Fri Dec 07 2018 17:34 November Film Roundup:
- Attack the Block (2011): Good action, cool alien effects, lots of fun in a "simple sci-fi action film" way. The plot is something you'd see in the 80s, right? Or even the 50s. But nobody did it this way before.
- No Country For Old Men (2007): This was good but was it Best Picture good? I'd have given the 2007 Oscar nod to Hot Fuzz, so I'm clearly not Academy material. I did like the way this film ignored the sunk cost fallacy, killing characters off regardless of how much time had been spent exploring their psychologies. Very Psycho.
The obvious symbolism is that Javier Bardem's character represents Death, but I like to think of him as representing Entropy instead. Try it out!
- True Grit (2010): One of the things I love in stories, which the Coens do really well (but sometimes choose not to do, see below), is showing someone who isn't "supposed to" be in this kind of story. Either because Hollywood stereotypes say this isn't their story (Marge Gunderson) or because they're actually unqualified (the Dude). This film starts out real strong in that area, and then not so much. The first half-hour would have been a great addition to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (again, see below). Then do a Greed-style title card and cut most of the rest.
- Infinite Football (2018): We thought this would be "17776: The Movie", but it ain't. It's not even a meditation on what "rules" are, because the bureaucracy scenes don't show the rules of bureaucracy, such as they are, in action. Sumana compared this film to The Peacemaker because it's about a guy who's really devoted to one project and lets a filmmaker get very intimate showing its effect on his life. Overall, a cut above the average meandering Eastern-European documentary.
Also, apparently in Romania the sport called "football" is slightly different? More like soccer. Who knew?
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): Loved the titular segment. So corny. Also really liked "The Gal Who Got Rattled" but felt ripped off by the ending in a way that this non-hand-wringing roundtable gets at pretty well. All these stories are taking place during an enormous heist/misunderstanding/murder spree/clusterfuck that's like every Coen Brothers movie happening simultaneously, and although the Coens are aware of this and certainly not celebrating it, they're also not giving it the treatment they'd give a convenience store robbery.
- Mama Mia: Here We Go Again (2018): Seen on a plane. A great movie to see on a plane. The 'Waterloo' segment is fab, everything else a welcome distraction from the tedium of plane travel. To answer the implicit question I had while this movie was in theaters, the dozens of people on the poster aren't new characters, they're flashback versions of the people from the first movie, like in Dongal. They're all my friends now... my plane friends... whenever I'm on a plane, I can count on them. Sorry, I fell asleep. I have a hard time falling asleep on a plane, but an easy time when thinking about being on a plane. It's my curse.
Everyone who dies should be able to return for one last musical number.
- F For Fake (1973): Like Italianamerican and Daguerreotypes, this is one of those films that would be a Youtube video today. Actually it reminds me of Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting, which might would explain why Every Frame a Painting mentions it so often. Like with The Third Man, there's a piece of metadata about this film that will be a major spoiler if you notice it. But I was still along for the ride. I enjoy Orson Welles as a safely dead blowhard, his talent and his ego forever locked in a giant squid/sperm whale deathmatch.
- Inquiring Nuns (1968): The nuns are back! The film was remastered and this time I took Sumana, who loved it. To add a bit of thought to my previous review, all interview subjects are putting on an act to some extent. The highly artificial setup of these particular interviews forces people into their acts, but the nuns are serious in trying to get behind the acts. One guy in the art museum starts off sarcastic and one of the nuns asks "Is that a sincere answer?" and gets him to open up.
Director Gordon Quinn was present at the screening and mentioned that the nuns are still alive, although neither remains a nun. One married a former priest who first saw her in Inquiring Nuns! Both women found making the film a positive experience and one of them has done Q&A at screenings. Sumana asked: when Quinn was performing meta-interviews to find the nuns to use in the film, what was he looking for? "Good listeners."
(2) Fri Nov 16 2018 20:24 Junk Mail, Yorebooks, Podcast Roulette:
I've come back to working on botfriend as a break from writing, and I've got some new stuff to show you. It's all based around code I put in olipy for dealing with the Internet Archive.
The Archive has so much stuff that if you're not looking for something specific, random selection is the best way to experience it. So I've made it really easy to pick a random item from an IA collection, and (if it's a textual collection) pick any page from that item and get it as an image.
Here's Junk Mail Bot, which provides a random-sample view of this collection. Just look at this cool plotter! Every item has a link to the IA web viewer so you can see it in context.
Yorebooks is the exact same bot but for the collection of yearbooks. I'm partial to this jaunty slice of 1940s writing from the Illinois State Normal university.
These bots were inspired by Rob Manuel's excellent YORE COMPUTER, and it's easy to make your own bots of this sort. In botfriend, a "random page from an Internet Archive collection" bot fits comfortably in fifty lines of code.
But maybe my cool Mastodon bots don't impress you. You miss the days when I would put new bots on Twitter, and Twitter would randomly suspend them. Actually maybe it wasn't random; maybe my bots insulted a Nazi or something. Anyway, I'm not coming back to Twitter but I can offer a compromise: how about a podcast?
The Internet Archive has over 150,000 archived episodes of podcasts, and people almost never listen to old episodes. Again, the "random sample" technique is appropriate here.
So I created Podcast Roulette, which picks a random episode of a random podcast every day and puts it into an RSS feed, creating a fun meta-podcast. In a doubly-meta twist, a lot of podcast episodes focus on one specific mostly-forgotten instantiation of something old, like Episode 384 of the Superman Fan Podcast, which covers a single issue of Action Comics.
I've been putting the sampled podcasts on my MP3 player and although I haven't yet found one that I want to put into heavy rotation, it gives me a feeling I haven't had in a while, the feeling of moving across the radio dial. Update: After a few more days, I realize that this also grants the thrill of eavesdropping.
Sat Nov 03 2018 17:44 October Film Roundup:
- The Brain (1988): I saw this as part of a MST3K Live event, which was really fun. Joel and Jonah brought an audience member on stage to riff with them! The film itself is great material for MST3K: long chase scenes, a goofy practical effect, a plot that's 100% cliche but could have been cool with the right execution, and not the right execution. Recommended if they're coming to your town.
- Lilo and Stitch (2002): A fun movie from Disney's "weird" period following the megahits of the early 90s. Sumana can't stand when fictional characters are jerks (also real people), so she did not have as good a time as I did, but I liked the technique of putting two jerks in the movie and making them care about each other.
Random question: do you think Bubbles is really a social worker, or is he a Man In Black who was rushed over to the likely crash site? His presence seems like a huge coincidence, but it could be something left over from an earlier draft of the screenplay. I could go either way. Probably overthinking it.
- White Christmas (1954): A little-known fact is that Irving Berlin wrote a sequel to "White Christmas", called "I'm Dreaming of a Bunch of Very Similar Musicals About Rural New England Inns That All Feature My Song 'White Christmas', Ensuring A Constant Stream of Royalties". It's not well known because whenever he tried to use it in a musical, it always made more sense to slot in "White Christmas" instead.
Anyway, Danny Kaye's in this one, and he's great. Good banter, fun dance numbers, mediocre songs. Unlike Holiday Inn there's no romantic blackface scene, but there is a whole song about how one misses the old-timey minstrel show. Just... keep it to yourself how much you miss that shit. Isn't there a song about yams we could be hearing instead?
- In Jackson Heights (2017): Saw the first half at the museum; I'll finish it up later. It was nice to see an in-depth look at a local neighborhood, but it was also nice to not see a three-hour movie all at once. It was really weird to see the camera pan over the exterior wall of the Trade Fair like it's the bazaar in Marrakesh or something. It's just pictures of produce!
Mon Oct 01 2018 21:45 September Film Roundup:
- Four Bags Full (1956): A.k.a. "La traversée de Paris", a.k.a. "A Pig Across Paris". I've wanted to see this film for a while, tried to get an English DVD online, ended up with a French DVD with no subtitles. But on a trip to Portland, Brendan and I went to Movie Madness and they had an English DVD for rent! Go figure.
Four Bags Full shows a snapshot of French film immediately before the New Wave, where the public was understanding if your film went to weird places, but it still had to have plot beats and action. It's really interesting, but not the amoral comedic heist I was hoping for. It was full of little glimpses of interesting characters such that I was often left wondering why they didn't do more with them. But people watching at the time probably thought "oh yeah, I remember THAT GUY from the occupation!", and a glimpse was plenty.
BTW, Movie Madness is a great store with an incredible selection, highly recommended.
- Thor: Ragnarok (2017): Sumana and I have an occasional tradition where we'll watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and then record a "podcast" called "Trek Talk". I put "podcast" in quotes because "Trek Talk" is not intended for public release. I put "Trek Talk" in quotes because it's the name of the podcast. We both watched TNG when we were kids and it's really close to our hearts, but we'd never actually watched together. Talking about it is really fun, gives us an appreciation of the actors and what it took to make the show, and lets us spin wild theories and tie together obscure worldbuilding threads that were never intended to mesh up. Like, what if scientific progress is so slow in the TNG timeframe because the Federation is terrible at putting on scientific conferences?
I bring this up because after watching Thor: Ragnarok Sumana and I spent about 45 minutes recording a special episode of "Thor Thalk", and without spending that much time talking about it with Sumana I wouldn't have figured out how to turn this into a great movie. Let me back up: this movie isn't great. It's got a fun bit with Dr. Strange at the beginning, a nice Dirk Gently reference, and then it splits into two disjoint plots: "Gladiators of the garbage planet" and "Lord of the Rings on a discworld the size of Catalina". The garbage planet is really fun! It's got a lot of what I liked about the first Guardians movie. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as always. But every scene on that damn discworld is dull, and there's a lot of 'em.
How to fix it? Well, at the end a spaceship from the garbage planet makes its way to Asgard, and things pick up a little. So... what if that happened, like, at the beginning of act two? Just open up one of those big wormholes. Let the Grandmaster and all his crass, materialistic buddies run down the Rainbow Road and corrupt this medieval fiefdom with holographic jewelry and alien porn. There's your Ragnarok!
I'm sure Goldblum's contract said "five scenes max, no stunts," so they couldn't have done it this way if they'd wanted to. The two halves of the movie stay separated, like an unloved McDLT. I'll just eat the half with the garbage planet, thanks.
- L'Atalante (1934): I kind of feel bad about not loving this movie. It's just one of those dreamy, super-melodramatic films. Reminded me a lot of Sunrise. I guess the appeal is that it combines the wonderful feelings around falling in love with the grimy everyday work of having to live together... on a boat? Maybe I'm annoyed because the couple's problems could have been largely avoided with better communication. This fact is of course something a couple needs to discover for themselves, but I don't think the characters actually discover it here.
I will say that director Jean Vigo had an intuitive grasp of what cinemagoers want to see: cats doing silly or cute things. He delivered, as far as was possible given the constraints of the 1930s French film industry. Cat antics galore in this one.
It's busy times for the ol' Television Spotlight. We now follow a number of good shows, and a lot of them just came off their season break, but I already told you that The Good Place and Better Call Saul are fun, and who needs more of the same? So let me tell you about The Dragon Prince, a new Netflix animated series from the makers of Television Spotlight favorite The Legend of Korra. Sumana was not impressed by the ponderous, didactic opening, which I admit was a little bit like the boring half of Thor: Ragnarok. But that's like three minutes long, and the rest of the show is pretty fun, with the cute animals, elemental magic systems, and young people having dangerous adventures we've come to expect.
Mon Sep 03 2018 00:07 August Film Roundup:
- Filmworker (2017): A chilling film about suppressing your own personality to merge with a collective intelligence. I'm not universally opposed to merging with a collective intelligence, in a sense we all do this, but I do think there needs to be a little give and take. It really seems like Stanley Kubrick used Leon Vitali as an offboard brain, in a way that goes beyond how most personal assistants are treated, and although Vitali doesn't seem to mind, some artful omissions (there's an obvious person who doesn't show up in Filmworker) make me think it hurt the people close to him.
- Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018): I've mentioned before that I didn't grow up with Mr. Rogers, but I
guess Sumana caught me up to speed pretty quickly because there wasn't
much new to me in this documentary. It covers most of the
greatest hits, apart from Rogers's testimony in favor of VCR time-shifting, which
I guess normal people don't consider a "greatest hit".
The main food for thought I found was someone's claim that we're
afraid of how common Fred Rogers-style courage and decency is. It's
the flip side of the banality of evil. If we build up
Mr. Rogers as a huge outlier, we don't have to think about where we
come up short.
- The Way Things Go (1987): A.k.a. "Der Lauf der Dinge".
A Rube Goldberg art film, another high-concept genre that's been replaced by a type of YouTube video. It's super creative, with a
lot of the physical humor you get from a Road Runner cartoon or an OK
Go music video... yeah, I'm just comparing it to other kinds of videos. There's a lot of bits here based on fire and chemical reactions, which those other videos tend not to try.
Perhaps the ultimate West German film, in that it's precisely engineered but it's filmed in this dingy warehouse and everything's filthy. Very enjoyable.
- your name. (2016): A.k.a. "Kimi no na wa." This had a dorky twist previously seen in a bad Deep Space Nine episode, but when the twist arrived I was so into the
story that I didn't care. A compelling plot, lots of good
character moments, beautiful animation. I especially loved the bit
near the beginning where the two characters are figuring out the rules
of the game, as it were.
I'm sure this happens in anime all the time, but this was the first
time I'd seen mojibake as a plot element.
- Cielo (2017): After seeing the original Godzilla at the museum in 2014 I was annoyed to overhear someone talking about how the Godzilla suit effect wasn't as good as King Kong (presumably the 1933 stop-motion one). There, I thought, goes one person who did not leave the theater totally mystified and overwhelmed by Godzilla's invincibility. I mean, maybe the rubber suit is better, maybe not, but if that's how you're evaluating Godzilla I'm not sure you were fully exposed to the emotional sandblasting that film provides.
This went into my secret file of "stories too petty to tell in Film Roundup", but recently I saw Cielo at Film Forum and after the
movie I sat to collect my thoughts, which were dominated by people in
the back complaining about the recently renovated seats. It made me
think of the Godzilla thing. You paid to watch a
documentary about the wonders of the cosmos, a movie with some pretty
incredible time-lapse night sky photography. Do you not have the
emotional space to talk about that with your friends, and you're
complaining about the seats as a defense mechanism?
I realize that complaining about your fellow theater-goers is about as bad as complaining about the seating, so no more of that. Cielo was not the best space movie I've ever seen, but the photography was beautiful and the interviews with the folks who live under that sky were interesting.
The new seats are fine.
- Matewan (1987): A thrilling true-story Western about union organizing. I never heard of writer/director John Sayles before; turns out he's an unusually socially-conscious graduate of the Roger Corman School of Cheap-Ass Filmmaking. I'm interested in seeing more of his stuff.
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003): The Coens made a rom-com just for men, which was... a losing proposition, box-office wise. It's a fun movie but it's got a lot of problems. Sumana: "There's some good banter but it's not, like, Lady Eve level."
Another example: the pacing is weird. It would be normal thriller pacing if Catherine Zeta-Jones was the main character, but from the perspective of the George Clooney character the movie grinds occasionally as it switches gears.
Like I said, it is fun but it's on the lower end of the Coen output for sure. It's funnier than Burn After Reading, but BAR is a better movie.
Mon Aug 27 2018 21:21 Olipy and Botfriend—a Bot Bonanza!:
I'm happy to announce the formal release of two artistic software packages I've been working on for a while. Olipy (PyPI:
olipy) is a set of art supplies for manipulating text. It's got sophisticated tools for random selection, a Queneau assembly library, an easy-to-use Python interface to corpora, the *_ebooks algorithm, etc. etc. A lot of my bots are built off the code in here.
Speaking of bots, the second package is Botfriend (PyPI:
botfriend). This takes care of all of the boring parts of bot-writing (coding to the Twitter and Mastodon APIs, picking items from a backlog, scheduling posts), allowing you to focus on the fun of creating playful interventions into your friends' depressing social media experiences, bringing joy to all!
I've been using Botfriend to run my personal bots for about a year now. I recently packaged it, improved the docs greatly, and made it really easy to run from within a virtual environment. All you have to do is write the creative bit and put your publishing credentials in a config file. I hope it's useful to you!
Thanks to Allison Parrish for helping me through the realization that I could exploit the
pip installation process to install Botfriend's user interface. It feels like an exploit, anyway.
Sat Aug 04 2018 12:28 July Film Roundup:
- Big Business (1988): Julia Rios asked us to watch this movie in honor of her birthday, and even sent us a fun care package of props used in jokes (Doublemint gum, swan-shaped soap). The movie itself is really fun, a screwball comedy with a totally predictable plot and great jokes. Physical comedy, double roles, sight gags, sharp banter... a buffet of different types of 80s comedy, like a femme This is Spinal Tap.
- The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973): Another in the 1970s "racial slur in the title" action series. This reminded me of Ralph Bakshi's 1978 Lord of the Rings, in that the premise is brilliant but it ends abruptly, like they ran out of money, and I should probably just read the novel. However there are some great bits here, notably the code-switching bank robbery.
- Mamma Mia! (2008): This is not my kind of movie but Meryl Streep and the classic ABBA songs made it fun. I don't think we're going to see the sequel, but the sequel is what reminded Sumana of this movie and caused us to watch it, so an indirect marketing success?
- Sorry to Bother You (2018): This movie was in "okay" territory for me for most of the running time, but then there was a Cornetto-esque twist which was good on its own but also made me reevaluate the entire movie as a movie full of hidden Cornetto-type callbacks. Really good overall.
Wed Aug 01 2018 12:02:
Frances Daily has completed its run, 6.5 years after it launched. This was effectively my first social media bot (I don't count Ariel and Tetsuo for reasons you probably don't care about) and it's really meaningful to me to see it completed.
Unlike my other bots, I never ported Frances Daily to Mastodon. It wasn't really worth it; by the time I became disgusted with Twitter, this bot was in the middle of a two-year silent period and only had twelve more posts to make. So Frances Daily kind of acts as a set of bookends on my Twitter creative period.
If you met me recently, you might get something out of reading Jabberwocky, my mother's old blog.
Fri Jul 06 2018 13:04 June Film Roundup:
Every movie I saw this month was great, blockbusters and block-ignorers alike.
- Deadpool 2 (2018): Saw it with Sarah, had a good time. Lots of silliness, some inventive action. However this franchise is getting a Muppets/Simpsons problem where there are too damn many characters. I guess it always had that problem, since the franchise is "X-Men", but before I didn't have to care because the first Deadpool was this freak long-shot thing they made with leftovers. Now it's characters galore! and the only new one I care about is Domino, whose superpower is hilarious. Fun despite my griping. In fact, maybe the griping makes it fun?! Is this the day I truly become a comics nerd?
- Daguerréotypes (1976): Sumana and I loved this quiet film made under a serious constraint: director Agnès Varda was at home with an infant, so she made a film about her neighborhood. But her camera had a fifty-yard cord and her neighbors apparently wouldn't let her use their oil-crisis French electricity, so she couldn't travel more than fifty yards away from an electrical socket I imagine was in her living room.
I don't know which of these constraints were self-chosen and which were of necessity, but it adds up to something really fun. Like Scorsese's Italianamerican (1974), amateurs now make this sort of film casually and they're treated as ephemera, but this was made at a time when it took professionals with fancy equipment. It's an interesting piece of time travel, it sometimes seems massively overengineered by modern standards, but there are also lots of fun juxtapositions that you get from having a professional in the editing booth. (Or, in fact, having an editing booth at all.)
- Oceans Eight (2018): This movie achieved the impossible: it made me care about the Met Gala for ninety minutes (more like seventy, allowing for time for the heist to be introduced). Sumana took umbrage at this and pointed me to Genevieve Valentine's blog post about the 2018 Gala, which only made it clear to me what a success Oceans Eight is on these terms. Like Ethereum or EVE Online, it's one of those things where I'm only interested if you've come up with some clever way of robbing it. I'd surely be upset if you stole the ink cakes from the Met, but here it's just jewels.
Anyway, a fun movie. The aftermath of the heist, with the Barton Keyes-esque insurance investigator and the clever disposal of the loot, was especially nice. I was confused by the ending, which seemed a real tonal shift, but on IMDB afterwards I learned they'd brought in a character from the other "Oceans" movies, which I haven't seen. Status: EXPLAINED.
- The Peacemaker (2016): Not the 1997 George Clooney movie but a documentary about Padraig O'Malley, who came up with an effective way of kickstarting the Irish peace process and has been trying to scale it up ever since. I'll link to the museum's page for the screening because IMDB's page doesn't have any real info on the film. This was a really amazing piece of work, very intimate, and it really spoke to the sense of futility/dedication I feel about my lifelong slow boring of hard boards. "Justice will take us millions of intricate moves."
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988): I've now seen this movie three times and I've read the book, so clearly I like it a lot, but I always come away disappointed because I feel much better stories are tantalizingly close to the one they filmed. The last action scene, in particular, is dull because the film's most interesting characters are tied up and unable to participate. There's a line like "Use the escape-proof toon rope!" What a cop-out. Spend another five million dollars on one scene, would ya? Because of this I always leave the metaphorical theater with a bad taste in my mouth.
My other problem is the fictional world is crammed full of worldbuilding that would make for great noir but it's neglected in favor of things I found less interesting. Particularly the fucked-up relationship between humans and toons, and Judge Doom's... what's his motivation? Is he a quisling? Is he summoning some Dip-powered toon elder god? Yeah, I'm overthinking it, he's just a generic 80s movie villain, which is my actual point: they attached all this amazing technical wizardry and worldbuilding to a popcorn-noir movie with a generic 80s villain.
That's life. You can't change too many variables at once. I'm sure they had to fight like hell to get even what we see on screen. I'm glad this movie exists, but it could have been more. I haven't seen Alien Nation (also 1988) in a long time and I'm worried I'll discover it was just a cop movie.
An old version of IMDB trivia says: "According to director Robert Zemeckis, there's an old superstition that films with a question mark in the title do badly at the box office." However Zemeckis is the only named source of this information I can find -- current IMDB trivia just repeats this superstition without crediting it to anyone. Maybe someone asked Zemeckis about this at a con and he said "No! It's an old superstition! Ask anyone!"
If this is an old, widespread superstition, it would explain why I haven't been able to get the green light for my awesome screenplay, Macbeth?. However, since superstitions are fears with no rational basis, I should be able to change peoples' minds about this by showing them some data.
Using an IMDB data dump I found twenty-eight pairs of feature films whose titles were identical except for a question mark. (This includes two films called Who Cares?, which I matched against the same Who Cares.) For each pair of films, I checked which film had the higher IMDB rating and which had more rating votes. Here are the totals:
|Higher rating||More votes|
|Question mark in title||16||14|
|No question mark in title||12||14|
As you can see, there is basically no difference. This is a result I would expect from comparing pairs of movies selected at random. Omitting a question mark from the title of your movie does nothing. Nothing!
The superstition does appear to be real, otherwise it's hard to explain titles like Who's Knocking At My Door (1967). But it's not a blanket thing -- What's Up, Doc? came out in 1972 and was a big hit. And the madness only affected the United States: Shall we dansu? came out in 1996 and was remade in 2004 as Shall We Dance.
Tue Jun 05 2018 09:33 Old Science Fiction Roundup:
I've got a bunch of these books of classic SF and you all know the score. I read from them occasionally. It's a mix of still-cool stuff, retro goodness, retro awfulness, and stories that are just plain bad. I write up the stuff I liked, as a way of tracking stories and techniques I think are successful.
First up is The IF Reader of Science Fiction, edited by Frederick Pohl in 1966. Not a lot of memorable stuff here, unfortunately. There's a Retief story ("Trick or Treaty") but it's not one of the better ones. Jonathan Brand's "Long Day in Court" provides more of the civil-service fun of a Retief story, but also has an unhealthy dose of the 1960s sexism that's generally kept on the back burner in Retief. I guess the best thing in this anthology is Fred Saberhagen's "The Life Hater", which is short enough to coast to a pleasant stop on its setup and its twist.
Honorable mention to Fritz Leiber's "The 64-Square Madhouse", a pre-dramatization of the Kasparov-Deep Blue match. This story was probably really fun in the 1960s but not so much today. But check this out. When I hear "3D chess" I think of Tri-D chess, the game Spock plays on hors-d'oeuvre trays. I've never thought of anything else as being "3D chess". But, this story mentions another way to do "3D chess" that's obvious in retrospect: a game with a stack of eight standard chessboards and pieces able to move in three dimensions. This sort of "3D chess" variant has been around since the nineteenth century, so Leiber didn't invent it, but he did come up with a cool detail where astronauts and Air Force pilots play 3D chess to show off their ability to think in three dimensions.
Next up: Sinister Barrier, Eric Frank Russell's first novel (first serialized in 1939). I love Russell's later stuff, Wasp and Next of Kin, and this is... a first novel from twenty years earlier. Not great. But I did really like its dramatization of the difficulty in determining whether someone has been mind-controlled into opposing you, or whether they just disagree with you.
Russell shows up again in Groff Conklin's 1965 anthology Great Stories of Space Travel, with "Allamagoosa", a nice story of bureaucracy. Other highlights of this anthology include Ray Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope", and Isaac Asimov's "Blind Alley", another tale of bureaucracy. Really solid stories, but each is exactly what I would have expected from those three Great Men.
In non-predictable news, Damon Knight's "Cabin Boy" is truly a Great Story of Space Travel. I had no previous opinion of Damon Knight's fiction but this story's way ahead of its time. Knight gets you into the mind of the alien POV character by translating the alien part of the story into a different type of genre fiction, and switching between sci-fi cliches and the cliches of the other genre. These days such postmodern techniques are common, but by 1951 standards it's really damn innovative.
You can read "Cabin Boy" on the Internet Archive. Its original Galaxy blurb was: "If you believe you can write a blurb for this story, go ahead. In all science fiction, it is perhaps the weirdest encounter of alien races!" By coincidence, this was also my proposed back cover copy for Constellation Games. I hate writing blurbs, is what I'm saying.
Fri Jun 01 2018 09:17 May Film Roundup:
- Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle (2017) a.k.a. "Muchos hijos, un mono y un castillo". And now, the story of a wealthy family who lost everything. This movie presents in a fun way a family situation that is in many ways awful, and it's mainly possible because Julita (the mom, the focus of the movie) is hilarious. She has a dry, cynical matter-of-factness that I associate with my own mother, and thus with the general concept of 'mom'.
In a recent episode of the Retronauts podcast, someone described the line between "collecting" and "hoarding" as the point where your stuff starts interfering with your living space. This film shows that there's a pretty big loophole in that idea—if you're rich enough you can just keep buying more space.
Anyway, it's rare to see a movie about a family going through problems where the family sticks together and everyone basically gets along, so this one's recommended from me.
- Freebie and the Bean (1974): From the innocent days when you could put a racial slur in the title of your fun-time cop movie. There are a couple good jokes and some great car chases (including one that's right out of Batman '66) but not recommended overall. Perhaps it could be remade, pairing a veteran Chicago cop with Anish Kapoor's sculpture "Cloud Gate".
Old game watch: there's a Commando Machine Gun game in the bowling alley.
- Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976): This film was a critical flop when it was released, and it's not a great movie, but I had a really good time with it. I like a heist movie but I like it even more when it's got a snobs-vs.-slobs element, and Michael Caine is the ultimate heist snob.
This is also a vaudeville film, another big plus for me, but as a 70s vaudeville film there is some brief, halfhearted Elliot Gould blackface. On the bad-meter it's not as bad as Holiday Inn, but it's not exactly a reckoning with the past either. The museum handout quoted Burt Young's memoirs as saying that when they were making this movie everyone was backslapping and really self-congratulatory about how funny they were, and it really does show.
My aunt Anne once told me a story where the punchline was her saying in a fake Southern belle voice "We are at your disposal!" Well, in this movie Diane Keaton says basically the same line in the same voice, and it's making me question the veracity of Anne's story. But maybe it's a stereotypical Southern belle thing to say. Anne wouldn't tell a story that wasn't 100% true, right?
- A Wrinkle in Time (2018): There are three series my mother read to me when I was really small: the Narnia books, the Hobbit/LotR cycle, and the first three books in what I now know is called the Time Quintet. (The other two weren't out yet during the reading-to-Leonard years, and in fact I just found out they existed.) My adult opinion of these series are: meh, awesome, and hadn't really thought about it. But when this movie was announced I did think about it and I realized how important l'Engle's work has been to me. These days there are entire sections of bookstores devoted to weird genre fiction for kids, but back in the day A Wrinkle in Time was a real oasis. Middle-Earth was real weird to my mom's generation, but by the 1980s, Tolkien wasn't just for hard-core hippies anymore. And Narnia has always had a stick up its ass.
In comes l'Engle, mixing fantasy tropes like witches and unicorns with Christian concepts (not allegory, just the concepts) and topics in contemporary science. Just, every chapter there's another wild, original situation. Every book has a totally different concept based on the same themes. It really worked like a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane, and Spot.
Sadly, my epic poem about peeing, A Tinkle in Rhyme, is still unapproved by the l'Engle estate, so my appreciation for these books can only be shown through Film Roundup reviews. I really looked forward to seeing this adaptation, even though an adult nostalgic for an experience they had as a kid rarely ends well. And I was disappointed in approximately the way I expected to be, but it's a good kids' movie, they did a good job making it relevant to kids' concerns today, and kids who are going to grow up to write science fiction will read the books anyway.
The whole movie I was wondering how they were going to handle the revelation of IT, which of all the weird things in these books is the one that stands out in my mind. I still remember being five or whatever and my mom taking a deep breath and saying "It was a BRAIN!" What a terrifying reveal. But a disembodied brain is probably too gross for a PG movie while not being that scary on the screen. Even in the book, Meg realizes pretty quickly that although an oversized human brain is disgusting, if she had a scalpel she could just slice it up. So I think they did a good job setting the movie's climax inside a brain, a more abstract but also more terrifying space.
- The Prestige (2006): Cheryl recommended this to me when my writing group met to discuss Mine, for reasons that will be obvious when you read Mine. It's pretty fun. I didn't know Christopher Nolan directed, and back then Christopher Nolan wasn't DIRECTED BY CHRISTOPHER NOLAN BWAAAAAAAHM, so if I hadn't had an inkling of what to look for I would have been pretty surprised by the switch from one type of genre fiction to another.
This film has a lot of fridge logic that's mostly explainable by the fact that the two protagonists will go to almost any length to sabotage each other. A convenient way to avoid nitpicking questions, but one that means you can only tell stories about certain types of people.
I remember around the time The Dark Knight came out Sumana mentioned Michael Caine and I had no idea who he was. We went through his entire IMDB page; I'd never seen a movie with Michael Caine in it. By this time I've seen several (two this month, even!) and it was nice to see him in a role where he's not always cool and in command of the situation.
This month the Television Spotlight focuses on... a frosty mug of beer? Oh, it's "Sunshine Sento-Sake", which I found about through this 2017 review and then kept in my queue until the perfect moment. That moment is now: I'm dieting and there's a vicarious satisfaction in watching someone enjoying food I myself wouldn't want to eat. I don't like beer and am not big on Japanese food, but watching Takayuki Utsumi ditch his meaningless job, slack off in a bathhouse and then rehydrate with a cold one at a nearby dive is really enjoyable. It's also really repetitive. I don't know if I'll finish the series. Fun stuff, though.
Wed May 02 2018 21:56 March/April Film Roundup:
I skipped a month of roundups because I was head-down finishing Mine, but now the novel is done! Yay. Even so, I had to pad this roundup with a couple of movies I saw earlier, even last year, but forgot to review. Roll film!
- Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017): This was a nice slow-paced thriller. For decades other countries have been adapting the themes of the American western, and this movie does it really well; you get the loneliness, the lawlessness, plus the human connection you get in the better westerns.
- Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015): Cute and fun. Not complaining about this per se, but one of the things I love about the Wallace and Gromit animations is the buddy relationship, and the relationship between Shaun and the farmer amped up the part of that relationship I dislike (Wallace being really helpless and Gromit having to do all the work).
- Legally Blonde (2001): A fun movie with a satisfying wish-fulfillment twist you rarely see: the main character's incredibly smart but didn't know it because it's just kinda never come up. Less enjoyable: a crucial plot point relies on bisexual erasure. A mixed bag, I guess I'm saying. Clueless remains the champion of this mega-femme subgenre IMO.
- The Death of Stalin (2017): For so long I've been waiting for this to come to the US, because Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev is my dream role. And it delivers—he's the Buscemiest! The Mr. Pink of the postwar Soviet era. I'm not a big fan of The Thick of It, but that's partly because the stakes are so low. Ramping it way up makes the cynicism more sit-throughable, I think. Recommended overall. In my review of Muppets Most Wanted when I said "I don't think massive human rights violations are totally off-limits for humor," this is more what I was thinking of.
- The Court Jester (1955): Recommended by Cheryl, who said this and The Princess Bride were the movies she watched over and over again as a kid. We saw it with Sumana's mom during a visit and... a huge hit! Great songs, great physical comedy, good verbal sparring, decent actual sparring. Danny Kaye's split-personality bit puts The Nutty Professor to shame. My favorite film of 2018 so far, not that that's saying much.
- The Inspector General (1949): We doubled down on Danny, but this film wasn't nearly as good as The Court Jester. "Good bones", as they say in real estate, but a lot of the humor probably originates from the sparkling pen of Nikolai Gogol. I'll just check Wikipedia... "The great originality of [The Government Inspector's] plan consisted in the absence of all love interest and of sympathetic characters." Huh, okay, I guess the movie did come up with its own jokes, and it has some good ones. But the musical numbers are not fun, and way too long. That really drags.
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.