Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why no one is watching the Watchmen

The Watchmen is a triumph of creativity. It is a re-imagining of a medium upon which all subsequent works shall be judged. It has layers of depth that are a commentary upon the politics of the times, the pop culture that surounds it, and a meta-commentary on the medium and its place in culture. Of course I am speaking of the comic, as the movie is a dolled up piece of pablum that we have seen countless times before and an embarrassment to the source material.

The movie suffers from the same problems as the director Zack Snyder's last effort, shot for shot devotion to the source material. Where Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used violence sparingly in order to maximize its effect, Snyder has limbs cracking and heroes galivanting around like low rent X-Men. None of the Watchmen have powers except for Dr. Manhattan, but looking at the movie you'd think radioactive spiders were hiding beneath all the masks.

The violence while beautifully shot as is everything else a distraction from the story and the philosophies that the characters embody. This is part of the movie's greatest failure, it can not stand on its own. An adaptation no matter how faithful to the source, even if scenes and dialogue are lifted word for word, has to stand on its own as a self contained narrative. It has to use the techniques of its medium or create some of its own to tell the story. If it needs external sources to make sense of what is being presented it is not a movie version of the comic but a poorly written companion piece.

I am a huge fan of the comic and would say that it is one of the best pieces of writing in any form to come out of the '8os. The fanboys who argue that the only people who don't like it just don't get it and should read the book miss the entire point of making a movie in the first place. If it is only for fanboys spending $150M to shoot it is ridiculous, there is no way to recoup the cost by relying on the fans that already exist. The purpose of a film adaptation is to expose the material to those who never read the book and hopefully inspire them to read it.

The movie has remarkable graphical flourishes but the story is poorly served by the writers and director. The comic is about the characters' psychology and philosophy but they can be lost in the movie to those unfamiliar with the source material. It also suffers from the fact that the idea of the dark hero, while revolutionary 20 years ago is a bit cliched now. The ending while changed is still faithful to the spirit of the comic and is a parody of the comic book genre.

Frankly, the precipitous drop in box office should be foreseen as the trailers are a lie. The trailers make it look like an action movie but the comic is moved forward by dialogue, the movie is mired in it. There are only a few set pieces of violence but they are so over the top and more graphic than the comic that they stand out and make the pacing of the movie all wrong.

Alan Moore and others were right Watchmen is unfilmable, Snyder proved the point. The dense amount of backstory and character development is done in the comic with flashbacks, letters, excerpts of text etc. With the movie it is done mostly with leaden dialogue delivered by wooden actors. It would have been better as a miniseries so that the characters and story could breath.

If you read the book it is a good movie if you haven't read the book before do so before thinking of seeing the movie.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Learning Japanese on a moderate budget

It has been an inordinate amount of time since my last post so here is some info that others may find useful. I already covered some books to learn Japanese. If you want an immersive leaning environment and are willing to pat with a few hundred bucks to get it you can supplement your education quite nicely with just a few items.

Genki is an integrated immersion course with materials published by The Japan Times. It is geared towards those in college with a lot of the vocabulary but it isn't as if one wouldn't need to know how to say college or physics in Japanese. The entire course materials include a textbook, workbook, CDs, flash cards etc. The Japan Times has an entire course site of useful resources. Some elementary courses at universities and colleges use the materials. Retailers have them at varying prices but you can buy them directly which ships from Japan or you can search for local retailers. Of course some of the materials can probably be found in the usual dark alleys of the internet.

JapanesePod101 is a great way to take in a short daily lesson. You can find it in iTunes or just go to their website. The basic podcast is free which is a few minutes of vocabulary or grammar with practice phases thrown in. This is a simple way to lean something new or practice in the car or at the gym. The paid memberships add access to the forums which can be useful with the community feedback. The forums are great if you are stuck on something o need help finding a tutor or school.

You gain access to the dictionary and quiz area which help to get you off of the romaji crutch. The most useful, to me at least, are the transcripts and the videos. Nothing quite like seeing the phrases on the page as you listen or watching someone speak a language.

If you have a Nintendo DS you are in luck since there are some great games that can be supplementary aids to your learning. My Japanese Coach is the most obvious. It features a quiz when you first start it up and create your profile that tests your knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, basic phrases etc. Once it determines your level it proceeds though a series of courses. These courses cover the elementary level of Japanese. I wouldn't recommend it as your only source but the writing practice, speech practice, and fast recognition of words in the mini-games are a decent supplement to Genki and JapanesePod101.

If you have the desire for true mastery, a DS, and a little cash you can do a lot worse than Zaidenhoujin Nippon Kanji Nouryoku Kentai Kouinin: KanKen DS. This game is basically a huge amount of kanji that you practice writing correctly. This is designed to prepare you for the kanji certification. This can also be useful to improve fluency even if you're not looking to be certified. There are other software options such as Kageyama Method - Dennou Hanpuku: Tadashii Kanji Kaki to Rikun. I'd also recommend checking the prices between PlayAsia and National Console Support.

Games are a good option along with movies to give yourself some immersive practice. You might as well take advantage of the fact that the games for DS, PSP, and PS3 systems are region free. Especially, with the PS3 setting up a Japanese PSN account and downloading a demo from Japan isn't that hard. Understanding what is being said in the movies or the games? YMMV