Thu Mar 22 2018 21:09 Direct Observation of the MST3K-IMDB Effect:
The MST3K-IMDB effect, first hypothesized in 2011, is the effect on a movie's IMDB rating caused solely by its having appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000. A bad movie isn't made any worse by being on MST3K, but MST3K shows movies in the context of a fiction where they're an instrument of torture. You can model an episode of MST3K as a negative advertisement, designed to make the viewer feel negatively about a movie they'd never heard of before. The MST3K-IMDB effect measures the 'success' of the negative ad.
Previously, the MST3K-IMDB effect could only be observed through its gravitational tug on one movie out of a director's oeuvre. But in 2017, Mystery Science Theater: The Return took movies that for years had sat in the dustbin of history and turned them into well-known "MST3K movies". Thanks to my trusty 2015 IMDB data dump, I'm in a position to compare the ratings of all these movies before and after they were on MST3K, providing the first direct images of the MST3K-IMDB effect.
First, here's my control group: a comparison of the 2015 and 2018 ratings for some random movies that weren't on MST3K:TR. As you can see, IMDB ratings for old movies are normally very stable, not changing by more than a couple percent over three years.
||Percentage change in rating
|Night of the Lepus ||3.9 ||2782 ||4 ||3484 ||2%|
|Embryo ||4.9 ||824 ||5 ||1052 ||2%|
|The Ninth Configuration ||7.3 ||3486 ||7.2 ||4893 ||-2%|
|Gorgo ||5.5 ||1846 ||5.6 ||2479 ||1%|
|O Fantasma (2000) ||5.9 ||1859 ||5.7 ||2449 ||-4%|
|They’re A Weird Mob ||6.6 ||550 ||6.6 ||686 ||0%|
My methodology: the first two movies in that list are the sort of thing you see on MST3K. The Ninth Configuration is a more highbrow obscure film. Gorgo was on MST3K a long time ago, so presumably the MST3K-IMDB effect is already priced in. The last two are movies of MST3K-level obscurity chosen at random. I would love to do this for every single movie in the 2015 data dump and just take an average, but I can't because IMDB doesn't offer full data dumps anymore.
Update: I took another look and this analysis is in fact possible once I write some code to compare the old and new IMDB dump formats. For non-porno feature films, the mean rating change between 2015/01/31 and 2017/12/24 is 0.13 stars. The median is 0.10 stars. Percentage-wise, it's 3% and 1%. So on average, IMDB ratings go very slightly up over time—a phenomenon I also noticed with Board Game Geek ratings.
Now, the moment I've all been waiting for, the experimental group. This table compares the 2015 and 2018 ratings of the movies that appeared in the first season of MST3K:TR. I've also included the rating of the MST3K:TR episode itself, as well as the number of votes IMDB used to calculate each rating.
Here, the percentage change in rating is largely due to the MST3K-IMDB effect. This is the percentage of a movie's previous rating that it lost just by being mocked on MST3K.
||Percentage change in rating
||MST3K:TR episode rating
||MST3K:TR episode votes
|Reptilicus ||4 ||1599 ||3.6 ||2962 ||-10% ||7.8 ||498|
|Cry Wilderness ||5.2 ||37 ||2 ||877 ||-62% ||8.3 ||819|
|The Time Travelers ||6 ||753 ||5.1 ||1682 ||-15% ||7.4 ||256|
|Avalanche ||4.2 ||594 ||3.7 ||1352 ||-12% ||8 ||261|
|The Beast of Hollow Mountain ||5 ||509 ||4.2 ||1182 ||-16% ||7.4 ||230|
|Starcrash ||4 ||2946 ||3.9 ||4699 ||-3% ||7.7 ||235|
|The Land Time Forgot ||5.7 ||3085 ||5.7 ||4558 ||0% ||7.4 ||197|
|The Loves of Hercules ||3.2 ||349 ||3 ||787 ||-7% ||7.2 ||181|
|Yongary ||4.3 ||592 ||3.9 ||1102 ||-10% ||7.8 ||201|
|Wizards of the Lost Kingdom ||2.6 ||502 ||2.6 ||1037 ||0% ||7.8 ||187|
|Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II ||1.8 ||297 ||1.8 ||716 ||0% ||7.4 ||168|
|Carnival Magic ||3.8 ||120 ||2.4 ||463 ||-37% ||7.2 ||167 |
|The Christmas that Almost Wasn't ||5.5 ||204 ||3.8 ||541 ||-31% ||7.1 ||148|
|At the Earth's Core ||5.2 ||2276 ||5.2 ||3410 ||0% ||7.2 ||134|
The MST3K-IMDB effect is real, but it's not a constant. In the control group we saw movie ratings vary up and down, seemingly at random. With MST3K:TR movies the trend is clearly down. But for five of the fourteen movies we see no effect, or an effect so small that it could have been due to chance.
I wasn't expecting this result! I don't see a pattern in the five movies that lack an MST3K-IMDB effect; they aren't the best-rated movies or the worst, they weren't in better- or worse-rated episodes of MST3K, they aren't from a different time period than the others. Sometimes MST3K just doesn't change peoples' opinion about a movie.
But sometimes it does. Take a look at Cry Wilderness, which lost over half of its IMDB rating due to being on by far the highest-rated episode of MST3K:TR. It went from a regular bad movie to being Manos-level. Part of this is just that its pre-MST3K rating of 5.2 was taken from a very small sample of just 37 votes—the kind of super-obscure film I usually omit in IMDB analyses. But two other movies—Carnival Magic and The Christmas that Almost Wasn't—also have very large rating shifts.
Here's the closest I can come to a unified theory of what happened to those three movies. I took the number of post-2015 votes for each MST3K:TR movie and divided the post-2015 change in IMDB rating by that number of votes. This gives a guess at an incremental per-person MST3K-IMDB effect. So, every time someone saw a movie on MST3K and then rated the movie, we can say its rating went down by an average number of stars.
For most of the movies this number is zero (people gave the movie the same rating as if it hadn't been on MST3K at all) or infinitesimal (a lot of people voted and the IMDB rating went down a little bit), on the order of -1.0*10-3 stars. But three stand out. For Cry Wilderness the per-person MST3K-IMDB effect is -3.8*10-3 stars. For Carnival Magic it's -4.1*10-3. And for The Christmas that Almost Wasn't it's an amazing (relatively speaking) -5.0*10-3 stars.
So in a sense the negative ad campaign against The Christmas that Almost Wasn't was the most successful one here. That was the episode that got people the most riled up against the movie they'd just watched. But that movie's IMDB rating didn't go down as much as Cry Wilderness's, because the Cry Wilderness episode got more people to actually go vote the movie down.
But beyond those three movies, the per-person MST3K-IMDB effect is a lot smaller. What's the difference? Are those three movies unusually MST3K-compatible? Are those episodes meaner? It probably has something to do with the content of the movie, since the two Wizards of the Lost Kingdom movies have identical MST3K-IMDB effects of zero. Beyond that, I don't know.
Obviously there is no real propaganda campaign; no one set out to lower these obscure movies' ratings by making fun of them on Netflix. But I think this is a natural experiment showing what can happen to ratings and metrics even when the stakes are very low and no one has malicious intent.
Fri Mar 02 2018 00:48 February Film Roundup:
- Newton (2017): This the closest I've seen to an Indian version of a Billy Wilder movie, which (see Fig. 1) means it's my favorite Indian movie. It's made with a mix of cynicism about and sincere belief in democracy. It sets up two characters on a course to romance, but doesn't actually show the romance and there's no guarantee it happens. Shorter than two hours, falls into the same "low violence, high suspense" quadrant as Dog Day Afternoon... just great stuff all around.
- The Heartbreak Kid (1972): I've now completed the quadfecta of Elaine May films. Sumana and I saw this one on a date; our relationship is at the point where we can have a date where we watch a movie about catastrophically bad relationships. You might not want to see this movie on a third date, or if you got married less than a year ago.
The film is good, but not a classic like Ishtar or A New Leaf. However, one thing those movies didn't have was Eddie Albert stealing the show as Mr. Corcoran. A funny character and great delivery in every scene. For the final time, I'll use this review as a soapbox to say that Elaine May is a really good director who should not be in movie jail. On a positive note, Ishtar's IMDB rating has gone up from 3.9 to 4.2 in the past five years.
- The Greatest Showman (2017): Saw with Susanna on a trip to California. I don't know about this one, I just don't know. The opening number is fabulous but then... yeah, I can't recommend it.
I get that P. T. Barnum inhabits the shadow world of the American tall tale, alongside Paul Bunyan and Hunter S. Thompson, so you can do whatever you want with his story without caring about things like 'accuracy'. But why spend the first act of a movie humanizing a con man, when you could not do that and have an awesome con man musical like The Music Man?
This movie just made me think about how great The Music Man is. How Harold Hill starts off with no redeeming qualities but is civilized by the decency of the people he interacts with. That's how you humanize a con man in a family-friendly musical. At any rate, I think you could write a screenplay that stuck closer to this classic biography of Barnum but left most of the musical numbers intact.
Sun Feb 18 2018 19:33 January Film Roundup:
Sorry for the delay! Also sorry that I only saw two movies last month. Here we go!
- Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015): The poster for this movie looks really cool, in fact the whole thing looks really cool, with its recreation of 1940s Calcutta. However, I thought this film was paced way too slowly. It's got the amount of complexity of an American noir movie, but drawn out to Indian-movie length. So in the end, not a recommendation. I did like the appearance of Chinese and Japanese actors, something I've rarely seen in Indian films.
- Moments choisis des histoire(s) du cinéma (1994): I pitched this to Sumana as "Godard makes a vid", we saw it together and it turned out to be one of those movies that "I don't regret watching per se", which is kind of weak sauce for a date movie. Really glad we caught the ninety-minute cut instead of the four-hour miniseries.
A big reason I don't regret watching this movie is it performed a valuable service for me in dispelling some of the mystique around Godard and his peers. I don't make films myself, so sometimes I watch these New Wave movies and it feels like I don't "get it", like these dudes have some unique French insight into the human condition. But when Godard has his chance to soapbox, it turns out he's concerned with the same stuff other twentieth-century creative types are worried about: war, corruption, ephemerality. So even if I don't get it, I feel at least the "it" I don't get is something that I've come to understand through other means.
This (last) month the Television Spotlight turns to "Forged in Fire", the improbable History Channel reality show that is even more relentlessly positive than "The Great British Bake-Off". (Especially as Paul Hollywood has become meaner and meaner, taking on the aspect of an out-of-control death computer from a ST:TOS episode.) "Forged in Fire" is all about creating knives and other instruments of slicy death, but the contestants and judges are all super nice and supportive of each other.
Someone's sword will shatter on a pig carcass and the judge will say "Well, we had a little problem here." We recently saw an episode where a guy sounded like he wanted to start some typical reality-show drama, and either no one took the bait, or they edited it out, or he wasn't able to try anything because the whole time you're on camera you have a physically demanding task to focus on. I don't know how high our tolerance will be for a really formulaic show, but we're not tired of it yet.
Wed Jan 17 2018 09:32 Bot Muse:
I finished reading through Seeds #2 and the last article was a treat: "Popular Visual Descriptions of Early Generative Systems" by James Ryan, a survey of illustrations used in 1950s and 1960s media to convey the concept of generative art. Lots of botniks taking jobs from beatniks, but the best bit is the wind-up muse of the "computer poet", taken from an old New York Times article:
Thu Jan 11 2018 12:59 Dinosaur Space:
I've been slowly reading through Issue #2 of Seeds, a zine created for 2017's Procjam, and I just encountered the fabulous page 81, where Elle Sullivan shows off the amazing Dinosaur Generator. It parameterizes dinosaur anatomy to explore the space of plausible dinosaur bodies.
A follow-up project, THE tinySAURUS GENERATOR, brings cute pixel dinosaurs to Twitter. I like the dinos, I like the detailed explanation, and I like the technique of having multiple templates, instead of trying to make one uber-template covering the entire creative space.
Wed Jan 10 2018 09:38 The Crummy.com Review of Things: 2017:
For many years now I've published a feature titled "The Year in 2017" and come up empty. But I'm happy to report that we've just completed a year that was chock-full of 2017. Enjoy, and here's to a 2017-ful 2018!
I saw fifty-three films in 2017, and twenty-six of them (plus one short) were good enough to be immortalized in Film Roundup Roundup. Of movies I saw for the first time in 2017, here are my top ten:
- Get Out (2017)
- Miracle Mile (1988)
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
- Logan Lucky (2017)
- Hidden Figures (2017)
- Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017)
- Coco (2017)
- Cops and Robbers (1973)
- The Teacher (2016)
- Trafic (1971)
In particular, Get Out and Miracle Mile are just what we need right now: rom-coms that turn into horror movies.
The Crummy.com Book of the Year is Democracy for Realists by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels, a survey of the political science literature that aims to figure out what is actually going on in peoples' heads when they vote.
Other highly recommended books I finished this year:
- The Broken Road, a posthumously released title by Patrick Leigh Fermor that closes out his incredibly purple walking travelogue.
- How Not to Network a Nation by Benjamin Peters
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
- Sourdough by Robin Sloan
- SPQR by Mary Beard
- Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America by Jack Barsky (cf.)
- Dungeon Hacks by David L. Craddock
Not a lot of games played this year. I think the only new board game I played in 2017 was season 2 of Pandemic Legacy. We're not even halfway through the year and at the moment I'm really angry at the game, so not the best time to ask me for my opinion.
The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Streets of Rogue", obtained through a Humble Bundle. It combines the combinatoric item explosion of Nethack with the immature mayhem and actual explosions of "Grand Theft Auto". It feels like the best possible VGA DOS game.
Also highly recommended: "Flinthook", "Oxygen Not Included", and "XCOM 2" (but only with the War of the Chosen DLC, which makes it an expensive proposition). I played "Frog Fractions 2" for a few hours, loved the creativity and the ZZT framing device, but when I stopped playing it I didn't pick it up again.
The 2017 bot situation is complicated. I put all of my bots on botsin.space, a Mastodon instance devoted to bots. (I also moved my main social media presence to botsin.space, using Twitter only for announcements.)
To help me out with the move I wrote a really neat framework called botfriend, which makes it easy to run some bot code on a schedule and publish the result to Mastodon and/or Twitter. I ported all my bots to this new system and got rid of a ton of duplicate code.
I even wrote three new Mastodon-exclusive bots:
I think botfriend is really useful if you manage a lot of bots, and pretty easy to get set up if you're familiar with Python, but I haven't polished it or done a big promotional push, because my big initial impetus was to stop the situation where each new bot I create makes Twitter a more interesting deathtrap. Once I got to that point, I decided all of my spare time should be devoted to finishing Mine. So there haven't been any new bots for a while, and doing a proper rollout of botfriend is a project I'm putting off until after this novel is done, just like other fun things like buying a Switch and playing a bunch of Mario.
I gave a couple talks early in the year at Penguicon but I think my best talk of 2017 was Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten... at Roguelike Celebration.
The Library Simplified team and I made a lot of progress towards creating a new library ebook ecosystem, though not as much as I'd hoped. There are now libraries in Maryland and California in the SimplyE system, and we've got code contributions coming in from outside NYPL.
I wrote four short stories in 2017: "Plain Sight", "Two Spacesuits" (probably the best one), "The Unicorn Cleanse", and "Continuity". No sales!
Situation Normal is still out to publishers. Mine is well past the halfway mark and I hope to finish a draft in the next few months, after which, botfriend, Mario, etc.
I saw the solar eclipse from Nashville, which was a lot of fun.
I kept my weight more or less under control in 2017, with the happy result that I recently bought a heavily discounted topcoat to deal with the winter chill, and unlike what happened eleven years ago, the topcoat looks pretty good on me. However, yesterday I wore it with a light-colored sweater and just like in 2006 I looked like a slob who had stolen someone else's topcoat. The difference being that I'm now in my late thirties and I don't care as much.
Wed Jan 03 2018 09:01 Film Roundup Special: Miracle Mile:
Way back in June I saw Miracle Mile (1988), and loved it, but didn't really review it because my recommendation is that you go in knowing nothing except that it's a very dark
horror movie. Now it's been six months and I'm going to talk about it, so skip this post if you want to try going in cold.
Miracle Mile evokes the fear its protagonist is feeling by making the experience of watching the movie congruent with Harry's plot arc. As he flails around looking for a loophole in
the end of the world, you're flailing around trying to figure out what kind of movie this is and how to watch it. The normal plot components from a zombie
movie—the vehicles, the weapons, the hyper-competent Denise
Crosby—are shown and then taken away. Landa (Crosby) leaves our
protagonist in the dust and Harry spends the rest of the movie trying to
catch up with her. Of course, it doesn't work, and even if it did,
it's far from clear that Landa will live much longer than Harry. This
is the nightmare where you try things and none of them work.
It is also my personal nightmare. I grew up in the Los Angeles of
this movie and my
father's postcards: Wilshire Boulevard, Fairfax, the La Brea Tar Pits. It's a
place of bright lights and high contrast: malls
frosted in neon, sunsets
and fountains. Film
noir shows the corruption beneath this bright facade; Miracle
Mile allows us to believe the facade, shows the blossoming of
love, and then just blows it all up.
This is what to be afraid of
in 1988, and now. This thing we've built could just go away, forever,
in moments, for no reason at all. The bad things in
other movies are just metaphors for this.
The worst part in Miracle Mile isn't even the nuclear
explosions; those are the gravestone on a civilization that has already
collapsed. It collapses in minutes, like, when Harry's in the bathroom
or something. There's a pretty good comic miniseries called "Memetic"
which covers the same ground but also introduces a lot of body horror,
In a normal emergency people will band together and help each
other, but Miracle Mile says that in the apocalypse all bets
are off. This Prisoner's Dilemma will not have any further iterations,
so you might as well go out with one last Defect. Despite it all, a
few people choose Cooperate. It does no good, but at least they die
well. That's what passes for hope in this movie.
Sun Dec 31 2017 22:52 December Film Roundup:
Happy new year! I feel like my reviews for this month are kind of cranky. Anyway, back to wrestling with this giant whale. From hell's heart I stab at thee!
- Psych: The Movie (2017): Absolutely no reason you should watch this unless you're a big Psych fan, but it's pretty fun if you are. It was always going to be a big love letter to the TV show, but it could have also been a sharp parody of Hallmark Christmas movies. I feel like that's what they were going for. But after Timothy Omundson had a minor stroke, James Roday had to rewrite the entire screenplay at the last minute, which, good job doing that on such short notice, but it really shows and it threw a wrench into any larger ambitions this movie may have had. Kurt Fuller is funny as always.
- Timecode (2000): This is a formally impressive work that has some fun Easter eggs and improvised bits but doesn't offer much in the way of plot, or interesting characters. Instead it relies on there being so much information on the screen that you can't process it all. As we as a society get better at dividing our attention (albeit at the expense of other skills), the trick becomes less impressive. It's tough to make something under such an intense constraint and also have it tell a cool story, but that's the difference between an interesting movie and a great one.
I liked the 'cool' security guard who was also everyone's drug dealer, and Kyle MacLachlan is delightful. Also, I wonder whether this movie came out at a specific time: when the quality you could get from a digital camera was about 25% that of film, such that four tiled digital images would look like a regular film.
- Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi (2017): Look, nothing will give you back the experience of being a kid and watching Star Wars for the first time. Chasing that feeling is a fool's errand. If you want a new Star Wars movie, one that engages with the material in an interesting way, then this is your film. Giving it to Rian Johnson was the right move.
If you just don't like Star Wars, this movie won't convince you. The franchise is still really slight, and they're giving it right back to Abrams for Episode IX. But The Last Jedi is the most fun I've had with a Star Wars movie since I was a kid.
- Coco (2017): Fun enough, but a reversion to the Pixar mean after the really innovative Inside Out. No complaints, though, I liked it the whole way through. Enjoyed all the antique tech.
This will have to suffice for a Television Spotlight: today I went to the museum and watched the solstice episode of "Fraggle Rock". I'd never seen "Fraggle Rock" before and I understand it's kinda didactic but I was not prepared for the sheer heaviness of the humanist message here. They're 'ringing' the Great Bell by using their own little bells to make a resonance chamber out of a bell-shaped empty space. Right? That seems like the correct read here. Unbelievable that they got away with that, but I'm all for it.
(2) Wed Dec 27 2017 08:14 It Was Twenty Years Ago Today:
Way back in the nineties, after it was clear that News You Can Bruise was an ongoing concern, I had the idea that on December 20, 2017, twenty years after the first "notebook entry" that could be called a blog post, I would write an entry with a Sgt. Pepper's reference in the title. This idea thrilled me, more for the glimpse it gave me of the future than anything else. But I was never so thrilled that I, say, set a reminder to make this post, or figured out anything to put in here besides the title and "wow, twenty years, huh?"
So, I missed the deadline by a week and I still don't really have anything to put in here apart from that title joke, which I now find corny, but I'm doing this anyway as a promise kept to my earlier self. This is the 7905th post to News You Can Bruise, and it's not even the least interesting one!
Sun Dec 24 2017 16:55 Christmas Movie Counterprogramming:
There are Christmas movies, movies that aspire to fill viewers with
the Christmas spirit. And then there are movies that are set
during Christmas but would rather do something else with your
time. The canonical example of the first type of movie is It's A
Wonderful Life (1946); the canonical example of the second is
Die Hard (1988).
If you're sick of watching It's A Wonderful Life every year,
then mixing it up with Die Hard might be nice, but once you
open that door you've got a lot of additional possibilities, and
watching Die Hard every year just to stick it to Capra fans is
silly. As a public service, I've used IMDB data to find the top-rated
'Christmas' movies for use in your holiday counterprogramming.
I used an IMDB data dump (see postscript) to find every movie
tagged with the christmas keyword, excluding documentaries,
movies with 'Christmas' or 'Holiday' in the title, and movies in
Christmas Films" category. I went through what remained and picked
out films that were set as a whole over the Christmas holidays or otherwise had a pervasive Christmas element—a
lot of top movies like Goodfellas and Full Metal Jacket and Citizen Kane seem to only have one memorable Christmas scene. Here are all the
matching films with an IMDB rating of 8.0 or higher.
- The Godfather (1972)
- The Apartment (1960)
- Pelísky (1999)
- Plácido (1961)
- Jagten (2012)
- The Thin Man (1934)
- The Lion in Winter (1968)
- Twelve Monkeys (1995)
- The King's Speech (2010)
- Ma nuit chez Maud (1969)
- In Bruges (2008)
- C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
- Brazil (1985)
I've seen seven of these movies and I'm pretty happy with these results. If I wanted to watch a movie that fits this niche it would
definitely be The Apartment, and The Godfather is kind
of a marginal case.
Postscript: unfortunately, IMDB changed their data format
recently to a format that is a lot easier to parse than what they had
before, but which is missing important pieces of information like
movie ratings and keywords, which makes a project like this impossible and renders the dataset as a whole nearly devoid of interest. It's been a fun ride, IMDB data
dumps. From Ghostbusters Past to Worst Best Picture to The MST3K-IMDB Effect to You Can't Be Serious to I Should Be In That Spoof to Where's that Golden Age? to Worst Episode Ever, the old, hacky, IMDB
dumps from an FTP site have provided me with quality data and my
readers with much entertainment.
But we all knew it was only a matter of time until someone at
Amazon said "Wait a minute..." and had a meeting with someone at
IMDB. So from this point on, all of my IMDB projects will use the last
full IMDB dump I got, for Ghostbusters Past in early 2015.
(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"?