Rockstar Games and Red Dead Redemption in Pleasantville

The videogame community made an important outreach effort to movie nerds on Wednesday night, as representatives from Rockstar Games made the trek into Westchester County, New York, to demo their current release, the open-world Western adventure Red Dead Redemption, for the arthouse crowd. Presided over by erstwhile New York Times movie critic Janet Maslin, the game night was an unusual booking for the Burns Film Center, which is more inclined to host filmmaker chats with the likes of Werner Herzog and Jonathan Demme. Props to the powers that be at the Burns for recognizing that Red Dead Redemption is freaking awesome and giving Rockstar a venue for showing a bunch of hardcore film people (not to mention all the hip youngsters who brought hard copies of the game to be autographed by the Rockstar crew) what’s up in the increasingly expansive world of interactive entertainment.

Continue reading Redesign

Notice anything different? Yep, after three years of the same old blog, I got the itch to try another redesign, this time taking at least some advantage of the new features offered in Movable Type 4.2, and embarking on the project with a partial understanding of CSS principles. (The book CSS: The Missing Manual

by David Sawyer McFarland was a huge help in this regard. Simple techniques that I’ve struggled with for the better part of a decade have become stupidly clear to me over the last few weeks — and please don’t blame McFarland for the stupid kludges and inefficient hackwork that characterizes my behind-the-scenes work here.)

This page (, which has long been the main index page for, is no longer the hub. It will remain here as a bloggy interface, and if you prefer it by all means keep it bookmarked. But I’ve created a home page ( that crams more separate entries into a smaller space and allows a certain degree of categorical organization that may become helpful as the site evolves further. Do check it out. For the first time, I have Movable Type functioning as a kind of database for movie listings — there are many infuriating limitations, but for the first time I should be able to maintain various indexes (all movies from 2008 sorted alphabetically or by letter grade, for instance) more or less automatically, without typing the listing out in HTML every damned time I want it to appear on the page. Movable Type even makes the thumbnails for me.

I know there are still a few glitches — right now letter grades aren’t showing up with individual entries, so I have to figure out where to put those — but this place has always been a work in progress. Whatever you think of it, I hope this is an improvement.

10 Things Movie Theaters Get Wrong

One of my favorite things about the Manhattan screening rooms where press screenings typically take place is the pitch darkness you fall into before every show. The room dips to an even black — and the best ones are designed thoughtfully enough that you won’t even be distracted by a red “Exit” sign during the show. Also the sound is excellent. Reference-level dynamics might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but there’s a tightness and immediacy to the mix that you just don’t get in a larger room, even when that room is properly tuned up for audio.

Sadly, your average multiplex does not boast particularly good sound — nor even a particularly dark room. I grew up in Colorado, and when I moved to New York in 1994 I noticed a definite uptick in presentation quality in Manhattan theaters, where theater management is likely to be hassled by filmmakers themselves if the specs are out of whack. Of course, New York theaters have their peculiarities, too — unidentifiable odors, radically uncomfortable seats and/or angles of sight, sudden explosions of indecipherable verbalese from the octogenarian gentleman in the back row, and the intermittent but unmistakable rumble of subway cars running underneath the floor.

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So I just saw the Saturday-night sneak of The Golden Compass and I have to say that while the film’s signature polar-bear smackdown is much cooler than just about anything on current release, the last reel represents one of the dumbest things a Hollywood studio has done all year. Yes, Philip Pullman’s novel had a cliffhanger ending — but it was an actual ending, and a pretty great one at that. The movie has no ending; it only has a swelling of strings, an extended VFX shot, and a slow fade to black. Kid-flick audiences are likely accustomed to their status as second-class citizens, and non-readers of Pullman’s trilogy don’t know just how egregious the elision really is (basically, the story’s emotional payload has been excised, or at least deferred to the opening reels of a potential second film), but there’s something deeply unsatisfying about an ending that explicitly promises a confrontation that it declines to deliver. It represents, I think, a failure of nerve. If Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was the product of a studio with big, swinging cojones, this is a release from a studio that’s scared of its own shadow — a studio that had no business adapting the notoriously problematic His Dark Materials trilogy in the first place.

A Few Words About Aspect Ratios

Moviegoers — even some cinephiles — probably don’t know as much as they should about aspect ratios. It took the dominance of DVD to educate mainstream consumers about the difference between “widescreen” and “pan-and-scan” formats, and many viewers don’t even care about the distinction as long as their TV’s screen is fully filled. (Making matters worse, new HDTVs have a different aspect ratio from conventional sets, meaning that movies that appear full-screen on one will likely be letterboxed on the other.) Here’s a crash course.

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The Double Life of Exotica


Not long ago, a friend emailed me to say she had recently NetFlix’d a “little B movie.” She said she enjoyed it, but her tone suggested that she was reluctant to go too far with an endorsement of such a lowbrow film. Had I seen it, she asked?

The name of the movie was Exotica. Why did that blow my mind?

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Zodiac VFX, plus The Host


It’s time for some shameless self-promotion aimed at my day job. I didn’t write Film & Video‘s new story on the obsessive visual-effects work that went into Zodiac, but I did build the Flash presentation that presents video clips and before-and-after slides showing some of the results. Crack VFX guru Barbara Robertson actually wrote the story, which goes into great detail on the digital imagery that saturates the first third of the film. I did write the new F&V story on creature effects for The Host, which isn’t as detailed but has some tidbits about how San Francisco VFX shop The Orphanage communicated with Bong Joon-ho back in South Korea. (Also, if you’ve ever muttered to yourself, “Hrmm, possibly there is some connection between Tod Browning’s Freaks and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, but I can’t put my finger on it”, well, wonder no more.)