Mon Jul 01 2019 21:22 June Film Roundup:
- Booksmart (2019): We were pre-sold on this by the screenplay credit for Sarah Haskins, who did a hilarious regular segment called "Target Women" about ten years ago. Booksmart is really funny, but it's also got a dramatic arc that you don't see very often. I'll go into more detail at the end of this review, but I do think you should see this movie and that it's more fun to see this character arc happen than to read about it.
This film reminded us of Brick, another very stylish movie that shows high school through the subjective experience of the students. Maybe you don't think this movie is stylish, but it totally is: every character has a carefully maintained self-image that's within their budget and the movie's budget. It's just that most of the characters are also huge dorks.
Judging from the street address, one of the party houses is just down the block from one of the places I lived in LA as a kid. The
neighborhood really has changed.
OK, here's what I mean about the character arc. At first it seems like Booksmart has cookie-cutter high school movie villains. Then it turns out that no, this is like Clueless and there is no villain. Then, no, this is like Inside Out and the protagonist is the villain. Then, no, there really was no villain, these are all just teenagers making teenager mistakes.
- Face/Off (1997): Sometimes people say a movie is "so bad
it's good". I've said it myself, and I generally mean a bad movie was also
entertaining. Face/Off is more complicated: it's a movie that's
bad and good simultaneously and for the same reasons. Casting the oddest actors of '90s Hollywood in both lead roles? Seems like a bad idea! But Face/Off turns it into an advantage by making Travolta and Cage
effectively play each other's stock characters. Whenever either one of them is on screen (the entire movie, effectively), you get the ACTING power of both.
Face/Off doesn't just do a good job of recreating a bad movie—Mars
Attacks! tried that, and the resulting movie was simply bad. It mixes up the ingredients of a bad movie in an inventive way, creating something special. Like a Five Obstructions kind of deal.
- Born Bone Born (2018): That's the correct English name of this movie and I have the ticket stub to prove it. IMDB has the wrong title (Bone Born Bone). The name sure is confusing, though the ending sorta gives you a mnemonic. It's not a literal translation, which means they could have eliminated all possibility of confusion with a super-verbose title like "Mom Died, But We'll See
Her Again At The Family Reunion? Two Worlds Meet On Okinawa!"
Anyhow, this is a really excellent family dramedy that got much bigger theater laughs than a family dramedy usually does. It's got fun characters, great timing, and it does a good job of putting the audience in the anxious ready-to-laugh state with its up-front treatment of death.
- Set It Off (1996): This had been on my list for a while and it was nice to see it on the big screen with Sumana. I came in expecting an Oceans-style heist, but I got a quality modern noir. The Thelma and Louise-esque authority figure is a little more bearable than in Thelma and Louise, but who goes to these movies to watch the cop?
Addendum: After last month's The Bit Player experiment, I've found that Film Roundup is the best place to list interesting films that I can't put on a wishlist because they're not yet products you can wishlist. This month's entry: Dance with Me, the tragedy (?) of a woman who's cursed to live in a musical. It's showing at the Japan Cuts festival later this month, but I was slow on the draw and all the tickets sold out. We'll see it later... and I'll see you later!
(2) Sat Jun 01 2019 11:07 May Film Roundup:
Missed a chance to see Claude Shannon doc The Bit Player (2018) at the museum, just making a note of it here so I remember to see it later if and when it becomes available online. Here are the movies I did see in May, often to my detriment:
- Spaced Invaders (1990): One evening I had a drink when I maybe should not have had a drink, and I decided to rent a movie whose trailer I had seen on television when I was a kid. For about two weeks in 1990 I really wanted to see Spaced Invaders, but trekking to Bakersfield to see a movie that no other family member wanted to see? The movie might as well have been showing on Mars (where, ironically, it was banned).
It's a shame because I would have liked this movie in 1990, but its time has passed. It's watchable, they really tried, it has some fun miniature effects and set design and a really good Uhura costume, but it's not funny or scary or surprising. Around the 70 minute mark I abruptly started wanting them to wrap it up. That's also when the alcohol wore off, so the booze was probably contributing a lot to my enjoyment. That said, there are a few things to like about this movie:
- It's better than Mars Attacks! (1996), on a much lower budget. Although most people don't like Mars Attacks! I imagine this is a minority opinion. I'll stick with it because I think I hate Mars Attacks! more than average. I mean, Mars Attacks! has Jack Nicholson, Spaced Invaders has an alien doing a Jack Nicholson impression. I ask you: which is funnier?
- Pretty sure this is the only movie I've ever seen where a military unit has a political officer. I'm also pretty sure it happened by accident because they were ripping off something else, but I'll take it.
- The kid in the duck costume is funny; I liked the actor's delivery.
- What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Deep Space Nine (2018): DS9 fans need to see this, non-fans don't care. It's predetermined! Sumana and I are huge fans so we had to see it on the big screen as part of a Fathom Event. Certain bits of this movie (remastering a big space battle in HD) went right past us, although according to IMDB trivia (aka the opinion of someone on the Internet) this whole movie is a ploy "to convince CBS to remaster DS9 in High Definition." That seems like the sort of stunt fans pulled to try to get Nintendo to release Earthbound on Wii Virtual Console, so I'm skeptical. Although Earthbound eventually did happen, so maybe.
Overall this was a great time. Best parts of this were the interviews with actors and producers. In particular, Nana Visitor and Andrew Robinson are great. Speaking as a writer... we don't necessarily work well live. We need time to find the best version. The day where the DS9 writing staff breaks an imaginary season 8 provided representative footage. Some really good ideas and discussion, some good starts that would need refinement after day one, and some end-of-BSG specials—bad ideas that probably can't be fixed precisely because you think they're great. It worked as a behind-the-scenes, but I found it very awkward.
- Aliens (1986): I was really skeptical that some space marines were going to be able to deal with a whole bunch of xenomorphs when the whole point of Alien is that a single one is unstoppable. But Aliens is in a different genre, plus the marines have heavy firepower where the truckers were trying to kill an alien with a mop and a Leatherman. And in the end, they weren't in fact able to "deal with" anything, so it checks out. Alien is a better movie because it did the worldbuilding, but this was fun, and a more even film overall. Paul Rieser a nice surprise.
In my Alien review I made fun of Ridley Scott for an IMDB trivia item saying he'd envisioned the xenomorph peeping on Ripley voyeuristically, but in Aliens trivia I learn: "Sigourney Weaver asked that in the film her character should... have sex with the alien". That's also a bad idea, but at least it's not Porky's bad. Keep it in the subtext, folks.
- The Sting (1973): Scott Joplin is buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens, and every year the cemetery hosts a concert in his honor. I really like this sort of tradition, but Burns Night is the only other example I can think of.
Anyway, Sumana had recently gotten into Joplin, so we went to this year's concert and had a good time. Upon returning home I proposed that we rent The Sting, the film that anachronistically contributed to the Joplin revival of the 1970s. Thus, our watching experience—and my actual review—began.
This was a fun ride full of heisty Hamlet cliches and few surprises. Having read a book on old-timey cons I knew how these things go, but Sumana, who AFAIK has not read a book on old-timey cons, also immediately figured out the climactic twist as soon as it was introduced. But it's fun to see the classic cons put into action without actually losing all your money.
- Five on the Black Hand Side (1973): Sometimes I hear about an interesting obscure movie playing at Film Forum or such, and I can't make the showing so I file away the movie for a later rental. This was such a movie, a fun domestic comedy based on a play. Classic low-budget 1970s fare, but not something you need to pay to see on the big screen.
This movie was shot in L.A., not far from my old neighborhood, but the play clearly takes place in N.Y.C., in what I think is an example of sticking too closely to the original script. But playwright Charlie L. Russell also wrote the screenplay, so he had his chance. Unless they didn't tell him where they were going to shoot? I dunno, feels like there might be a story there.
Godfrey Cambridge (previous Film Roundup appearances: Bye Bye Braverman, Cotton Comes to Harlem) is in one brief scene at the start of this movie, and not only is he given major billing, but in his one scene he rear-ends some other guy's car and the first thing the other guy says is "Hey, you're Godfrey Cambridge!" A true star.
- Blankman (1994): Another movie I wanted to see as a kid. I rented this one sober and maybe that was a mistake, because it's pretty bad. The best I can say is there are some fun "wacky gadget" practical effects and homages to Batman '66. Everything else is awful. I won't enumerate it all because I chose to see this movie, knowing it was probably bad, so I have no cause to act outraged. Curiosity: SATISFIED.
Mon May 06 2019 07:54 April Film Roundup:
It's been an action-packed April, as I watched the biggest blockbusters of 22, 28, and 48 years ago!
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Not a big Bond fan—I've now seen three movies and read one of the novels—but another member of my household enjoys the action set pieces, and these action set pieces were pretty good. I liked how Michelle Yeoh randomly went in and out of scenes before showing up permanently, implying a whole other movie going on in the background. Yeah, it was fun.
According to IMDB trivia this title changed from Tomorrow Never Lies because of a typo. The producers adjusted their monocles and said 'I say, this plucky typo has the right idea!'. I think that's emblematic of how little care the Bond franchise takes with its titles. If they don't care, why should I?
- Thelma and Louise (1991): I usually enjoy movies where the problems start small and escalate out of control, so this was a good time. Really good pacing: the breaks in the action let you breathe but they're also setting up the next escalation. As in Mad Max: Fury Road, the episodic 'road trip' format maps well onto a chase.
I watched this with a friend who was really confident they knew what happens at the end but who was surprised! So I got a nice surprise-by-proxy.
- The French Connection (1971): This movie really puts the 'procedural' in 'police procedural'. Lots of waiting, and running around on crowded sidewalks. I'm not complaining; this is some classic crime-and-grime. Plus, there's a chase scene between car and subway train! But the thing I want to tell you about is the song near the beginning of the film.
This blog post has the movie clip plus a live version of the song that's easier to follow. It's called "Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon", it was written by Jimmy Webb (of "MacArthur Park" fame) and originally sung in 1969 by Thelma Houston in a version that starts out pretty nice but turns way-too-clever in a way that's distracting. Maybe that's why it wasn't a big hit. But the Three Degrees rehabilitate it, speed it up and put a lot of energy and joy into it.
I think this song appears in The French Connection solely to set up a dramatic contrast between space-age optimism and the moral rot of the "real world". But this song is the best thing about the movie! It's almost fifty years later and we've been making gritty cop movies nonstop, some of them are pretty good, but we haven't done much that goes on the same shelf as "Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon".
Sun Apr 07 2019 17:26 March Film Roundup:
Just finished some rewrites for a novel, so... time to do more writing! At least you get to see this stuff right away!
- Heaven Can Wait (1978): I saw this a couple months ago but forgot to review it. I remembered it when Sumana mentioned the admiral in Mary Poppins who fires a cannon from the top of his house every day. The millionaire in this movie has his servants fire a cannon every day! Is this a common thing? Is this why rich peoples' houses are spaced so far apart? Or maybe there was one obnoxious dude in Beverly Hills who did this and a lot of movies from the 60s and 70s are mocking him.
Moving on to the film itself: Elaine May's screenplay is really funny and misanthropic, except the last act, which seems written by someone who's a lot less funny and doesn't hate humanity at all. Thus, I left the theater disappointed and in a mood to forget that I'd ever seen this movie. There is a character in the last act who randomly drops dead just so the plot can work out, and I admit that is both funny and misanthropic, but not the kind I want to support with my ticket purchase. But up to, I'm gonna say, the 100 minute mark (the length of a normal, sensible movie), Heaven Can Wait is a great comedy.
- Captain Marvel (2019): Another month, another Marvel movie. I really liked seeing 90s LA—a little bit of home! And I know just enough about Marvel canon (from reading She-Hulk) to appreciate the little twist. Downsides: although this is a space opera Marvel movie it focuses entirely on the parts of that toolkit I don't care about: the galactic empires with their huge cities and clashing militaries. Are these the same people who dragged down Guardians of the Galaxy? (Answer after checking wiki: they are one such group of people. Geez.) Bring back garbage planet! (In fairness, there is a garbage planet here: the Earth.)
Near the end, when the villain... well, he's not 'the' villain, he's pretty minor, sort of an Assistant Undersecretary for Villainry, but real annoying. He's trying to taunt Carol into hand-to-hand combat, clearly setting up an Indiana Jones moment where she bypasses the fight scene by zapping him with her superpowers. The taunting goes on for a while, and before long I was pounding my fists on the theater armrests quietly chanting "Zap! Zap! Zap!" She does zap him eventually and it's cathartic. Anyway, I offer "Zap! Zap! Zap!" as an all-purpose attempt to fast-forward a narrative to its inevitable conclusion. Hasn't worked yet, though.
- Wings of Desire (1987): I was skeptical about this one, and saw it for two reasons: 1) Sumana wanted to see it, 2) Peter Falk. I'm glad I saw it. It's moving, humane, thought-provoking, beautifully shot, Peter Falk is a perfect choice. I don't have a lot to say because (as I feared) this film doesn't have a whole lot of plot. But I loved it anyhow; that's how good this is.
- Some Like It Hot (1959): This was my third viewing, the first on the big screen, and just to get it out of the way, this movie is funny as heck. Okay? That's a given. Top tier comedy. Big recommendation.
Now, I want to discuss two other facets of this movie: one good and one bad. The good is that this movie shows a character discovering their queerness and struggling to understand it, and the attitude of this 1959 Hollywood movie is total acceptance. I won't presume to try to fit Jack Lemmon's character's journey into modern categories, but it's clearly different from what Tony Curtis's character goes through, and Some Like It Hot is 100% sympathetic to it. The last time I saw this, I hadn't seen enough other old movies to realize how unusual this is.
The bad: the gangsters. Compared to the rest of the movie, the gangster plot is sloppy and lazy. The gangsters provide the thanatos that you want in a Wilder movie, but it's not well integrated. Just feels like a bunch of stereotypes and coincidences and references to other movies now forgotten. I'd like to see an edit that loses the gangsters after the speakeasy scene, but I don't know if you could do it without new footage.
- Us (2019): This had a ton of cool ideas, but I'm feeling some regression to the mean after the all-around fave Get Out. This was less science-fictional and more like a normal horror movie, with all the fridge logic that implies. I admit I don't watch a lot of normal horror movies so I don't know whether certain things are innovative here. Like, I have the feeling that a lot of horror movies take place over one night and end with the sunrise. Whereas in this movie, when the sun comes up it's just an act break and a change to a different horror subgenre. There's also some Edgar Wright type stuff where horror is filmed as though it were comedy; that's probably pretty common? Overall this was decent, but my "seeing it live in a theater" experience was nowhere near what I got out of Get Out.
Thu Feb 28 2019 23:39 February Film Roundup:
- Black Panther (2018): It's a superhero movie, but with a difference: Wakanda is great! As usual, I have a limited interest in the people solving their problems with fight scenes. But I totally want to see the effect on the MCU of Wakanda stepping onto the world stage! When Iron Man shows up, we know it's a one-off. We're not going to have everyone flying around in suits. But Wakanda is a full scale science-fictional invasion of a world like our own, the sort of thing for which I longed in Thor: Ragnarok. I definitely want to see this.
But apparently everyone dies in Infinity War, so it won't happen and I watched this movie for nothing? Man, no wonder it got snubbed for Best Picture. You think they're going to make a sequel to Green Book where an alien kills everyone?
- The Wandering Earth (2019): a.k.a. "Liu Lang Di
Qiu". Finally, we've found it: a good version of Armageddon. Could
this be the one that heals the wound? It's got the scope: the plotline of the first half of the movie is repeated four thousand
times across the planet, but we only see the struggles of one group. It's got the visuals, solving a common
problem of 'realistic' science fiction by turning Earth into both an
alien planet and a dingy space station. It's mostly stupid, as befits
a blockbuster, but really clever in a few places. You may think that
Deep Impact is the good version of Armageddon, but as
someone who recently saw part of Deep Impact while getting a
haircut, I say nay.
Downsides: the action scenes are way too long and I found them hard to read for similar reasons to Armageddon. Like Interstellar, this movie continually reminds you of the better movies it's ripping off, and in fact it's the same movies, plus Gravity. Special caution to doesthewhaledie.com premium subscribers: there's a dead whale in this, but it's been dead for a really long time. Like, are we upset by a whale fossil? There's got to be some limit, right?
Old video game watch: the black market guy is playing Contra
on a Famiclone. Yes, even in post-apocalyptic deep space, the 80s
classics never die. Also, Zhou Qian has eight Zelda heart stickers
on the chest of her spacesuit. It's never explained, but talking it out with Sarah afterwards, I speculated that it's like the kill marks on your fighter plane, except Zhou Qian hates killing, so they're tally marks of the lives she's saved.
- The Net (1995): Like Antitrust, this movie has a bad technical rep. Sumana and I saw it because of this bad rep, in search of cheesy fun. (Here's her review.) But apart from the McGuffins, it's not too bad. The basic point is totally accurate; in fact the movie now seems prescient in some ways.
Overall, this was the expected cheesy fun, and it reminded us of The Parallax View (1974), a much better thriller that's also a better metaphor for the destructive power of the Internet.
- Sweet Charity (1969): This month's pleasant surprise. A
cynical musical, but not nihilistic like Pennies From
Heaven, with snappy Neil Simon banter. It's pretty long, but
set pieces keep it moving, and outside of the first scene there's no
The choreography is incredible, all designed to point out how ludicrous the human body is. The "Big Spender" number looks like something Bertolt Brecht or Fritz Lang would do. One of them Weimar guys. I guess it makes sense since Bob Fosse would go on to do Cabaret in 1972.
Sumana and I were disappointed by the ending, which the best thing
you can say about is it's faithful to the musical and not the cop-out
alternate ending that was filmed in case of studio interference. While playing our frequent game of "fix the bad media thing" (most
recently deployed on a terrible Star Trek: Discovery
episode) Sumana came up with a much better ending: bring back
Ricardo Montalban's character, not to swoop in and provide replacement
romance but to pull Oscar aside for a man-to-man. It's the sixties, brother, Women's Lib is on the way, and Oscar needs to get over his hang-ups and just marry the girl.
Don't sleep on the elevator scene. Pure comedy niobium!
- Funny Face (1957): I don't know what Discovery's
computer sees in this one. It starts off fun with a couple good numbers, but rapidly becomes
dull. The idea that Audrey Hepburn isn't model material because of her
"funny face" is ludicrous. Also the funniness of her face is
strictly of the "you had to be there" variety, and that whole concept
is grafted on from a different musical. But not grafted in a cool way, like in Face/Off. Seriously engaging with continental philosophy would have made the film interesting, but that didn't happen--Empathicalism here is the humanities equivalent of the computer in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
The final blow: the poster for this movie says "Presented in a real new dimension
in motion picture entertainment". Are they trying to trick people into
thinking this is a 3D movie? Cause it's not. Although there is a scene where someone throws spools of cloth at the camera, a classic "gratuitous 3D" technique.
Mon Feb 18 2019 12:00 The Art of Python:
For a couple years Sumana has been mixing up the tech conference experience by adding aspects of performance and dramaturgy to her talks (see e.g. Python Grab Bag and Code Review, Forwards and Back). Now she's scaling it up by running an arts festival at this year's PyCon North America: "The Art of Python". You can submit proposals until the end of the month — music, dramatic performance, visual art, and so on.
I would love to see this became a regular feature of technical conferences. Many aspects of programming can't be expressed in traditional talks (xkcd does a lot of this), and it's also just fun to talk about programming in ways other than lectures—I like to do it in fiction, for instance. If you're interested, check out the CFP!
Sat Feb 02 2019 18:41 January Film Roundup:
Howdy-doo. I've completed my collection of Coen Brothers movies and I'm ready to pass judgement on the oeuvre as a whole. Also saw some disappointing Bollywood epics with Sumana. Let's get started!
- Raising Arizona (1987): This one's on the 'goofy' side, and it's fun. IMDB trivia says this was made to be as different from Blood Simple as possible, and those two movies do span the early Coen dramatic range.
I initially assumed that Gale and Evelle were a gay couple and was disappointed when it turned out they were brothers.
- Barton Fink (1991): I saw this in, like 1998, and then I saw it again with Sumana in July 2012, just before I started Film Roundup as a regular series. So I almost Film Rounduped it last time, but not quite. A little frustrating. But Barton Fink is a great arthouse movie, and it's fun to watch up to three times. The first time you're going in cold. The second time you know the trajectory and you catch all the foreshadowing and symbolism on the way. The third time you know what you're going to catch and there's a kind of second-order pleasure in seeing it all come together.
Don't get me wrong: I'd rather be watching it for the second time or even the first. But Barton Fink remains a real pleasure. The Buscemi/Goodman/Turturro triumvirate is in full flower, and it's great.
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): I love the period-ness but I can't stand the main character. Like if the Dude just complained in the bowling alley instead of trying to get his rug back. This guy's got a bunch of friends he doesn't deserve and he mistreats 'em all, but not in an innovative way, just regular entitled jerkiness. And I'm not into the music. This is a movie that shows you the ending first because that's the only part with any action, and doesn't even make it clear it's a flash-forward—seems like a decision made in the editing room.
John Goodman as Roland Turner steals what little of the show he's in. A weird side note: Turner's henchman is named Johnny Five, an anachronistic, irrelevant reference to another movie that I don't think even Thomas Pynchon would try. It's just inexplicable. If I'm ever at a Q&A with the Coens I should make this my Q.
- A Serious Man (2009): The project finale! Another period piece, more enjoyable overall than Llewyn Davis. Takes a while to get going and the main character is another sad sack, but at least he's trying. Or maybe it's not even that he's "trying" but that bad things really are happening to him.
- Main Hoon Na (2004): a.k.a. "I'm Always Here." A Bollywood classic that blatantly mixes Tom Clancy-type thriller and goofy college romcom. It... is okay, but if I'm going to sit through a three-hour movie I want more than "okay". Sumana and I had more fun riffing than watching the movie itself. There is a really good part during the closing credits, where the crew gets to be on-camera goofing off. The producer signs a big novelty check, etc.
Fun, spoileriffic fact: the main villain in this movie dies the same way as the main villain in Raising Arizona.
- Manikarnika: The Queen of Jansi (2019): This movie's got an undercurrent of Hindu nationalism that's kind of disturbing. Sort of reminded me of Ken (1964), but it's a live grenade instead of a museum piece. The action scenes are not all that was promised; we expected more aunties with swords. Also the British accents were all over the place, which was very distracting. During the movie I thought they'd cast a group of Eastern European backpackers as the British officers. But from what I can tell, those parts went to American and Australian actors living in India. Not that my British accent is great. I'm not volunteering.
And now, the conclusion. For the first time in Film Roundup history I'm giving rough numeric scores to movies, just so I can compare my overall opinion of the Coens' works against the IMDB consensus:
Survey says the Coens consistently produce above-average work but had a slight dip in the 2000s. What I learned from this project is how much value I put on the 1990s Coens in particular. The six movies from 1991 (Barton Fink) to 2001 (The Man Who Wasn't There) are my favorites by far, and include some of my favorite movies of all time. But apart from that ten-year stretch they're not really making movies for me. I don't think these movies are "bad" necessarily, but I like specific things and there was a magical period where the Coens were really into those same things.
For the record, here's my ranking, with my faves at the top:
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- Fargo (1996)
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
- Barton Fink (1991)
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
- Blood Simple (1984)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
- Hail, Caesar! (2016)
- Raising Arizona (1987)
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
- No Country For Old Men (2007)
- Burn After Reading (2008)
- The Ladykillers (2004)
- A Serious Man (2009)
- Miller’s Crossing (1990)
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
- True Grit (2010)
Some miscellaneous notes on the films as a whole:
- There's a stock character who I really like whenever they show up: the highly eloquent, super-polite character. Buster Scruggs, Professor Dorr, Ulysses Everett McGill, Charlie Meadows and Maude Lebowski to some extent. Maybe there's a character like that in The Hudsucker Proxy, it's been a while. Most of the time this character is a villain, but Troy Nelson is my favorite thing about Inside Llewyn Davis—just a really nice square with his head screwed on straight. Which I guess makes him the villain in that topsy-turvy movie.
- In the moral calculus of Coen Brothers movies, the worst thing you can do is leave someone to die. It doesn't come up every single movie, but I believe there's a consistent pattern. This is how you find out Buster Scruggs is a bad guy. Llewelyn Moss leaves someone to die in No Country for Old Men and it's the only thing that makes him feel bad in the whole movie. The only non-self-centered thing Llewyn Davis does in his whole movie is check on Roland Turner when he ODs. Arguably "leaving someone to die" is what kicks off all the problems in A Serious Man, if you're determined to make the prologue have something to do with the movie.
In real life, actively killing someone is worse then leaving them to die, but in Coen movies homicide doesn't usually have a moral dimension—it's the "shit" in "shit happens". Most of the body count is accidental, or else caused by Bad People like Anton Chigurh, characters who we know won't have any moral growth. The morality play happens afterwards, in how the survivors deal with it. The leaving-for-dead scenario is a good way to give big dilemmas to characters who would never realistically kill someone.
Sun Jan 20 2019 10:05 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2018, Part Two:
Again, taking this post as an opportunity to discuss some things that maybe should have had their own entries, but let's take what we can get, huh?
Audio - Two recently discovered podcasts are worth your time. Farm to Taber, which focuses on the nuts and bolts of sustainable agriculture, and Gimme That Star Trek.
There are a ton of Star Trek podcasts that go episode-by-episode, but who has the time? In fact, I record an episode-by-episode Star Trek podcast and don't even release it, that's how much respect I have for your time. (If you do have the time, try Treks and the City.) "Gimme That Star Trek" mainly talks about the larger themes of Trek and ancillary material like the comics. Try "Is Starfleet Military?" and see if it grabs you.
Games - The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Slay the Spire", which delivers my favorite part of roguelikes—emergent properties coming from random combinations of a large set of items. Honorable mention to "Dead Cells", which doesn't have much combo going on but is a fun feat of procedural generation.
I got a Switch in 2018 and haven't done anything super unusual with it but I have had a good time with the first-party games, especially "Breath of the Wild". I know I swore off Zelda games but the huge open world and side quests of Breath of the Wild made it easy to swallow the main arc, where a kid goes to four dungeons. "Nintendo games are fun" is an accurate but boring thing to say, so I'll say it but not dwell on it.
On my phone, I had a great time playing a game called Freeways, which I think will appeal to people who like Mini Metro. To me the darkness, the lonely desert, the directions identified only by highway numbers, brings back the nighttime Central California landscape I drove as a teenager. Honorable mention to Holedown. Dishonorable mention to another game that I won't name, which is a really good game but turns into gacha hell if you dare try to complete the main storyline.
Personal accomplishments - I finished a draft of Mine but it needs some serious work and I don't want to think about it right now, so moving on... I started putting my short fiction out there again and sold a story! ("Only g62 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments" from back in 2016.) Presumably will be published this year. Wrote five stories in 2018: "The Blanket Thief", "Why You Deserved to Die", "The Universe Pump", "The Wheel of Chores", and "The Procedure Sign". Got a good feeling about three of those, at least.
I'm coming up on the five-year mark of the Library Simplified project. It's an uphill battle, and 2018 didn't bring the breakthroughs I was hoping for, but we are making progress and there's no technical reason why this thing can't work, so I'm still hopeful.
The year in bots: I was mainly focused on other things, but I was inspired by the Internet Archive's holdings and API to create four new bots: Junk Mail Bot, Yorebooks, Podcast Roulette, and Almanac for New Yorkers, which premièred on January 1.
"Almanac for New Yorkers" is a replaying of an "urban almanac" for 1938 by the Federal Writers' Project. Advice on when to plant soybeans is replaced by info on what's playing at Carnegie Hall, and it's all written with that dry midcentury American wit that is better-known today from the WWII Army field guides these people would be writing in a couple years. There are two more of these -- 1939 for New York and 1938 for San Francisco -- so if the Almanac proves popular this year, I'll queue up another chunk for 2020.
Okay, I think that covers everything. If not... I'll just write another blog post! See you around!
Sun Jan 13 2019 19:33 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2018, Part One:
Hey, how are you doing? I've been putting off writing this post because there's books and plays and etc. from 2018 I'd been meaning to write about, and I never did. Now I've got to get it out by way of explaining why these things I've never mentioned before are on my best-of-the-year list. So I'm just going to put the little essays I was going to write in here. It'll be a good time. Let's start with the easy one, where I already have detailed records on my consumption:
Film - There's nineteen new films on Film Roundup Roundup, but only films I hadn't seen before are eligible for the best-of awards, so no The Apartment or Fargo. Here's my top seven for 2018:
- The Court Jester (1955)
- Big Business (1988)
- The Death of Stalin (2017)
- your name. (2017)
- Sorry to Bother You (2018)
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
- Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle (2017)
Kind of a surprising result for me; I remember reading the screenplay for The Court Jester back in the BBS days and thinking it wasn't funny at all. Even now, if you look at the IMDB quotes page it doesn't seem like a terribly funny movie. But what they filmed is funny as hell. The "flagon with the dragon" bit is a good example. It's a famous movie line that I find tiring in and of itself, but that line isn't the main joke; the jokes focus on the folly of using an annoying tongue twister as a mnemonic.
Theater - Sumana and I saw a few shows in 2018, and the one I liked the best was "The Play that Goes Wrong", which we saw on Broadway. Like Big Business in the Film section, this play shows a mastery of different types of comedy—verbal, physical, character, meta... It's constantly switching things up, setting up and claiming callbacks, and exploring every variant of its simple premise. Hits all my comedy buttons, basically.
Books - Two books I read recently that really stand out for me are And There I Stood With my Piccolo and But He Doesn't Know the Territory by Meredith Willson. Willson's main claim to fame is that he composed "The Music Man", and NYCB readers know how much I love that musical. After we watched The Apartment, Sumana said: "You know, the saddest part is he didn't get to use those 'Music Man' tickets."
Territory is an inspirational book about the incredibly frustrating eight-year process of writing and producing "The Music Man". It's really nice to read as someone who's trying to work on large long-term projects. But nearly as inspirational is Piccolo, a book Willson wrote and published in 1948, almost a decade before releasing the project he's remembered for today. At this point Willson is close to nobody in show biz, just a guy who works in radio, mostly behind the scenes. But he puts out this book of hilarious stories and hot takes anyway, because who cares? The work speaks for itself. Both of these are outstanding books full of great anecdotes.
In similar "funny person makes random observations" territory I really enjoyed the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. I read the first volume as a huge hardcover book and it was a big chore, but reading it as an ebook is a much better experience, especially since there's lots of good stuff in the end notes. Volume 2 has lots of Twain's thoughts on copyright, and his not exactly Mr. Rogers-esque experience of giving Congressional testimony on the topic. I was saving volume 3 for the new year, but guess what—this is the new year!
In 2018 I started reading Vikram Seth's Indian epic A Suitable Boy. Sumana is a huge fan, and this gives us a fun topic to discuss while she waits for the serially-delayed sequel, A Suitable Girl. It's really funny! I'm a couple hundred pages in and finally getting comfortable with all the characters and their relationships. But they keep adding more characters! BTW A Suitable Boy is one of those late-twentieth-century works where there just isn't an ebook available. It's pretty common, but not usually a big deal unless the book is both well-known and really long. The Power Broker is another example—I haven't read that one because it isn't physically compatible with the way I read now.
Other great books I read in 2018 include Hemmingway's A Moveable Feast, Picking Up by Robin Nagle, Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, Wartime by Paul Fussell, and Lying For Money by Daniel Davies.
On that cheery note, I'll see you... in the future! Right now I'm going to go eat some food.
(1) Mon Dec 31 2018 17:30 December Movie Roundup:
Happy New Year! I've updated Film Roundup Roundup and it's now current up to the end of this particular installment of Film Roundup, with nineteen new highly-recommended films I saw in 2018.
I saw a lot of movies this month in particular, partly due to a project I embarked upon, which you'll see near the end. You, my loyal reader, are the beneficiary. As for you, my unloyal reader—have at you! You betrayed me to that scoundrel Richelieu!
- The Apartment (1960): I. Love. This. Movie. This is a rewatch after fifteen years, which is about as much time as I like to go between viewings of a great movie. I remember basically what happened, but every scene is a treat. Sumana and I saw it at Metrograph—a new restoration, I think—and it really benefits from the big screen treatment. This movie looks great, it's hilarious, it combines total cynicism with genuine emotion. It's the kind of movie where the 'comic relief' shows up not to provide relief but to change the type of comedy, like the alternating layers of chocolate and wafer in a Kit Kat. (I was eating a Kit Kat during the showing.) And it's a Christmas movie! What more could you want?
- Supermen of Malegaon (2008): A fun documentary about can-do low-budget filmmaking. At one point the handheld camera being used to shoot the film is broken and it's a huge setback, causing delays and jeopardizing the entire project. But there's a whole film crew right here, making the documentary, with equipment much more sophisticated than the equipment being used to make the feature. If it was me I would have helped them out. I guess I'm just not a tired general.
According to the presenter, this documentary was originally made for Singapore state television, but never aired there. I didn't know Singapore was so interested in what happened in India. Though I guess once they found out what was happening, they lost a lot of interest.
- Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982): Who better to introduce me to the work of Robert Altman than Cher?
This had some great acting, but it's clearly a filmed play, which is most notable when some pretty horrible things are happening plot-wise but the characters just keep introspecting and monologuing. I guess I feel better about it if I think of this as the missing ending from The Last Picture Show—you come back to the lousy little town you left, and you've changed but all the ghosts are still there.
Sudie Bond in this movie is a dead ringer for my late grandma Rosalie, which was nice to see.
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018): Fabulous. Looks amazing, feels fun, good use of New York as a story mechanic. The plot is cookie-cutter, but it's just more evidence for my theory that you can't change more than one variable at a time when you make a movie. They leaned on the 'visual style' lever and they changed that variable.
- Hercules (1997): This movie should have stayed in the vault. Disney always plays fast and loose with the source material, but this one's especially egregious. For some reason it really rankled me seeing Zeus and Hera as this lovey-dovey couple, and Hercules as... their legitimate son? The one Disney hero from an unbroken nuclear family and it's Hercules?
This sounds like I care a lot, but I don't! I barely care about this at all! I know very little about Greek mythology! But other Hercules movies make you feel smart for recognizing little bits of the stories they're mangling, and this one felt like some other story with the serial numbers filed off. I'm not a big fan of the songs, either. Best I can say is that there are some good sight gags.
Sumana and I will sometimes place bets while we're watching something. Here, I bet that the famous Labors of Hercules would show up as a plot point and be dealt with in the course of a single musical number. Sumana bet that the Labors wouldn't show up at all. What we got was individual Labors, and references to them, showing up haphazardly throughout the movie, in musical numbers and otherwise. That's not satisfying. Anyway, the final ruling was that neither of us won the bet.
- Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990): I finally got Sumana to watch this, possibly out of guilt for her having suggested Hercules. This was my favorite film when I was a kid, and the favorite-filmness is still in there, but here's a film where they should have changed more than once variable.
IMO it doesn't get started until the famous "Gremlin nitpicking" scene halfway through. After that scene, it's like a Marx Brothers movie where Harpo and Chico are trying to kill everybody. All the stuff in that Key and Peele sketch happens in the second half of that movie. (We re-watched the sketch after the movie. Sumana: "They weren't kidding!") The interview with Brainy Gremlin is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. In terms of worldbuilding, character development, and verbal comedy, it's top-notch.
But before the "nitpicking" scene, the film is way too slow and not terribly funny. Watching this film navigate the Gremlins rules, which gave a lot of tension to the first movie, is like watching someone try to parallel park a really big car. A mixed bag, is what I'm saying. Or perhaps... a mixed Gremlin? No, 'bag' makes more sense. A Gremlin was a kind of car, maybe I could do something with that... oh, I'm out of time? Last thought: the "nitpicking" scene is where it is because the Gremlins emerged in the previous scene, rendering the stupid rules irrelevant. No coincidence that's also where the movie kicks into gear.
- The Witches of Eastwick (1987): A combination of gal-pal wish fulfillment and fantasy violence that probably didn't go down well at the time, but I'd say the idea has aged pretty well. What hasn't aged well is this movie's 1980s John Updike feminism. It kinda works because Jack Nicholson provides such a sleazy contrast. But everything George Miller wanted to say in this movie, he did much better in Mad Max: Fury Road. Susan Sarandon is great.
- Practical Magic (1988): Sumana's review of The Witches of Eastwick was basically "Have you seen Practical Magic?", and we watched it right after coming back from the museum, as a cross-venue double feature. It's a disorganized jumble of different movies in different styles, but there's a lot of fun stuff in the buffet. In particular there's a few minutes where it's a supernatural version of 9 to 5; I wish they'd stuck with that. The casual sister relationship was very realistic and put me in mind of Celine and Julie go Boating.
If you want to see what an IMDB rating histogram looks like when it has a hard-core group of fans, Practical Magic is your movie. I can see what the fans see in it, but ultimately I side with the weighted average.
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): A friend of a friend watches this movie every year as part of the holidays. I saw it a couple years ago at Susanna's house and forgot to review it, so... I watched it again and here's my review: it's really fun! Michael Caine is a great Scrooge. Would Dickens approve? Who cares? Public domain, baby!
- Miller's Crossing (1990): After seeing a bunch of Coen brothers movies last month, I realized that I was within striking distance of having seen their entire feature-film output, which would put them in such rarified Film Roundup company as Elaine May, and... that's probably it. Sumana was out of town for a while so I made a spreadsheet with the goal of not only seeing all the Coen movies I haven't seen, but rewatching the ones I had seen in the pre-Film Roundup era.
I'm not quite done yet, but I'll probably finish it up next month. In the meantime, Miller's Crossing (1990)! I thought this was basically popcorn noir. There's one cool little twist that gets un-cooled. Steve Buscemi only has one scene. I liked Blood Simple a lot, but this didn't have the same level of twistiness. I did like the soundtrack, something I don't usually notice.
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000): Watched with Kirk who was in town for the day. Overall this was really fun, but there's one big caveat which is that this movie has blackface. Seriously, George Clooney, in blackface, in the year 2000. It's not like Holiday Inn bad, it's well into ironic "we were doing something else and it served the same purpose as blackface" territory, but that's a stupid excuse for doing something that could have... just not been done.
Anyway, apart from that GLARING PROBLEM, which sours the milk near the end of the movie, this is really fun. I saw this in the early 2000s and having watched Sullivan's Travels in the interim really improved my experience, so watch that one too—also, it's a better movie overall.
- The Ladykillers (2004): This was pretty fun but it turns out it doesn't need to exist. I also wish I'd made the 1955 version of The Ladykillers, but I wasn't alive then, so I work on other projects. You might say "it's time to update the riotous humor for a new generation", and that's a reasonable argument, but then you gotta look at the outcomes. This is the lowest-rated Coens movie on IMDB (6.2, which if Tom Moertel's measurement is still accurate, is perfectly average), and it doesn't exactly have a Practical Magic histogram.
So, if you like what my cousin Camilla said about the 1955 version—"I had never before seen quiet, pious, proper good triumph over violent evil."—you'll get the same thing out of this one. That's pretty rare in a movie, but it's about to happen again, because next up we got...
- Fargo (1996): I was apprehensive about this rewatch because I've been using this movie on Film Roundup Roundup as an example of a movie I've seen but never reviewed. But also, what if the movie isn't as good as I remember?
Well, no need to worry because this movie is amazing. A big reason for its amazingness is it's structured like a Columbo episode. You see the crime; then you see the cop; then you see the nice, polite, competent person take down the horrible fast-talking liar. But unlike in most Columbo episodes, while this is happening the crime is escalating and metastasizing, continually raising the stakes. (Also, in a Columbo episode, the villain would be the rich father-in-law, not the car salesman.)
The Coens' movies are full of characters who are flawed and weak, and problems that can't be solved, were self-caused, or aren't even real problems. Some of the characters have good intentions, and a lot of the time that's all you're going to get. Fargo is the one where a) there is a real problem, b) one of the characters has good intentions, c) that person is able to stop the problem from getting worse. As a bonus, the Steve Buscemi level is very high (certified NISBS).
- The Man Who Wasn't There (2001): Sumana and I saw this movie at a special UC Berkeley showing on one of our early dates. I thought it was all right (and we still have a souvenir barber's comb from the showing, which we still use—durable plastic) but I remembered the plot in pretty good detail and wasn't really looking forward to rewatching what I assumed would be a Miller's Crossing type popcorn noir.
Well, turns out this movie is way above popcorn. It captures what IMO is the essence of noir: not just a general hopelessness but the specific hopelessness of being an ordinary, weak human being whose life is ruined because they tried one freaking time to do something extraordinary. Basically, the feeling of being Jerry Lundegaard.
This is also the film where the Coens' interest in extinct genre stories really pays off. The implicit biases of those old stories shaped Hail, Caesar! and Buster Scruggs in a way that got them a lot of deserved grief, and maybe it also motivated the bad blackface decision in O Brother, but here the investment pays off big. Of all the films I've seen in this mini-project so far, this is the only one that really surprised me.
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.