(1) Fri Dec 08 2017 07:06 November Film Roundup:
Howdy, pardner. Time to round up some cinematic cows! Them's good eating.
- This is Spinal Tap (1984): My third viewing, and possibly the most fun I'll have watching this movie because my second viewing was like ten years ago before I had a lot of practice at watching movies. I remember all the big-ticket set pieces, but I forgot that this thing is full of comedy at all levels, from subtle character conflict to stupid puns to dick jokes, and it's all funny. Like a Monty Python movie, Spinal Tap just tosses out one classic bit after another, not realizing that entire cults are going to grow up around individual gags.
- Hellzapoppin' (1941): I've been wanting to see this film ever since learning about it in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide in the nineties, and short story research finally provided the excuse I need. This is... uneven. The first, let's say, nine minutes is some of the funniest footage I've ever seen. Then it turns into a dull slog of a young-lovers weekend-party movie, livened up only by the occasional hilarious joke. It's worse than a Marx Brothers movie in this regard.
Olsen and Johnson seem to know they're heading in to trouble here. They throw up framing devices and lampshades to make light of the fact that they're squeezing their round Broadway show into a Hollywood square, and that this movie is no good when they're not on screen. But lampshading a fact doesn't make it go away. It's so bad that I questioned whether the Broadway show was also a big bait-and-switch, but no, according to this 2007 attempt to reverse-engineer the show, Hellzapoppin' was basically all like those first nine minutes, and it was the longest-running Broadway show until Oklahoma!. So, I guess I recommend going back in time (if only to 2007) and seeing it live.
Not a lot of films last month, and there wasn't even going to be a Television Spotlight, but it turns out the show we were watching, "The Good Place", doesn't have as many episodes as I'd assumed. We generally only start watching a show once the hype builds to a certain point, which usually gives us two or three seasons to catch up on, but "The Good Place" is so great (and the episodes are only 22 minutes) that the hype started early, we blew through it and we're stuck in the season two mid-season break with everyone else. So now I'm going to use my soapbox to add to the hype. It's really good—the characters change over time, individual episodes burn huge chunks of plot, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger. It's like a Greg Egan novel turned into a sitcom.
For comparison I'm going to bring in a show we watched and loved in the pre-Film Roundup days, "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin". In a sitcom every episode presents the same basic scenario, but "Perrin", along with "The Good Place" and "Arrested Development", create plot arcs by breaking the sitcom reset button and forcing the characters to deal with the consequences of previous revisions of the same basic joke. This also allows the writers to approach the premise of a given sitcom from all different angles. Sumana sums up these three shows as: "What if your karass were also your crab bucket?", which is the subtext of most sitcoms made explicit.
(5) Thu Nov 23 2017 12:58 How Game Titles Work: 2017 Update:
In 2009 as I was writing Constellation Games I researched how game titles work on a rhetorical level. I published my results as a six-part series of blog posts: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This post is a summary of that post and a bringing it up to date for 2017, based on a talk I gave at Penguicon in March. (Slides are here.)
In my 2009 research I discovered a basic tension: games are works of art, so there's a tendency to name them like movies, but in our society games are packaged and sold like laundry detergent, so there's a tendency to name games like detergents.
Different game-makers resolve this tension differently. In the early days, games were named after real-world activities, or about the very act of playing a game mediated through a computer; otherwise, it was difficult to get people to understand what was going on. You don't see that much anymore; nowadays it's common for games to have names that resemble (in formal terms) the names of 19th-century novels, laundry detergents, episodes of TV shows, or rock albums.
But all games have two things in common: the second person and the present tense. A movie can be the story of something that happened to someone else long ago, but a game is always the story of what you are doing right now to complete the feedback loop. So most games are named in the second person present tense, e.g. named after your character within the game.
I originally had to figure out How Game Titles Work because for my story "Mallory" I spent a long time making up titles for six fictional classic arcade games, and despite all the work I was unhappy with the results. The final draft of Constellation Games mentions thirty-three fictional human games, plus thirty-five games made by space aliens from various alien cultures. Since cultural artifacts are created and named by people embedded within that culture, I had to figure out the underlying rules for games so I could apply those rules to the various extraterrestrial cultures. I also worked this process in reverse: came up with a weird game and used it to figure out what kind of culture would create that game.
I decided to update the series because one of my conclusions in 2009 was that shareware games in the 1990s, and indie games generally, have better titles than contemporaneous big-budget games. Since 2009 the indie scene has exploded, so I decided it was time to take another look and see how naming techniques have evolved.
I used the MobyGames API to get the names of all games published since 2009, and went through them looking for interesting names. Although AAA titles still have boring names, indie games have dramatically expanded into more artistic naming spaces. It's now fairly common for a game to have a title that's not in second person ("Papers, Please", "This War of Mine"). More frequent than in 2009, but still not common, is a game whose name is not in the present tense ("Gone Home", "Thomas Was Alone"). The games themselves are still second-person-present-tense, but their titles play with tense and person to zoom in or out emotionally.
Even more common, though, are games whose names transcend synecdoche to convey the mood of the game rather than referencing specific elements: "The Flame in the Flood", "No Man's Sky", "Sir, You Are Being Hunted". An older example of this is "Grim Fandango" and I think this quote from a Tim Schafer interview provides some insight into the naming process as well as the function of a game's name:
"The original title, when I was pitching it, was Deeds of the Dead.. The Last Siesta was one [working title]. Dirt Nap I think was in there somewhere..."
"And then I finally came up with the name and was like, 'I'm so smart! This is the best name ever!' I remember I ran out of my office and I told someone... [a]nd they were like 'That's terrible. You'll never sell a game called Grim Fandango. What does that even mean?' But I've always loved it... I mean Grim Fandango just as a metaphor for what? For life or death depending on how you're looking at it."
Schaefer starts off with punny titles, like you would see in the title of a TV episode, and genre references, like you would see in the title of a film, but he settles on something evocative, like the title of a modern novel. "Deeds of the Dead" sounds kind of goofy, "Dirt Nap" sounds more hard-boiled. "Grim Fandango" evokes grandeur, tragedy, and inevitability.
In my talk I performed some close readings of really good game names, and if you post your favorites in comments I'll do the same here, as I did in the comments to part 5. I want to close with an example from 2009: "Just Dance". This is different from every other title I've encountered, because its job is to convey to a game-averse audience that this isn't "really" a game at all! Other game titles make you play a character or perform a job, but here you just dance! C'mon, give it a try! A very friendly title.
(5) Sun Nov 12 2017 21:49 Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten...:
I wrote a thirty-minute talk for the Roguelike Celebration about good old robotfindskitten. Then I saw that I only had a fifteen-minute timeslot to deliver my talk, and I cut it way, way down. As you might expect, that made the talk a lot better; what had started out as a kinda rambling history was boiled down into an exploration of what it means for a game to be good.
Here's my transcript of the talk as prepared for delivery: Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten...
I went through a lot of archival material to write this talk and I was planning on putting a bunch of the stuff I cut in this blog post, but... I'm pretty happy with the talk as is and there's only a couple pieces of extra material I feel a strong need to share with you.
First, I put up the original DOS binaries and all the source code I could find for the very first version of robotfindskitten, from 1997. I also included the C++ source code for a student project I did a couple months before rfk, which really looks like a dry run for rfk, both in terms of the subject matter and the code.
Second, I just wanted to highlight the message I wrote in the docs for the 1999 Linux release of rfk: "I like this program a lot. It's fun without being violent."
Third, this sequence of Nethack-related files I had on my BBS (which I ran from 1993 to 1996). This was useful for establishing when I obtained Nethack 3.1.1, a factoid which itself turned out not to be very interesting.
SPOILER.ZIP Size: 22,125 | A complete walkthrough of Nethack! Very
Date: 01/31/94 DL's: 1 | handy!
HACK311.ZIP Size: 749,285 | Nethack! The biggest, most feature-packed
Date: 03/01/94 DL's: 14 | Rogue clone ever!
NETSPOIL.ZIP Size: 129,059 | New versions of the Nethack Spoilers!
Date: 10/27/95 DL's: 7 | Everything you need to know.
NHDECODE.ZIP Size: 4,294 | A handy thing that translates the rumor &
Date: 11/09/95 DL's: 1 | oracle files for Nethack.
I called roguelikes "Rogue clones" back then. (A bit later, I uploaded a copy of Angband and described it as a "Nethack clone".)
Bizarrely, the description file inside SPOILER.ZIP says "A complete walkthrough of Netrunner! Very handy!" They are Nethack spoilers, though. Maybe my co-sysop Andy wrote that description and had Cyberpunk 2020 on his mind.
Sat Nov 11 2017 09:29 October Film Roundup:
Sorry for the delay -- I've got a lot of other stuff to work on and was in fact working on it. Only now finding the time to procrastinate and talk about a couple movies I saw last month.
- Good Time (2017): Y'know, when I see a movie like Dog Day Afternoon, part of the fun is reveling in the problems of a bygone era and not thinking about the problems of my own. In 40 years, if mankind is still alive, Good Time may be that type of movie but now I feel the despair of someone who watched Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Everything's falling apart and there's no hope. So... a good modern noir, I guess?
- Underworld U.S.A. (1961): By contrast, this noir is nothing special. The bold move of putting a chart on the movie poster made me think this film would have the hard-core attitude that there's no moral difference between organized crime and "legitimate" business, but the attitude was more of a scandal that organized crime was ramping up by taking on the management structure of big business.
You could really sense the boundaries of the Hays code in this film. Having a hoodlum as a "hero" was pushing the envelope, so they spent a lot of time rehabilitating him and farming off unpleasant hoodlum duties to other characters, to the point where I don't think we actually see him take any morally questionable action. Which, y'know, fish or cut bait, noir movie. Also, I don't think I can trust a chart in which "vice" is one of the things being measured. The chart format implies a level of precision which is not present.
- Portrait of Jennie (1948): Gets credit for being a very early paranormal romance, but the romance starts with an atmosphere of ickiness, and even without the ickiness the IMDB summary of this movie is "A mysterious girl inspires a struggling artist" and who needs another one of those? I would rather just watch the scenes with the supporting cast; they're fun.
- Love and Taxes (2015): Sumana is a Josh Kornbluth fan so we watched this film adaptation of his monologue, which took an Adaptation-like twist and started becoming about the film adaptation of one of his earlier monologues. It was a pretty fun time. I'd like to call out the character of Bob for being a rare example in narrative drama (not sure if this is "fiction" or what) of a really supportive boss.
- I saw a series of horror movie trailers at Metrograph, and am excited to some day see The Manitou (1977), Wicked Wicked (1973), and Lady in a Cage (1964). Most of the rest of the trailers were kinda meh, but it was fun to see a big-screen trailer for The Giant Gila Monster (1959). If you think about it, the gila monster really does become giant when footage from the movie is projected onto a screen.
I never knew that Joan Crawford was in so many genre films. (She's not in any of the ones I just mentioned, that's just a general observation.)
This month's Television Spotlight focuses on Terry Jones' Great Map Mystery (2008), a documentary miniseries that seems to have been funded to provide local content for BBC Wales. It was eager to present Welshness and Welsh things in a way that's familiar to me from Canada. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, most of it more or less irrelevant to the Big Question of the documentary, which is fine because the Big Question turns out not to be all that big. It's definitely a cut above what we find on most of our lazy "see what's free on Amazon" trawls.
(1) Mon Oct 02 2017 16:57 September Film Roundup:
Here we go. I'm sick right now so who knows what kind of weird opinions I'm going to have. Blaaah! Roll camera!
- Baby Driver (2017): This film serves as the counterpoint to Paul (2012): it shows the downsides of letting Edgar Wright direct a film without having Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to weigh it down with likeable characters. It's formally impressive but I didn't care about any of the characters. If you don't like Scott Pilgrim you could say the same thing about that movie, but... I do like Scott Pilgrim.
I caught a lot of hype for this movie and I always expect a lot of Wright, so I was psyched up, but it falls into the familiar territory of popcorn noir. It was fun to watch, but its "innocent pulled in life of crime" plot is right out of the black-and-white era and hasn't been spruced up much.
- The Teacher (2016): A.k.a. Ucitelka. An effective horror movie where nobody dies. By horror movie standards, the things that happen aren't even that bad. But it's creepy as hell. I would compare this to Get Out in the way it exploits an underused fuel source for its horror.
IMDB classifies this as "Comedy, Drama" but based on the poster and the final scene I'm comfortable with my opinion that it's intended to read as a horror movie.
- Run Lola Run (1998): A lot of fun, lots of eyeball kicks. I thought there were going to be four runthroughs, but three works better. I'm always pleasantly surprised when a movie is shorter than I predicted. Has some of the same problems as Baby Driver but I'll cut it more slack because it was made twenty years earlier and it's a half-hour shorter. Come to think of it, my favorite part of Baby Driver was the scene where he had to get out of the car and run.
- Jaws (1975): I absolutely loved the first two acts of this movie about a society so focused on short-term economic gain that it jumps through hoops to rationalize away an ecological threat. Then act three was a couple guys on a boat and I fell asleep. If I were this film's hotshot young director, I would have spent about ten minutes on that boat and then come back to shore to focus on the mayor's ass-covering, trying to hang the fiasco around the necks of the people who noticed the problem and did something about it.
Overall this is a fine film and I recommend it, but with one big asterisk: I believe Jaws is the movie that caused Hollywood execs to say "we found it!" and pull the lever that eventually stopped all that lovely 1970s experimentation. (c.f. my Die Hard review) So watch it with a pretentious tear in your eye.
Old-computer watch: includes an outdoor arcade that features the Sega mechanical arcade game "Killer Shark" and, more relevantly, a Computer Space cabinet. You can see the arcade in the trailer. Tragically no Shark JAWS.
D'you suppose that Computer Space cabinet was there at the beach where they filmed, or did they bring it in as a prop? They were so expensive, it's hard to imagine sticking one outside to get salt-crusted.
- Logan Lucky (2017): This film is the king of fridge logic but it's really, really fun. I try to tell stories about people who are more or less ordinary, no special societal status, so I'll always be there for a movie about NASCAR fans over a movie about NASCAR drivers. There are little bits of this movie where you see Talladega Nights sort of happening in the background, and although both movies are really funny, Logan Lucky's focus on its characters' real concerns puts Talladega Nights to shame, the way the second half of Sullivan's Travels shames the first half.
Basically, this movie over Baby Driver any time. For me, a super-complicated heist with a normal drive home will always beat a smash-and-grab that ends in a car chase.
- I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (2014): A surprise tear-jerker, and I say that as someone who isn't moved by Spinney in costume singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service. (I'm sure it's what he wanted.) There's a couple stories in here that hit me right in the gut. Definitely the most depressing documentary I've ever seen about a happy, successful person. The Norman Lear doc wasn't like this. Recommended??
This month the Television Spotlight completes its examination of Angels in America (2003). Overall this was a fine production but the Mormon stuff was really a mess. I think I can trace the problem back to the event described in this IMDB trivia item:
In a 2008 interview, Tony Kushner said that the idea to entwine Mormonism into the plot of "Angels in America" started when he saw some young, ignored Mormon missionaries near his home in Brooklyn: "There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that."
Not touched enough to talk to any Mormons, apparently, because the Mormon characters' dialogue doesn't ring true and all the imagery looks like it was taken from a book that didn't have diagrams. The angels aren't Mormon angels, they've got a Gnostic thing going on, which is cool, but Gnostic angels shouldn't be giving out golden plates. It feels like someone tried to put Mormonism into their preexisting D&D campaign to make the new player feel welcome.
The casting of Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt is spot-on, and he does have the Mormon body language down pat. But when you show a Mormon character in 1985 drinking a Coke and I have to wonder "Is this a shocking, subtle piece of foreshadowing, or did someone not do their homework?", I'm going to err on the side of undone homework.
On the plus side, Emma Thompson's barely-keeping-it-together angel is great, and captures the "this is no way to run a railroad!" attitude I associate with Gnosticism. I'm aware that my knowledge of Gnosticism is approximately on the level of Tony Kushner's knowledge of Mormonism, but ever since I saw those hot Gnostic angels at the subway stop I've wanted to watch a play about them.
As a bonus, let's also Spotlight The Bronson Pinchot Project (2012-2013): I don't know if I'd recommend this, but it is the most interesting home improvement show I've ever seen. Actor Bronson Pinchot has bought a bunch of properties in a small Pennsylvania town and he spends his time restoring them according to his vision. Said vision is charming when it comes to designing relaxing spaces to chill out and hang with friends or read, but vague and handwavy when it comes to taking a shower, or storing dry pasta or more than twenty books.
When Pinchot revealed that he uses the properties he's not currently renovating to store antiques and reclaimed materials for the renovations, Sumana uttered the line that summed it up: "He's running a Ponzi scheme on himself!" This turned out truer than I knew; in 2015 Pinchot filed bankruptcy and all the properties seen in the show were reposessed by creditors. Seems like he's still making good money as an audiobook narrator, though.
Fri Sep 01 2017 18:49 August Television Roundup:
Yes, here is is, the monthly accounting of all the television I watch. I sure do watch a lot of television.
- Comrade Detective (2017): The smart parts of this faux-80s Romanian cop show are not smart enough and the stupid parts are... well, they're fine. A valiant effort, but this would have been a lot better if they'd had the Romanians write the first treatment.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (2017): Does a great job of recapturing the original show, by which I mean the Joel show. It's laid-back, more often enjoying the cheesiness of the movie than ripping into it. That is, it's clearly on the Cinematic Titanic branch of the phylogenetic tree as opposed to the RiffTrax branch. I'd actually rate these riffs higher than the Joel-era riffs. There was a lot of Baby Boomer nostalgia in the old shows, and most of the new show's riffs take the present day as their jumping-off point.
No real problems, but I frequently got confused who was talking in the theater because the voices are kind of similar. Thank goodness for closed captions!
I'd like to see some fan discussion about the little weird things they show you and don't really remark upon. Who is the alternate host you see on screen for like a second? What's the significance of the spacewalk, given the other thing that happens in that episode? I guess the disadvantage of releasing the whole season at once is the Internet doesn't have time to obsess over the little details you've carefully snuck in. Steven Universe is taking this to the unhealthy other extreme, I think.
Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter so my name is in the credits with thousands of others. I'm the only "Leonard"!
- The Great British Baking Show (2013????-2015????): I don't even know which seasons of this show we watched. PBS renamed the show and renumbered the seasons, and the IMDB episode guide just says "Pie", "Cake", "Biscuits" over and over for each year. Anyway, I've never watched a reality show before, and I wouldn't have watched this one except I was promised there's no yelling and the contestants are all nice to each other. And it's great! Really soothes my nerves after a long day of whatever I do all day.
My fave: contestants who use idiosyncratic slang like "get a wiggle on".
- Angels In America (2003): We're in the middle of this one so no review yet, but a) it's really heavy, b) the Mormon stuff is extremely inaccurate, c) it looks like Meryl Streep is going to play a different character in every episode and I'm not sure what that does, dramatically speaking.
Tune in next month, when we'll have the new Twin Peaks, maybe?
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Every month, Television Roundup presents the Film Spotlight, a listing of the films I saw that month. Of course, films, with their 98-minute running times, cannot compete with the many hours of entertainment that television provides. After all, one of your puny Earth "films" is but a single episode of MST3K. Nevertheless, we honor these bite-sized morsels of entertainment below.
- Trafic (1971): I'm glad that at the 2000 Academy Awards this film finally got the recognition it deserved. It's a goofy ride, doesn't drag like Playtime sometimes does, but also never feels like it's saying something Important.
- The Enchanted Desna (1964): a.k.a. "Zacharovannaya Desna". Lots of really beautiful photography and the kind of episodic, slow-moving plot that lulls me to sleep. Some nice Tom Sawyer bits in the flashback. There was some audience tittering at the Commie propaganda at the end, but I'm stunned by the scale of it and still trying to figure out what it was saying. That's a lot of concrete, comrade. We're damming up the river you grew up on? And that's a good thing? I'm overwhelmed by man's totally non-hubristic ambition! Maybe I should ask my doctor if communism is right for me. It's a weird mix of "I had to put this in" and "I'm being ironic" and "I really believe this" and "I'm a filmmaker from a different culture from Leonard and I use emotional cues differently".
- Cherry 2000 (1987): I went into this movie knowing nothing except it was by the director of Miracle Mile, and it seemed kinda sleazy. And... both of these are true. It's got the beautiful 80s L.A. aesthetic of Miracle Mile, science fictionified into little oases of yuppie or suburbanite heaven, surrounded by very drivable desert. Tons of cool eyeball kicks, especially in the first thirty minutes.
It's also sleazy, and meta-sleazy in how comfortable it is in its sleaziness. The relationship between human and sexbot could have been done a lot better. In fact, I think I did it better, in Constellation Games. Making Cherry into a real character could have made Cherry 2000 really good. When she's a toaster, the movie is real predictable.
In Miracle Mile you think you know what kind of movie you're watching, and then you are WRONG. That jolt disorients you, and you never recover because the movie keeps throwing you smaller twists. In Cherry 2000 I knew the major plot points as soon as the secondary lead was introduced, and throughout the movie I generally knew what scene was going to happen next. Events and characters happen because they're what happens in this kind of movie. You could cut this movie into a Macgyver episode and hit the same points.
Overall, a missed opportunity. Also, you stick a memory chip into an abandoned robot and it powers up? Shouldn't it also need... power? Lots of hardware/software problems in this movie, is what I'm saying. It's nitpicky, sure, but those details are where the better screenplay could have come from.
Tue Aug 29 2017 09:22 Nashville 'Clipse:
Howdy, y'all. Leonard here, recording our experience of traveling to Nashville, Tennessee to see the solar eclipse. Sumana and I stayed at the home of Joe Hills (here's his take) and greatly enjoyed his family's hospitality.
The eclipse itself was amazing! We had a convenient watching spot and good weather, and it was fun to experience the wonders of celestrial alignment through the eyes of Joe's young child, who probably now thinks eclipses will drop into her lap on a regular basis.
We lost AN ENTIRE DAY off the trip, and thus a visit to Chattanooga, because our flight to Nashville was cancelled. This was very annoying (though less annoying than dying in a thunderstorm). Imagine trying to book a trip to Eclipse Central just before the eclipse, like a chump who just heard about the sun and wants to get front row center on the Greatest Hits tour. That was our position. Amazingly, a very diligent United rep ("The only place in the United States I can get you tonight is Cleveland") eventually found us a Sunday flight through Atlanta. As we made our sad way back from Newark (only to return the next day) I thought: "when this is all over, I'll remember the awesome eclipse and this will just be a footnote." Well, here's the footnote.0
Some of the great experiences of our vacation:
- You ever try to get your luggage to Newark for a 6AM flight on a Sunday when all of your local subways are undergoing maintenance? Fuhgeddaboudit. NJ Transit to Newark doesn't even start running until, like, five. So we spent Saturday night in an airport hotel (cost: competitive with a cab ride to the airport). I never grasped this aspect of airport hotels; I thought they were just for business conferences. It was surprisingly great! We relaxed in a hotel room and instead of early morning stress we just got up real early and took the shuttle to the airport. It was like having a really square vacation before the actual, cool vacation.
- In Nasvhille, we took a fun tour of the Nashville Craft distillery. Unlike most tourist things we experienced in Nashville, this was reasonably priced ($10 for tour plus cocktail). Very focused on the chemistry. "This is what I wanted Breaking Bad to be like."--Sumana
- The Ryman Theater -- overpriced self-guided tour, interesting history and where we thankfully discovered:
- Hatch Show Print, an amazing old-fashioned press that does prints for many of the shows and events in town.
- Johnny Cash Museum - another pricy tourist trap but lots of fun and what the hell, we're on vacation. I don't like how stingy my dad always was on our vacations, even when we weren't poor, and the flip side is you end up spending more money than you'd like on a fun experience.
- At the museum we struck up a conversation with an academic who specializes in the history of spy fiction. He said the earliest known "secret agent" type novel (where the spy is being run by an intelligence agency as opposed to just kinda stumbling on a German plot while on vacation) is 1934's Secret Service Operator 13. Caution: it's got problems!
- Joe's spouse gave us a fun walking tour of the lovely Vanderbilt campus.
- Hot chicken sandwich! Very tasty. They have 'em at Shake Shack now, too.
- The Farm House, a nice farm-to-table place in the city center.
- We didn't spend a lot of time in the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, but we were there long enough to appreciate what a nice space it is.
- Overall we had a good experience with Nashville's public transit, except for one bus stop that stopped existing due to construction. No signage, no alternate stop, just... the bus went right past us.
- We took private cars five times, and two of our five drivers volunteered the information that they have side gigs as music producers. I think the longstanding estimate of 1352 guitar pickers in Nashville may need revision.
0 It was awful.
Thu Aug 03 2017 21:16 July Film Roundup:
July's always a good month for movies, in quality if not quantity. This July, News You Can Bruise Presents Film Roundup is proud to present... wait, what was I saying?
- The Big Sick (2017): Sumana's a big Kumail Nanjiani fan so we couldn't miss this pretty fun rom-com...? My romcometer isn't finely calibrated but this seems more towards the "rom-dram" region than most. On the plus side, that means not as much "awkward" humor (of which I'm not a fan) as I feared. I think cutting has a lot to do with it. As I recall, in this movie Nanjiani would have an awkward moment with (e.g.) a family member but they'd mercifully cut to something else, even if just another shot of the same scene. Proving, once and for all, that you don't have to let it linger.
- In Transit (2015): A soothing documentary about being on a train. Filmed up north where (according to the movie) Amtrak is the primary form of public transit. Lots of guys in their early twenties working in the fracking boom, trying to figure their lives out.
- Lincoln (2012): This movie has its cheesy Spielberg moments but it makes the minutiae of politics super compelling, as they should be presented. I dislike the ending. Totally unnecessary. But I understand that if Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and doesn't do the Second Inaugural, a lot of people are going to want their money back. So I take it in stride.
- A Man For All Seasons (1966): Sumana and I enjoyed this tale of a civil servant who carries "If you can't say anything nice..." to the extreme. Is there a lesson in here for our time? Unfortunately, as a 501(3)(c) registered nonprofit, Film Roundup cannot take a stand on the relevance of a work of art to any partisan issue. But if you put together the first letter of every review this month, you'll find my answer. Psst, while they're piecing together the first letters, check this out: RELEVANT.
- Becket (1964): The last gasp of old-timey boring Hollywood spectacle. So many long, ponderous dialogue-free scenes with trumpets tooting away while someone walks up some stairs in the distance. Four years later, the same actor's playing the same character, and it's squalid and grimy and close-up with a deliberate lack of grandeur. Skip this one and move right to...
- The Lion in Winter (1968): Here we go, late-sixties Hollywood. They're still adapting plays
rather than having Robert de Niro improvise for ninety minutes, but they're tackling "adult" topics and it's super Freudian. I saw this film in high school (like, in class) for some reason and I don't think it's boasting to say that I now understand it on a much deeper level. Lots of creepy scenes where O'Toole is interacting with people not as a human being but as the State personified. Katharine Hepburn is brassy as always. "They don't call her Hep-BURN for nothing!"—The Sumana Daily Herald
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): Apparently all movies whose titles end in "One Two Three" are awesome. I'll have to test this hypothesis using this Armenian film. Anyway, this is great stuff. Constant tension without constant violence, 70s New York stereotypes, cranky Walter Matthau, subway system behind-the-scenes... it's crime-and-grime cinema gold! It didn't hurt that I saw this at Film Forum on a sweaty July afternoon with a bunch of New Yorkers who'd gotten there on the subway. Lots of camaraderie in the theater, lots of laughs at hyper-specific New York in-jokes.
- Across 110th Street (1972): My high hopes for this film were not met. The first scene had me primed for a power struggle between the black mob and the Italian mob, but instead the two mobs teamed up to take out some small-timers, in an act of serious overkill. There are also some cops I didn't really care about. The small-timers were believably down-on-their-luck. I rate the "grime" in this one highly, and the "crime"... lowly.
- The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965): I'd read the book a long time ago, but in the interim I got The Spy Who Came In From The Cold mixed up with another le Carré novel, so I was confused and accidentally found it suspenseful. Good intrigue, not as much out-and-out spycraft as I like to see in these movies. I'd been expecting more, but it turns out I'd gotten this movie mixed up with the Alec Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Is there no end to this hall of mirrors???
Today the Television Spotlight announces the entrance of anime favorite Yuri!!! On Ice (2016). After Steven Universe took its turn in the Spotlight last month, I was 100% down for more queer animation, but I'd forgotten about a little thing called "reversion to the mean". Yuri!!! On Ice is more on the level of the restaurant that doesn't punch you in the face. I did not have a good time watching slight variants on figure skating routines I'd seen two or three times previously in earlier episodes. Gimme a brittle caste-based alien monoculture any day.
Sat Jul 01 2017 20:14 June Film Roundup:
Welcome to July! Here's June:
- Wonder Woman (2017): You know me, I'm not big into superhero movies. But I do like women, and wondering, so Sumana and I saw this together. It was all right! Cool stunts, funny comic relief, mostly good action scenes. But we talked about it afterwards and agreed that this movie doesn't really make its argument.
Wonder Woman is the story of Diana learning that horrible things like wars have complex historical causes and it's not just anthropomorphized concepts running around causing trouble. But what are superheroes and supervillains but anthropomorphized concepts? And what is a superhero movie without a big fight at the end between two of 'em and the world at stake? So that's what happens. The form of the movie is at odds with its content, and given Zack Snyder's "story by" credit I don't believe it even knows it.
In a Film Roundup first, I'm proud to link to a review of this film by my sister, WWI scholar Rachel Richardson: “I’m the men who can”: Wonder Woman as a First World War heroine.
- Jurassic Park (1993): Sumana and I both love this movie. I remembered nearly every scene even though I don't think I've seen it since 1993. It's not super deep, but it's got layers I didn't see when I was a kid. Notably Muldoon's respect for the dinosaurs and Hammond's attitude as the thing he's built crumbles during the test that was supposed to demonstrate it was safe. Such a joy to watch. It seems trite to say that the most successful, highest paid people in show biz were able to provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, but... they nailed it.
PS: This is more a fact about the book than the movie, but Jurassic Park has one of the cleverest science fiction premises I've ever seen. Love it.
- Kelly's Heroes (1970): The second museum movie I've walked out of. Not because it was horrible or offensive, but because serious technical problems threatened to interfere with my bedtime. I ended up watching about an hour of the movie proper, plus fifteen minutes of the movie with out-of-sync audio, a repeated viewing of the same footage, and about a reel of Where Eagles Dare (1968), a completely different movie. How did that happen? Did they torrent the whole Clint Eastwood war pack and click on the wrong file?
According to film scientists, Kelly's Heroes uses an earlier war as a way to talk about the then-current Vietnam War! This movie has a good look, and since there are no women characters, it avoids the sexism of similarly situated M.A.S.H. (1972). But I can't give it a strong recommendation. Don Rickles is believable as the hustling supply sergeant, but The Americanization of Emily did that better back in 1964. Anachronistic hippies in my WWII movie? That's pretty cool, I must admit.
- Kamikaze '89 (1982)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director of well-regarded-by-Film-Roundup film
The Marriage of Maria Braun and eternal MST3K reference Berlin Alexanderplatz, does what I can only describe as "an Alphaville thing". It doesn't work out great. Alphaville has the cold smoothness of the 1960s Paris business district, a period look also exploited effectively by Playtime. Kamikaze '89 has the cheesy look of a 1980s West Berlin dance club. I'm sure everyone had a great time making this movie, and I don't want to begrudge serious European directors having their sci-fi Alphaville flings, but... not great.
Uh, I should make it clear that Fassbinder isn't the director of this film, he's the star. Wolf Gremm is the director. So maybe it's Wolf Gremm's Alphaville fantasy, but Fassbinder is the one in the tacky outfit running around firing guns, so I suspect he's the one who wanted this to happen.
- Miracle Mile (1988): I'm about do something I've never done before on Film Roundup. I think you should see this movie, but I'm not going to tell you anything about it. I went in knowing basically what happens in this movie, and I absolutely loved it, but I think I would have loved it even more if I'd followed the directions I'm going to lay out below.
It's pretty simple. You can rent this movie on Amazon. Don't read the description, don't even look at the poster. Just start watching and see what happens.
I don't want you to have a bad time so I will tell you that this is a very dark horror movie. It's not wall-to-wall graphic violence, but don't watch it on a day when you need something light.
I do have a lot to say about Miracle Mile, but I'm going to wait a while in case anyone wants to see it as recommended above. For now I will say that Kurt Fuller's presence in this movie provides an additional data point for what I call The Fuller Conundrum. See, Kurt Fuller is in Ghostbusters II, where he's not funny at all, but he's hilarious in Psych, and in Miracle Mile he's right down the middle. Apparently he was in Wayne's World but I don't even remember him in that movie. In a character actor, is this variability a weakness, or a sign of versatility?
Finally, this month, the Television Spotlight shines its television spotlight on Steven Universe. This is really good! It gives us the same worldbuilding experience we got from The Legend of Korra, but it's all new stuff, it's not that there was a prequel show we didn't see. We started watching around the time of the last Film Roundup and now we're just about caught up. Fun characters who get more complex over time. That's all I need from a show, I think.
Thu Jun 01 2017 20:25 May Film Roundup:
Yes, may Film Roundup bring you blessings throughout the year! No Twin Peaks spoilers, please.
- Antitrust (2001): Semi-hate-watch with Sumana. (Here's her review.) She saw this on a plane in 2001 and had ever since wanted to revisit it to make fun of the bad tech. But... turns out the tech isn't all that bad. Pretty accurate for the most part. The software development processes we see aren't great, but they're in line with what I saw in the 90s. The biggest technical flub (an impractical plan to spy on people as they write code) is, IMO, just a way of dramatizing GPL violations.
Which is not to say that this is a good movie. It's bad. "Killer App" (1995), a television pilot, does a better job of just about everything that's not directly related to free software, e.g. the Bill Gates character's house-of-the-future. Not recommended unless you gotta see an old version of GNOME on the big screen.
- Bahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017): First, read my review of part 1. Now, read it again, because the sequel is another 3-hour battering of the senses with spectacle. There were some moments where the plot got more complicated than your average blockbuster, but also moments where they passed up what I considered obvious opportunities for coolness. I was never bored, not at all, but where the first movie frequently went in directions I wasn't anticipating, this movie... didn't do that.
It's hard to stay unpredictable when half your movie is a direct prequel to a movie your audience has already seen. Sumana and I agree that the Bahubali series needs a mode where you can just watch the sub-films in chronological order. Currently it's as if you had to watch the Hobbit movies halfway through the Lord of the Rings movies, with Elijah Wood playing both Bilbo and Frodo.
- Cops and Robbers (1973): Really good crime-and-grime heist movie with just the right mix of NYC and Long Island. Nothing serious, but classic popcorn. Not a science-fiction film, but does a great job incorporating Apollo stock footage into the plot.
There's a feeling in twentieth-century crime movies that's made explicit in Cops and Robbers. Society expects people to stay in their lane, crime-wise. You expect a cop to take bribes, a store manager to embezzle, a stockbroker to commit securities fraud. What causes a problem/creates a movie plot is when you pull off a crime that someone like you isn't supposed to do. There's this great scene in Cops and Robbers where the two cops realize that someone else has casually piggybacked a much more successful caper on top of theirs, and they react with the same New York "whadayagonna do" attitude they exhibit when stuck in a traffic jam. Exploited by the ruling class again! Wah wah.
- I saw a series of films by Charles and Ray Eames which ranged from the somnolent (House: After 5 Years of Living) to the hypnotic (Tops) to the suspiciously sexy (S-73 Sofa Compact). Powers of Ten is always a treat.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): This movie succeeds where Interstellar fails: it turns Solaris into a summer blockbuster. I had a good time! Better than the first one (which I also liked), though significantly more violent. Still not sure why these movies bother to have villains. Isn't it enough that the heroes hate each other?
- D.O.A. (1950): An unbeatable first scene is, in fact, not beaten by anything else in this kinda dull noir. Nice dramatic structure though. The most interesting bit is how it dramatizes the white-collar nightmare that something you did at your boring desk job, something you don't even remember, has made an enemy of someone you don't know.
- Thief (1981): Another criminal-goes-out-of-his-lane heist film. Not as punchy or as... subtle?... as Cops and Robbers, but fun enough. Dave Thomas of Wendy's has a masterful turn as the evil spirit of capitalism. Wait, I'm being informed that that role is actually played by Robert Prosky of Gremlins 2 fame.
Big bombastic Tangerine Dream soundtrack in this movie. I didn't even know that was a thing. I thought Tangerine Dream just made music to put you to sleep.
Don't think I didn't notice the Rififi reference. I see all!
- Bottle Rocket (1996): Right from his first feature, the ups and downs of a Wes Anderson film are visible. Funny first sequence, emotionally effective final sequence, and in the middle lots of well-framed shots I don't care much about. Watch Fantastic Mr Fox instead.
IMDB trivia: "Originally, Owen Wilson had no plans to act in the film at all." In fact, this is true of every actor and every film.
Thu May 11 2017 23:43 Minecraft Archive Project - 2011/11 Sample:
For a while I've been working with Jason Scott on the best way to make the data from Minecraft Archive Project available. The basic problem is that if you zip it up, it's many terabytes of data, and if you don't, it's millions of individual files. Although the Internet Archive is technically capable of handling either one of those options, neither is great for sharing data with the public.
The Minecraft Geologic Survey gives you an overview of everything posted before July 2014, but generating it was incredibly processor-intensive, so it's not really something I can update. So we decided to try out time slices instead.
Here's a 22-gigabyte archive containing everything Minecraft-related I could get that was posted in November 2011. If you think you might be interested in doing something with the full archive, please download this tiny slice and see if you can figure out how it works. If you have problems, complain to me. (Not to Jason, he just puts the files on the Archive.)
I picked November 2011 because it comes in the month of the 1.0 release, at a really interesting time for the medium. By 2017 standards the maps in this set are very primitive, but it was right around here Minecraft went from indie darling to decade-defining megahit. At the same time, fans had started to chafe at the limitations of the medium-- was the month I wrote my "Programmable Minecraft" essays, where I basically asked for command blocks.
Command blocks would be introduced in August 2012, and IMO they mark the distinction between the "silent film" era of Minecraft and the "talkie" era. I think the next most important month-slice of data would be August 2012, which would let us see what people did immediately after they got command blocks. But the point of this exercise is not to release one month at a time; it's to release a single month and make sure the package is usable before we package everything else the same way.
Sun May 07 2017 14:23 Tonight's Episode: An Oral History of Murder:
It's been seven years since the last episode of the crummy.com podcast, so you might be forgiven for forgetting that it even existed. In fact, forgetting about a podcast is not a sin in any human religious tradition, so no forgiveness necessary. Just enjoy tonight's episode, "Tonight's Episode: An Oral History of Murder".
This is an hour-long conversation between myself and Sumana about Tonight's Episode, a crummy.com feature even older than our ancient podcast, and the first creative collaboration between the two of us. Listen, and explore the origins of Internet comedy so small in bytesize that a joke might be compared to a short sound a bird might make.
A couple things I forgot to mention in the podcast: first, Tales from the Crypt and the Cryptkeeper's stupid puns as a predecessor to Tonight's Episode. Second, Murderous Magnetism, the Jason Robbins magnetic poetry kit for making Tonight's Episodes.
Tue May 02 2017 22:29 April Film Roundup:
As they say, April showers bring Film Roundup. Many, many people say this, I'm told. Hundreds, possibly millions, chanting in unison. Can they all be bots? I say no.
- The Cinema Travelers (2016): Really neat documentary about travelling movie theaters that go around rural India showing films at fairs. I was surprised to see that fairs in rural India look just like fairs in the United States. In retrospect it makes sense. Why would they have different rides?
Although there was a lot of cool hardware in this movie, I felt this film fetishized the hardware, even when it was so obsolete as to be a burden. I felt bad for the guys towing a nonfunctional bus around India because their film projector was mounted inside the bus. I doubt audiences care whether the projection booth contains a old-timey reel projector or a LCD projector and a laptop. Are ticket sales in decline because everyone has satellite TV now and doesn't have to settle for 1970s Bollywood reruns? Good! You think I'm going to side with the people running the theater over the people who want to see movies? Who's your audience? By definition, it's moviegoers. You don't have a theater full of projectionists and one ticket-holder up in the booth.
The most striking shots in this film aren't really shots, they're stills, just photos of people who are watching a movie, unaware of the camera, and having a great time. Often when you're sitting in a theater watching a film of people sitting in a theater, it's supposed to be an unnerving experience, but these photos are so full of life and joy. It's like the end of Sullivan's Travels. There's one in particular of a man with a monkey on his shoulder, both of them super excited about whatever they're looking at.
PS: I think is the first film I've ever seen that shows someone negotiating a DRM license.
- Cabin Boy (1994): “Isn't that a Pauly Shore movie?” —Sumana. No, this is a lot more highbrow than anything Pauly Shore ever did. It's a stupid, corny movie, but it's got a lot of originality and... heart? Maybe I'm grading on a curve, but so many comedies from the 90s are so awful, that letting Chris Elliot goof off in a Ray Harryhausen fantasy seems like a gift from the comedy gods. Thalia, I guess.
- Italianamerican (1974): Really cute early Scorsese film where he gets his parents to tell all the family stories. Back in the day you couldn't just do a podcast, no, it had to be a big production. Strong recommend, good "Immigrant Experience" stories.
That's it for now, but we're almost caught up on Jane the Virgin, so maybe next month the Television Spotlight will have a new focus.
Thu Apr 27 2017 11:54 Penguicon!:
I'm in Detroit to attend Penguicon as the plus-one of Sumana, who's a guest of honor. This is my first trip to Michigan and I've already met some cool folks. I'm giving two talks (?) this weekend: an overview of bots and an update of my groundbreaking exposé How Game Titles Work. (previous version from 2009)
Wed Apr 19 2017 15:27:
Why "send an email" when you can "use the RFC 2822 method"?
Sat Apr 01 2017 18:58 March Film Roundup:
- The LEGO Batman Movie (2017): Man, you head to the movies to take your mind off the increasingly troubling political situation, and then something like this happens. Anyway, the first hour of this movie
is really fun and goofy, and then it develops a plot and bogs down in
action scenes that are impossible to follow. I forsee an edit that
cuts 22:30 of the last 45 minutes, then slows down what's left by 50% so
you can see what's happening.
It seems really weird that IMDB lists Siri, a nonsentient computer program, as an
actor in this movie. I mean, I get that that's what it says in the
credits, but it seems like fodder for "Crazy Credits" and not
something we should take seriously. Are there other fictional actors
in IMDB? Kermit the
Frog doesn't have a .... wait... why is "Kermit the Frog"
showing up as a hyperlink? Dammit, he does have an IMDB actor
page. The very first example I looked up.
This makes no sense. Why is Kermit the Frog listed as having an
"uncredited" role as The Minstrel in Once Upon A Mattress
(1972)? If you're copying down whatever it says in the credits, that's
one thing. But a fictional character can't have an uncredited role!
As Kermit would
say, aaaaaaah! Come out from under that Muppet and face our scrutiny!
- Boxcar Bertha (1972): Just what I needed on that day: a Roger
Corman B-movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Raw talent doing its best
to fulfill a crappy work order. Trains, labor organizing, and 1970s
poster paint blood. Recommended but only if you're in that kind of
Film Roundup regulars will not be surprised to hear that like most
movies Boxcar Bertha features John Carradine, but unlike many
movies it's also got his son David. In fact there's one Oedipal scene
where David mugs his dad. Overall, I wasn't super impressed with
David's acting chops. It was like watching Joel Hodgson rob trains:
entertaining, but not quite believable.
- Beat the Devil (1953): Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre,
together at... still? With Robert Morley filling in for Sydney
Greenstreet, I suspect. The whole movie, I was looking for a twist
that turned out not to be there. But Jennifer Jones steals the show as
the bored wife who blithely surfs the edge of a hazardous Bogart-and-Lorre
caper, just because it's something to do.
This month the Television Spotlight shines on Jane the
Virgin (2014-), a fun, silly melodrama we picked up based on a
recommendation from Julia. Way to go, Julia! A while back in Film Roundup I said that
Jacques Tati's Playtime is like Brazil but with all the
nastiness taken out. Well, Jane the Virgin is like Arrested
Development with... most of the nastiness taken out. In
fact one could do a comedic Tumblr on the topic, a la Breaking
Development, but I don't know how big the overlap fandom
is. Should be bigger, is what I'm saying.
I was initially disappointed that Jane the Virgin doesn't have the fantastic element I assumed it would have, but it's addressed within the show with other people incorrectly making the same assumption, so that's fine.
Whew! Let's do the books while we're at it:
- I finished The Fortress of Solitude, the incredibly long
novel I mentioned last month. The first half was really good, and I
started out hating the second half, but it eventually won me over...
just in time for the book to end. The writing was really good on a
sentence-by-sentence level; a decent experience overall.
- Four Futures by Peter Frase is basically a four-part series
of blog posts. I don't think I found a lot of new information in it,
but I like the framing device.
Fri Mar 24 2017 20:14 Reviews of Semi-Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF January/February 2012:
Hey there. After keeping this magazine in the house for five years, I
finally read it. You see, I only like things that are vintage. Sometimes you gotta age it yourself.
Standout stories for me were Naomi Kritzer's adorable "Scrap
Dragon" and Alexander Jablokov's gross-out "The Comfort of
Strangers". I guess I'm exposing the fact that I haven't read the Rich
Horton anthology that reprinted "Four Kinds of Cargo" (The Year's
Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2013 Edition), since that also
reprinted "Scrap Dragon". I repeat: adorable.
I also liked Ken Liu's "Maxwell's Demon" for the clever way it
combined several very different ideas. I love this issue's Mark Evans
cover art, for John G. McDaid's "Umbrella Men", but I prefer the story
I made up after looking at the cover art for five years. (However it
is the first time the story I made up based on the cover art bears any
resemblance to the real story.)
In the course of an essay on vampire fiction, Elizabeth Hand
mentions the ur-text, John Polidori's The Vampyre, as
well as the 1845-1847 serial "Varney the Vampire"
which ran to 670,000 words (Project Gutenberg has a measley 327,927 of those words). I don't care about vampire stories
but I'm always interested in the first or biggest example of
something. This column also made me aware of Theodore Rozak's
Flicker, in a would-actually-want-to-read-it way.
Man, "Varney the Vampire" makes me think of vampire Jim Varney. How
come they never did an Ernest movie about that? Seems like a natural
fit. Bye for now!
Thu Mar 23 2017 19:56 FRED:
This won't wait for Film Roundup because it's only showing until the end of the month. Last week Sumana and I went to see FRED at Dixon Place in Manhattan and had a good time. It's a short, funny play with a Starship Titanic feel. Check it out!
Wed Mar 01 2017 09:32 February Film Roundup:
- Kansas City (1996): I went to Kansas City on a Friday. Then I had to come back to the museum on Saturday, because that's when it was showing. Anyway, I figured a gangster film would be the perfect introduction to the ouvre of Robert Altman. And... there's not nearly enough Steve Buscemi but everything else about this movie is pretty great. There are different levels of corruption in the world, from the government to the mob to the grifter. Kansas City gets a lot of mileage out of a character on one level of corruption interacting or interfering with a character on another level.
- Charlie Varrick (1973): An enjoyable crime caper set in Albuquerque, kind of the opposite of Dog Day Afternoon where there's too much money in the bank. My only complaint is it goes on a little too long. I feel Walter Mattheau's character could have cut a couple steps from his plan, eliminated a lot of the risk, and come out just as well. The dentist office burglary is great, and Joe Don Baker excels as Evil Mitchell.
- Cradle Will Rock (1999): Another self-indulgent Tim Robbins herbal cigarette, but a lot more fun and more interesting than Bob Roberts. Super-random celebrity guests, both as actors and as characters. "Who's that supposed to be, Bertolt Brecht?" Yes, that's who it's supposed to be! I remember this movie came up a while back when we went looking through IMDB for all the times someone has portrayed Nelson Rockefeller on film. Not sure why we did that, I think because I was reading Before the Storm.
Anyway, the movie itself was enjoyable but the musical they're putting on seems, at best, comparable to other musicals of the 1930s.
- Toni Erdmann (2016): Fun, but not the laugh riot I was expecting. There are a lot of movies where a prankster character torments an uptight character, and I generally don't enjoy these, but in Toni Erdmann Ines starts tormenting her father right back in her own uptight way, so that provided some balance. I also liked that the film was almost entirely shot in Romania.
IMDB trivia: "Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig star in a remake of this film." No thanks.
- Get Out (2017): Effective creepy horror. I don't see a ton of horror movies, so I don't know how innovative this is, but I thought the way this movie doled out its gore quotient was great. I really got into this film, in my own nerdy way: near the end I was thinking "I don't want a The Shining ending or a Being John Malkovich ending, just a regular horror-movie ending."
Recommend seeing in the theater for the audience participation factor. There's an audience stand-in in the movie who has clearly seen it before and is trying ineffectually to stop it from happening! Just like real life.
I'm gonna shoehorn Book Roundup into this post because although I started three books on my commute, I lost interest in two of them a fair way in, and the only book I finished in February was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. A great horrifying read with a sinister George Saunders-type feel in places.
I thought I'd also finish The Fortress of Solitude, but that book's a lot longer than I thought! I'm not even halfway through. Stay tuned!
Mon Feb 27 2017 09:07:
"Do they have a designated survivor? Like, one celebrity who doesn't attend the Oscars?"
"That's what we have other countries for."
Fri Feb 03 2017 18:26 January Book Roundup:
- Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson. Not a super satisfying ending, but I stayed interested through the whole trilogy.
- SPQR by Mary Beard. At one point I swore off reading more books of Roman history, because they all kind of retread the same ground based on the same sources, but Beard brings in lots of archaeological detail that provides glimpses into everyday life. Big recommend from me.
- The History of Nintendo, Vol. 2 by Florent Gorges. My retrogaming interest has gone down somewhat since I finished Constellation Games, but I can't say no to the lovely illustrated books put out by French publisher Pix'n Love Publishing. Volume 2 (which covers Game & Watch) wasn't as colorful as Volume 1 (which covers everything pre-) but the presentation is so good it justifies my paying import prices. They're like coffee table art books, but the size of a regular book! A new volume gets translated into English every few years, so I guess I'll see the NES one in 2020?
Wed Feb 01 2017 21:44 January Film Roundup:
- Hidden Figures (2017): Loved it! Not much to say. I thought it lost a little focus right near the end, where John Glenn is making his descent and nobody can do anything but hang around and look tense, but overall really solid. I enjoyed the FORTRAN fan service.
- Dangal (2016): A whole movie about copy-protection hardware? I was skeptical. But then I learned that it was spelled "Dangal", and that it was... a sports movie. At this point I was even more skeptical, but I was inside the theater so I figured I'd go with it.
And it's... a sports movie. But it has three things going for it. First, it's also a breaking-down-the-barriers movie. Sumana liked how much screen time was devoted to Indian girls with short hair. Second, this film contains three awesome songs. Third, the hugeness of Dangal magnifies the working parts of a sports movie so that they're impossible to miss, much like the way Plato's republic is designed to make obvious the virtues that go into an individual human being.
Characters are ludicrously fictionalized to make them fit the sports-movie villain roles. Victories that in real life were incredibly lopsided are dramatized as knuckle-biting buzzer-beaters. There's also one place where I detect a shear effect between fiction and reality, but am not sure what the reality is. These girls spend up to the age of about ten training to be wrestlers and wrestling boys on a kind of freak-show circuit. Everyone's attitude is: A girl? Wrestling? Whaaaaa? It really seems like Dad is the first person in India to have the idea that girls can wrestle.
But at the beginning of act two they go into a gymnasium and it's full of girls doing wrestling. Turns out India has a whole wrestling thing going. Girls leagues and everything. So what's with all the incredulity in act one? Even if Dad's neighbors are ignorant hicks, it seems like a former national wrestling champion should know that he didn't invent girls' wrestling.
A similar thing happens at the end where people are saying "If an Indian wins the women's wrestling championship, girls all over the world will know they can do anything!" Was American sports movie exceptionalism ever this bad?
PS: The posters show Aamir Khan with the four actors who play the daughters at different ages, as though they're four different characters in the same timeframe. I love this.
- Taking Off (1971): A fun squares-go-hip comedy from the same Universal Studios indie-director push that gave us Silent Running (1972). The surest way to get me to see a film is to compare it to an Elaine May film, which Metrograph did, and I took the bait. Taking Off delivers with awkwardness, culture clash and bad original songs—it's like a much cheaper Ishtar. When a woman with a lute drops the F-bomb thirty times in the sort of singing voice you associate with "Greensleeves", you know you're in for a good time. Also features New York grime and the glorious tacky interior of a 1970s Catskills lodge.
- New York, New York (1977): With Liza Minnelli and Mickey Rourke. No, that's not right, it was Robert de Niro. Everyone's favorite video... hero. Mickey Rourke isn't in this at all. Don't know what I was thinking.
The all-too-relevant story of a man who can't deal with the fact that his girlfriend is more talented than he is. The museum's handout claims the problem with the relationship is the "two lovers' equal musical talent", but let's go to the tape. Liza Minnelli actually is a world-class singer, whereas Robert de Niro is a Method actor who learned to play the sax for this movie. It's quite clear she is the superior musician.
As such, the balance of power shifts over the course of the movie, and by act three de Niro is nearly out of the picture and Minnelli's character is just lapping up the fame. Basically, everything that's in La La Land that didn't come from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, came from this movie.
Overall I was not crazy about this film. La La Land is more fun and my favorite Scorsese de Niro is still Rupert Pupkin, by a long shot. But those two musical numbers at the end really are amazing. And character actor Lionel Stander is great comic relief as the agent who speaks in inscrutable aphorisms. It was a classic "that guy" moment, where I knew I'd seen him before, but turns out the only place I've seen him before is the introduction to the TV show Hart to Hart. Not the show, just the introduction, which I've only seen once. That's how memorable his face and voice are.
- Pride (2014): As a sidelong way of talking about this movie I'm going to bring back sports movies for a bit and talk about Cool Runnings (1993). It's a film I haven't seen since it first came out, and I'm not sure why I saw it at all—I think a friend's dad took us? But it sticks in my mind as the only sports movie where I think "Maybe I should rewatch that and see if it holds up."
Why? Because Cool Runnings is the only sports movie I've ever seen that dares to violate the ironclad rule. In this shocking film, the underdogs don't win at the sport. It's not a movie about winning; it's about sportsmanship. Other sports movies allege that it's not whether you win or lose, but if you win, who cares whether or not it's whether you win or lose? Cool Runnings strips all of that away and teaches the only lesson a sports movie has to teach, the hard way.
(The basketball sequence in Meatballs (1979) has a more cynical take on this, and IMO is the best part of that lousy movie. One reason I'm iffy on whether Talladega Nights (2006) is a sports movie, is that it mocks the very concept of 'winning'. I admit I haven't seen every damn sports movie, although it sure feels like it, so please tell me about other sports movies that don't end with a win.)
Anyway, I bring this up because Pride is a non-sports example of a movie where it's a matter of historical record that the underdogs lose. Like Cool Runnings, it does much better than a "win" movie would of showing the virtues that can survive a loss: community, solidarity, tolerance and old-fashioned stubbornness. It really goes for the heartstrings, but sometimes that's what you need.
I was sure Bill Nighy was going to bow out after his first scene, having done his bit for low-budget film, but he was gracious enough to stick around for the whole movie—a nice surprise. Also, most of the women in this movie look like one or another of my relatives. The whole time I was thinking e.g. "Wow, Aunt Pat and Aunt Anne are really hating on each other."
(1) Wed Jan 18 2017 13:20 Jokes For Minecrafters:
The last time I went to California, my nephew told me lots of punny jokes about animals ("Why are cats so vain? Because they're purr-fect.") He'd gotten these jokes from a Pokémon joke book, in which the jokes were about Pokémon ("Why are Meowth so vain? Because they're purr-fect."), and kindly translated the Pokémon into real animals for my benefit. Which worked out well because the jokes had clearly been about real animals to begin with.
This reminded me that I'd been meaning to report back about two other joke books about a common childhood obsession: Jokes for Minecrafters and Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters. I'm really interested in the shady but seemingly profitable world of unlicensed Minecraft books. I've seen Minecraft self-insert fanfic being sold as an 80-page chapter book at Target! I applaud Mojang's lax stance on fan works but that seems a little excessive.
I recall from my own childhood that this sort of obsession-feeding book is usually a big disappointment once obtained. Themed joke books are the worst because they're often a big cash-in on preexisting folk jokes. Plus you have to find someone who's as big a nerd as you, and wants to listen to you tell the jokes instead of reading the book themselves.
I was prepared for disappointment, but I had to find out what Minecraft kids' jokes were like, so I ventured one more time into a world I'd abandoned long ago. Fortunately, this time I didn't have to pay the Troll Book Club to send me two slim paperbacks. I just put the ebooks on hold at NYPL.
And... the best joke in the series is probably the very first one in Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters:
Q: What happens when a creeper walks into a bar?
A: Everyone dies.
It's all downhill from there. Here are the two runners-up:
Q: Why do players shop at Endermen yard sales?
A: To get their stuff back.
Q: Do zombies eat popcorn with their fingers?
A: No, they eat their fingers separately.
I'm not here to make fun of bad jokes, because comedy is hard, but most of the book is more like this:
Q: What did the pig say to the creeper?
A: Nothing. The creeper blew up the pig.
Many entries have the form of jokes, but are actually Minecraft trivia. Here's one I didn't know:
Q: How do zombies and skeletons keep from burning during the day?
A: They stand on soul sand.
This one hasn't aged well:
Alex: "What do you call a polar bear in Minecraft?"
Steve: "I don't know. What?"
Alex: "Lost, because there are no polar bears in Minecraft!"
I need some help on this one:
Q: What happened when it became so cold in the icy biome?
A: The snow golems were holding up pictures of thumbs!
There are also many jokes that require knowledge of the Orespawn mod, which I'd never heard of. One book had a separate chapter dealing with "mods", but a lot of Orespawn jokes were not in that chapter. This seemed unfair to kids who are just trying to understand jokes and maybe laugh a couple times.
This one makes me irrationally angry:
First player: "I heard the End has its own soundtrack."
Second player: "What does it sound like?"
First player: "You can only hear it in the End."
This one has an artifact that makes me think most of the book was copy-and-pasted from an IM conversation:
You might be a Minecraft addict if you forget to give your mom a present for her birthday and instead get her a Minecraft account XD.
Anyway, I'm here to tell you that the terrible Amazon reviews of these books are more or less accurate. In the spirit of reconciliation, I thought I'd close by trying my hand at corny Minecraft jokes:
Q: How does Steve detect if someone is raiding his marijuana stash?
A: He uses a BUD switch.
That one's on the house!
Mon Jan 16 2017 13:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Accomplishments:
Library Work: In 2016 SimplyE went from a two-developer team with me as backend guy, to a seven-developer team with me as architect. We launched the SimplyE reader for NYPL patrons and started work on rolling it out to other libraries across the country. We also launched the Open Ebooks project, which led to our brush with power.
I'm not comfortable bragging about the SimplyE product because it needs a lot of improvements, and I feel like saying how nice it is will lead to people thinking (or at least asserting) that I'm okay with the status quo. But if you compare it to the status quo ante, it's really damn good. We took checking out an ebook from a 17-step process to a 3-step process. And I'm totally happy bragging about the team, which is incredible. For the first time I ran a bunch of job searches and decided who to hire, and I think the past year's work has proven I made good choices.
At the end of the year, NYPL recognized our team with a Library Leadership Award! To the right is our official team photo (two of the developers are not pictured). I think this is an incredible achievement for a team that basically didn't exist a year ago.
Writing: Late 2015 I pitched a number of novels to my agent and we decided on Mine, a Rendezvous with Rama type political thriller. Lately, though, I'm haunted by the pitch I wrote for Nice Things, a novel about the fascist takeover of the Federation. Sometimes when I sit down to write Mine I feel like I should be writing Nice Things instead, but most of the time I'm glad I'm working on absolutely anything else.
Progress on Mine is slow but steady. But slow. My increased responsibilities at the library haven't been good for writing time.
Short stories I wrote in 2016 include "Quest For Boredom" (which I... supposedly sold??? but haven't heard back), "The Girls Boys Don't Notice" (possibly the best title I will ever come up with), "Fool, Professor, Peasant, King", and the unsellable "Unicode Changelog", which I might self-publish.
Situation Normal is still on the Desks of Editors.
Bots: I've drastically scaled down my use of Twitter because I don't like what it does to my brain. As a corollary, I don't really like that my whimsical software encourages people to spend more time on Twitter. So I've stopped putting bots on Twitter. Also, Twitter randomly suspends my bots without telling me. After the completely innocuous Vintage Groaners was suspended, I decided it wasn't worth the hassle.
I've thought about taking down my bots in a fiery cataclysm, rather than letting Twitter pick them off one by one, but a lot of people get happiness from Minecraft Signs, Hapax Hegemon, and (finally!) Smooth Unicode, so I'll commit to keeping the big ones working at least. I have a solution in mind for my computational creativity going forward, but I'm pretty damn busy so it's going to be a while. I've been doing this stuff since 1998 and it's still something I like, so consider this not a goodbot, but rather au botvoir.
Here's the 2016 robot roll call: