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luis is a co-founder and social software architect at Infinite.ly. he likes building small web toys a whole lot. More ...

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Thursday
Jan102013

Convenience Trumps Fidelity: A Samsung Galaxy Camera Review

At the risk of sounding overly defensive, there's really nothing weird about the Samsung Galaxy Camera. We've been crossing phones with cameras for well over a decade, and the ability to instantly share photos as you take them is practically a necessity on modern smartphones. And yet the first time you whip  the Galaxy Camera out in public you get strange looks when people realize that you're not taking a picture, but checking your email.

It's probably the form factor -- the Galaxy Camera looks more like a large point-and-shoot than a phone, so having all those mobile-related bits mixed in can be a trifle disconcerting. What's strange is that internally, this is actually an immensely capable phone. It's running Android Jelly Bean, has a quad-core Exynos processor, a gig of RAM and 8gb of storage, a microSD card slot, wifi, bluetooth, 3G/HSDPA and (in some markets) even LTE. If those specs sound familiar, it's because they're almost the same as a Samsung Galaxy S3, which is about $200 more expensive. What's missing? Well, therein lies the rub: it has no GSM voice capabilities. This singular omission is probably the only thing preventing the Galaxy Camera from being a contender as your primary mobile device. (Apart from the fact that it'd look patently ridiculous when brought up to your ear, of course.)

The Galaxy Camera sports one of the largest screens ever on a digital camera

Ironically, it's on the photographic side of things that the Galaxy Camera is not quite as impressive. Its 16.3-MP, 1/2.3" sensor hooks up to a decent 23-481mm equivalent optical zoom lens with an aperture of f/2.8-5.9. (The minimum aperture is, inexplicably, just f/8.0.) This 21x zoom range is reasonable, if slightly aggressive, for your average point-and-shoot. I suppose Samsung decided that optical zoom is the one thing this device has that sets it apart from your average iPhone or Lumia, and they'd largely be right. The sensor's definitely good, but only when measured against the diminutive sensor of your average smartphone. Against competing point-and-shoots, it doesn't make much of a splash. (Although at 300+ grams it's also so heavy that if you chucked it in the pool it would probably make a _huge_ splash.)

The size is something you'll either love or hate. When I took it out of the box I was shocked by how big it was; I was expecting something like an S3 in terms of footprint, but it was also very thick and had a real heft to it. When I flipped it over though, my reaction became significantly more positive. Its LCD is huge: 4.8" across, which makes it one of the largest screens you'll see on a camera. To give you an idea of how big that is, my entire iPhone 4S fits inside the active area with room to spare. Even a professional-level camera like Canon's 5D Mark III only has a 3.2" LCD, and most point-and-shoots will have something in the 3-3.5" range.

This makes previewing your images a very pleasant experience, as the screen has a resolution of 1280x720 and a pixel density of 306ppi (the iPhone's retina display is just a touch more dense, at 326). There are almost no physical buttons on this device, so everything photography-related is done on the sturdy Gorilla Glass 2 touchscreen. (The only hardware buttons are the power, shutter release, zoom lever, and flash.) I've never preferred cameras with onscreen controls, but in this one case, where the entire back of the thing is a gorgeous LCD, I'm willing to make an exception. It's still slower than having physical buttons, but it does seem as if the tactile approach is by-and-large reserved for only the professional imagers these days.

Image stabilization is quite good: the image above is a handheld, 0.5-second exposure.

Performance-wise, it's a mixed bag. The image stabilization is quite good, allowing me to handhold a reasonably sharp exposure at 0.5-second at its widest angle. The shutter release is responsive enough, although don't expect to be shooting alot of sports or fast action. Autofocus hunts like a dog in low-light, but that's a common ailment in cameras of this class. Disappointingly, there are only two settings for the flash: "Auto" and "Off." You'd think they could at least give us a three-stop crank for the flash power, but sadly, that wasn't on the cards. Still, there's enough manual control to allow for some creativity here, and I can imagine that quite a few pros would find this a rather fun camera to have with them when they're not on the clock. 

Samsung was generous enough to throw in 50gb of Dropbox space with the Galaxy, and you can set it up so that all of your images and video are automatically synchronized as you take them. It's an awesome feature, and I can foresee a scenario where you could be covering an event with several of these cameras and have all your images uploaded in real-time to a central, shared Dropbox folder for processing and posting. No more swapping SD cards, or waiting to upload images in bulk at the end of the day.

The one area where the camera is unequivocally weak is battery life, lasting less than 5 hours when shooting continuously. For a camera of this size and make, that's not terrible, but for a phone it's downright awful. Thankfully, it uses the same replaceable battery as the Galaxy S2, which you can purchase for just 900php ($20). It's the cheapest camera battery I've ever bought by far, so when I first acquired the camera I immediately purchased 2 extra backups for good measure.

The other area that badly needs improvement is in-camera photo-editing, although this is largely one of those "cart-before-the-horse" problems. There are only a handful of photo-editing Android apps out there that retain the full image quality of a photo as it's being manipulated, because neither lens quality or processing power have really reached the necessary levels to warrant that sort of fidelity until now. The problem of course is that the Galaxy Camera is capturing well over 5mb of data per image, and these cameraphone apps simply aren't built to handle that kind of size. Even Adobe Photoshop Express - and boy does that name have a lot to live up to - fudges things up tremendously by reducing your high-res photo to a terribly-compressed facsimile of just under 150kb in size. About the only app I could find that retained the image quality was the Pro version of PicsPlay, which although incomplete in its featureset (seriously, no Straighten?) at least preserves the very thing that this camera is meant to be good at.

After a little under a week's worth of walking around with this thing around my neck every day, I'm still on the fence on whether I'll be using it as my primary photographic device. I've owned DSLRs from both Canon and Nikon, and my current "serious" kit is a Panasonic Lumix GH2 with a Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95, and the Galaxy Camera is nowhere near any of those in terms of image quality or handling. (To be fair, only a handful of the very best P&S's will ever approach DSLR or m4/3 levels of quality, and that's a consequence of the laws of physics more than anything else.) It is however a sterling example of that oft-quoted notion that "convenience trumps fidelity," because it's both smaller than any of my other cameras and has the unique ability to process and share images without having to switch devices. There's no question that it's a tweener device - it's neither the best P&S you could buy or the best phone - but the intersection that it finds itself at is undoubtedly a useful one. After all, how many optical zoom cameras do you know that can turn themselves into podcast players, GPS navs, or portable wifi hotspots on demand?

 

Note: You can check out more sample images from the Samsung Galaxy Camera here.

Saturday
Dec292012

Favorite Movies of 2012

I've been faithfully reviewing every movie I've seen over the past couple years, which makes year-end lists pretty easy to compile. I only saw 45 movies released in 2012 so this is hardly a definitive list, but here are my five favorites, as well as some expansions of my original capsule review for each.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Critical response has been tepid, and they've all been complaining about roughly the same thing: its langourous pacing owing to the much slimmer source material. This is, of course, a matter of opinion, and I never once thought the movie dragged, or idled when it should have kept moving. There's enough wonder and beauty (and technical achievement) in the HFR-3D-IMAX-rendered Middle Earth that I want to keep looking at it, and I think that people who found it boring have forgotten how to appreciate truly great visual work.

(Also, the 9-min long Star Trek Into Darkness prologue gave me some crazy nerd chills.)

Argo

One of those rare movies that is alternately funny, exciting and sophisticated, Argo is Ben Affleck's best film thus far. (There are directorial touches throughout which are inconsistent with actual events, so don't look at it like it's a documentary.)

Headhunters

It's hard to characterize this movie, as it starts off as a heist film and ends up a couple notches past where the Coen Brothers usually call it a night. I don't want to say anymore, as the first time through this movie is like your first time off a plane in a strange country -- a couple hours ago you were home, and now suddenly you're somewhere else entirely. There's a generous amount of black humor, for those people who find awkward violence and absurd action entertaining. I laughed a ton, and expect a Hollywood remake anyday now.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Quietly beautiful little portrait of the greatest sushi chef in the world, and what it takes to become the master of your craft. There's something really inspiring about this level of dedication. After I saw it, I went back and rewrote a week's worth of code.

Cabin in the Woods

The genre movie to end all genre movies. And I mean that literally.

Cabin in the Woods is best experienced with no preamble (although at this point I suppose that would be impossible), but it's probably the finest genre deconstruction ever put together, and the best thing Joss Whedon was involved in this year. (The Avengers being a close second.)

A couple of critically lauded movies I never got to catch, that would otherwise have had a high chance of being on this list: Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, Seven Psychopaths.

Monday
Sep172012

What Does It Take to Make the Leap from Employee to Entrepreneur

Cross-posted from the Quora thread that I replied to earlier:

I come from a lower middle class family and my rule of thumb with personal finances is to always have a minimum of 6 months worth of cash saved up at all times. So if the fecal matter collides with the ventilating appliance, you have enough fallback funds to tide you over for at least half a year while you're rebuilding your life.

When I joined my first team startup 5 years ago I pushed that threshold to 12 months. (I already had a solo-proprietorship that was doing reasonably well at the time.) I had saved up about 1M PhP as a personal hedge to keep myself alive in case the startup didn't pan out. I was 26, and had just moved out of my parents' house for good the year before. 

As luck would have it, roughly 12 months later, I had less than 16,000 PhP to my name, and the rent for the apartment I had so proudly rented was 14,500. (So yes, I came within PhP1,500 or $35 of total personal bankruptcy. And if you include the balance on my credit card, I was actually in the red by over PhP200,000.)

Our little 7-man team managed to weather that particularly bad bunch of months and bounce back. We started hitting over PhP1M gross monthly, and about a year after my personal low point, we were acquired by Winston Damarillo and Exist. (A mildly happy ending, but that was just the prologue for my current challenge with Infinite.ly.)

Sorry for the verbose response, but I needed to set up my answers properly, because I happen to think that the question of "what it takes" can be answered purely in practical terms. Here they are in handy list form: 

1. Emotional will is one thing, but solid financial planning trumps that every day of the week. Being an entrepreneur is soul-crushing and ego-mangling, and fraught with disappointments, but ultimately what will make you quit is when your money runs out. You need to save up. Precisely how much is subjective, but a good way to look at it is to figure out your minimum monthly spend and multiply that by 12 months.

2. As a corollary to (1), I would also recommend living off your parents for as long as humanly possible. This is easy in the Philippines since we tend to stay with our folks until we get married anyway, so stick with this strategy. It may not be sexy or cool to still be going home to your mom after pitch meetings and tech demos, but this familial fallback is our singular advantage over our credit-card-wielding US counterparts. (That and the fact that you can get drunk for under $4.00 in this country.)

3. Don't wait for a great idea, look for great people. You've heard this one tons of times so I'm not gonna harp on it too much. A good idea does not a startup make. I joined my first team startup because I felt that they were a talented bunch. None of our early ideas panned out but we're still alive and kicking today, albeit with a different set of business cards. I also don't believe in solo entrepreneurship, which is why I emphasize "team" a lot. If you're genuinely talented and driven, people should be naturally drawn to you. If you can't even find a cofounder, that's pretty strong market feedback right there. 

Bottom-line is that doing the startup thing is hard, but the reason why people play this game is because high-reward goes hand-in-hand with high-risk. It's rewarding to be working with really smart, talented people every day, and it's rewarding to go through the roller-coaster ride of startup financials, and it's rewarding to see people use and enjoy your products. 

 

The risk is what draws people to it. Just make sure you've got some cash in the bank before you play.

Sunday
Jul292012

The Nokia Lumia 710 from an iPhone User's Perspective

Nokia Lumia 710 and the iPhone 4S

I found my way back into the Windows Mobile universe this weekend, after a lengthy absence. Prior to this, my last encounter with Windows on the small screen was with the HP iPaq 6500, a QWERTY-keyboard smartphone running Windows Mobile 2003, so I’m not exaggerating when I say that it has well and truly been awhile. I’d spent the past four years using the various iPhone incarnations exclusively and had never felt the need to explore what else was out there. Recently however, I’ve found myself becoming interested in the Windows Phone experience again. Partly this was because of my growing dissatisfaction with the iPhone 4S on the woefully unreliable Globe network, and partly because my startup was becoming more and more embroiled in the handheld space, so I needed to familiarize myself with all the various Apple competitors.

And so I found myself at a Smart Store earlier in the month queued up for a Nokia Lumia 710, which came free with their PhP1500/month unlimited data plan. Not surprisingly, you can’t just walk in, sign up for a postpaid plan and expect to walk back out with a working Lumia. There’s a 1-2 week wait for these models, which either implies that they’re short on stock, or that the demand isn’t particularly high (so they don’t keep them in their stores). You can buy a 710 from the local gray market for less than PhP13,000 these days, but since an unlimited data plan is all but required to really get the most of this phone, I just signed up with Smart and got it that way instead.

The Hardware Situation

On the surface, the Lumia 710 is a pretty little thing. It’s roughly the same height and width as the iPhone 4S, but it’s also chunkier and mostly made of plastic. It does feel lighter in the hand and, due to the more curvy body style, isn't quite as imposing as the hard-cornered Apple flagship. It’s important to note that it’s smack in the middle of the Lumia series, sandwiched between the entry-level 610 and the high-end 800 and 900. As such it feels like a very reasonable balance between price and performance, especially when you don’t necessarily care about the features that differentiate it from its big brothers. (The main differences include higher storage capacity, an AMOLED screen and a much more capable HSDPA antenna—which may or may not be fully usable in the Philippine setting.)

_1060224

It predictably has more buttons than the iPhone: Along with the ubiquitous Home button, it has a volume control, an on/off switch, and dedicated hardware buttons for Back, Search and Camera. Of the three dedicated buttons, I found the Search button to be the most weird. Naturally, it uses Bing, and naturally you can’t switch to Google. This lack of choice is offset mildly by the fact that it has voice search and image search built right in, both of which seemed to work well enough without exactly bowling you over.

Interface Design Decisions

When Microsoft redesigned their mobile operating system, they took a long hard look at what Apple and Google were doing with their respective offerings and decided to go in a completely different direction. The most obvious distinction is in the use of the Metro-style Live Tiles, i.e., positionable blocks of content on the phone’s home screen that represent running applications and display a summary of that app’s contents. The Tiles interface is an interesting beast. There’s something very modern about a GUI that exposes multiple buckets of content in a neatly structured, annotated way, and I certainly enjoyed organizing my tiles to maximize the information I could view at a glance. The problem is that it’s really just a matter of perception. Although the various running apps on iOS don’t show you their contents unless you click on them, most of the time-sensitive ones will have a red badge alerting you to important content.

iPhone 4S and Nokia Lumia 710 Home Screens

The average iOS home screen will have 20 icons on it, with each one of them having the potential to call your attention when necessary. On Windows Phone 7.5, you can usually only fit 7-8 tiles within the immediately viewable 480×800 area, which is actually less stuff, not more. And even if you had 20 tiles on your WP home screen, you’d need to scroll past each one to see which of them had new content for you, because the callouts can be pretty understated.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the WP solution quite a bit. It’s a nice approach, and it certainly distinguishes itself from its competitors with its great sense of proportion and tastefully minimal transitions. I just don’t buy that it’s functionally superior from a usability standpoint.

My hesitation extends to some of its integration decisions as well:

Nokia Lumia 710 People Screen

The People app, for example, is part Address Book and part News Feed, compiling your contacts from all your various accounts into a single huge directory on one screen and then displaying their aggregated status messages and media on another. I personally found this to be a strange choice, as the Address Book view can only seem to fit 6 names before you need to scroll down. Granted, the font size is huge and very readable, but these are names I’m already familiar with; surely they could have tried to fit 10 people on there? The News Feed view (called “What’s New”) meanwhile can only fit three new posts on screen before the user needs to start scrolling. This is all due to the fact that a good 100px of vertical space is taken up by the huge “People” header at the top of the screen, which certainly looks nice, but doesn’t feel particularly efficient in such a constrained medium.

This same spatial extravagance is on display in nearly every app, with inordinately large headers screaming the names of the apps that the user had only just clicked on. I’m personally not bothered by these design choices, but I felt that they were indicative of how much the interface is influenced by form instead of function. In a world where everything is three-dimensional glossy rounded-corners, the stark vector icons against simple, monotone blocks is certainly a refreshing, if a bit eager, strategy. This allows for some really beautiful, minimalistic transitions between app and home screen, with the blocks cascading into and out of place like shutters being blown by the wind.

The Software Situation

Windows Phone 7.5 is meant to be paired with the Zune app on the desktop in much the same way as the iPhone goes hand-in-hand with iTunes. In this respect, the two companies couldn’t be more similar. The Zune/iTunes desktop app is responsible for synchronizing your content to the phone, as well as managing software updates and storing backups. When I plugged in the Lumia for the first time, I found a bunch of software update packages waiting to be downloaded. One key update contained software for Internet Sharing, which allowed me to turn the 710 into a mobile hotspot in the same way you would with an iPhone or any number of Android phones. Very handy indeed when you consider that the antenna on the Lumia is capable of 14.4 Mbps HSDPA. (Its big brother, the 900, can even hit 42Mbps.)

Windows Phone Marketplace Top Games

Apart from synchronizing and updating via Zune, Windows Phone also has its own App Store equivalent, dubbed “Marketplace.” My initial impression is that it’s a ghost town; loads of Solitaire, Chess or Texas Hold ‘Em variants peppered with some truly bizarre clones of iOS originals. (My current favorite is Angry at the Birds a ridiculous mashup of Duck Hunt, Fruit Ninja and the Rovio blockbuster it stole its name from.) Don’t bother looking for Evernote, Dropbox or Instagram here. Few of the iOS heavyweights have thus far made any moves into the WP platform, although enterprising developers are trying to take advantage of their APIs and relative inertia to cash in on their absence.

This dearth is perhaps the most obvious failing for Windows Phone, press releases to the contrary. Granted this is the same chicken-and-egg problem Blackberry faces with its own App World : the developers won’t write new software until there are more users to sell them to, but the users won’t buy phones unless there is software to improve them. It’s important to remember that the only reason Apple didn’t look pathetic during the early days of iPhone and its App Store was because there was nothing out there to compare it to. Nowadays you have to worry about Android apps totalling nearly half a million and iOS itself sporting over 650,000. Windows Phone’s app population, sitting just south of a hundred thousand, feels miniscule by comparison.

windows phone 7 applications

Overall

The bottom line is that this is not a bad phone. It’s not a particularly good phone either, largely because the software library is very thin. Its design sensibilities feel fancy for the sake of being fancy, which may or may not bother you depending on how much utility you need to squeeze out of your device. A part of me really likes its various contemporary flourishes and its opinionated approach to app UI, but I think that that’s because there’s no real lock-in here: I know I can just grab the iPhone whenever I want to actually accomplish something.

I probably wouldn’t feel the same about it if the Lumia 710 was the only phone I had though.

Wednesday
Jul112012

If you're reading this, I am frankly amazed

I haven't been spending a lot of time on this blog in the past year, owing mostly to the fact that I've also been tending to the team journal over at blog.infinite.ly. That said, I've finally had a few spare hours to move this all over to a new host and update the look and content. I'm still not sure what to do with this blog, as most of the interesting things going on are stuff I can't really write about. I do still enjoy writing about movies though, so perhaps if time permits, I'll focus more specifically on that.

 

Wednesday
Apr062011

Source Code Movie Review (with Spoilers)


There’s a scene towards the end of Source Code that might be the finest 30 seconds of celluloid I’ve seen so far this year. In it, Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his newfound love (Michelle Monaghan) share a last kiss, right before he dies. The moment is frozen and the camera does a great slow pan around their train car, the music swelling as we say goodbye to all of the other characters he’s spent the movie interacting with. It’s an impossible sequence, but it’s so cleanly put together that you think it’s just a regular tracking shot, and it’s the perfect way to end this frenetic sci-fi.


Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t end there. Instead, we find out that he actually survives, now free to live his life inside the body of some poor schmuck that just happened to have similar synapse mappings, or however the heck it all works.


But perhaps a quick review of recent events is in order:


Capt. Stevens is an unwilling participant in an experimental protocol nonsensically called “Source Code,” that allows its subjects to temporarily inhabit another person’s mind during the eight minutes prior to that person’s death. In this case, he inhabits one of the victims of a train bombing, in an effort to find out who the culprit was. Calling this movie “Source Code” makes about as much sense as calling your pet chihuahua “Giraffe,” unless you’re doing so ironically. (And I doubt that director Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, is a hipster.)


But that odd title is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. How any of this technology is even possible is explained away by some ridiculous analogy involving lightbulbs, because well, no explanation on Earth could make sense of a premise like that. There’s no explanation for the rather arbitrary 8-minute window, or how they are able to capture the brain waves of a person who was blown to smithereens many hours ago. Or, for that matter, how they can totally rip off Quantum Leap and not even give poor Scott Bakula a cameo. This kind of lazy writing bothers me, but the movie is paced so well that you put off arguing with it until it makes more sense.


Unfortunately, again, it never does. This part does bother me. Capt. Stevens is told many times that he cannot actually change what’s already happened; all he can do is learn from it and try to prevent a second bomb from going off. Nonetheless, he does try to change things, by placing a call to Project Source Code’s lead scientist (Jeffrey Wright) while he’s on the ill-fated train. When asked about it later, the scientist waves away the possibility by saying that the call would’ve gone through to “another me,” in a different reality.


We’re familiar with this parallel-universe concept from decades of X-Men comics. Each decision you have to make causes the universe to fork, with each branch containing the results of your choices. In this manner, there are an infinite number of parallel universes, each one differing from the others in small or vast ways. This ensures that no one can rewrite history; jumping backwards in time to kill Hitler just causes another universe to spring forth in which Hitler is dead, while the branch you are originally from remains unchanged. The parallel-universe style of time-travel is the opposite of what happens in movies like The Terminator, in which a future John Connor famously sends back a foot soldier to protect the woman who would eventually give birth to him. If she dies, future John Connor ceases to exist. This woman is played by Linda Hamilton, so naturally the soldier ends up sleeping with her, and the product of their impromptu love affair turns out to be none other than Connor himself. In this set of time-travel rules, time is a single stream and changing things in the past irrevocably have repercussions in the future.


The big twist at the end of Source Code is a real mind-bender, and not in a good way. It spends 95% of its running time making you think that it adheres to the parallel-universes principle, and then turns the tables on you at the very end. Oops, time is actually a single stream! Who knew? Clearly not the writers, who not only allow Capt. Stevens to rewrite history, but also let him continue inhabiting the body of the (ex-)victim after the danger has passed. And after he’s been unplugged from the Source Code, no less. So although he may have saved a train full of people, he’s extinguished the life of the man his new squeeze is really in love with. Not exactly the most selfless way to end a movie, but I think you were supposed to feel that he somehow deserved it.


I first noticed Duncan Jones’ work in the Sam Rockwell feature “Moon,” which was quite possibly the most impressive sci-fi debut since “Primer.” With “Source Code,” you can see improvements all around. The pacing moves at bullet-train speed, the dialogue is sharp, and there’s nary a scene wasted on fluff. This is perhaps what makes the saccharine ending so disappointing. Not only does it undo all of the rules it had spent so much time setting up, but it does so unnecessarily. The perfect ending was already there; you just needed to jump backwards 8 minutes from the credits.


Sunday
Mar272011

Sucker-Punched by Zack Snyder (With Spoilers!)


Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is named for that infamous blow that comes without warning, catching the recipient off-guard and unprepared. I would say, coming out of the theater last night, that I was sucker-punched by this film, but only in the sense that I was unprepared for how much I hated it.


But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ve been watching Snyder since Dawn of the Dead (2004), which I always felt was the best of the Dead remakes. It had a great sense of pacing and really knew how to develop the impending sense of doom that the zombie genre trades on. Prior to that, he was a commercial director for over a decade, which explains his over-emphasis on visuals in all of his features. (Another example of a commercial-gone-feature director is Michael Bay, who made a name for himself directing car spots for quite some time. Go figure.)


Snyder followed Dawn up with an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 in 2006, a movie that really solidified the visual techniques that he would become known for: high-contrast, low-saturation imagery combined with an excessive use of slow-motion. He uses so much slow-motion in 300 that he makes John Woo films seem like they’re playing in 2x by comparison. I personally disliked this movie, although I appreciated that he was bringing indie comic book properties to the silverscreen. It was successful enough that it spawned a parody movie as well as a very similar TV show on the Starz network, so clearly I am in the minority here.


When his Watchmen remake was announced, I remember being terrified. This was my favorite comic story of all-time, in the hands of a guy who couldn’t even introduce a character without making an action set-piece out of it. It didn’t help that Watchmen was an incredibly complex story to be telling; it has the kind of plot that would have been better suited for a three-part tv movie like Hallmark’s Dune, not a single 2-hour feature. My actual experience seeing Watchmen was anticlimactic: I enjoyed myself throughout most of it, happy that the narrative mostly held together and the Hollywoodized characters all seemed to work. And then the whole production kind of fell apart for me because of its nonsensical ending. I would posit that anyone who thought that that ending actually worked may have been partially stupefied by Dr. Manhattan’s Cherenkov radiation, the director himself included.


It was largely because of my dissatisfaction with Watchmen that I skipped Snyder’s 2009 foray into animation, the clumsily-titled Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Personally, I think that the fact they got Owl City to perform the theme song for this film (OMFG! Get it?) is more than enough to give you an idea of its creative sensibilities. When I first started reading about Sucker Punch, I regarded it with some hesitation. Snyder is at the point in his career where he can start spreading his proverbial wings. He’s helming the upcoming Superman remake, with Chris Nolan producing. I knew that Sucker Punch was almost certainly a vanity project; the visually-rich story (written by Snyder himself) plays to all of the director’s strengths. And since most of the film occurs within the lead character’s head, you could tell a totally irrational story and justify it by saying that it was all a fever dream. I suppose what surprised me was the extent to which I was correct about these preconceptions, and how far Snyder chose to take his signature stylings.


Sucker Punch is a truly bizarre piece of work. It begins with not one but two song-length montages, in which Emily Browning’s character (Baby Doll) is introduced, and hurried through the death of her mother, her ensuing conflict with her step-father, her accidental shooting of her younger sister, and her subsequent admission in to the Lennox House asylum. These two montages are not badly made; in fact, if you interspersed them with clips of Emily Browning singing (she contributes a number of songs to the soundtrack), you’d have an award-winning music video on your hands. But from a narrative standpoint, it misses an important piece of information. When we arrive at the asylum, we are led to believe that Baby Doll is being wrongly committed, i.e., she’s actually not crazy. But we are flung into her delusions almost immediately upon arrival … so is she crazy or not?


In a ComicCon interview, Snyder explains that Sucker Punch‘s main schtick is an attempt to explore how our minds deal with hardship, and how we create these worlds for ourselves to help us cope. It’s roughly the same theme as Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, but that movie conveys its message (much more successfully, I might add) by firmly grounding the rest of the tale in reality. Sucker Punch has no such machinations. Instead, Snyder decides to go all Inception on our collective asses, by then introducing a daydream within the daydream. Four of them, in fact, with each one set in a slightly different sci-fi/fantasy universe. Why this happens is completely unexplained. It’s also largely unnecessary, save for the fact that it awarded the visual effects house Animal Logic a substantial chunk of the film’s US$82-million budget.


The visual effects work is impressive, to be sure. It overuses slow-motion again, as always (if you played all of the slow-motion sequences in this movie at normal speed, the whole thing would be 30 minutes shorter), but overall the production and creature design is meticulous and really top-notch. If I didn’t have to watch the movie itself, I would have really enjoyed the various set-pieces as standalone Youtube clips. But the ambiguity of the storyline does these FX sequences a disservice: I actually felt bored watching them. There was never any context, so there was no sense of urgency or danger at any point in the story. When the movie introduces its supporting characters, it does so within the daydream, so it isn’t clear if they’re “real” people or just figments of Baby Doll’s imagination. So even when they start dying, you’re not really sure if you should care. By the time Baby Doll awakens from the base daydream, we realize that some of that stuff did indeed happen – those characters actually died – but at that point it’s too late to feel emotional about it.


As it draws to a close, the movie explains everything that happened in its previous 100 minutes with a two-sentence exchange between some supporting characters. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be one of those big reveals, ala Usual Suspects or Sixth Sense, but it’s carried out so offhandedly that you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention. And then it ends the whole sorry affair with a hilariously written voiceover about finding ourselves, or some other bullshit.


Zack Snyder’s directorial career has been an interesting one to follow. In many ways, he’s like Guillermo del Toro in that he alternates between adapting comic book properties and developing personal projects. Unlike del Toro though, I don’t see him steadily improving with each new picture. He probably enjoyed himself tremendously while making this film, but it isn’t clear whether audiences are enjoying themselves along with him. What’s clear though is this: Sucker Punch is one hell of a demo reel.


Monday
Feb282011

Panasonic Lumix GH2 Review

About a month ago, I decided to try out the micro four-thirds format as a possible replacement for my bulky DSLR. The model I settled on was the Panasonic Lumix GH2, a second-generation camera with distinctly serious stylings. I wrote a full-length review over at Technogra.ph, along with some samples of my favorite images from the past month's worth of shooting. Check it out!


Thursday
Jan062011

On Switching from DSLRs to Micro Four-Thirds

I’ve been a little obsessed with weight recently. Not so much in terms of my body weight (although to be fair, I’ve been adjusting my diet as well over the past weeks), but in terms of the weight of the things I carry around with me. Over the past year or so I’ve been slowly “downgrading” my primary laptop from a 15” 2.8GhZ, 6-lb Macbook Pro to a 13” 2.66Ghz, 4.5-lb Macbook Pro to (finally) a 13” 2.1Ghz, 3-lb Macbook Air. And although the Air is significantly slower in CPU speed than any of the current generation MBPs in the same price range, the technology has progressed to the point where it’s “fast enough,” in my opinion.


I’m doing the same thing with my camera. I’ve found that I’ve been lugging around my Nikon D90 less and less recently, due to the fact that my neck just isn’t friends with the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. The whole package weighs 2.2 kilos for crying out loud, and that doesn’t even include the frickin’ speedlight. And so it was that I’ve started reading up on Micro Four-Thirds format cameras, and seriously considering another “downgrade.”


My strategy is similar to how I finally embraced the Air as my main portable: was it good enough? For the MBA, it definitely was. The combination of the reasonable CPU and the super-speedy SSD makes for some very responsive computing. And likewise, Micro 4/3s cameras have had 3 years to work out their early flaws and initial missteps, so my fingers are firmly crossed that this experiment won’t be a total wash.



The particular model I’ve been looking at is Panasonic’s GH2, which is at the very top of the four-thirds line. Unlike its younger siblings, the GF and the Gx series, the GH line yearns to be a DSLR. It’s got a pronounced grip on its left side and a proper viewfinder in the back. I’m not a purist by any means, but any camera that you hold at arm’s length to take pictures with, I simply cannot take seriously. The viewfinder, electronic as it may be, was a must for me.


The GH2 also sports a healthy amount of buttons and dials on the body where the rest of the Pana line has opted for all-touchscreen controls. Now, I love touch interfaces as much as the next guy (I was one of the first in line for the iPad after all), but not for devices that you need to be able to operate without looking. Also, since I spend most of the time peering through the viewfinder, I hardly think I’d be able to use a touchscreen menu much, if at all.


Early reviews of the GH2 have been largely positive, with quality rivaling that of mid-range DSLRs like Canon’s 60D and Nikon’s D7000. It’s not cheap, and certainly wouldn’t be something I’d recommend to beginners, but for enthusiasts and people like me who are obsessed with frivolous issues such as weight and volume, it seems like a very promising choice.


I ordered mine earlier today, coupled with the very standard 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. (Don’t let that focal range and aperture fool you, by the way; that’s a $300 piece of glass.) I was debating whether I should go with the $800 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8, but in the end I decided to stick with a walkaround, and just work my way up.


Oh, and did I mention that the GH2 and its kit lens weigh a grand total of 650 grams?


Wednesday
Aug182010

Infographics Love

I've recently gotten into designing infographics as a way to bookend my days weaving Javascript and evenings getting my ass handed to me by Starcraft 2's AI. I've so far churned out two, one of them featured on ChartPorn and the other mentioned on the Fast Co Design blog.

They're both on my Flickr stream (and lord knows I really need to start updating that with actual photos soon), but I'm reproducing them here to try to get this damn blog active again.

Why Do Video Game Movies Keep Getting Made?

Inception Infographic