Thu Aug 03 2017 21:16 July Film Roundup:
July's always a good month for movies, in quality if not quantity. This July, News You Can Bruise Presents Film Roundup is proud to present... wait, what was I saying?
- The Big Sick (2017): Sumana's a big Kumail Nanjiani fan so we couldn't miss this pretty fun rom-com...? My romcometer isn't finely calibrated but this seems more towards the "rom-dram" region than most. On the plus side, that means not as much "awkward" humor (of which I'm not a fan) as I feared. I think cutting has a lot to do with it. As I recall, in this movie Nanjiani would have an awkward moment with (e.g.) a family member but they'd mercifully cut to something else, even if just another shot of the same scene. Proving, once and for all, that you don't have to let it linger.
- In Transit (2015): A soothing documentary about being on a train. Filmed up north where (according to the movie) Amtrak is the primary form of public transit. Lots of guys in their early twenties working in the fracking boom, trying to figure their lives out.
- Lincoln (2012): This movie has its cheesy Spielberg moments but it makes the minutiae of politics super compelling, as they should be presented. I dislike the ending. Totally unnecessary. But I understand that if Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln and doesn't do the Second Inaugural, a lot of people are going to want their money back. So I take it in stride.
- A Man For All Seasons (1966): Sumana and I enjoyed this tale of a civil servant who carries "If you can't say anything nice..." to the extreme. Is there a lesson in here for our time? Unfortunately, as a 501(3)(c) registered nonprofit, Film Roundup cannot take a stand on the relevance of a work of art to any partisan issue. But if you put together the first letter of every review this month, you'll find my answer. Psst, while they're piecing together the first letters, check this out: RELEVANT.
- Becket (1964): The last gasp of old-timey boring Hollywood spectacle. So many long, ponderous dialogue-free scenes with trumpets tooting away while someone walks up some stairs in the distance. Four years later, the same actor's playing the same character, and it's squalid and grimy and close-up with a deliberate lack of grandeur. Skip this one and move right to...
- The Lion in Winter (1968): Here we go, late-sixties Hollywood. They're still adapting plays
rather than having Robert de Niro improvise for ninety minutes, but they're tackling "adult" topics and it's super Freudian. I saw this film in high school (like, in class) for some reason and I don't think it's boasting to say that I now understand it on a much deeper level. Lots of creepy scenes where O'Toole is interacting with people not as a human being but as the State personified. Katharine Hepburn is brassy as always. "They don't call her Hep-BURN for nothing!"—The Sumana Daily Herald
- The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974): Apparently all movies whose titles end in "One Two Three" are awesome. I'll have to test this hypothesis using this Armenian film. Anyway, this is great stuff. Constant tension without constant violence, 70s New York stereotypes, cranky Walter Matthau, subway system behind-the-scenes... it's crime-and-grime cinema gold! It didn't hurt that I saw this at Film Forum on a sweaty July afternoon with a bunch of New Yorkers who'd gotten there on the subway. Lots of camaraderie in the theater, lots of laughs at hyper-specific New York in-jokes.
- Across 110th Street (1972): My high hopes for this film were not met. The first scene had me primed for a power struggle between the black mob and the Italian mob, but instead the two mobs teamed up to take out some small-timers, in an act of serious overkill. There are also some cops I didn't really care about. The small-timers were believably down-on-their-luck. I rate the "grime" in this one highly, and the "crime"... lowly.
- The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965): I'd read the book a long time ago, but in the interim I got The Spy Who Came In From The Cold mixed up with another le Carré novel, so I was confused and accidentally found it suspenseful. Good intrigue, not as much out-and-out spycraft as I like to see in these movies. I'd been expecting more, but it turns out I'd gotten this movie mixed up with the Alec Guinness version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Is there no end to this hall of mirrors???
Today the Television Spotlight announces the entrance of anime favorite Yuri!!! On Ice (2016). After Steven Universe took its turn in the Spotlight last month, I was 100% down for more queer animation, but I'd forgotten about a little thing called "reversion to the mean". Yuri!!! On Ice is more on the level of the restaurant that doesn't punch you in the face. I did not have a good time watching slight variants on figure skating routines I'd seen two or three times previously in earlier episodes. Gimme a brittle caste-based alien monoculture any day.
Sat Jul 01 2017 20:14 June Film Roundup:
Welcome to July! Here's June:
- Wonder Woman (2017): You know me, I'm not big into superhero movies. But I do like women, and wondering, so Sumana and I saw this together. It was all right! Cool stunts, funny comic relief, mostly good action scenes. But we talked about it afterwards and agreed that this movie doesn't really make its argument.
Wonder Woman is the story of Diana learning that horrible things like wars have complex historical causes and it's not just anthropomorphized concepts running around causing trouble. But what are superheroes and supervillains but anthropomorphized concepts? And what is a superhero movie without a big fight at the end between two of 'em and the world at stake? So that's what happens. The form of the movie is at odds with its content, and given Zack Snyder's "story by" credit I don't believe it even knows it.
In a Film Roundup first, I'm proud to link to a review of this film by my sister, WWI scholar Rachel Richardson: “I’m the men who can”: Wonder Woman as a First World War heroine.
- Jurassic Park (1993): Sumana and I both love this movie. I remembered nearly every scene even though I don't think I've seen it since 1993. It's not super deep, but it's got layers I didn't see when I was a kid. Notably Muldoon's respect for the dinosaurs and Hammond's attitude as the thing he's built crumbles during the test that was supposed to demonstrate it was safe. Such a joy to watch. It seems trite to say that the most successful, highest paid people in show biz were able to provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, but... they nailed it.
PS: This is more a fact about the book than the movie, but Jurassic Park has one of the cleverest science fiction premises I've ever seen. Love it.
- Kelly's Heroes (1970): The second museum movie I've walked out of. Not because it was horrible or offensive, but because serious technical problems threatened to interfere with my bedtime. I ended up watching about an hour of the movie proper, plus fifteen minutes of the movie with out-of-sync audio, a repeated viewing of the same footage, and about a reel of Where Eagles Dare (1968), a completely different movie. How did that happen? Did they torrent the whole Clint Eastwood war pack and click on the wrong file?
According to film scientists, Kelly's Heroes uses an earlier war as a way to talk about the then-current Vietnam War! This movie has a good look, and since there are no women characters, it avoids the sexism of similarly situated M.A.S.H. (1972). But I can't give it a strong recommendation. Don Rickles is believable as the hustling supply sergeant, but The Americanization of Emily did that better back in 1964. Anachronistic hippies in my WWII movie? That's pretty cool, I must admit.
- Kamikaze '89 (1982)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director of well-regarded-by-Film-Roundup film
The Marriage of Maria Braun and eternal MST3K reference Berlin Alexanderplatz, does what I can only describe as "an Alphaville thing". It doesn't work out great. Alphaville has the cold smoothness of the 1960s Paris business district, a period look also exploited effectively by Playtime. Kamikaze '89 has the cheesy look of a 1980s West Berlin dance club. I'm sure everyone had a great time making this movie, and I don't want to begrudge serious European directors having their sci-fi Alphaville flings, but... not great.
Uh, I should make it clear that Fassbinder isn't the director of this film, he's the star. Wolf Gremm is the director. So maybe it's Wolf Gremm's Alphaville fantasy, but Fassbinder is the one in the tacky outfit running around firing guns, so I suspect he's the one who wanted this to happen.
- Miracle Mile (1988): I'm about do something I've never done before on Film Roundup. I think you should see this movie, but I'm not going to tell you anything about it. I went in knowing basically what happens in this movie, and I absolutely loved it, but I think I would have loved it even more if I'd followed the directions I'm going to lay out below.
It's pretty simple. You can rent this movie on Amazon. Don't read the description, don't even look at the poster. Just start watching and see what happens.
I don't want you to have a bad time so I will tell you that this is a very dark horror movie. It's not wall-to-wall graphic violence, but don't watch it on a day when you need something light.
I do have a lot to say about Miracle Mile, but I'm going to wait a while in case anyone wants to see it as recommended above. For now I will say that Kurt Fuller's presence in this movie provides an additional data point for what I call The Fuller Conundrum. See, Kurt Fuller is in Ghostbusters II, where he's not funny at all, but he's hilarious in Psych, and in Miracle Mile he's right down the middle. Apparently he was in Wayne's World but I don't even remember him in that movie. In a character actor, is this variability a weakness, or a sign of versatility?
Finally, this month, the Television Spotlight shines its television spotlight on Steven Universe. This is really good! It gives us the same worldbuilding experience we got from The Legend of Korra, but it's all new stuff, it's not that there was a prequel show we didn't see. We started watching around the time of the last Film Roundup and now we're just about caught up. Fun characters who get more complex over time. That's all I need from a show, I think.
Thu Jun 01 2017 20:25 May Film Roundup:
Yes, may Film Roundup bring you blessings throughout the year! No Twin Peaks spoilers, please.
- Antitrust (2001): Semi-hate-watch with Sumana. (Here's her review.) She saw this on a plane in 2001 and had ever since wanted to revisit it to make fun of the bad tech. But... turns out the tech isn't all that bad. Pretty accurate for the most part. The software development processes we see aren't great, but they're in line with what I saw in the 90s. The biggest technical flub (an impractical plan to spy on people as they write code) is, IMO, just a way of dramatizing GPL violations.
Which is not to say that this is a good movie. It's bad. "Killer App" (1995), a television pilot, does a better job of just about everything that's not directly related to free software, e.g. the Bill Gates character's house-of-the-future. Not recommended unless you gotta see an old version of GNOME on the big screen.
- Bahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017): First, read my review of part 1. Now, read it again, because the sequel is another 3-hour battering of the senses with spectacle. There were some moments where the plot got more complicated than your average blockbuster, but also moments where they passed up what I considered obvious opportunities for coolness. I was never bored, not at all, but where the first movie frequently went in directions I wasn't anticipating, this movie... didn't do that.
It's hard to stay unpredictable when half your movie is a direct prequel to a movie your audience has already seen. Sumana and I agree that the Bahubali series needs a mode where you can just watch the sub-films in chronological order. Currently it's as if you had to watch the Hobbit movies halfway through the Lord of the Rings movies, with Elijah Wood playing both Bilbo and Frodo.
- Cops and Robbers (1973): Really good crime-and-grime heist movie with just the right mix of NYC and Long Island. Nothing serious, but classic popcorn. Not a science-fiction film, but does a great job incorporating Apollo stock footage into the plot.
There's a feeling in twentieth-century crime movies that's made explicit in Cops and Robbers. Society expects people to stay in their lane, crime-wise. You expect a cop to take bribes, a store manager to embezzle, a stockbroker to commit securities fraud. What causes a problem/creates a movie plot is when you pull off a crime that someone like you isn't supposed to do. There's this great scene in Cops and Robbers where the two cops realize that someone else has casually piggybacked a much more successful caper on top of theirs, and they react with the same New York "whadayagonna do" attitude they exhibit when stuck in a traffic jam. Exploited by the ruling class again! Wah wah.
- I saw a series of films by Charles and Ray Eames which ranged from the somnolent (House: After 5 Years of Living) to the hypnotic (Tops) to the suspiciously sexy (S-73 Sofa Compact). Powers of Ten is always a treat.
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017): This movie succeeds where Interstellar fails: it turns Solaris into a summer blockbuster. I had a good time! Better than the first one (which I also liked), though significantly more violent. Still not sure why these movies bother to have villains. Isn't it enough that the heroes hate each other?
- D.O.A. (1950): An unbeatable first scene is, in fact, not beaten by anything else in this kinda dull noir. Nice dramatic structure though. The most interesting bit is how it dramatizes the white-collar nightmare that something you did at your boring desk job, something you don't even remember, has made an enemy of someone you don't know.
- Thief (1981): Another criminal-goes-out-of-his-lane heist film. Not as punchy or as... subtle?... as Cops and Robbers, but fun enough. Dave Thomas of Wendy's has a masterful turn as the evil spirit of capitalism. Wait, I'm being informed that that role is actually played by Robert Prosky of Gremlins 2 fame.
Big bombastic Tangerine Dream soundtrack in this movie. I didn't even know that was a thing. I thought Tangerine Dream just made music to put you to sleep.
Don't think I didn't notice the Rififi reference. I see all!
- Bottle Rocket (1996): Right from his first feature, the ups and downs of a Wes Anderson film are visible. Funny first sequence, emotionally effective final sequence, and in the middle lots of well-framed shots I don't care much about. Watch Fantastic Mr Fox instead.
IMDB trivia: "Originally, Owen Wilson had no plans to act in the film at all." In fact, this is true of every actor and every film.
Thu May 11 2017 23:43 Minecraft Archive Project - 2011/11 Sample:
For a while I've been working with Jason Scott on the best way to make the data from Minecraft Archive Project available. The basic problem is that if you zip it up, it's many terabytes of data, and if you don't, it's millions of individual files. Although the Internet Archive is technically capable of handling either one of those options, neither is great for sharing data with the public.
The Minecraft Geologic Survey gives you an overview of everything posted before July 2014, but generating it was incredibly processor-intensive, so it's not really something I can update. So we decided to try out time slices instead.
Here's a 22-gigabyte archive containing everything Minecraft-related I could get that was posted in November 2011. If you think you might be interested in doing something with the full archive, please download this tiny slice and see if you can figure out how it works. If you have problems, complain to me. (Not to Jason, he just puts the files on the Archive.)
I picked November 2011 because it comes in the month of the 1.0 release, at a really interesting time for the medium. By 2017 standards the maps in this set are very primitive, but it was right around here Minecraft went from indie darling to decade-defining megahit. At the same time, fans had started to chafe at the limitations of the medium-- was the month I wrote my "Programmable Minecraft" essays, where I basically asked for command blocks.
Command blocks would be introduced in August 2012, and IMO they mark the distinction between the "silent film" era of Minecraft and the "talkie" era. I think the next most important month-slice of data would be August 2012, which would let us see what people did immediately after they got command blocks. But the point of this exercise is not to release one month at a time; it's to release a single month and make sure the package is usable before we package everything else the same way.
Sun May 07 2017 14:23 Tonight's Episode: An Oral History of Murder:
It's been seven years since the last episode of the crummy.com podcast, so you might be forgiven for forgetting that it even existed. In fact, forgetting about a podcast is not a sin in any human religious tradition, so no forgiveness necessary. Just enjoy tonight's episode, "Tonight's Episode: An Oral History of Murder".
This is an hour-long conversation between myself and Sumana about Tonight's Episode, a crummy.com feature even older than our ancient podcast, and the first creative collaboration between the two of us. Listen, and explore the origins of Internet comedy so small in bytesize that a joke might be compared to a short sound a bird might make.
A couple things I forgot to mention in the podcast: first, Tales from the Crypt and the Cryptkeeper's stupid puns as a predecessor to Tonight's Episode. Second, Murderous Magnetism, the Jason Robbins magnetic poetry kit for making Tonight's Episodes.
Tue May 02 2017 22:29 April Film Roundup:
As they say, April showers bring Film Roundup. Many, many people say this, I'm told. Hundreds, possibly millions, chanting in unison. Can they all be bots? I say no.
- The Cinema Travelers (2016): Really neat documentary about travelling movie theaters that go around rural India showing films at fairs. I was surprised to see that fairs in rural India look just like fairs in the United States. In retrospect it makes sense. Why would they have different rides?
Although there was a lot of cool hardware in this movie, I felt this film fetishized the hardware, even when it was so obsolete as to be a burden. I felt bad for the guys towing a nonfunctional bus around India because their film projector was mounted inside the bus. I doubt audiences care whether the projection booth contains a old-timey reel projector or a LCD projector and a laptop. Are ticket sales in decline because everyone has satellite TV now and doesn't have to settle for 1970s Bollywood reruns? Good! You think I'm going to side with the people running the theater over the people who want to see movies? Who's your audience? By definition, it's moviegoers. You don't have a theater full of projectionists and one ticket-holder up in the booth.
The most striking shots in this film aren't really shots, they're stills, just photos of people who are watching a movie, unaware of the camera, and having a great time. Often when you're sitting in a theater watching a film of people sitting in a theater, it's supposed to be an unnerving experience, but these photos are so full of life and joy. It's like the end of Sullivan's Travels. There's one in particular of a man with a monkey on his shoulder, both of them super excited about whatever they're looking at.
PS: I think is the first film I've ever seen that shows someone negotiating a DRM license.
- Cabin Boy (1994): “Isn't that a Pauly Shore movie?” —Sumana. No, this is a lot more highbrow than anything Pauly Shore ever did. It's a stupid, corny movie, but it's got a lot of originality and... heart? Maybe I'm grading on a curve, but so many comedies from the 90s are so awful, that letting Chris Elliot goof off in a Ray Harryhausen fantasy seems like a gift from the comedy gods. Thalia, I guess.
- Italianamerican (1974): Really cute early Scorsese film where he gets his parents to tell all the family stories. Back in the day you couldn't just do a podcast, no, it had to be a big production. Strong recommend, good "Immigrant Experience" stories.
That's it for now, but we're almost caught up on Jane the Virgin, so maybe next month the Television Spotlight will have a new focus.
Thu Apr 27 2017 11:54 Penguicon!:
I'm in Detroit to attend Penguicon as the plus-one of Sumana, who's a guest of honor. This is my first trip to Michigan and I've already met some cool folks. I'm giving two talks (?) this weekend: an overview of bots and an update of my groundbreaking exposé How Game Titles Work. (previous version from 2009)
Wed Apr 19 2017 15:27:
Why "send an email" when you can "use the RFC 2822 method"?
Sat Apr 01 2017 18:58 March Film Roundup:
- The LEGO Batman Movie (2017): Man, you head to the movies to take your mind off the increasingly troubling political situation, and then something like this happens. Anyway, the first hour of this movie
is really fun and goofy, and then it develops a plot and bogs down in
action scenes that are impossible to follow. I forsee an edit that
cuts 22:30 of the last 45 minutes, then slows down what's left by 50% so
you can see what's happening.
It seems really weird that IMDB lists Siri, a nonsentient computer program, as an
actor in this movie. I mean, I get that that's what it says in the
credits, but it seems like fodder for "Crazy Credits" and not
something we should take seriously. Are there other fictional actors
in IMDB? Kermit the
Frog doesn't have a .... wait... why is "Kermit the Frog"
showing up as a hyperlink? Dammit, he does have an IMDB actor
page. The very first example I looked up.
This makes no sense. Why is Kermit the Frog listed as having an
"uncredited" role as The Minstrel in Once Upon A Mattress
(1972)? If you're copying down whatever it says in the credits, that's
one thing. But a fictional character can't have an uncredited role!
As Kermit would
say, aaaaaaah! Come out from under that Muppet and face our scrutiny!
- Boxcar Bertha (1972): Just what I needed on that day: a Roger
Corman B-movie directed by Martin Scorsese. Raw talent doing its best
to fulfill a crappy work order. Trains, labor organizing, and 1970s
poster paint blood. Recommended but only if you're in that kind of
Film Roundup regulars will not be surprised to hear that like most
movies Boxcar Bertha features John Carradine, but unlike many
movies it's also got his son David. In fact there's one Oedipal scene
where David mugs his dad. Overall, I wasn't super impressed with
David's acting chops. It was like watching Joel Hodgson rob trains:
entertaining, but not quite believable.
- Beat the Devil (1953): Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre,
together at... still? With Robert Morley filling in for Sydney
Greenstreet, I suspect. The whole movie, I was looking for a twist
that turned out not to be there. But Jennifer Jones steals the show as
the bored wife who blithely surfs the edge of a hazardous Bogart-and-Lorre
caper, just because it's something to do.
This month the Television Spotlight shines on Jane the
Virgin (2014-), a fun, silly melodrama we picked up based on a
recommendation from Julia. Way to go, Julia! A while back in Film Roundup I said that
Jacques Tati's Playtime is like Brazil but with all the
nastiness taken out. Well, Jane the Virgin is like Arrested
Development with... most of the nastiness taken out. In
fact one could do a comedic Tumblr on the topic, a la Breaking
Development, but I don't know how big the overlap fandom
is. Should be bigger, is what I'm saying.
I was initially disappointed that Jane the Virgin doesn't have the fantastic element I assumed it would have, but it's addressed within the show with other people incorrectly making the same assumption, so that's fine.
Whew! Let's do the books while we're at it:
- I finished The Fortress of Solitude, the incredibly long
novel I mentioned last month. The first half was really good, and I
started out hating the second half, but it eventually won me over...
just in time for the book to end. The writing was really good on a
sentence-by-sentence level; a decent experience overall.
- Four Futures by Peter Frase is basically a four-part series
of blog posts. I don't think I found a lot of new information in it,
but I like the framing device.
Fri Mar 24 2017 20:14 Reviews of Semi-Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF January/February 2012:
Hey there. After keeping this magazine in the house for five years, I
finally read it. You see, I only like things that are vintage. Sometimes you gotta age it yourself.
Standout stories for me were Naomi Kritzer's adorable "Scrap
Dragon" and Alexander Jablokov's gross-out "The Comfort of
Strangers". I guess I'm exposing the fact that I haven't read the Rich
Horton anthology that reprinted "Four Kinds of Cargo" (The Year's
Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2013 Edition), since that also
reprinted "Scrap Dragon". I repeat: adorable.
I also liked Ken Liu's "Maxwell's Demon" for the clever way it
combined several very different ideas. I love this issue's Mark Evans
cover art, for John G. McDaid's "Umbrella Men", but I prefer the story
I made up after looking at the cover art for five years. (However it
is the first time the story I made up based on the cover art bears any
resemblance to the real story.)
In the course of an essay on vampire fiction, Elizabeth Hand
mentions the ur-text, John Polidori's The Vampyre, as
well as the 1845-1847 serial "Varney the Vampire"
which ran to 670,000 words (Project Gutenberg has a measley 327,927 of those words). I don't care about vampire stories
but I'm always interested in the first or biggest example of
something. This column also made me aware of Theodore Rozak's
Flicker, in a would-actually-want-to-read-it way.
Man, "Varney the Vampire" makes me think of vampire Jim Varney. How
come they never did an Ernest movie about that? Seems like a natural
fit. Bye for now!
Thu Mar 23 2017 19:56 FRED:
This won't wait for Film Roundup because it's only showing until the end of the month. Last week Sumana and I went to see FRED at Dixon Place in Manhattan and had a good time. It's a short, funny play with a Starship Titanic feel. Check it out!
Wed Mar 01 2017 09:32 February Film Roundup:
- Kansas City (1996): I went to Kansas City on a Friday. Then I had to come back to the museum on Saturday, because that's when it was showing. Anyway, I figured a gangster film would be the perfect introduction to the ouvre of Robert Altman. And... there's not nearly enough Steve Buscemi but everything else about this movie is pretty great. There are different levels of corruption in the world, from the government to the mob to the grifter. Kansas City gets a lot of mileage out of a character on one level of corruption interacting or interfering with a character on another level.
- Charlie Varrick (1973): An enjoyable crime caper set in Albuquerque, kind of the opposite of Dog Day Afternoon where there's too much money in the bank. My only complaint is it goes on a little too long. I feel Walter Mattheau's character could have cut a couple steps from his plan, eliminated a lot of the risk, and come out just as well. The dentist office burglary is great, and Joe Don Baker excels as Evil Mitchell.
- Cradle Will Rock (1999): Another self-indulgent Tim Robbins herbal cigarette, but a lot more fun and more interesting than Bob Roberts. Super-random celebrity guests, both as actors and as characters. "Who's that supposed to be, Bertolt Brecht?" Yes, that's who it's supposed to be! I remember this movie came up a while back when we went looking through IMDB for all the times someone has portrayed Nelson Rockefeller on film. Not sure why we did that, I think because I was reading Before the Storm.
Anyway, the movie itself was enjoyable but the musical they're putting on seems, at best, comparable to other musicals of the 1930s.
- Toni Erdmann (2016): Fun, but not the laugh riot I was expecting. There are a lot of movies where a prankster character torments an uptight character, and I generally don't enjoy these, but in Toni Erdmann Ines starts tormenting her father right back in her own uptight way, so that provided some balance. I also liked that the film was almost entirely shot in Romania.
IMDB trivia: "Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig star in a remake of this film." No thanks.
- Get Out (2017): Effective creepy horror. I don't see a ton of horror movies, so I don't know how innovative this is, but I thought the way this movie doled out its gore quotient was great. I really got into this film, in my own nerdy way: near the end I was thinking "I don't want a The Shining ending or a Being John Malkovich ending, just a regular horror-movie ending."
Recommend seeing in the theater for the audience participation factor. There's an audience stand-in in the movie who has clearly seen it before and is trying ineffectually to stop it from happening! Just like real life.
I'm gonna shoehorn Book Roundup into this post because although I started three books on my commute, I lost interest in two of them a fair way in, and the only book I finished in February was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. A great horrifying read with a sinister George Saunders-type feel in places.
I thought I'd also finish The Fortress of Solitude, but that book's a lot longer than I thought! I'm not even halfway through. Stay tuned!
Mon Feb 27 2017 09:07:
"Do they have a designated survivor? Like, one celebrity who doesn't attend the Oscars?"
"That's what we have other countries for."
Fri Feb 03 2017 18:26 January Book Roundup:
- Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson. Not a super satisfying ending, but I stayed interested through the whole trilogy.
- SPQR by Mary Beard. At one point I swore off reading more books of Roman history, because they all kind of retread the same ground based on the same sources, but Beard brings in lots of archaeological detail that provides glimpses into everyday life. Big recommend from me.
- The History of Nintendo, Vol. 2 by Florent Gorges. My retrogaming interest has gone down somewhat since I finished Constellation Games, but I can't say no to the lovely illustrated books put out by French publisher Pix'n Love Publishing. Volume 2 (which covers Game & Watch) wasn't as colorful as Volume 1 (which covers everything pre-) but the presentation is so good it justifies my paying import prices. They're like coffee table art books, but the size of a regular book! A new volume gets translated into English every few years, so I guess I'll see the NES one in 2020?
Wed Feb 01 2017 21:44 January Film Roundup:
- Hidden Figures (2017): Loved it! Not much to say. I thought it lost a little focus right near the end, where John Glenn is making his descent and nobody can do anything but hang around and look tense, but overall really solid. I enjoyed the FORTRAN fan service.
- Dangal (2016): A whole movie about copy-protection hardware? I was skeptical. But then I learned that it was spelled "Dangal", and that it was... a sports movie. At this point I was even more skeptical, but I was inside the theater so I figured I'd go with it.
And it's... a sports movie. But it has three things going for it. First, it's also a breaking-down-the-barriers movie. Sumana liked how much screen time was devoted to Indian girls with short hair. Second, this film contains three awesome songs. Third, the hugeness of Dangal magnifies the working parts of a sports movie so that they're impossible to miss, much like the way Plato's republic is designed to make obvious the virtues that go into an individual human being.
Characters are ludicrously fictionalized to make them fit the sports-movie villain roles. Victories that in real life were incredibly lopsided are dramatized as knuckle-biting buzzer-beaters. There's also one place where I detect a shear effect between fiction and reality, but am not sure what the reality is. These girls spend up to the age of about ten training to be wrestlers and wrestling boys on a kind of freak-show circuit. Everyone's attitude is: A girl? Wrestling? Whaaaaa? It really seems like Dad is the first person in India to have the idea that girls can wrestle.
But at the beginning of act two they go into a gymnasium and it's full of girls doing wrestling. Turns out India has a whole wrestling thing going. Girls leagues and everything. So what's with all the incredulity in act one? Even if Dad's neighbors are ignorant hicks, it seems like a former national wrestling champion should know that he didn't invent girls' wrestling.
A similar thing happens at the end where people are saying "If an Indian wins the women's wrestling championship, girls all over the world will know they can do anything!" Was American sports movie exceptionalism ever this bad?
PS: The posters show Aamir Khan with the four actors who play the daughters at different ages, as though they're four different characters in the same timeframe. I love this.
- Taking Off (1971): A fun squares-go-hip comedy from the same Universal Studios indie-director push that gave us Silent Running (1972). The surest way to get me to see a film is to compare it to an Elaine May film, which Metrograph did, and I took the bait. Taking Off delivers with awkwardness, culture clash and bad original songs—it's like a much cheaper Ishtar. When a woman with a lute drops the F-bomb thirty times in the sort of singing voice you associate with "Greensleeves", you know you're in for a good time. Also features New York grime and the glorious tacky interior of a 1970s Catskills lodge.
- New York, New York (1977): With Liza Minnelli and Mickey Rourke. No, that's not right, it was Robert de Niro. Everyone's favorite video... hero. Mickey Rourke isn't in this at all. Don't know what I was thinking.
The all-too-relevant story of a man who can't deal with the fact that his girlfriend is more talented than he is. The museum's handout claims the problem with the relationship is the "two lovers' equal musical talent", but let's go to the tape. Liza Minnelli actually is a world-class singer, whereas Robert de Niro is a Method actor who learned to play the sax for this movie. It's quite clear she is the superior musician.
As such, the balance of power shifts over the course of the movie, and by act three de Niro is nearly out of the picture and Minnelli's character is just lapping up the fame. Basically, everything that's in La La Land that didn't come from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, came from this movie.
Overall I was not crazy about this film. La La Land is more fun and my favorite Scorsese de Niro is still Rupert Pupkin, by a long shot. But those two musical numbers at the end really are amazing. And character actor Lionel Stander is great comic relief as the agent who speaks in inscrutable aphorisms. It was a classic "that guy" moment, where I knew I'd seen him before, but turns out the only place I've seen him before is the introduction to the TV show Hart to Hart. Not the show, just the introduction, which I've only seen once. That's how memorable his face and voice are.
- Pride (2014): As a sidelong way of talking about this movie I'm going to bring back sports movies for a bit and talk about Cool Runnings (1993). It's a film I haven't seen since it first came out, and I'm not sure why I saw it at all—I think a friend's dad took us? But it sticks in my mind as the only sports movie where I think "Maybe I should rewatch that and see if it holds up."
Why? Because Cool Runnings is the only sports movie I've ever seen that dares to violate the ironclad rule. In this shocking film, the underdogs don't win at the sport. It's not a movie about winning; it's about sportsmanship. Other sports movies allege that it's not whether you win or lose, but if you win, who cares whether or not it's whether you win or lose? Cool Runnings strips all of that away and teaches the only lesson a sports movie has to teach, the hard way.
(The basketball sequence in Meatballs (1979) has a more cynical take on this, and IMO is the best part of that lousy movie. One reason I'm iffy on whether Talladega Nights (2006) is a sports movie, is that it mocks the very concept of 'winning'. I admit I haven't seen every damn sports movie, although it sure feels like it, so please tell me about other sports movies that don't end with a win.)
Anyway, I bring this up because Pride is a non-sports example of a movie where it's a matter of historical record that the underdogs lose. Like Cool Runnings, it does much better than a "win" movie would of showing the virtues that can survive a loss: community, solidarity, tolerance and old-fashioned stubbornness. It really goes for the heartstrings, but sometimes that's what you need.
I was sure Bill Nighy was going to bow out after his first scene, having done his bit for low-budget film, but he was gracious enough to stick around for the whole movie—a nice surprise. Also, most of the women in this movie look like one or another of my relatives. The whole time I was thinking e.g. "Wow, Aunt Pat and Aunt Anne are really hating on each other."
(1) Wed Jan 18 2017 13:20 Jokes For Minecrafters:
The last time I went to California, my nephew told me lots of punny jokes about animals ("Why are cats so vain? Because they're purr-fect.") He'd gotten these jokes from a Pokémon joke book, in which the jokes were about Pokémon ("Why are Meowth so vain? Because they're purr-fect."), and kindly translated the Pokémon into real animals for my benefit. Which worked out well because the jokes had clearly been about real animals to begin with.
This reminded me that I'd been meaning to report back about two other joke books about a common childhood obsession: Jokes for Minecrafters and Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters. I'm really interested in the shady but seemingly profitable world of unlicensed Minecraft books. I've seen Minecraft self-insert fanfic being sold as an 80-page chapter book at Target! I applaud Mojang's lax stance on fan works but that seems a little excessive.
I recall from my own childhood that this sort of obsession-feeding book is usually a big disappointment once obtained. Themed joke books are the worst because they're often a big cash-in on preexisting folk jokes. Plus you have to find someone who's as big a nerd as you, and wants to listen to you tell the jokes instead of reading the book themselves.
I was prepared for disappointment, but I had to find out what Minecraft kids' jokes were like, so I ventured one more time into a world I'd abandoned long ago. Fortunately, this time I didn't have to pay the Troll Book Club to send me two slim paperbacks. I just put the ebooks on hold at NYPL.
And... the best joke in the series is probably the very first one in Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters:
Q: What happens when a creeper walks into a bar?
A: Everyone dies.
It's all downhill from there. Here are the two runners-up:
Q: Why do players shop at Endermen yard sales?
A: To get their stuff back.
Q: Do zombies eat popcorn with their fingers?
A: No, they eat their fingers separately.
I'm not here to make fun of bad jokes, because comedy is hard, but most of the book is more like this:
Q: What did the pig say to the creeper?
A: Nothing. The creeper blew up the pig.
Many entries have the form of jokes, but are actually Minecraft trivia. Here's one I didn't know:
Q: How do zombies and skeletons keep from burning during the day?
A: They stand on soul sand.
This one hasn't aged well:
Alex: "What do you call a polar bear in Minecraft?"
Steve: "I don't know. What?"
Alex: "Lost, because there are no polar bears in Minecraft!"
I need some help on this one:
Q: What happened when it became so cold in the icy biome?
A: The snow golems were holding up pictures of thumbs!
There are also many jokes that require knowledge of the Orespawn mod, which I'd never heard of. One book had a separate chapter dealing with "mods", but a lot of Orespawn jokes were not in that chapter. This seemed unfair to kids who are just trying to understand jokes and maybe laugh a couple times.
This one makes me irrationally angry:
First player: "I heard the End has its own soundtrack."
Second player: "What does it sound like?"
First player: "You can only hear it in the End."
This one has an artifact that makes me think most of the book was copy-and-pasted from an IM conversation:
You might be a Minecraft addict if you forget to give your mom a present for her birthday and instead get her a Minecraft account XD.
Anyway, I'm here to tell you that the terrible Amazon reviews of these books are more or less accurate. In the spirit of reconciliation, I thought I'd close by trying my hand at corny Minecraft jokes:
Q: How does Steve detect if someone is raiding his marijuana stash?
A: He uses a BUD switch.
That one's on the house!
Mon Jan 16 2017 13:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Accomplishments:
Library Work: In 2016 SimplyE went from a two-developer team with me as backend guy, to a seven-developer team with me as architect. We launched the SimplyE reader for NYPL patrons and started work on rolling it out to other libraries across the country. We also launched the Open Ebooks project, which led to our brush with power.
I'm not comfortable bragging about the SimplyE product because it needs a lot of improvements, and I feel like saying how nice it is will lead to people thinking (or at least asserting) that I'm okay with the status quo. But if you compare it to the status quo ante, it's really damn good. We took checking out an ebook from a 17-step process to a 3-step process. And I'm totally happy bragging about the team, which is incredible. For the first time I ran a bunch of job searches and decided who to hire, and I think the past year's work has proven I made good choices.
At the end of the year, NYPL recognized our team with a Library Leadership Award! To the right is our official team photo (two of the developers are not pictured). I think this is an incredible achievement for a team that basically didn't exist a year ago.
Writing: Late 2015 I pitched a number of novels to my agent and we decided on Mine, a Rendezvous with Rama type political thriller. Lately, though, I'm haunted by the pitch I wrote for Nice Things, a novel about the fascist takeover of the Federation. Sometimes when I sit down to write Mine I feel like I should be writing Nice Things instead, but most of the time I'm glad I'm working on absolutely anything else.
Progress on Mine is slow but steady. But slow. My increased responsibilities at the library haven't been good for writing time.
Short stories I wrote in 2016 include "Quest For Boredom" (which I... supposedly sold??? but haven't heard back), "The Girls Boys Don't Notice" (possibly the best title I will ever come up with), "Fool, Professor, Peasant, King", and the unsellable "Unicode Changelog", which I might self-publish.
Situation Normal is still on the Desks of Editors.
Bots: I've drastically scaled down my use of Twitter because I don't like what it does to my brain. As a corollary, I don't really like that my whimsical software encourages people to spend more time on Twitter. So I've stopped putting bots on Twitter. Also, Twitter randomly suspends my bots without telling me. After the completely innocuous Vintage Groaners was suspended, I decided it wasn't worth the hassle.
I've thought about taking down my bots in a fiery cataclysm, rather than letting Twitter pick them off one by one, but a lot of people get happiness from Minecraft Signs, Hapax Hegemon, and (finally!) Smooth Unicode, so I'll commit to keeping the big ones working at least. I have a solution in mind for my computational creativity going forward, but I'm pretty damn busy so it's going to be a while. I've been doing this stuff since 1998 and it's still something I like, so consider this not a goodbot, but rather au botvoir.
Here's the 2016 robot roll call:
(2) Sun Jan 15 2017 20:25 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Games:
If you've come for cutting-edge gaming news, I must disabuse you of the notion you've somehow acquired. I buy computer games when they're ported to Linux. Then apparently I only talk about them at the end of the year. Let's get started!
Two excellent tabletop games stick in my mind: the thrilling Pandemic Legacy, about which much has been said elsewhere; and the unassuming Stinker, which once you play it is revealed as an absolute marvel. Stinker cleverly fixes all the problems, large and small, with "spell-something" games and "one-person-judges-everyone-else" games and "come-up-with-something-funny" games. It's not as surefire a hit as Snake Oil, but I love it and it's usually a hit when I introduce it to new players. Stinker is the Crummy.com Board Game of the Year.
Three years ago I closed the book on non-tactical RPGs and declared Mother 3 the all-time winner. Well, now I gotta re-open that book because Undertale improves on the formula. It's clearly based on the Mother series, but it has a solid new combat mechanic, a lot of memorable characters, and a type of humor I like better than the humor in the Mother series (which I do like, quite a bit). I really disliked the climax of Undertale, but a lot of Mother 3 was rambling and unfocused, so it kind of cancels out. Undertale overcomes my prejudices to become Crummy.com Computer Game of the Year.
Runner-up is Duskers, the space exploration game which combines survival horror with system administration. Your typing speed can make the difference! Super creepy, but feels a bit unfinished.
Other computer games I enjoyed a lot in 2016: Mini Metro, Stardew Valley, RimWorld, Beglitched, Brogue, Caves of Qud, Sunless Sea, and XCom: Enemy Unknown.
Sat Jan 14 2017 12:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Books:
Nearly all the books I read in 2016 were in electronic format. I either read library books through SimplyE, or I dug through the piles of ZIP files I've accumulated through Simon Carless's video game StoryBundles. Greg Millner's Perfecting Sound Forever was the only paper book I read in 2016 that I recommend; in fact, it's the Crummy.com Book of the Year.
I've got seven more super-recs and I'll give little capsule reviews for them, since they predate the first occurrence of Book Roundup. I read a decent amount of fiction, but you'll notice there's not much fiction on this list. What happens in my head when I read fiction seems highly idiosyncratic, so I'm more comfortable recommending super-detailed nonfiction.
- The four-volume Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, an incredibly broad survey of role-playing game publishing. This is absolutely not for everybody but I loved the uncovering of weird little experiments and the anecdotal gossip.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey. This book is a deep dive into what I would argue is the invention of worldbuilding. It does a great job explaining how the unreadable parts of Tolkien make the readable parts so compelling. Here's the money quote IMO:
[P]eople can tell the genuine from the fake, even when it comes to making up names. Do not make them up, therefore.
There are a series of amazing close reads that show how Tolkien worked, e.g. by finding weird stuff in medieval texts (What is the name "Gandalfr" doing in the middle of "Tally of the Dwarves", when "alfr" means "elf"?) and making up a retcon.
- Digital Apollo by David A. Mindell. Narrative of the computer architecture of the Apollo, the process of designing it with each piece being made by a different contractor, how it performed during each mission and how it was changed after each mission.
- Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. 'Nuff said. Everything I've read by Perlstein is great.
- Starboard Wine by Samuel R. Delany. Like the Tolkien book, a really useful book on the techniques necessary to write fantastic fiction, but written by a practitioner.
- ZZT by Anna Anthropy - Great coverage of an obscure but incredibly important game. Like the cover copy says, "[N]ot everyone has played ZZT, but everyone who played it became a game designer."
- Way Station by Clifford Simak - Introspective prose captures a type of melancholy that science fiction could be doing all the time but doesn't attempt very often.
Tue Jan 03 2017 20:30 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Film:
Film: Maintaining Film Roundup Roundup (now updated with 150 high-quality films!) makes it pretty easy to come up with a top ten for 2016:
- Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
- Dekalog 10 (1989)
- Tampopo (1985)
- Inquiring Nuns (1968)
- Approaching the Elephant (2014)
- Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004)
- A Short Film about Killing (1988)
- Dekalog 1 (1989)
- Hail, Ceasar! (2016)
- The Defiant Ones (1958)
Look at that list, we got four documentaries on there.
My lower-tier "recommended" list gets longer every year; here's a quick stab at the top ten of my twenty-one recommended movies from 2016:
- Moana (2016)
- Ghostbusters (2016)
- Deadpool (2016)
- Caucus (2013)
- La La Land (2016)
- Avanti! (1972)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
- Three Colors: Blue (1993)
- Synecdoche, New York (2006)
- It (1927)
I'm not really happy with calling that second tier "recommended" because it implies I'll scoff at your decision to see a solid film like Arrival or Kung Fu Hustle that I didn't put on my list. Hopefully no one does the data gathering necessary to deduce (incorrectly) that I'm scoffing at you.
After several years of Film Roundup I think I can now make what to me looks like a normal person's top ten film list, containing only movies from 2016. All of these were worth watching:
- Hail, Ceasar!
- La La Land
- Star Trek: Beyond
- A Beautiful Planet
- Shin Godzilla
- The Last Arcade
Kind of a boring list though! Where are the nuns, the fourth-wall-breaking gangsters, or the convicts handcuffed to each other? Answer: in movies from previous years.
Mon Jan 02 2017 11:57 December Book Roundup:
Just a few notes on the books I read in December 2016. Books marked with a * are ones I read for free through NYPL's SimplyE mobile app. (Big news on that coming up! Also, I guess I should write a simple explanatory post for people who don't want to read my RESTFest talks.)
- *Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson. This was fun sci-fi spycraft, and just as the concept started to get old there was a MEGA TWIST that kept me interested to the end. The sequel, *Europe at Midnight, went deep into the world of the TWIST. It reminded me of Giles Goat-Boy, except good. Presumably there's a third book... yes, there is. I've requested that it be added to the NYPL collection.
- Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. Combining observational humor and pop science creates a book that reminds me of two of my favorite authors, Susan McCarthy and Mary Roach.
- *The Dead Mountaineer's Inn by the Strugatsky brothers, translated by Josh Billings. The big standout in this book was a wonderfully clueless, desperate alien who doesn't get a lot of page time.
- Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner. Sumana read this book a while back and raved about it. I must agree: it's really, really good. It takes recorded music, something you're already familiar with, and makes it clear how weird it is and how many social constructs surround it. Then it retells what you thought was an artistic history in terms of technological changes and business decisions. A lot of nonfiction books give you the facts, but Perfecting Sound Forever gives you a hidden history of something you've been living with your whole life.
- *Double Entry by Jane Gleeson-White. Not as good as Perfecting Sound Forever but also does a good job of showing that something frequently thought of as an objective record of reality is actually a measurement taken through a mess of social constructs.
Sat Dec 31 2016 19:08 December Film Roundup:
Looks like December 2016 has escaped its holding pen! As you flee, please consult this Film Roundup for next steps and valuable offers from our partners.
- Blue Collar (1977): Solid work/heist movie with Richard Pryor doing a Peter Falk-like job of putting comedy and drama into a single role. In fact, the movie poster shows Pryor twice, once doing a "drama" face and once doing a "comedy" face. Like those old Greek masks, I guess. Not pictured: Pryor's co-stars. A good thriller with authentic 70s grime. Cool factory footage means this was probably Krzysztof Kieslowski's favorite Richard Pryor movie.
- Plunder Road (1957): Some films noirs claim to be LA-centric, but only Plunder Road has the guts to focus entirely on the logistics of highway transportation. High quality popcorn noir. The smog inspection scene made me laugh.
- La La Land (2016): The movie that picks up where Plunder Road left off. It's a pretty musical, a genre you don't often see in modern American films, and I was enjoying the settings and the low-tech accomplishments of craft and the fact that it's more emotionally realistic than most pretty musicals, and then the ending happened. Such a great ending! It recontextualizes the entire movie in a way that only works because you spent 90 minutes in a pretty musical with above average emotional realism. I'd go into more detail but for once I think I don't want to spoil you.
The whole movie I was thinking "I know Ryan Gosling is a different Ryan than the guy from Deadpool, but they look exactly the same and I can't remember the other guy's name so I'm going to pretend this is a Deadpool prequel." This did not enhance the movie as much as I thought it would.
- Ghatashraddha (1977): "Such a good movie!" - Sumana's mom. A Kannada New Wave weepie in the style of the Apu trilogy. It was pretty good, but I didn't like it as much as Sumana's mom does.
The print I saw included a hilarious subtitle. Two teenagers from the village school are arguing, the younger one runs off in a huff. The older one: "Tut! Poor fellow!" I kind of felt it didn't mesh with the tone of the rest of the film.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016): This year's Christmas movie with Susanna. Finally, the superb junkyard art direction of the Star Wars universe is matched by an appropriate storyline: "we got the job done but everybody died." I know they only did it to avoid answering the question of why these people weren't in Episode IV (possible alternate answer: "they were somewhere else"), but it was so good to watch some characters in this universe unconstrained by the burdens of myth. A surprisingly high recommendation.
- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964): Clearly an inspiration for La La Land, but the new film is more to my taste in a couple ways. First, Cherbourg isn't really a "musical" in the [HB]ollywood sense, it's more like an opera or a very long cantata. Second, this film has the same ending as La La Land, but because it's an understated French film and not a noisy American musical the really cool thing doesn't happen on screen.
Unlike my Deadpool fantasy, this film really is kind of a sequel to Lola, a film I saw in 2014. I didn't notice this until IMDB trivia time afterwards. I would definitely pick this movie over Lola.
As the year draws to a close (actually, afterwards; I'm writing this addendum on Monday) let's turn the Television Spotlight on the beloved classic, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (1968-2001). I don't think I've said this explicitly on NYCB, but when I was growing up my family did not own a television. You might think this was snobbish behavior, but I don't think Mom and Dad went around bragging about this at parties, and looking back on 1980s TV I have to say it was a solid choice.
This means that I didn't see any Mister Rogers' Neighborhood until I was thirty-seven, but no harm done. MRN is really good for kids who have serious problems in their lives, who need an oasis of ritual and calm, and the problems in my life started right around the time I grew out of the MRN age group. Now that I'm an adult I see MRN as a good model for talking to children without condescending to them or ignoring their concerns. The thing that stood out to me is that when he shows you a potentially unfamiliar place like an art gallery or an airplane, he always takes the time to verify that there are bathrooms there. He goes into the airplane bathroom and shows you how everything works. So you don't pee your pants on the plane flight because you're afraid to use the toilet.
Of course, some of these techniques only work on television. Mister Rogers will frequently ask you a question that sounds rhetorical, and then proceed as though you had answered it. I believe is the source of the common "can you say X?" parody construct. The semi-rhetorical question is incredibly condescending when someone does it to you in person. But Mister Rogers never acts like he heard your answer. You both know it's television and he can't hear you. Instead, he'll answer the question himself. "Is this the right shape? No, certainly not." He waits for you to give your opinion and then he weighs in with his own. If you don't say anything, that also works.
In general, this show is not my thing and never would have been, but I really admire the dedication to the target audience, and the field trip segments are always cool.
Thu Dec 15 2016 10:46 little of my collections have enabled in contemplation:
I created a blackout story as a present for Allison and decided to retroactively make it my 2016 NaNoGenMo project. I call it "Amazon Prime". Enjoy!