Tricky Women 2011


Tricky Women is a wonderfully specific annual film festival located in Vienna: the 4-day programme consists entirely of short animations by women, which I find particularly brilliant, since not only does it Venn two things I’m particularly interested in (animation of any form because it’s like art squared, and stories from women, who are generally underrepresented in the creative landscape as a quick application of the Bechdel/Wallace test to the last 10 films you’ve seen is likely to attest), not only that, it also provides a wonderful opportunity to be ostentatiously unconventional when people ask about what you did on your holidays, which would be a terrible reason to go on its own, but was a particularly enjoyable bonus for me, as for some reason ostentatious unconventionality directly supports a large part of my self-esteem.

(At this point I have to specifically thank Clare for coming up with such a brilliant idea for a holiday, and her friend Anna for making the accommodation part of the trip so fantastically simple).

Altogether, we ended up watching over 100 short animations over a 4-day period, which as we should perhaps have anticipated is quite intense, and ended up giving me the entirely novel feeling that my brain was, at least temporarily, at standing-room-only for new ideas. Brilliant.

You can get some idea of this effect from my holiday scrap-book, in which I collected together the thumbnail images from every animation we saw from the programme along with other memorabilia and self-made stickers for doing various things:



As I noted after Edinburgh International Film Festival 2010, the great thing about short animations is that in many cases you can subsequently find them online. So after watching more short animations in one weekend than I had previously seen in my entire life, It seemed like a good idea to bring together a few of my favourites.

For Pedants
What exactly does “animation by women” encompass? Specifically, what counts as animation, and what counts as “by”? The curators of the festival seemed to adopt a sensible standard for the latter, with (as far as I could tell) the primary driver of any given piece (usually the Director) being female in every case; they were on occasion rather more broad with the idea of animation. Arguably, the medium of film itself is a kind of highly-automated stop-frame animation, and so perhaps on these grounds they included things like the first video below.

Vitalic – Birds (Pleix, FR 2006, 3′)
Even though it raises questions about the consent of animals in art, and even though it’s really not an animation in any commonly understood sense, I was very glad that this was brought to my attention:

Cooking JPEG (Christa Lehner, AT 2010, 3’55)
If you want to understand the JPEG compression process, you should probably read up on that. If you just want to watch some funky animation that is tenuously related to it, you should watch this:

V Masstabe / In Scale (Marina Moshkova, RU 2009, 7’14”)
Quite possibly my favourite short from the festival. It’s got an interesting style, a beautiful story, and has lots of those magic animation moments where the combination of movement and sound is just perfect. It takes a long while to stream from Vbox7, so hit play then read on (now embedded from Youtube – T.M. 12/01/19). If you like the first minute, you’re very likely to enjoy the rest.


Sinna Mann / Angry Man (Anita Killi, NO 2009, 19’50”)
I can’t find the full 20-minute version online, which is a shame because this was one of the most important and moving animations shown. It’s an extraordinary example of animation tackling a difficult subject in way you couldn’t do with any other medium.

30 second trailer:

2 minute excerpt:

Slavar / Slaves (Hanna Heilborn, David Aronowitsch, SE 2008, 15′)
Another case of animation tackling a difficult subject to great effect, this time by providing imagery to accompany a recorded interview. I can’t find the full length version online, but you can view an extract here. (You can now view the whole thing here – T.M. 12/01/19)



Tord och Tord / Tord and Tord (Niki Lindroth von Bahr, SE 2010, 11′)
This animation resonates with my introvert tendencies. A sly evocation of the challenges of successfully interacting with other beings. Funny and sad. Like life. Only an excerpt is available unfortunately:

Caniche / Poodle (Noémie Marsily, Carl Roosens, BE 2010, 16′)
I like animations that feel as if they’ve sprung directly from someone’s fevered imaginings; where strange techniques are deployed to mysteriously powerful effect; animations like this one:

Four Tet – A Joy (Jodie Mack, GB 2008, 3′)
Ever so often I see something that feels tantalisingly close to producing the perfect synaesthetic abstract experience. Here’s one of those – I just wish the synchronisation of abstract image with sound was more consistent and sharper:

Le Nez / The Nose (Claire Parker, Alexander Alexeїeff, FR1963, 11′)
This was like no other animation I have seen. It apparently makes use of a pinboard with hundreds of thousands of pins, which somehow reflect light with different degrees of brightness depending on how far they are pushed in (I think). Animation is achieved through painstaking incremental alterations and stop motion photography (or at least I assume that’s how it was done).

I don’t know what kind of referencing or rotoscoping tools were used or what degrees of fantastic skill were being deployed, but somehow this process produced results that in some cases look as precise as CG animation. And this was in 1963.

Finally, there were a couple of animations I really enjoyed but can’t find any video footage of online, but just have to give a shout-out to.

Looking for Love (Adele Raczkovi, AT 2010, 8’25”)
A tale of a dog that loves oranges, executed through an impressive range of animation techniques, including the best abstract rotoscoping I’ve ever seen. It would be great to at least see that bit on the internet if nothing else, if Adele is listening…

Kacheli / Swing (Elena Kurkova, RU 2009, 8’42”)
An old woman and a crow and a swing. Trust me, it was great. Especially the crow.

(It’s now on YouTube! – T.M. 12/01/19)

Transmission finally ends

30 Days of Video Games Meme: Days 1-10

This 30-day meme I’ve seen going around seems like a nice way to try to distill some of my formative gaming experiences for posterity. Tackling them in blocks of 10 seems about right though.

1 – Very First Video Game
Terrestrial Encounter. A tiny, screen-per-level platformer, demanding some pixel-perfect jumps (or at least it felt that way), and my first experience of being disappointed by the difference between the artwork on the box…

and the graphics in the game:

Of course, as soon as I started playing that didn’t matter. Because this is where it all began. I would Fail; Fail Again, Fail Better. If I did badly I’d want to play again, to prove I was better than that. If I did well I’d want to play again, to see if I could make it still further through the game.

I didn’t know it, but I was pursuing Mastery in a distilled and abstract form. From that point on, gaming would always be a part of my life.

2 – Your favorite character
Noting that ‘favorite protagonist’ comes later, this would have to be Jam from Guilty Gear (specifically Guilty Gear X2 #Reload):

While I favour fast, agile, and usually female characters whenever such options are available, it was Jam that really pushed that kind of gameplay experience to the limit.

I was lucky enough to be part of a regular GGX2 playing community at university, with the concomitant arms-race of skills and strategies that entails, and which is surely the ideal pattern of play for a beat-em-up.

Once I got far enough along the learning curve for Jam, familiar enough with my possible opponents, and when, after about an hour of play, my brain was warmed up enough to process at the required pace, I would fall into the purest moments of videogame nirvana I have ever experienced, Observing-Orienting-Deciding-Acting in an endless loop on a barely conscious level, leveraging hours of previous experience into millisecond decisions, anticipating my opponents with an accuracy that surprised even me, stopping the final combo sequence short in order to finish them off with a gratuitous Instant-Kill, an unstoppable, insufferable cad.

Examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about (admittedly demonstrating a more varied set of skills than I had) can be seen here:

3 – A game that is underrated.
Beyond Good and Evil does well enough on standard “underrated games” lists that I don’t think it counts any more. Instead I’d like to call out Soul Bubbles for the DS.

Just look at it:

An innovative gameplay mechanic (fully leveraging the stylus input), a beautiful soundtrack that evolves naturally depending on your position in the level, graphics that are both attractive and functional, all combining to create an incredible feeling of ambient wellbeing. Until the end, of course, where things turn suitably threatening. This is a game I plan to return to every five years or so, so I can experience it almost-afresh as often as possible.

4 – Your guilty pleasure game.
Ah yes. Kira Kira Pop Princess.As this review says, there’s plenty of fully legitimate Good Gaming Stuff going on there, but deep down I know it’s the fact you can dance your rhythm-action socks off in order to unlock and wear so many different outfits (and later, disturbingly, faces) that keeps me coming back, overturning years of mild annoyance with games that presented different stat-boosting clothing options but refused, for understandable budgetary reasons, to actually update your protagonist’s in-game appearance.

But, er, look how innovative it is! You play it sideways and everything!

5 – Game character you feel you are most like (or wish you were).
Dr Gordon Freeman. And I’m not just saying that in an attempt to rebalance my perceived gender profile after the previous item, although I admit I’m going with the “wish you were” cop-out parenthetical here.

As an ex theoretical physics PhD researcher myself, Freeman as played in the games has the most awesome combination of being lauded for being a genius (without ever actually having to do anything mentally taxing) while in practice exploring strange new worlds and kicking ass with strange new weapons. Overlooking the fact that in practice his life expectancy is about 5 minutes, he gets a pretty sweet deal.

6 – Most annoying character
Out of 25 years of gaming, one character immediately comes to mind here: Ino from Guilty Gear.

Initial frustration with Ino as the final boss in Arcade Mode eventually dissipated once I learned how to avoid her initially-impossible-seeming boss attacks and to stay out of the air. But that frustration came back with a vengeance when I decided to play for all endings for each character in Story Mode.

Each character in the game has three possible paths through Story Mode, depending on certain factors which were in some cases subtle enough that I didn’t mind looking them up online.

But in the case of Dizzy’s path 2 ending, it’s pretty clear what you need to do. After six fights with other characters, you encounter Ino with boss powers, and regenerating health. In a piece of sadistic game design that perfectly matches Ino’s character, losing this one-round fight gives you ending 1. Which means to get to ending 2, you need to win on your first go, otherwhise you must go back and fight through the six earlier characters again for another try.

For all my bragging about OODA loops and mad skillz with Jam earlier, I had an incredibly hard time with this. In the end the only solution was to bring my skills with Dizzy up to a similar level I had achieved with Jam and develop a relentless special-move-chaining offensive technique that served me extremely well in PvP battles long before I had it honed enough to finally defeat regenerating-health-boss-Ino and reach Dizzy’s path 2 ending.

7 – Favorite game couple
I’m going to completely ignore what I assume is the spirit of this question, and go with Bub & Bob:

Originally on the Atari ST and later on emulated NES, this was my defining co-operative play experience. The single player version of the game isn’t even conceivable to me.

8 – Best soundtrack
For chip tunes it would be the Game Gear’s Psychic World, for atmosphere Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven, but the overall best in show clearly goes to the superbly produced Space Channel 5 part 2. For example:

9 – Saddest game scene
The infamous bridge scene in Ico.

The holding of hands in Ico is a really great example of the kind of magic video games can weave. It’s been a long time since I played it, but I can still remember the way the precise gameplay mechanics of that action conveyed so much about the relationship between the characters: the fact that you (as Ico) use the same button to call Yorda, reach out to her, and to take her hand, effectively making it the Yearn-For-Her-Company button; the proximity at which those different actions will trigger; the animation of mutual reaching once sufficiently close; the speed at which Yorda is willing to be dragged while clearly struggling; and the satisfying 100% reliability of hand-holding once it is achieved.

That last is particularly important when the bridge is finally reached, and suddenly Yorda can’t quite seem to hold on all the time. At first you can’t quite believe the button isn’t doing what it should do, and you immediately run back to pull her on again. Then it happens again. And even as you slowly realise quite how things have changed, at no point in this process do the actions of the characters on screen look like they are driven by a gameplay mechanic. Without realising it, you’re acting out what other games would have played as a cutscene.

That inspirational idea plays out right up to the climax of the scene, which I won’t spoil here. But I think it’s precisely because of the way so much of this key scene is executed with gameplay rather than a cutscene that it succeeded in affecting me emotionally, which virtually no other game has done.

10 – Best gameplay
That’s a tough one. Initially I think of Guilty Gear X2 #Reload, which had such an amazing learning curve across so many characters and produced so many wonderful pure gameplay moments. But it’s hardly elegant.

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven worked well for me in the sense that a relatively small range of possible actions nonetheless felt convincingly like I had all the options of a sneaky ninja at my command, and even though I played it to death I’d still be finding new ways of combining those moves. But still, when I look back now it seems quite simplistic.

I don’t imagine many would agree with me, but I’m going to go with Mirror’s Edge. There’s a truly elegant control system at work which uses the context of your surroundings (and, as I eventually realised, which way you are looking) to map buttons for “jump”, “upwards”, “downwards” and “turn” to appropriate parkour moves. But the importance of exact timing combined with the strategy around choosing a route created one of the most enjoyable learning curves towards mastery I’ve ever climbed.

Unfortunately anyone that simply completed story mode will, if they’re anything like me, only have seen the earliest part of that curve, as it took me about that long not to die an embarrassing number of times every minute.


Days 11-20 and 21-30 are still to come…

Day 1 – Very First Video Game
Day 2 – Your favorite character.
Day 3 – A game that is underrated.
Day 4 – Your guilty pleasure game.
Day 5 – Game character you feel you are most like (or wish you were).
Day 6 – Most annoying character.
Day 7 – Favorite game couple.
Day 8 – Best soundtrack.
Day 9 – Saddest game scene.
Day 10 – Best gameplay.

Top 10 Christmas movies that aren’t about Christmas

The Christmas movie top 10 is a tradition in itself. This year, Lovefilm have a straightforward list of 10 Christmas classics, while Topless Robot tries to escape schmaltz with 10 non-traditional Christmas movies. But I think there’s a third way.

Towards the end of his piece on our predictable responses around this time of year, Michael McIntyre points out that for five strange days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, everything goes slightly strange:

The fact that he specifically mentions this as being the only time of year when people actively seek out Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) got me thinking: what other movies would work here? Which not-directly-Christmas-related films would it seem silly to actively seek out at any other time of year, but in that liminal holiday period suddenly attain a mysterious resonance?

Slightly bonkers, slightly dreamlike; dramatically light, but consistently entertaining. A film that all the family can enjoy, or be weirded out by, or enjoy being weirded out by.

Thinking along these lines, I’ve picked 10 films that just seem right for this occasion. Films you probably wouldn’t choose to see at any other time of year, but have certain qualities that can be enjoyed if everyone is in the right mood. Films that can also in many cases be obtained on DVD very cheaply, or of course rented from Lovefilm.

You can watch the trailers for all 10 movies in this 21-minute-long playlist, but I’ve also embedded them against each entry individually:

Finally, if you’re a Lovefilm member, I’ve made things easy by putting them all together in this collection.

10) Mystery Men (1999)
Rotten Tomatoes 60%

An ensemble cast peforming a mostly ad-libbed super hero parody, competing theatrically with The Matrix, you can clearly see from the ratings that this did not float everyone’s boat. But something in the mixture of tropes defied and tropes embraced really works for me here, and Tom Waits is excellent as the non-lethal-weapons specialist.

Capt. Amazing: I knew you couldn’t change.
Casanova Frankenstein: I knew you’d know that.
Capt. Amazing: Oh, I know that. AND I knew you’d know I’d know you knew.
Casanova Frankenstein: But I didn’t. I only knew that you’d know that I knew. Did you know THAT?
Capt. Amazing: Of course.

There’s a lot of that kind of thing. Weirdly, the trailer contains hardly any of the parts I’d have picked, but at least you get an impression of the tone:

9) Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
IMDb 7.9
Rotten tomatoes 100%

Mild Peril. Never really taken seriously. But sometimes I’ll be watching a film with really engaging, likeable characters, and I realise that even though everything is lovely right now, the arc of the story inevitably demands that everything has to go wrong, and I find myself wishing that sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to follow some likeable characters through some really really mild peril – especially at Christmas. Kiki’s Delivery Service is that film. Provided, of course, that you are prepared to watch the subtitled version, as the dubbed version features the extreme peril of Kirsten Dunst voicing the protagonist.

Japanese trailer (because the american one features the terrible dub):

8) Groundhog Day (1993)
IMDb 8.2
Rotten tomatoes 96%

An amazing collision between a terrifying sci-fi premise (he lives the same day over and over – there is no escape from… Groundhog Day!) and light romantic comedy (but Phil Connors is about to learn… that sometimes… life… etc etc), the movie is actually immaculately constructed, squeezing all the comic potential available in the premise without being repetitive, and actually building an effective overarching story, with Bill Murray walking around delivering all kinds of baffled zingers, like this:

Phil Connors “Well what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today!”

7) Galaxy Quest (1999)
IMDb 7.2
Rotten tomatoes 89%

Clearly, this is just Mystery Men for Star Trek – but as you can see from the ratings, a much more successful execution of that idea. The trailer sets the scene quite thoroughly:

And there’s a lot of this kind of thing:

Guy Fleegman: “I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m just “Crewman Number Six.” I’m expendable. I’m the guy in the episode who dies to prove how serious the situation is. I’ve gotta get outta here.”

What I find particularly cool about this film is that since they needed to draw a clear line between seventies era TV special effects and ‘real’ suff happening, they brought in ILM and Stan Winston to deliver some excellent special effects that still stand up today. In the most extreme example, a classic of the genre is the Screen Shake: the ship is under attack, so the cameraman waves the camera around while the cast members fling themselves about the place to make it look as if the ground is shaking. To clearly demark the ‘real’ setting, in Galaxy Quest the bridge set was built on an enormous pneumatic configuration that could physically shake the set itself, creating something of a safety hazard. That gives you an idea of how much effort they put in just to execute this kind of thowaway gag.

6) Lilo & Stitch (2002)
IMDb 7.1
Rotten tomatoes 85%

A rare success for Disney during their incredibly ropey early 2000s period, this film is a perfect example of the benefits of investing in one person’s creative vision (or in this case a tight team of two: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois). It represented such a departure from what Disney was known for that this became the central point of the advertising campaign:

Consider this line:

Lilo: “Aliens are attacking my house! They want my dog! Oh good, my dog found the chainsaw.”

This is not the kind of line most movies can deliver, especially not Disney movies. One final endorsement: this is one of only 5 movies that have made me cry.

5) Labyrinth (1986)
IMDb 7.3
Rotten tomatoes 59%

This should need no introduction. With an incredible combination of imagination and puppetry, almost every scene is a delight, which makes it all the more tragic that the film was a box office disaster. Then again, it was released in June. Perhaps as a Boxing Day release,  in its proper place, the audience would have been in the right mood.

In case you need reminding of the creative insanity at work here:

Didymus: Sir Ludo, canst thou summon up the very rocks?
Ludo: Sure. Rocks friends.

4) Willow (1988)
IMDb 7.1
Rotten tomatoes 46%

After the incredible popularity of Star Wars, George Lucas seemed sure to find success with a more traditional fairy tale. But while it wasn’t a box office disaster like Labyrinth, it still performed disappointingly, and critics in particular took against it  (consider that Lilo & Stitch also gets 7.1 on IMDb, but 85% on critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes compared to Willow’s 46%).

Of course, we know what has to happen in this kind of film, as this quote makes clear:

Cherlindrea: Elora Danan must survive. She must fulfill her destiny and bring about the downfall of Queen Bavmorda. Her powers are growing like an evil plague. Unless she is stopped, Bavmorda will control the lives of your village, your children, everyone. All creatures of good heart need your help, Willow. The choice is yours.

Once again, I suspect this was just a movie out of step with the calendar: released in May, this is the kind of imaginative, escapist fare ideally suited to the Christmas period.

3) Barbarella (1968)
IMDb 5.7
Rotten tomatoes 74%

With Robert Rodriguez’s planned remake with Rose McGowan falling through last year (apparently on the grounds that he would have had to film it in Germany), we have to make do with the original, which is perhaps no bad thing. Mixing together several stories from the already bizarre original French comic, an implausible number of Paco Rabanne-designed costume changes, and earnestly surreal tongue-in-cheek performances from a surprisingly large cast, Barbarella has something to marvel at throughout. The trailer does a pretty good job of showcasing the range of weirdness on offer:

2) Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
IMDb 6.6
Rotten tomatoes 68%

Having recently listened to the free Librivox reading of the original, I can now see this is a very smart reworking of the original tale, with Tim Curry the perfect casting choice for Long John Silver, and all some fairly major rewrites to avoid the violence and death that went on originally, as you can tell from lines like:

Pirate: “Dead Tom’s DEAD!”

With some excellent plotting that strikes the fine balance between comedy and story, this is for me one of the best muppet movies. The DVD menu is also funny in its own right, which is an incredible rarity. I can’t find the trailer in good quality unfortunately:

Alternatively, the first two minutes of this YouTube serialisation of the film happen to be my favourite scene:

1) Clue (1985)
IMDb 7.2
Rotten tomatoes 74%

Tim Curry is back again in a surprisingly brilliant adaptation of the board game that we know in the UK as Cludeo. Another product of ensemble cast ad-libbing, it’s extremely silly, with a fairly consistent stream of things like this:

Mrs. White: “…he had threatened to kill me in public.”
Miss Scarlet: “Why would he wanna kill you in public?”
Wadsworth: “I think she meant he threatened, in public, to kill her.”

Line-by-line there’s nothing particularly amazing (apart from some of Curry’s delivery), but the fact that there’s just so much silliness, all in service of a surprisingly interesting mystery, makes for an entertainment experience as cosy and removed from everyday life as those strange post-Christmas days.

Ratings Overview

Since these movies have an unusual appeal that I think is maximised during an unsual period, the usual ratings will not be that useful a guide. Still, out of interest I plotted them, with bubbles scaled by the number of votes received on IMDb to indicate roughly how well-known these films are:

While the usual broad correlation between the two ratings systems is evident, the more striking feature is the vertical line of movies from Willow to Galaxy Quest, which seemed to entertain those that sought them out by about the same amount, while critics (in aggregate) veered wildly between hit and miss.

It’s always surprisingly hard to be sure if a movie will deliver what you want, and in the case of these films perhaps even more so because their charms are unconventional. But if you do take a chance on any of these, or if you had any filed mentally under “I should watch that one day” but take up the Christmas viewing opportunity, do let me know what you think. And remember, whichever you end up watching this Christmas, no matter how terrible, there’s always something to enjoy in any film. Apart from The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

Maintaining a Genial Epoch