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House of Frank

With the usual delays (not least of all my recent infection) I finally got round to firing up the House of Cards Blu-Ray collection I got just before Christmas and finished season 1 just yesterday after a bit of binge-watching for the last few days.

With those “critically acclaimed” series it’s always a bit difficult to determine whether they are for you and many similar politically themed series tend to be rather boring, but this one delivers and in spades and I had my eye on it for quite a while. Of course I particularly like the “no bullshit” attitude of Frank and several other protagonists, though it makes for a very dark and cynical overall tone. People are either used or try to use you and there’s complex plotting and scheming going on all the time.

The funny irony is that, given the current madness with the race for the presidential elections this year, one is more than ready to believe that many of the things portrayed in the series truthfully reflect the real going-ons and dealmaking behind the scenes. For my taste things also get a bit too complicated and chaotic by the end of season 1 and I’m curious how some of those knots will dissolve in season 2.

Technically and in terms of “production value” the whole thing is above any doubt, though I found the strangely muted, yet high contrast color grading and dark set lighting at times a bit stressful to the eyes and counter-active to the actual action. More thoughts as my viewing progresses with the second season…

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Takes me, Baby!

Since I’ve been battling with some serious infection again those last two weeks, this place no doubt has been a bit of a graveyard, but then again, there’s usually not much to report. The After Effects universe has become such a dark place, I can barely motivate myself to get excited even a tiny bit. That being the case, I still dutifully report the latest 13.7 update for CC 2015. It’s mostly a Cineware-centric package, including the OpenGL renderer hinted at a while back and support for the Takes system plus the usual desperate bugfixes for the broken new-fangled preview system in After Effects itself. Even having to mention it over and over again is getting long in the tooth and I’m still feeling strongly like shitting on the carpet at Adobe‘s Seattle offices. The term “bunch of dweebs” always comes to mind…

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[Exit Snape]

Another one biting the dust this week and incidentally for the same reason and at the same age. News just comes in that Alan Rickman has died from cancer at 69, too. To most people out there he will forever be Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies (which I never really liked that much despite my foolish decision to buy a discounted DVD box set of the first 5 movies back then). For me some of his other roles are much more important such as the grumpy actor in Galaxy Quest, his part in Snow Cake, his depiction of the sheriff in one of the Robin Hood movies or that quirky little movie that Blow Dry is…

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Last Bow(ie)

Sad news today – as in really sad. David Bowie has passed away from cancer at the age of 69. I usually don’t make too much of these things or I’d be writing obituaries for every co-patient who missed his doctor appointment because he died of his illness, but in this case it really makes me sad. Clichéed as it sounds, but the man was a giant and his influence on the music world cannot be measured. Few artists had such a unique style and were truly able to reinvent themselves again and again. I did not listen to his music all the time, but from time to time I dug into my collection of a few songs of his when I was in the mood. Weird coincidence that his latest album Black Star had just been released and I checked it out on Spotify. And of course I also have very fond memories of that movie called Labyrinth where he was playing the evil wizard. Makes me wanna hum “What kind of magic spell to use? Dance magic?…” ;-)

Procedural New Year

The new year is off to a good start with a few news of the more nerdy variety. In my Cinema 4D days and long before I always took an interest in geometric patterns – organic, regular, abstract or otherwise – and so I spent a good deal of my time devising ways of creating such stuff procedurally using complex combinations of MoGraph, Boolean objects, metaballs and what have you. At some point then Proc3durale came along and it immediately eased some of the pains. Creating eroded rocks was suddenly super easy. It has now been updated to version 2 and promises better performance and a few tricks like border smoothing, so this should be even more useful.

Seeing such cool stuff really makes me wish that modo would have a voxelization and meshing tool, but to date it hasn’t save for emPolygonizer, which you have to buy. Still, it seems the program is coming into its own with more and more plug-ins being developed (like Fabric Engine). another one that is making mighty waves is PSoft‘s auto-rigging tool. As someone not doing character stuff I’m obviously pretty clueless about most of this stuff, but the video looks like even I could plug together a working rig successfully, so I’m still kinda enticed.

The Force Awoke

As indicated a few days ago, indeed we did go to see Star Wars – The Force Awakens and contributed our share to the now already 1 billion box office take of that little movie. Before you read on the usual spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen the film yet and are afraid to read something you don’t really want to know, veer away. I’m certainly not going to go out on a limb to avoid mentioning story details. You have been warned! Now let’s get to the good (and bad) stuff. Perhaps in fact we should begin with the latter.

My brother and I have never been particular Star Wars fans. We both prefer Star Trek and other series as possible interpretations of the future or life in galaxies far, far away. That being the case, I only know the movies and have never read any of the expanded universe novels. I’ve only ever seen a handful episodes of The Clone Wars animated series and in addition a passing knowledge of some of the various games over the years from reading about them (never played a single one myself). So for better or worse, all my knowledge is formed by the original canon and yet, all the time while watching the movie I kind of intuitively knew what would/ could come next. Which puts a point to the biggest issue: Predictability and repetitiveness.

Unfortunately the producers basically decided to replay the original first movie with new characters, throw in a few good ideas from the others (including George Lucas‘ own prequels) and grant the fans fulfilling some fan lore – Han Solo having banged Leia, after all, was such an obvious twist. Similarly, many scenes are constructed in a manner that if you pay close attention to the details, you know how they will be resolved like that Rey vs. Kylo Ren fight in the woods or the parting shot where Rey meets Luke. Wanna bet we’re going to see something very Darth Vader like Ren in the next episode and Luke using “I am your father” at some point?

The similarities do not even end there. After two failed attempts, wouldn’t you think the evil ones would give up on building ever bigger and bigger Death Stars? This part caused some comments even from other viewers. Of course it also has repercussions for future episodes: How big can you go with these things? Will it ever be big enough? Shouldn’t they just start getting into bio tech and wipe out everyone with deadly viruses? There’s some big stinking fish dangling here that needs to be cleaned out.

Otherwise the story is, regardless of my complaints, more than enjoyable. Inevitably there has to be a lot of exposition to introduce the new characters as there have to be some excuses to bring back old heroes and that’s to be expected. Luckily we can sympathize with pretty much all of them, so it’s a pleasure to behold their hijinks. There’s some good jokes as well and some witty repartee and everything flows almost naturally with almost no hiccups or kinks. The young actors do their job well enough to be believable despite being relative newcomers and pretty unknown to the world. BB 8 is just downright adorable, too.

Let’s talk a bit about the technical side. Mimicking the original trilogy also in its visual style, the film is full of grand vistas and generally uses more wide shots than your average contemporary movie. It has become a bad habit to get ever closer into the scene these days and that’s why many action movies are so exhausting and nauseating. They literally make your head spin. If you care to remember, in the prequel movies the light saber fights were sometimes so tightly shot, all you saw were flashes of red and blue light. It’s nice to just sit back and get to see things from a bit of a distance and have relatively simple camera crane moves. This also helps to keep things straight and to know where the good guys and the bad guys are in the action scenes, even if those do use more daring camera work like in the Millenium Falcon chase sequence also seen in the trailer.

While J.J. Abrams made a conscious decision to not shoot in 3D, of course the film is post-converted to 3D for the cash grab and aside from a few interesting full CG scenes (an imperial destroyer pointing his front tip toward the audience for instance), it is barely noticeable and does not contribute anything. Unfortunately that’s also true for some of the CG effects themselves. After all the secrecy I was mightily disappointed at seeing how Maz Kanata turned out. It still looked rather artificial and fake.The same can be said for Grand Leader Snoke‘s hologram – it just has “bad CG” written all over it and ironically, those scenes could also have been excised from the movie without doing any damage to the story, so it makes you wonder why.

The more conventional stuff like spaceships and vehicles, big explosions, set extensions/ replacements and even the environmental stuff looked a lot better. There’s also some very Optical Flares like lens flares in some shots, though they may not necessarily be the ones Andrew Kramer actually worked on. In conjunction with the practical effects and elaborate selection of locations it indeed brings back that old time feeling from the original movies. On the other hand I could have gone without some of the make-up work and alien creature designs. To me this stuff in Star Wars always just looked like what it is  – humans with rubber masks – but I guess it’s one of those things you cannot get right one way or the other.

While most of my points may sound rather devastating, this shouldn’t give you a wrong impression. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, it’s just not the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be. At least I do not feel compelled to rush to the cinemas a second time and will wait for the Blu-Ray. In a funny way this is perhaps an even better way to watch this and really absorb the finer details and learn the words by heart until they become cultural icons themselves – just like it happened with the original trilogy…

Do you “Believe”?

Back in October when we were attending the Varekai performance, they were handing out flyers for upcoming events and one of those was Holiday on Ice. My mom had seen one or two of their shows over a decade ago and in a fit of nostalgia decided that she would like to go to see one again since it has been a while. We ordered some tickets on the spot while waiting for the Cirque show to begin thanks to the powers of my iPad. Yesterday was finally the day we got to see Believe.

Having grown up in Eastern Germany during the time when Katharina Witt‘s career was taking off (which later incidentally included work on Holiday on Ice as well) and thus having watched a lot of figure skating on TV of course I was a bit indoctrinated, though not overly enthusiastic. I appreciate it for what it is, but it’s neither my favorite sport nor my preferred form of performance arts. Anyway, it’s all about the spectacle, is it not?

The story as such is nothing to talk about – poor boy meets rich girl and then it’s upper class (world) vs. lower class (world) – and has been done to death. As a side effect, it also leads to the show taking forever before actually taking off. Ice pits do not tend to look very industrial or dirty, so the performers have to do some exaggerated acting and it simply looks iffy, regardless of some smoke and fire effects. There’s also not much going on in terms of exciting skating technique being on display, so more or less you can forget about the first 20 minutes or so.

Once you move to the the rich people’s club for the first time things get a lot more interesting. Most notably there’s some pair dancing numbers which show off some very exciting pirouettes, swirls and man-to-man hand-offs. This is then taken back and forth in a few variations with the locations changing, telling the story of the rich girl being ousted from high society and finding her true love with some muscular worker hunk. The wonders working in an iron factory can do for your abs! ;-)

Interspersed between the conventional skating numbers are some artistic acts like a pole dancer encircled by a water curtain and a few other things. The most enthralling bit was a “robot” formation where the whole room went dark and everything was lit only by the LED strips sewn into the clothes and forming changing color patterns via the magic of remote computer control. This was also one of the effects that wowed the crowed massively when we saw Immortal a few years back. With that technology now being widespread and affordable it’s probably not that unique anymore, but when executed well it can still impress and will continue to do so for a while.

Anecdotally, one of the performers had a loose cable or something, so his suit acted up a bit. That was a minor glitch, but otherwise they had quite some technical gadgets on display. There’s a lot of programmable lights, some smoke/ fire machines as well as some fireworks (in the finale) plus of course the video projections. The latter were kind of okay, I guess (lots of Plexus in there), though most of the time they didn’t particularly stand out or contributed much to the show. They could have used a static, painted scene backdrop and it would have been almost the same.

One other thing that also slightly bothered me was the music, both in terms of selection as well as playback during the show. A lot of times I found it annoyingly loud and cloying, while on the other hand some songs were actually quite nice and suiting the scenery well. Definitely a mixed bag. I also think especially some of the boys could use another round in the dance studio. Some of their movements looked a bit awkward and out of rhythm.

Overall, though, it’s an okay experience. It’s not the perfection of the Cirque shows, but enjoyable for what it is. If you’ve never even been to other shows, that might not even be an issue and you will be a lot more impressed than me.

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