Thu Jan 02 2014 09:14 December Film Roundup:
Counting it all up, it looks like I saw 85 feature films in 2013, plus some beefy television and a ton of shorts. Unfortunately the retrospective of 1913 silent film (semi-promised at 2012's 1912 retrospective) did not materialize. Oh darn!
I'll tackle the "best of" topic in a general 2013 wrap-up later on. For now, here's a look at December's cinematic adventures:
- The Kids Are All Right (2010): This was a fun family dramedy that never went for the cop-out solution. I liked that it presented sexual orientation as a spectrum rather than a binary. Also, Mark Ruffalo looks just like Rob Dubbin. Someone should look into this.
- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979): Pretty exciting tale of a dame who sets out to be the brassiest of any dame in postwar Germany. There was a murder that I found pretty distressing, and the ending was a huge cop-out, but in the category of "random foreign film seen at the museum" I'd say it was above average.
The American soldiers in this film are clearly played by German actors. One of them speaks British English with a fake American accent. It was really, really weird.
- The Big Combo (1955): How can I not love a noir in which the detective is named "Leonard Diamond"? I don't know how, but I don't love this. Richard Conte is excellent as the crime boss Mr. Brown, and there are a couple great bits involving the chief henchman's hearing aid. Also Lee van Cleef as half of a gay henchman couple. But overall this was just a noir popcorn movie for me--good, but nothing special.
- Down By Law (1986): I went into this not knowing what to expect. I'd never seen a Jim Jarmusch film before [checks IMDB to avoid repeat of "Robert Altman" fiasco], and at first I was unimpressed by the way this movie dripped with sleaze and stereotypes and shiftless losers. I mean, I like Tom Waits songs, but you won't see me standing in line to see "Tom Waits Song: The Movie."
But then the shiftless losers get thrown in jail, and the movie a) radically changes direction and b) really takes off. The tight confines of the jail cell are the crucible that forges Down By Law into
a tight ball of character humor and callback-based jokes. It becomes a Marx Brothers movie written by Samuel Beckett, in which Groucho and Zeppo vie endlessly, pointlessly for supremacy, spurred onward by a combination Harpo/Chico. I can't recommend the second act of this movie enough. The third act is not quite as good, but what the hell, I'm feeling generous.
- Manos: The Hands of Felt (2013): I saw this at a party. I guess it counts as a movie? It was a filmed play, but a lot of early films were effectively filmed plays.
This is a puppet adaptation of Manos using Avenue Q-style Muppets (i.e. the puppeteers are not hidden and the puppets are not the official licensed Muppets). It was all right. They added a meta-narrative that recontextualized Manos as a found-footage movie depicting the process of its own filming. Which I don't like conceptually but it kept it from getting boring, as a completely faithful adaptation would have been.
The film was edited the same way as the original Manos, with the same abrupt transitions. (Okay, yeah, it's definitely a movie, not just a filmed play.) It was hard to resist the temptation to riff Felt using the original Manos MST3K riffs.
The puppet design was very good! I want to mention two things I thought were really clever. The teenage couple who make out in their car during the entirety of Manos are depicted by a joined Bert-and-Ernie puppet with two operators. (You can see a photo here.) And in the middle of the film, the "dancing wives of Manos" scene was performed as a The Muppet Show-style "At The Dance" sketch.
- Beyond Expectations (2013): Sorry, I've got to backfill this one because watching Manos reminded me of this other Kickstarter-funded film Sumana and I watched back in October. This is a documentary on The Phantom Tollbooth, a book that Sumana and I both adore. I want to say this film was "for hard-core fans only", but we're hard-core fans and we were a bit disappointed. We wanted more details about the creation of the book, and we felt this (very short) film focused too much on trying to sell the book's cultural importance to the unconverted. Interviewees rambled on about irrelevant topics and the editor didn't cut away to something more interesting.
Admittedly, the two main interviewees were Norton Juster and Jules Pfeiffer, and hearing them ramble on irrelevant topics appealed greatly to us. It's a delicate balance, and I'm not saying I could have edited the film any better, but I don't think it did justice to the source material. Great animated sequences, though.
- Children of Men (2006): Super good. It has all the same problems as Gravity (highly driven by coincidence, very predictable action-movie pacing) but also a ton of spectacle. And this movie has a plot. Yeah, I don't really have much to say about this one. It's great. The exposition could be done better.
- Lola (1961): At this point I know how it goes with 1960s French films, and I wasn't expecting anything from Lola except some nice visuals, which it delivered. But it also delivered some fun farce and a brief moment of excitement when it seemed like it was going to turn into a crime movie. (It doesn't.)
Unlike the American soldiers in The Marriage of Maria Braun, the American sailor in Lola is actually played by an American, Alan Scott. It's weird, though: his French sounds just like like an American speaking French, but his English sounds more like a French person faking an American accent.
Funniest line: "Learn your geography! There are no sailors in Chicago! Only gangsters!"
- The Bletchley Circle (2013): British TV series. A genius premise (bored, oppressed women in postwar London use their wartime codebreaking training to hunt down a serial killer) is ill-served by the plot, in which the killer is continually revealed to be more and more clever. He has to be; otherwise he'd be no match for the sleuths, and the series, already short even by British TV standards, would be over. To the point where in the final episode he's got out-and-out superpowers, like the once-mythical Mallory. Well, maybe they got it out of their system; I'll watch the second series when it comes out.
- The Godfather (1972): According to IMDB this is the second-greatest film of all time. Do I dare to be so conventional as to agree? I don't know, but I will say this is a hell of a movie. It flawlessly pulls off nearly everything it tries to do. (Notably, it does not try to have any female characters.) It's almost 3 hours long and I was only bored for a couple minutes total.
I know less about film criticism than I do about film, so I don't know how deeply this aspect of The Godfather has been explored, but the character progression was really the thing that caught my attention. The movie starts with a milquetoast undertaker asking Vito Corleone for a favor. He's terrified, because Vito Corleone is terrifying and ruthless. Everyone's afraid of him. The fact that he's polite and soft-spoken just adds to the terror. By contrast, Michael is the good guy, the "civilian", the son whose hands are clean.
Then Vito gets shot, and Sonny takes over. Sonny is a psychopath, and he's dumb, and the combination makes for a terrible crime boss. Sonny makes a lot of bad decisions and ends up getting himself killed. And then comes the turn. Vito Corleone calls in the favor he granted the milquetoast undertaker in the very first scene.
Because I was born after The Godfather came out, I came in to this movie aware of the general character of the titular Godfather. As such, this is the scene I've been dreading. How is this poor guy going to be compromised? But I'd read Vito Corleone all wrong. He doesn't compromise people for fun. He's a professional. And right now he really needs an undertaker. He needs his machine-gunned son to look presentable at the funeral. That's the favor.
And then Michael takes over the family, and it turns out that Michael isn't the good guy at all. Michael actually is the man I'd been assuming his father was. It's the "eaten by a bigger fish" trick I mentioned in my Constellation Games commentary, and I love it.
Interesting fact I'm not sure what to do with: The Godfather, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and The Bletchley Circle all cover the same time period.
- Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (1979): If you believe IMDB ratings, this film is almost in the same league as Fanny and Alexander, the made-for TV Christmas movie the museum showed last year. I disagree! This is dull. I only liked a couple of the songs. The plot is the plot of an above-average children's book. Most Muppet stuff aimed at kids has something for the adults as well, but this did not. It can't help that this is the thing I saw after The Godfather.
The heavy use of water and Muppet-sized "outdoor" sets was very impressive technically. I liked the fish Muppet who had to be dragged around everywhere in a tank of water. I also enjoyed the outtakes they showed after the feature, including an interminable series of takes in which an attempt to film the behavior of a chaotically moving object goes endlessly awry. I laughed harder at that than I did at anything in the film.
I'm planning on seeing a lot of movies in 2014, but I don't know if I'm going to write these detailed reviews of each one. It takes a long time to get my thoughts in order and write it down, and, as you'll see when I write the year-end roundup, it really eats into the time I spend enjoying other media. So until next time, I'll see you at the movies! (If you are Sumana, Hal, or Babs.)
(1) Tue Jan 07 2014 12:20 The Bots of 2014:
I took an oath of non-bot-making for most of December, but now I'm back in the game. At the end of January I'm a guest of honor at Seattle's Foolscap convention, and I've got a couple site-specific installation projects that will hopefully entertain congoers to the exclusion of all other activities.
But for now, I have two new bots to entertain you, the general public. The Hapax Hegemon (@HapaxHegemon) posts words that occur only once in the Project Gutenberg corpus I've been getting so much mileage out of. So far it's emitted such gems as "zoy", "stupidlike", and "beer-swipers". And like so many of my recent bots, it won't stop until we're all dead.
My second new bot is the Serial Enterpreneur (@ItCantFail), which posts inventions. It's basically playing Snake Oil (spoiler: Crummy.com 2013 Board Game of the Year) with a much larger corpus, derived from the Corpus of Historical American English and the Scribblenauts word list.
So far my favorite @ItCantFail inventions are the delicious Fox Syrup, the liberal-friendly Left Drone, and the self-explanatory Riot College. Write in with your own wacky inventions! I won't use them, because that's not how this bot works, but it seems like a fun way to kill some time.
More bots are on the way! But not for a while, because I gotta do novel work and get the Foolscap-exclusive bots in shape.
Fri Jan 24 2014 11:52 One week to Foolscap!:
In a week I'm a guest of honor at the Foolscap convention in Redmond, WA. It's got a bit of an unconference feel, so apart from the basics--board game night, a talk by me that I have to prepare--we can form fluid overlays and schedule whatever we want.
Also featured at the con will be (I think I've mentioned this before) two continuous SF/F text installations I've created to astound you. This exhibit WILL NOT BE REPEATED, unless someone asks for it at another con. So if you're in the Seattle area, sign up or just show up the day of, and you'll get to hang out with me, and the other honored guest, museum curator/SyFy monster movie screenwriter Brooks Peck.
(1) Mon Jan 27 2014 12:13 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2013:
I've been travelling for most of the month, but I managed to scrape together a year-in-review post. Here's 2012. I'm a little disappointed right now, because I just woke up from a dream in which I'd savvily combined several middle-tier Kickstarter rewards into being able to go to the International Space Station whenever I wanted, so let's start with a self-aggrandizing montage of my waking accomplishments in 2013:
- The big one was RESTful Web APIs, a radical reimplementation of RESTful Web Services that takes the lessons of the last seven years into account. My accompanying talk is the time-travel extravaganza, "LCODC$SSU and the coming automated web" (see commentary from outside the framing device). And after the book came out we released the predecessor book under CC-BY-NC-ND.
- I didn't finish writing Situation Normal but I got pretty close; I'll finish it this year and hopefully sell it.
- Autonomous agent mania! I achieved a measure of fame (for Rob) with Real Human Praise, the bot whose 20,000 remaining followers proves that most people don't use Twitter the way I do. (Here's a behind-the-scenes.)
But I'm most proud of Ebooks Brilhantes, the bot that proves there's a better way to make *_ebooks bots: by reverse-engineering the actual @horse_ebooks algorithm instead of being lazy and using Markov chains.
Honorable mentions to the lovely Smooth Unicode and the ribald Dada Limericks. In non-bots, there's Apo11o ll and In Dialogue. And my explanation of comedy ethics for computer programmers, "Bots Should Punch Up".
- The big NYCB posts of 2013 were my film roundups, which I really like as writing (I mean, check out the review of Norman Mailer v Fun City, USA), but which are ultimately not standalone pieces of prose. They're my impressions of the films, impressions I will be condensing into the "Film" section below.
Here's the best of the remainder:
Now let's take a brief look at contributions from the not-me community:
Literature: The category that suffered the most from 2013's focus on film. I didn't read that much, and my writing is slowing down because of it. This is a strange alchemy that I can't explain but I'm pretty sure other writers recognize it. Anyway, I've got some new books I'm excited about so I'll get back on this in 2014.
For 2013 I'll give the nod to Marty Goldberg and Curt Vendel's Atari Inc.: Business is Fun, a book that... well... this review is pretty accurate, but the book has a lot of good technical and business information, plus many unverifiable anecdotes. It seems I read nothing in 2013 that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation... except Tina Fey's Bossypants, I guess... yes! In a late-paragraph update, Bossypants has taken the award! Wait, what's this? In a shocking upset, the ant has taken it from Bossypants! Yes, the ant is back, and out for blood!
Games: 2013 was the year I finally learned the mechanical skill of shuffling cards. Maybe this doesn't seem like a big deal to you, but I've been trying to figure this out for most of my life.
The crummy.com Board Game of the Year is "Snake Oil", a game about fulfilling user stories with lies and shoddy products. The Video Game of the Year? Man, I dunno. I'm playing computer games a little more than in 2013, but still not that many. "Starbound" is really cool, and is probably the closest I'll get to being able to play "Terraria" on Linux.
Audio: As I mentioned, I'm travelling, and away from the big XML file that contains my podcast subscriptions, so I'll fill this in later, but there's not a lot new here. But I can tell you the Crummy.com Podcast of the Year: Mike "History of Rome" Duncan's new podcast, Revolutions. The first season, covering the English Revolution, just wrapped up, so it's a good time to get into the podcast.
Hat tip to Jackie Kashian's The Dork Forest. Probably not going to have to update this one, actually.
Film: Ah, here's the big one. As I mentioned earlier, I saw 85 feature films in 2013. By amount of money I spent, the best film of the year was Gravity, which I dropped about $40 on. But by any other criteria, it wasn't even close! Well, it was close enough to get Gravity onto my top twelve, which I present now. I consider all of these absolute must-watches.
- The General (1926)
- Nashville (1975)
- Ishtar (1987)
- Ball of Fire (1941)
- Calculated Movements (1985)
- The World's End (2013)
- No No Nooky TV (1987)
- Gravity (2013)
- The Godfather (1972)
- Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
- No (2012)
As you can tell, only films I saw for the first time in 2013 are
eligible; we call this the "The Big Lebowski rule".
There was no movie that really changed my aesthetic sense this year, the way Celine and Julie go Boating did last year, but Nashville gave me insight into managing a large ensemble cast. Hat tip to Fahrenheit 451 for getting me to understand why I keep lining up for French New Wave films even though they keep pulling the football away from me.
I still don't feel like I know that much about film. I treat films like they're books. I'm not that interested in what people do with the cameras. I have no idea what the names of actors are. I find the prospect of making a film quite tedious. They're fun to watch though.
For the record, here's my must-see list from 2012, which I didn't spell out last time:
- Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)
- Brazil (1985)
- A New Leaf (1971)
- All About Eve (1950)
- The Whole Town's Talking (1953)
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
- Paper Moon (1973)
- Marathon Man (1976)
Okay, I think that's enough. Nobody reads these things until the centennial anyway.
(1) Tue Feb 04 2014 13:34 January Film Roundup:
The cycle begins anew... OR DOES IT? Check out all the films I saw in January!
- The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013): Or as my ticket stub calls it, HOBBIT 2. I love my now-tradition of watching the Hobbit movies with my sister Susanna, but I'm a little disappointed in this one. The thing I loved most about the first movie (dramatization of the totally canonical gaiden in which Gandalf hunts down the Necromancer) was combined with the thing I disliked most (the elevation of a throwaway character to Big Bad status, in a story that already features a frickin' dragon plus the Middle-Earth equivalent of the Crimean War). This made me suspect that the details of the Gandalf B-plot were left vague in the book for a reason.
Plus, terrible confusing action sequences all the time. The one at the end made me think that not only has Peter Jackson been playing too much Minecraft, he's the guy who wants minecarts to work like boats in lava. It was also unnecessary, since the plot of the book at that point would work just fine as the end of the second movie in a trilogy. I can only blame Hollywood meddling and hope for the best.
The good news is that we have now stretched out the story enough that the third film contains all of The Hobbit's canonical action set-pieces. But that's really an argument for making two movies, not three. Or four, as I over-enthusiastically suggested last time.
Smaug was great. I don't see a lot of movies with dragons, and I suspect such movies' dragon effects are generally lacking, because lots of people are really going ape about Smaug whereas I was thinking "yes, good, solid talking dragon implementation." The same thing happened with Gollum in the LotR movies. I guess I don't care enough about dragons in general. They're like dinosaurs... that don't exist!
Insta-update: After writing that, I listened to the episode of "The Dork Forest" with Tolkien expert Corey Olsen. It didn't change my mind on anything, but it did remind me of all the changes the filmmakers made that improved on the book, or at least made a better movie than a straight adaptation of the book would have. Especially the love triangle, the splitting up of the party to establish a POV in Laketown, the early introduction of the arrow on the mantelpiece, and all the work done to differentiate between twelve characters who are nearly identical in the book.
Yeah, only one film! Because I was travelling all month. I couldn't even count Future Love Drug, a short film made by my fellow Foolscap GoH Brooks Peck, because I came in late and only saw the last minute of the film.
I don't know if the film roundups will continue in 2014. On the one hand, I'm going to try to see, or at least review, fewer films in 2014 so I can do more reading. On the other hand, I love taking fiction apart to see how it works, and reviewing books the way I've been reviewing movies is a good way to make professional enemies. Whereas nobody cares what I say about film. So who knows?
Thu Feb 06 2014 14:15 Writing Aliens:
I've put online the slides and prepared text of my Foolscap talk, "Writing Aliens", or, "Duchamp, Markov, Queneau: A Mostly Delightful Quilt". On one level it's a simple introduction to algorithmic creativity, but it's also about creativity in general, the anthropomorphization of software, and why the features that make Twitter so aggravating for humans make it such a great platform for bots. Bonuses include a recap of Brian Hayes's article on Markov and a telling of the @Horse_ebooks saga as a reverse alien invasion.
The two site-specific installations that I hinted at earlier were custom scripts displaying variants on Ebooks Brillhantes and Hapax Hegemon. The text corpus comes from a scrape of everything linked to from Free Speculative Fiction
Online. The software is a heavily modified version of Bruce, modified a) to stream data from a flat text file and create the slides on the fly, instead of trying to load 20,000 slides into memory at once; and b) when restarted after a crash/shutdown, to skip the appropriate number of slides and pick up where it would be if it had been running continually.
Unfortunately I never got a picture of both displays running side-by-side; if you have such a picture, I'd really appreciate it if you could send it to me.
Just after I set up the ebooks display, I met Greg Bear, who was at Foolscap running a writing workshop. We walked over to the screen and I explained the project to him. He said "I'd better not be in there." AT THAT MOMENT the screen was showing the quote "We zoomed down eleven" from this free sample of Blood Music. It was pretty awkward.
Wed Feb 19 2014 11:34 Constellation Games Bonus Story Ebooks:
Thanks to requests by Ron Hale-Evans and others at Foolscap, I've compiled the four Constellation Games bonus stories into a single ebook. You can get an EPUB that looks okay and a MOBI that's kinda ugly. If you want to do a better job of formatting, then a) be my guest, and b) let me know and I'll send you the original source files, which should save you some work over downloading everything and putting it together yourself.
Tue Feb 25 2014 10:48 Mahna Mahna:
My new bot, Mahna Mahna (@mahna____mahna), reenacts the Muppet Show's "Mahna Mahna" skit over the course of a day. It might be my saddest bot.
My secret is that I created this bot hoping that someone else would eventually create a Snowth bot to enact the other half of the skit. I quickly learned that there is already a Snowth bot, but it only talks to @mahna____mahna once a day. So... well, I already revealed one secret in this paragraph, I shouldn't reveal another.
Mon Mar 03 2014 09:23 February Film Roundup:
Three films this month, none of them great, but all of them worth your time.
- Pulp Fiction (1994): I think I came too late to this one. Like Superfly, it puts style way, way above substance. And twenty years later the style a) is kinda dorky and b) has been copied by tons of other movies. Samuel L. Jackson is always cool, but John Travolta was never cool. (Admittedly, I passed up the chance to see Saturday Night Fever; maybe he was cool in that.)
What substance there is, is gory fun. I loved Travolta's character in the bathroom convincing himself not to make a move on the boss's woman. He spends a lot of this movie in bathrooms, actually. I liked seeing the plot threads winding in and out of each other.
Before the screening, several people read essays about how much this movie (specifically, its soundtrack) meant to them. I'm glad it was important to them but I'm not really feeling it.
- The Pajama Game (1957): A beautifully shot musical about labor-management relations. It's really good. Lots of background relationships (including one horribly creepy one), not just the male and female leads. Too bad the songs are terrible! I have never hated the songs so much in a musical that I liked.
- Wu xia (2011): Fun violent emotional martial arts movie that keeps jumping from one subgenre to another. Unlike Tai Chi Zero, this movie consistently uses chi manipulation as a driver of fight scenes, to the point of using acupuncture needles as weapons. Good stuff.
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