative workflow. The fact I always have an outline of all the events that are suppose to happen in the story, a list of motifs and themes I want to convey, and important dramatic scenes, I never stray too far from that main path, and I think that’s enough to keep me on track, no matter what writing workflow I use.

Part of the reason why I can’t just write and then worry about revisions and rewrites later is that I must read what I wrote in the previous session in order to get into the mood, as well as for the sake of continuity in tone and style. If what I read from the previous session isn’t compelling and inspiring, then I simply cannot move forward until I make it compelling and inspiring. I guess you could say that in a way, I must be impressed by my own writing in order to want to continue, or else it just feels like I’m allowing myself to put mediocrity onto the page, and mediocrity just isn’t very inspiring.

I have tried to just forge ahead in the past, and it just didn’t work for me. I was unhappy because even though I move much faster that way, it just lead to a bunch of substandard writing that I can’t bear to read. In the grand scheme of things, I think doing massive revisions and rewrites is harder to manage than doing incremental ones as you write. It probably doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me currently, and I’ll likely stick to it until I discover a better workflow.

The Purity First trailer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution is by far one of the most emotionally powerful game trailers I’ve ever seen. Many people commented that it’s brilliant as a movie trailer too, if such a movie existed. It would make perfect sense to me if we see a feature film adaptation of Deus Ex somewhere in the future, and I could totally imagine someone like Alfonso Cuarón directing it.

I was struck by how similar the Purity First trailer is in tone and style to the Zeitgeist Movement documentary movies. I would not be surprised at all if the people behind the trailer have seen the Zeitgeist Movement documentaries and were inspired by them.

While I did play the first two Deus Ex games, neither compelled me to want to finish them. They always lagged at some point with slow pacing and meandering plot lines. I like the premise of the stories, but the execution just isn’t that exciting as games. Hopefully the third installment will be different. From the looks of things, it probably will be.

Quickie movie/TV reviews:

Burn Notice (season four) – I keep telling myself I should stop watching this series because it gets formulaic sometimes, and I dislike the standalone episodes format because they aren’t as engaging as a strictly continuing storyline without constant detours. But I keep watching because the season finales are always pretty exciting, and I’ve always liked all that spy vs. special forces stuff (big Jason Bourne fan here). I guess I’ll likely watch season five too when it comes out.

With each season, Burn Notice gets bigger in scale, involves more characters, and I guess that means each season is a little bit more exciting than the previous season.

For some reason, I keep thinking that eventually, maybe in the series finale, we’ll see a lot of the people Michael had previously helped actually banding together and returning the favor–likely saving his life in the process. It would be a very satisfying finale I think, to see karma playing out.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – The critics loved this film, but I found it a bit overrated. I like the premise and the actors, but somehow when all the pieces are put together, it felt somewhat contrived as it tries too hard to be edgy. It had the opposite problem of The Animal Kingdom–a film that I felt was a bit lackluster in its direction. These two films should have exchanged directors, and both films might been the better for it.

Blue Valentine – I’ve grown to like Michelle Williams a lot over the years. I thought she was pretty good in Dawson’s Creek all those years ago, and she seemed to be a more mature actor than the rest of the cast, but it wasn’t until Broke Back Mountain did I notice her real potential. She’s so good at playing someone who’s broken, and I think it’s partly because that’s part of her true personality as a person. She’s mentioned in interviews that she doesn’t cope well with all the crap that happens in her life and the entertainment industry in general. That kind of uncomfortable vulnerability is what shines through in her acting I think.

Blue Valentine was very difficult to watch during some scenes, because most of us know intimately what it feels like to be rejected by the person you love, and those scenes were just painful. If you don’t mind the pain, it’s a good film about how people fall out of love during the course of a marriage, and how heartbreaking it is when you contrast it against how they fell in love in the first place.

The Green Mile – Took me all these years to finally watch this film from beginning to end. While I liked the premise and the style, I think it’s far too long and could have been edited down by 1/3 in length and still retain its emotional resonance. In comparison, Shawshank Redemption was a much better film by the same director.

July 13, 2011

Weaning off the muse

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In interviews with famous authors, they always say that in order to become a real writer you must write even when you are not inspired, because deadlines wait for no one, and to be able to write on demand is what professionalism is all about. This can be said of any creative endeavor–from design, illustration, video games, music, photography, to filmmaking. If all the creative professionals waited until they were struck by inspiration, entire industries would grind to a halt–even unrelated industries like processed food, because even those need packaging design from graphic designers.

In some industries the deadlines are brutal, and either you perform on demand, or you lose all your clients and drop off the radar. For example, a film composer often only get a week or two to compose more than an hour’s worth of full-blown orchestral music like the epic scores you hear in blockbuster movies. If film composers all waited for the muse to come so they can channel the spirits of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, then they’d have ended their careers before they even got their foot in the door.

The most essential skill that a professional writer possesses is the ability to write even when the muse isn’t hanging around, and be able to revise or rewrite so that the final result will be just as compelling as if it was written with the muse hovering over his shoulder (or sitting on his lap, depending on the kind of relationship he has with his muse). I think this is one of the most important lessons, and probably the hardest lesson, for aspiring writers to learn. I suppose if you don’t care to become a professional writer and only want to write for enjoyment or self-expression, then you can take years or even decades to write a single novel and that would be fine; but if there’s any desire to write professionally and have a career as a writer, then it’s necessary to buckle down and learn some discipline.

Sure, it’s blissful when you’ve got the muse’s cute little bottom sitting on your lap, but she’s a fickle creature and you better learn to write without her, or else become her plaything, to be cast aside without warning, and possibly never being in her favor again.

I’m slowly weaning myself off of the addictive high supplied by my alluring but capricious and cruel muse. I no longer want to be controlled by her, allowing her to mess with my enthusiasm, my confidence, and my passion. One day, I’ll be strong enough so that when she comes and purrs in my ear, I’ll just throw her over my shoulder, take her to the bedroom, and ravish her, but I will not pine after her like a love-sick puppy afterwards when she gets up and leaves without saying good-bye. She’ll merely be a fun fling that adds a little extra spice to my writing routine now and then, but I’ll live out a perfectly happy life even if I never see her again.

Yeah, that’s the kind of relationship I have with my muse. I bet yours isn’t all that different, and I bet you want to wean yourself off of her too, if you could.

It took me a long time to read through Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, and I finally finished it recently. It’s not that the book was hard to read, just that I wasn’t really in the mindset for all the digressions that had nothing to do with the real emotional core of the story. It really should have been split into two separate books, where all the anecdotal detours are taken out and put into a different book, and the relationship between Bone, her mother, and her step-father become the sole focus. For me, this is a cautionary tale of what happens when an author doesn’t understand what’s truly essential in a story and what’s superfluous and diluting to the core of the narrative.

Overall, I thought it was a good book, and the prose was earthy and sincere. The ending was heartbreaking and the pivotal scene where Bone’s entire world finally catches on fire and turns into a maddening blaze was very powerful. It’s just too bad that the author took all those irrelevant and inconsequential detours in order to get to that moment.

I’ve always loved the Samoyed breed of dogs because they are one of the most beautiful breeds, and also have lovely personalities. Elena’s nephew recently got a Samoyed puppy, and he’s been pouring all his time and energy into the little fur ball. He brought her over to visit recently and I took some pics of the little cutie:

Samoyed puppy

Samoyed puppy

Samoyed puppy

Here she is a few weeks later:

Samoyed puppy

Samoyed puppy

Samoyed puppy

Samoyed puppy

Samoyed puppy

The Chinese are some of the most unimaginative people alive when it comes to naming pets, as you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone that’s named their dog “Lucky.” And yes, this Samoyed puppy is also named Lucky, just like every other dog we come across in China.

There is this gorgeous Samoyed with a hilarious name that lives in our residential community: 翠花 (pronounced “Tzwei Hwa”), which means “Jade Flower.” To someone who’s not Chinese, this might sound like a beautiful, poetic name full of cultural depth, but to the Chinese, it’s a dorky name for a dog, reeking of that country bumpkin vibe. The first time Elena met the dog and learned of her name, she couldn’t believe her ears, and she couldn’t wait to get home and tell me about it. When I heard of the dog’s name, I nearly died.

So, what are the dorkiest pet names you’ve ever heard?

I finished playing Crysis 2 recently, and it’s been quite fun, although the lack of freedom compared to the first Crysis game (or even Far Cry, the spiritual predecessor) was a bit disappointing. A lot people have complained that Crysis 2’s graphics on the consoles are a step backwards, since the first game was PC only, allowing for really high-end graphics running on hardware that easily ran circles around either the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3. Personally, I think whatever differences are irrelevant because the level of graphics on the current consoles when it comes to the big AAA titles with focus on eye-candy is already very impressive, and I really have nothing to complain about. Crysis 2 is one such game where I have nothing to complain about graphically.

Story-wise, it’s pretty standard alien invasion stuff without any real emotional resonance or compelling plot twists. Essentially, it has no heart and soul and is just an excuse to kill stuff and blow shit up.

One thing I noticed over and over in the game is that other than a female character in the scripted scenes, and during the very final scene, there were essentially no women at all in the entire city of New York. All the diseased corpses and sick people are all males with similar average build and similar clothes, and there were also no children and elderly folks, or even people of different weight and height–everyone looks so generic that I felt like I was playing a game from the 90’s.

The nanosuit game mechanics was fun, and you pretty much have to rely on it to survive at all in the game, so thankfully the suit wasn’t a pain in the ass to use, and was genuinely useful. The weapon balance was terrible, since you could pretty much stick to a few choices and never even bother with any of the other alternatives, and that defeats the whole purpose of having a full arsenal to choose from for different situations. Game designers are mostly really bad at this, and they need to learn to design their games so that all the different weapons would be used at some point and for different purposes.

There were a lot more scripted events this time than the previous games, including Far Cry, and it was kind of annoying since they keep taking control away from the player during these scripted events. They need to learn some lessons from Valve and how the Half-Life franchise designs scripted events without ever taking away control from the player.

The score for Crysis 2 is excellent (mainly by composers Borislav Slavov and Tilman Sillescu), being head-above-shoulders better than the similar hybrid orchestral/electronic scores that’s the standard today. But I find it really annoying when Hans Zimmer’s name is plastered all over the promotion for the score when he only did a few tracks–in fact, it’s mainly Lorne Balfe (who work at Remote Control) that did them, and I suspect Hans just sort of supervised (being the head of Remote Control). If that wasn’t the case, then why would we see both of their names on every single track that supposed Hans composed? It’s nothing new really, where the biggest names involved in any project are always promoted as if they contributed so much, when in fact they contributed very little in the grand scheme of things. Movies do this all the time, where some big name actor with 2 lines and 3 minutes of screen time is plastered all over the movie’s promotion. I personally find this practice really disgusting and dishonest, bordering on false advertising, and I wish everyone would just stop doing it.

I enjoyed Crysis 2, but it’s not the kind of game I would ever think about when someone asks me about my favorite games.

Bioshock 2 is one of those games where I was surprised by how much I liked it. While I agree that it’s obvious the motivation behind the game was to milk the franchise for more money, I think the quality of the game itself more than makes up for whatever distaste I had for such a motivation. It’s obvious to me that Bioshock 2 wasn’t just a subpar game pushed out to make a quick buck–it is genuinely a high quality game with a lot of heart, and in fact, it was emotionally more involving for me than the first game.

For all the logical reasons I can think of, the first Bioshock game should have become one of my favorite games of all time, especially considering how much I loved System Shock 2, but the one thing I couldn’t love about the game was the lack of emotional involvement (although intellectually, the game resonated with me greatly). I always felt like I was simply a bystander observing the various deranged freaks of Rapture, but I never once felt like I cared enough outside of simple curiosity and fascination with the strange place. I had no emotional stake in that world, so it never won over my heart.

Towards the ending of the first game, it finally connected with me emotionally when I had to protect the Little Sisters, but by then, the game was almost finished. With Bioshock 2, they must’ve noticed how much players responded emotionally to that emotional connection to the Little Sisters towards the end, and decided to focus on it as the main storyline, and thus firmly established your emotional connection to the game right from the beginning. As a man who in the past really wanted a daughter, protecting the Little Sisters with my life was emotionally very involving, as was the connection with Eleanor. Hearing the Little Sisters say “Daddy, you always protect me from the monsters” just make me melt inside.

In terms of gameplay mechanics, I think the sequel is too easy. I’m one of those people who always pick “normal” or “medium” difficulty, because I think that’s the balance that game designers usually strive for, thus represents the optimal experience the most. On that level of difficulty, I found that I always had an over-abundance of ammo and health, and my wallet was almost always full even when I kept trying to spend as much money as I could at the vending machines. I suppose as soon as I noticed this, I should have changed the difficulty option to “hard,” but I don’t like doing that because I find the change in difficulty on hard usually feels a bit too artificial, and no longer feel like what the game designer originally intended.

The graphics this time was improved, especially in the character models. The Little Sisters actually look cute this time around, instead of freakish like the first game. The facial animation is still abysmal compared to many other AAA games though. In fact, after you save a Little Sister, her thanking you doesn’t even contain any mouth movements. I don’t know how these things end up getting overlooked or deemed not important enough. Maybe this game WAS rushed after all.

Rapture have always been, and always will be the main star of the Bioshock experience. In Bioshock 2, the city of Rapture is just as engrossing as in the first game, and without any retreading of the same places. It’s hard to think of another game where the world itself is so atmospheric, so fascinating, so beautiful, and so terrifying at the same time.

I think having played Bioshock 2, it actually improved my experience with Bioshock 1, and now I can’t really separate them anymore and must think of them as one big game instead of two. Some people don’t like Bioshock 2, but for me, it actually elevated the entire Bioshock franchise for me, and if I were to consider both games together, I would rank it as one of my all time favorite games, and that’s something Bioshock 1 couldn’t have done on its own. I think that says a lot about how good I think Bioshock 2 is.

Quickie TV/movie reviews:

Arrested Development – I have heard so much about this TV show for years and I finally slugged my way though all three seasons. For the most part, it’s really juvenile and crass, without characters you can actually care about. Everyone’s severely dysfunctional and clownish, except for the main character Michael, and because everyone is so outrageously selfish, greedy, and heartless, it just becomes like a circus of freaks. I don’t mind oddball characters, but when everyone’s that way, it becomes a bore fest of crude and predicable jokes. I’m surprised it’s gotten that much praise over the years. I personally like my comedy with some heart too, not just a train wreck of despicable human beings parading around.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – An overrated documentary about people who are obsessed with the classic Donkey Kong arcade game, and their quest to achieve the world’s highest score. It’s actually kind of a shallow film because they characters themselves have shallow motivations for why they do what they do, and to try to force profound meaning onto these people just feels like reaching too far.

Somewhere – The main reason to watch this film is for Elle Fanning, who was just radiant in this film. The Fanning sisters are two of the most talented young actresses of their generation; they have that special talent of looking like they’re not acting at all. Dakota has now crossed into that awkward age where people don’t quite know what to make of her, and I’m personally not impressed by her latest efforts. Without that “precocious child” charm, she’s fairly bland as a teenager. I hope the same thing does not happen to Elle.

The film itself has no real plot, just a series of scenes showing the main lead as a lonely and detached famous movie actor who despite his celebrity status, feels absolutely nothing and was basically just sleepwalking through his life with indifference. When the daughter he barely knows become his responsibility for a short while, his life seems to be just a little bit more colorful as he spends time with his daughter and tries to bond with her. But as soon as she leaves for summer camp, he falls apart as the emptiness of his life returns and becomes too much to bear.

In a way, this film was sort of like Lost In Translation (a film I love), but without the sense of humor, the heartwarming friendship/romance, or the quirky backdrop of a foreign culture. So, in other words, if you stripped away all the charm from Lost In Translation, you get this film.

Phoebe In Wonderland – Another film starring Elle Fanning, though she was a bit younger in this film. I liked the premise of the film, but I didn’t like the execution. I find it a bit disappointing when writers are incapable of understanding the difference between precocious children and children saying adult dialogues. When writers make the mistake of doing the latter, the work becomes pretentious and contrived. Elle was amazing in this film though, displaying the same kind of radiance that her sister Dakota did at the same age. Their parents must be incredibly proud.

Body Snatchers – This 1993 remake is more visceral than the previous versions and in general an okay film, but something about the audio mix just really rubbed me the wrong way. The entire movie sounded like everything was overdubbed later in the studio and had this unnatural awkwardness. Some older films have this sound, but you never hear it in more modern films, since I think audio engineers have since then figured out how to make everything sound more natural.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – A well-crafted thriller, with one of the most interesting heroines in recent memory. You really feel for her when others abuse her, and then, sweet revenge! I’m going to watch the rest of the trilogy and see if the other two are any good.

Unstoppable – A pretty standard action/thriller in the form of a runaway train. Thank God at least Tony Scoot didn’t go overboard with excessively gimmicky editing and camera movements.

The Men Who Stare At Goats – A not particularly funny satire comedy about the military’s misguided attempt to train soldiers into super soldiers with psychic super powers.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine – Not as good as the other X-Men films, being smaller in scale, with less at stake, not as elegant in execution, and also not as fun in general. But for a comic book movies, it’s not bad really.

Black Swan – I enjoyed the paranoid intensity of the film, but overall, the main motif of the story isn’t really one that resonates with me personally. I’m also slightly tired of seeing Natalie Portman playing roles where she’s falling apart emotionally all the time. She’s very good at it, but I want to see her do something totally different now.

Rango – While some of the dialogue was witty and it was refreshing to see an animated 3D feature with talking animals that was obviously aimed at adults, I found the overall experience lacking in emotional resonance or satisfying character development, while the plot was highly derivative and predicable.

Mars Needs Moms – It plot was so simplistic that I felt it was even too simple for children. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by animated films that are a lot more sophisticated, such as those from Pixar. The emotional core was also not very powerful, thus was unable to move me (again, Pixar destroys the competition when it comes to emotionally resonant storytelling).

Winter’s Bone – An excellent film with a poetically sparse toughness at its core. Jennifer Lawrence was just amazing as the 17 yr-old protagonist whose courage surpasses most adults if faced with the same harrowing situation.

The Other Guys – There were some genuinely funny moments, but as a whole, it tries too hard to be funny and doesn’t know when to ease up for better timing.

I Am Number Four – A fairly standard sci-fi action flick that doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. It’s also quite predictable in both the storyline and the execution.

Animal Kingdom – This could have been a much more engaging film if it had been directed by someone else–maybe someone like Michael Mann, but because the director stubbornly forced very sterile camera work on almost every scene, regardless of the psychological and emotional intensity of them, he suffocates the film in a pool of contrived banal atmosphere and downplays every single emotionally intense moment that should have been devastating. The ending is great, but by then, the director had already snuffed the drama out of the film.

Twilight: Eclipse – Not a whole lot of imagination behind this entire series, and it’s curious why this unoriginal and unremarkable series became such a phenomenon. I suppose despite it’s lack of real depth and emotional resonance, it ticks all the right boxes for teenage girls and lonely housewives. It’s almost embarrassing to see how the female fantasies are played out in the storyline, but then again, I suppose to most females, the transparency of most male fantasies in the media is just as laughable.

The King’s Speech – A pleasant and simple film about friendship and overcoming one’s fears and past. What makes it interesting is the fact the friendship is between a prince/king and a commoner, and it’s the commoner who helps the royalty triumph over his inner demons.

My Summer of Love – A film about lesbian love and what happens when that love is based on lies and illusion. The depiction of the romance itself feels a bit clumsy and not quite convincing enough.

Drive Angry – A completely ludicrous film that’s so over-the-top that you feel embarrassed for it. It tried to go for the grindhouse sensibility, but the execution just didn’t feel right. At this point, Nicolas Cage needs to be put out of his misery. Just stop taking on more films. Go write and direct or produce, but please just stop acting, because there’s nothing left to see anymore.

Source Code – A very entertaining and engrossing sci-fi thriller. It’s the kind of film where you don’t really care if the science behind it all is totally logical or not, because you have invested enough of your emotions to not care anymore.

The Fighter – Excellent film that explores family, loyalty, and the fighting spirit that one must have in order to make dreams come true. Christian Bale was amazing in this film–he was completely transformed into another person from the inside out. I already have immense respect for him as an actor, but this film elevated him and put him in the pantheon of the greatest actors who ever lived, IMO. And lucky for us, he still has a long career in front of him.

Paul – A very enjoyable buddy comedy that feels a lot more natural than other comedies with fantastical premises, and this is considering the fact its main protagonist is a grey little alien dude.

No Strings Attached – Natalie Portman has the ability to elevate any film she’s in because she’s simply that good of an actress, and because she’s the female lead, I think I enjoyed this film more than I would have if some lesser actress played the same role. I usually can’t stand Ashton Kutcher, since I generally can’t stand loud and obnoxious people, but he managed to play the lead role fairly low-key and likable.

Sucker Punch – The story is paper-thin and exists only as an excuse for all the cartoony action scenes with excessive slow-motion, dressed with teenage boy fantasies. It could have been so much more if only the writing had more substance. At this point, I’m beginning to feel that Dawn of the Dead was a fluke, and that Zack Snyder is really just a one-trick pony.

Stake Land – A decent post-apocalyptic vampire flick–sort of like The Road meets I Am Legend. It’s doesn’t display any extraordinary amount of talent or vision, but it’s solid.

Paranormal Activity 2 – I rarely run across movies that make me feel like I just wasted precious time on something so meaningless and so unremarkable. This is one of those movies. It simply repeats the exact same formula as the first film, except the pacing and the scares are not nearly as effective. They could’ve at least tried to innovate a bit instead of just repeating the exact same formula, because we’ve already seen it and know exactly how the template works.

Hanna – An action thriller/arthouse hybrid that stars the mesmerizing Saoirse Ronan. The plot and the characterizations are underdeveloped, although the premise is intriguing. Cate Blanchet is so underused in the film that it was tragic. She is capable of so much more than a cardboard cutout villain. Eric Bana’s role could have been played by just about anyone, since it’s such a generic character.

For an action thriller, some of the fight choreography and filming was disappointing. A couple of fight scene felt completely lacking in dynamic and power, as if the actors were just rehearsing the scenes instead of going all out and making it as believable as possible. There wasn’t enough sense of speed and impact, and I’m not talking about faking it by speeding up the frames or using over-the-top sound effects–I’m talking about simple believability. I can’t even recall the last time I saw actions scenes shot so badly.

The score by The Chemical Brothers is one of the worst film scores I have ever heard in my life. I completely understand what The Chemical Brothers and the director attempted, but they failed. They wanted an edgy, unconventional, and hip score, but the fact is, The Chemical Brothers wouldn’t know what film scoring is even if it slapped them upside the head. There were so many scenes with inappropriate and ineffective instrumentation, convoluted arrangements, contradicting sense of rhythm, and even the sound design of the synth patches they used were completely inappropriate for the intended scenes. For example, where a sinister low distorted drone and grating 16th note bassline would’ve been perfect, they’d use some high-pitched bleep and random synth effects that felt completely out of place with the mood or rhythm of the scene. The attempt at edginess also ran counter to what the editing and pacing of the action actually was on the screen.

Please, don’t hire the Chemical Brothers for any future film scoring. If you must hire a hip electronic act to do scoring, try Orbital, Daft Punk or Trent Reznor instead.

Blood the Last Vampire – This live action adaptation of the anime got torn to pieces by the critics, and it really isn’t that bad compared to any other standard Hollywood action flick. Sure, the budget is much smaller and the special effects much less impressive (in fact, downright embarrassing in some parts), but the core of the film is no worse than other mainstream action flicks playing in the theater at the time. Gianna Jun (Jun Ji-Hyun) nailed the Saya character, and I was impressed by her English. I had the feeling that if this film was made ten years ago, Zhang Ziyi would have been a likely candidate to play the Saya character.

The Adjustment Bureau – This film reminded me of Dark City in its concept, but with a very different premise and tone. I really enjoyed the film’s message and what it tried to convey in terms of emotions. It may not be realistic or totally logical, but its heart is in the right place, and its sincerity really moved me. The one glaring problem I had with it was that it sorely needed one extra scene showing the female leading trying to reach the male lead after he left her in the hospital, and the case workers continued to block her efforts until she gave up. It just didn’t make sense to me why she didn’t even try to contact him for an explanation. Wouldn’t she wonder if maybe he got into an accident and that’s why he disappeared? If it was only a matter of pride, then I don’t buy it. People just don’t behave that way–we have this built-in mechanism where we demand closure, and she displayed none of that, which made her unbelievable as a character.

My Sassy Girl – This remake of a Korean film was a direct-to-DVD release, and it’s one of the rare instances where I think it didn’t have to be doomed to that fate, since it’s not that bad at all when compared to any other Hollywood romantic comedy. The opening title sequence looks like cheap television cinematography, but the film itself doesn’t, so if they had just reshot the opening title sequence, it could have been a theatrical release. Compared to the Korean version, it’s less farcical and more logical, and I liked it better than the Korean version (but then again, I was not impressed by the Korean version at all).

Just go With It – These types of romantic comedies are so predictable that you can almost swap the characters of the storyline between them and they would still be the same films. Other than Brooklyn Decker’s jaw-dropping hotness in some scenes, this is just like any other mainstream Hollywood romantic comedy.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – I don’t quite see the reason for making this sequel. It doesn’t really make any profound statements about the recent economic meltdown, and if the only real meat to this story is the family drama, then perhaps this sequel should not have been made at all.

Zack and Miri Make A Porno – I don’t think I laughed, or even chuckled throughout this Kevin Smith letdown. It just wasn’t very imaginative for such a wild premise. Kevin Smith really is one of the most overrated filmmakers out there, because he’s essentially a one-trick pony and that trick got old a long time ago.

Chloe – I was surprised that Atom Egoyan made this, since it’s more of a conventional thriller than artsy study of broken people that he usually makes. I enjoyed it mostly for the Julianne Moore’s great acting, and the bit of eye candy from a nude Amanda Seyfried was also quite welcome, but emotionally this film just isn’t as satisfying as some of his previous films.

Office Space – I had seen part of this film many years ago, but I didn’t feel compelled to finish it. I decided to give it another try, since I have pretty much seen all of Mike Judge’s other films. I can’t say it got better the second time around–it’s still kind of just an okay film that makes you chuckle a little here and there, but that’s about it. I get the humor and the satire, but as a film, it doesn’t rate that high for me as it does for the cult following it has.

July 4, 2011

Westone 4 review (compared to Shure SE535, Westone 3)

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I have been looking for an ideal pair of IEM’s (In-Ear Monitors, A.K.A. In-Ear-Canal Headphones) for years, and the latest development in that search comes in the form of the Westone 4:
Westone 4

and Shure SE535:
Shure SE535

The newest addition in my studio is the Westone 4 (referred to as W4 from here on), and I have recently put it through its paces. But before I get to the W4, I should backtrack a little and talk about the previous IEM’s I have owned (but I’m not going to talk much about the ones I have auditioned but not owned), since the W4 marks the end of my IEM search. I’ve talked about the W3 and SE535 before, but I’m going to revisit them now so there’s a point of reference for the W4’s review.

Shure E4C – I started my IEM search with the Shure E4C, which I found to be a bit fatiguing in the upper-mids, and lacked authoritative bass reproduction. With EQ, I tolerated, but even with EQ, there were times when the upper-mids were still a bit too bright, since the MP3 players I used at the time (Creative Zen and iPod) didn’t allow for precise parametric EQ and were simple graphical EQ’s with limited pre-designated frequencies instead, which did not allow me to target the problematic frequencies (namely the 7KHz region for the excessive brightness, and the sub-125Hz region for the bass/sub-bass). A couple of years ago, the E4C got fried by a faulty airline adapter, so it was a forced retirement.

Westone 3 – I replaced the E4C with the Westone 3 (referred to as W3 from here on). The W3 was very comfortable and had much better cables, but it was too colored in its sonic signature, with the mid/upper bass region far too exaggerated and boomy, to the point of drowning out all the mids and subbass detail, and it too had a resonant peak in the 7KHz region, and a lack of air (upper treble). I regretted buying the W3 based on online reviews without auditioning it first (I had no way of finding a pair to audition due to where I lived). I tried my best to EQ the W3 closer to being neutral/accurate, and I got fairly close using the graphic equalizer on the Creative Zen, but since it’s a graphic equalizer, you could only tweak the frequencies pre-determined by whoever designed the EQ. I lived with the W3 grudgingly, but since I rarely used IEM’s anyway (only when I’m traveling, and I don’t travel that much), it didn’t bother me as much as it could have.

Shure SE530 PTH – I then got the Shure SE530 PTH, hoping it was be the ideal IEM, based on all the reviews I read. Again, it wasn’t. I should have learned my lesson about buying blind without auditioning first, but the problem is, there’s nothing I could do about it because where I live (Fuzhou, a 3rd-rate city in the Fujian province, where it’s impossible to find mid to high-end products in many segments of the market, with audio being one of them). So I have to rely on buying blindly and then testing for myself to see if I will keep it or sell it. The SE530’s got excellent bass response–it’s one of the most accurate and neutral I have heard in IEM’s, but its 7KHz resonant peak was worse than the others, and it also lacked air as well. Its cable design was also horrible, easily cracked and not being modular, you couldn’t just swap the cable out. The PTH (Push To Hear) device was large and clumsy, although it did work. In the end, I returned it to the person I bought it from because it had a cracked cable and the person didn’t mention it when selling it to me.

Shure SE535 – When the SE535 came out, everyone said the updated version improved upon the SE530, so I decided to give it a shot. They were only partially right. The new modular cable system is much better, though still hard to manage due to being so thick, and the sonic signature was so similar to the SE530 that it was like buying the same pair of IEM’s except with a modular cable system.

At this point, I had also discovered the equalizer apps for the iDevices like EQu and Equalizer, both parametric EQ’s that allowed for precise tweaking of the sound (with Equalizer being the superior app). This made all the difference in the world, since with custom EQ curves and good listening skills, one can remedy many of the flaws one hears in an audio reproduction device like headphones and speakers. After much testing and experimenting, I came up with these custom EQ curves for the W3 and SE535:

This is the EQ curve I created for the W3 (using the triple-flange tips with the smallest flange and the stalk cut off), which I then reproduced in the Equalizer app in the iDevices.
Westone 3, triple-flange smaller flange cut off EQ curve<

And this is the EQ curve for the SE535 (using the triple-flange tips with the smallest flange and the stalk cut off):
Shure SE535 triple-flange smallest flange cut off EQ curve<

I could have been happy after I had created the ideal EQ curves for the two IEM’s I had, and I could have picked just one to keep and sell the other one, since with custom EQ curves, I made them sound so similar to my ideal sonic signature that it was unnecessary to keep both. But I continued my search, because I didn’t like the idea of having any audio devices that are too colored without EQ, not to mention EQ’s drain the battery faster on portable devices. Around this time, the W4 appeared on the market, and all the review say it sounds very different from the W3 and addressed all the complaints people have had about the W3 over the years. Since buying blind was the only way for me to test headphones, I went for it and hoped for the best.

So now finally, we get the the W4. My main goal was to find a pair of IEM’s that I didn’t have to EQ and still sounded great and without glaring problems in its sonic signature. In a way, the W4 gives me that, but there’s always a “but.”

First of all, the W4 is definitely much better than the W3, since it’s obvious that Westone listened to all the complaints about W3 and tuned the W4 according to those complaints, while they also tried to keep some of what people loved about the W3. So the result is like a compromise between the W3 and what I consider a neutral and accurate sonic signature–in other words, the W4 is still colored, but not as severe as the W3.

To give you an idea of the kind of EQ curve it takes to get the W4 close to the LCD-2’s sonic signature (the LCD-2 being the king of all my headphones currently), here’s a screenshot (the W4 using the triple-flange tips with the smallest flange and the stalk cut off) :
Westone 4 triple-flange smallest flange cutoff EQ curve

I can probably refine this EQ curve even more and get it even closer to the LCD-2, but for now, that EQ curve already gets pretty close (though missing a bit of clarity/resolution/punchiness overall across all frequency ranges, and I think it may be because of the differences in the inherent physical characteristics of the two driver technologies). For those of you who own both the LCD-2 and W4, give this EQ curve a try if you want your W4 to sound more like the LCD-2 (which IMO is definitely a superior headphone in all ways possible).

Compared to the W3, the W4’s bass has a similar shape, but not nearly as exaggerated and boomy. That doesn’t mean its bass is neutral/flat/accurate though, since W4’s bass is still significantly emphasized, but just not to the degree of W3 (about halfway between W3 and neutral). If you listen to any music where the accuracy of the bass response is critical, it becomes immediately obvious the bass is still too prominent. Sparse jazz arrangements that contains a double-bass makes this very obvious. The W4 renders double-bass with too much bloom/mud compared to a much more accurate headphone like the LCD-2. I also gave the W4 a boost in the lowest sub-bass, because I found it lacking some body down there (though the W3 didn’t seem to need that boost). The cut in the 125Hz range is exactly half the amount of cut I use for the W3, which tells me that the W4’s bass emphasis is exactly half of the W3, but still 4 dB too prominent. Compared to the SE535, the W4’s bass is definitely not as accurate/neutral. SE535’s bass is actually one of its strongest features, since it’s very close to being neutral.

The mids of the W4 is pretty good for the most part, although that pesky 7KHz ear canal resonance is there, just like with most IEM’s. Part of me wishes that IEM engineers simply just design around that ear canal resonance, but I understand why they don’t–it’s because we all have different shaped ear canals, and the different tips can also alter the sound. If you use my EQ curve with any of the tips that aren’t really long and fill the ear-canal like the triple-flange or the long grey tips, and then turn the EQ on and off, it’s very obvious how much of a difference a steep narrow cut in the 7KHz region makes. Without that cut, all cymbals, hi-hats, shakers, tamborines…etc sound really congested and distorted, and the vocals–especially female vocals, sound sibilant. This may not be obvious if you have never listened to the W4 with my EQ curve, but once you do, you can’t not notice it–it’s as plain as day. Compared to the W3, W4’s mids are not nearly as fatiguing/bright in the 7KHz range though. Compared to the SE535, the W4 is less colored, since I have always felt that the SE535’s upper-mids is too emphasized, to the point of being fatiguing and overly bright.

The treble needs about the same amount of boost as W3 in the 13KHz range for a bit more air, so they are actually kind of similar. Compared to the SE535, the W4’s treble is a bit more clear/prominent, since the SE535 would require a bigger boost in the 13KHz range to get enough air in the upper-treble region.

While discussing the resonance peak issue on head-fi.org, someone convinced me to give different tips a try (previously I had stopped believing that they made enough of a difference, since with the E4C W3, and SE530, the different tips didn’t change the sound enough for me to give them too much consideration. But when I tried the different tips with the W4, I found that the peak resonance in the upper-mids and the treble had significant changes. With the Triple-flange, the upper-mids are much more tame and does not require that EQ cut at 7KHz, while the treble is also softer as well (this is comparing to triple-flange with the smallest flange and the stalk cut off). That was great news because that means the worst offender (the 7KHz resonant peak that causes fatigue/excessive brightness/sibilance) was tamed without needing EQ, and I happen to like the triple-flange tips the most, since they isolate the best while not needing to expand to fill the ears like the foam tips. The longer tips that fill in the ear-canal also takes away some of the air, so I had to boost the upper-treble a little bit more.

Now, I just use the triple-flange tips, and the EQ curve I use now is this:
Westone 4, tripple-flange EQ curve

The largest comply grey sticky foam tips are also good, but I hate any kind of foam tips where you have to wait for it to expand for a seal. It’s just an extra step that’s kind of annoying. If I’m out and about, and every few minutes someone wants to say something to me, I’d have to pull out one ear, talk to the person, and then put it back in and then wait for the damn foam to expand. After doing that a few times, it’s just too much. The silicon tips are far more convenient. The hard semi-transparent tips I just can’t use at all. Never was able to get them to sit right in the ear or seal properly, even as far back as my Shure E4C days. I don’t know why companies even include those because I really wonder if anyone uses those at all.

With all that said, I think the W4 is the first IEM I have owned that I could listen to without using any EQ. While it is indeed colored without EQ, it is colored in a way that is fairly pleasing and acceptable for a lot of music. Most importantly, it does not break my first rule of audio devices, which is to first and foremost, do no harm. The W4 is not fatiguing/overly bright with the triple-flange or long grey comply tips, and with the other IEMs, changing tips didn’t solve their problems with the resonant peak. The W4’s bass emphasis while is noticeable, actually is quite acceptable for most musical material, and it’s only when you get into really refined music like jazz and classical do you notice it and want to turn the EQ on to smooth out the bass response so it’s not overpowering what shouldn’t be overshadowed.

Now that I have found a pair of IEM I can happily live with, I’ve sold the SE535 and W3. I could continue my search in the custom-molded IEM realm, but I have no interest in custom-molded IEM’s since I don’t like the idea that they could only fit me and no one else. I can try other univeral IEM’s, but I have a feeling that the other universal IEM’s aren’t necessarily better, but simply different. While the W4 isn’t perfect, and in general it still requires significant EQ’ing to get close to sounding neutral, but at least it is colored in a way that is acceptable to me. I think my IEM journey ends here, until one day I hear something much closer to my idea of neutral, but I’m not going out of my way to audition any more IEM’s, since I really don’t use IEM’s that much anyway.

Quickie TV/movie reviews:

Game of Thrones (season one) – One of the very best TV shows I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience. First rate storytelling that transcends its fantasy roots, with engrossing plot development and characters you can love (or love to hate). The production quality is extremely high, with beautiful cinematography, intricate costume design, and beautiful sets. The actors were also very well cast and very believable. I can’t wait for season two, and I plan to read the books it is based on as well.

Boardwalk Empire (season one) – A very enjoyable period drama during the Al Capone era, about the fine line between good and evil where the characters are constantly crossing from one side to other with every decision they make. When you’ve got Martin Scorsese onboard, you know you’ve got a quality show.

Dexter (season five) – Another enjoyable season of our favorite serial killer. I was a bit disappointed by Julia Stiles, since I find when she’s doing scenes of being emotionally upset, it looked too much like she was going through the motions, but when during scenes of happiness, she looked a lot more genuine to me.

Nikita (season one) – I was very skeptical about Nikita, since that whole franchise has been milked a few times already, not to mentioned it’s been ripped off by Alias too. I watched mostly because I was curious about Maggie Q. I’ve seen her in other movies before, but she never actually did any real acting in any of them–she just did stunts most of the time. Obviously she was chosen to play Nikita for her martial arts chops, but I was very surprised to see that Maggie Q is actually quite a fine actress, and she’s been underused in all the previous films that treated her as just some pretty face who can kick ass.

I remembered Lyndsy Fonseca from How I Met Your Mother, and I thought she was gorgeous in that context. She’s certainly very pretty, but somehow I find her lacking that unique charm that stars have.

I kept thinking that the plot would jump the shark at some point, since these spy shows usually end up getting a bit ridiculous, but everything remained fairly coherent and relatively believable. I’ll probably give season two a try when it comes out.

Gasland – A documentary about how drilling for natural gas destroys the quality of drinking water. The style of the film is more poetic and sincere than the kind of manipulative sensationalism we often see these days.

13 Assassins / 十三人の刺客 – An entertaining film that’s not dissimilar to the Seven Samurai in its core. The action isn’t realistic–more of a stylized approach, but it’s not cartoony either like many action films with absolutely unrealistic fighting scenes.

3 Idiots – I understand exactly why a film like this made such a huge splash in Asia, and why it didn’t do well in the west. The film addresses the sheep mentality of the educational system and how Asians are forced to obey authority blindly since birth, dutifully play the role that society expects of them, without individual thought or creativity. The main characters in the film rebelled against those traditions and asked the audience to question authority and to exercise individualism in their life choices instead of being herded like sheep through life. Obviously, this a one of the biggest problems of Asian culture, and the film spoke directly to Asians. But in the west, there’s no such problem, as western culture prizes individualism, imagination, creativity, and personal happiness, so these lessons taught by the film would just seem like preaching to the choir.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – This is the kind of film where I respect the creativity and the intention, but the execution doesn’t quite resonate with me. I have to wonder why they never mentioned Morse code though, even if it’s just to explain why it wasn’t a suitable solution, if they considered it at all.

Infestation – A silly horror/comedy that had a few moments of fun, but overall a bit clumsy. The final explosion scene made no sense whatsoever, and considering that’s the climax of the movie, it says a lot about the level of failure of that scene.

127 Hours – Danny Boyle is now one of those directors whose career I follow, as he’s got a great style and a unique sensibility. While I enjoyed 127 Hours, I thought the material itself is a bit too thin for a feature length film, even though Boyle did the best he could to keep it interesting. It’s also hard to relate to the main character, since his values, passions, and lifestyle is completely different from most of us–we don’t have his foolish arrogance, and the fact that the person the film is based on continued to do live his life the same way even after losing his arm, is just beyond comprehension. Is there nothing else in civilization that interests him? Must his thrills in life only come from climbing dangerous mountains and risking his life? Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

All the President’s Men – I have always enjoyed movies by Robert Redford, because he’s one of those people who obviously has a lot of integrity, and he made films of integrity as well. I’ve heard about this film for many yeas and finally got around to watching it, and I was surprised by how well it holds up in terms of not seeming dated, which is a rare thing for movies that old. I could also see how it has influenced films of that genre I’ve seen all my life–that realistic portrayal of investigative reporting of political scandals/conspiracies.

The Informant! – I’m a Steven Soderbergh fan and try to watch everything he directs. I enjoyed This black comedy based on a real life criminal case, and because the circumstances were so bizarre, I understood why it had to be made as a comedy instead of a serious crime drama. I know a few people with bipolar, and it’s definitely no joke–people become delusional, go through intense mood swings, lie, cheat, and do all sorts of things that would seem outrageous and illogical to the rest of us. It’s a real tragedy when the brain is sick, and I hope our advances in medical science will one day be able to fully understand the brain and treat it as easily as we treat simple and curable diseases.

Day of the Dead (2008 remake) – This is what happens when people of dubious talent make a movie. This film should not be called a remake because it has nothing to do with the original in any way. The original was about the political struggle between the military and the scientists as the are holed up in a bunker, and one mad scientist’s obsession with training a zombie to obey orders. This remake’s only similarity to the original is that there’s a zombie that obeys orders and is protective of its “owner.”

The level of incompetence displayed in this film was staggering, and close to the epic failings of of Uwe Boll proportions. The people who made this film clearly had no idea what is great about the zombie apocalypse genre, and are only exploiting it to make a quick buck.

Some hilariously bad scenes:

-A zombie jumped on the ceiling like in The Exorcist.

-The lead female character while fighting for her life and running through a parking lot filled with zombies, pulled open a random car door to stop a zombie in its track and then shot it. How the hell did she know that particular car’s door was unlocked?

-When a zombie jumped on the hood of a moving car and broke the window, no one in the car seemed to know that slamming on the brakes would throw the attacking zombie off. The female lead just kept driving like a complete idiot, while the zombie tried to reach in and bite them.

-The teenage kid brother of the female lead, without explanation, could shoot firearms at moving targets with the skill of a highly trained special forces operator. (But then again, so many mindless action films make this kind of mistake.)

-When in the underground lab, two characters starts kicking in the doors for no reason while checking what’s in each room. They didn’t even bother trying the doorknobs.

-When one of the characters pick up a stack of documents and said “Your name’s on every one of them,” he only had one second to look at the very top document in the stack. How the hell did he know the guy’s name is in every one of them if he only saw the first page?

-The surviving characters were blowing away zombies as if they were all trained special forces operators, even when a couple of them were just teenagers. Then later, all of a sudden when they fired multiple guns together at the same time, they couldn’t hit a single scientist zombie moving slowly in a confined hallway, only because he was a bit smarter than the other zombies–he knew how to strafe.

-When the kid brother says, “Five minutes, not a second longer” none of them bothered to look at a watch to see what time it was. So how the hell would they know when five minutes was up?

-One of the soldiers started firing two sub-machine guns randomly at nothing as soon as they opened a door, and actually says “Just in case.” Where the hell did this moron get his military training from?

-The entire missile propulsion tanks scene was a head-scratcher. How the hell did some random teenager know how to rig an electrical charge to set off military missile propulsion tanks? And why the hell didn’t the tanks shoot forward when they were ignited? Even if they were chained together, they would have shot forward. They’re missile propulsion tanks for crying out loud.

-The editor was also made some baffling choices. He would edit in these clichéd “cool” jerky digital transition flashes during shots where the zombies are shown just milling about, as if it was the opening credits to Se7en or some trendy music video, and that was the only time he did it in the entire movie, which then made it stick out like a sore thumb, looking completely out of context and pointless. He also edited the film so the zombies moved far quicker than normal humans, and sometimes in that jerky, clichéd horror film style where the movements of the supernatural creature is unnaturally jerky. But the problem is, these zombies are not supernatural–they are merely infected humans from a biological weapon.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, the worst acting I’ve seen in a very long time was also in this movie, courtesy of Nick Cannon. Some people just shouldn’t be acting.

I dislike being so harsh about other people’s creative work, but man, this one deserved it.

The Zombie Diaries – Basically another Blair Witch styled movie, with ultra low budget and amateur actors. The movie had convoluted and slow pacing, and the directing was just horrible, as if no one bothered to do more than a single take for each shot, no matter how bad the take was. Even the action scenes were terrible, coming in two general flavors:

1) Totally unconvincing and lacking any sense of urgency or dread.

2) Completely incoherent, with basically some guy running while point the camera down, or the lens zoomed out so far that there’s absolutely no sense of immediate surrounding or the characters’ relationship to their environment.

I long for the day that World War Z finally hits the theaters. I’m sure it’ll be far superior to all the recent crappy zombie films that’s stinking up the genre.

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