Fri Mar 24 2017 20:14 Reviews of Semi-Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF January/February 2012:
Hey there. After keeping this magazine in the house for five years, I
finally read it. You see, I only like things that are vintage. Sometimes you gotta age it yourself.
Standout stories for me were Naomi Kritzer's adorable "Scrap
Dragon" and Alexander Jablokov's gross-out "The Comfort of
Strangers". I guess I'm exposing the fact that I haven't read the Rich
Horton anthology that reprinted "Four Kinds of Cargo" (The Year's
Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2013 Edition), since that also
reprinted "Scrap Dragon". I repeat: adorable.
I also liked Ken Liu's "Maxwell's Demon" for the clever way it
combined several very different ideas. I love this issue's Mark Evans
cover art, for John G. McDaid's "Umbrella Men", but I prefer the story
I made up after looking at the cover art for five years. (However it
is the first time the story I made up based on the cover art bears any
resemblance to the real story.)
In the course of an essay on vampire fiction, Elizabeth Hand
mentions the ur-text, John Polidori's The Vampyre, as
well as the 1845-1847 serial "Varney the Vampire"
which ran to 670,000 words (Project Gutenberg has a measley 327,927 of those words). I don't care about vampire stories
but I'm always interested in the first or biggest example of
something. This column also made me aware of Theodore Rozak's
Flicker, in a would-actually-want-to-read-it way.
Man, "Varney the Vampire" makes me think of vampire Jim Varney. How
come they never did an Ernest movie about that? Seems like a natural
fit. Bye for now!
Thu Mar 23 2017 19:56 FRED:
This won't wait for Film Roundup because it's only showing until the end of the month. Last week Sumana and I went to see FRED at Dixon Place in Manhattan and had a good time. It's a short, funny play with a Starship Titanic feel. Check it out!
Wed Mar 01 2017 09:32 February Film Roundup:
- Kansas City (1996): I went to Kansas City on a Friday. Then I had to come back to the museum on Saturday, because that's when it was showing. Anyway, I figured a gangster film would be the perfect introduction to the ouvre of Robert Altman. And... there's not nearly enough Steve Buscemi but everything else about this movie is pretty great. There are different levels of corruption in the world, from the government to the mob to the grifter. Kansas City gets a lot of mileage out of a character on one level of corruption interacting or interfering with a character on another level.
- Charlie Varrick (1973): An enjoyable crime caper set in Albuquerque, kind of the opposite of Dog Day Afternoon where there's too much money in the bank. My only complaint is it goes on a little too long. I feel Walter Mattheau's character could have cut a couple steps from his plan, eliminated a lot of the risk, and come out just as well. The dentist office burglary is great, and Joe Don Baker excels as Evil Mitchell.
- Cradle Will Rock (1999): Another self-indulgent Tim Robbins herbal cigarette, but a lot more fun and more interesting than Bob Roberts. Super-random celebrity guests, both as actors and as characters. "Who's that supposed to be, Bertolt Brecht?" Yes, that's who it's supposed to be! I remember this movie came up a while back when we went looking through IMDB for all the times someone has portrayed Nelson Rockefeller on film. Not sure why we did that, I think because I was reading Before the Storm.
Anyway, the movie itself was enjoyable but the musical they're putting on seems, at best, comparable to other musicals of the 1930s.
- Toni Erdmann (2016): Fun, but not the laugh riot I was expecting. There are a lot of movies where a prankster character torments an uptight character, and I generally don't enjoy these, but in Toni Erdmann Ines starts tormenting her father right back in her own uptight way, so that provided some balance. I also liked that the film was almost entirely shot in Romania.
IMDB trivia: "Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig star in a remake of this film." No thanks.
- Get Out (2017): Effective creepy horror. I don't see a ton of horror movies, so I don't know how innovative this is, but I thought the way this movie doled out its gore quotient was great. I really got into this film, in my own nerdy way: near the end I was thinking "I don't want a The Shining ending or a Being John Malkovich ending, just a regular horror-movie ending."
Recommend seeing in the theater for the audience participation factor. There's an audience stand-in in the movie who has clearly seen it before and is trying ineffectually to stop it from happening! Just like real life.
I'm gonna shoehorn Book Roundup into this post because although I started three books on my commute, I lost interest in two of them a fair way in, and the only book I finished in February was Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. A great horrifying read with a sinister George Saunders-type feel in places.
I thought I'd also finish The Fortress of Solitude, but that book's a lot longer than I thought! I'm not even halfway through. Stay tuned!
Mon Feb 27 2017 09:07:
"Do they have a designated survivor? Like, one celebrity who doesn't attend the Oscars?"
"That's what we have other countries for."
Fri Feb 03 2017 18:26 January Book Roundup:
- Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson. Not a super satisfying ending, but I stayed interested through the whole trilogy.
- SPQR by Mary Beard. At one point I swore off reading more books of Roman history, because they all kind of retread the same ground based on the same sources, but Beard brings in lots of archaeological detail that provides glimpses into everyday life. Big recommend from me.
- The History of Nintendo, Vol. 2 by Florent Gorges. My retrogaming interest has gone down somewhat since I finished Constellation Games, but I can't say no to the lovely illustrated books put out by French publisher Pix'n Love Publishing. Volume 2 (which covers Game & Watch) wasn't as colorful as Volume 1 (which covers everything pre-) but the presentation is so good it justifies my paying import prices. They're like coffee table art books, but the size of a regular book! A new volume gets translated into English every few years, so I guess I'll see the NES one in 2020?
Wed Feb 01 2017 21:44 January Film Roundup:
- Hidden Figures (2017): Loved it! Not much to say. I thought it lost a little focus right near the end, where John Glenn is making his descent and nobody can do anything but hang around and look tense, but overall really solid. I enjoyed the FORTRAN fan service.
- Dangal (2016): A whole movie about copy-protection hardware? I was skeptical. But then I learned that it was spelled "Dangal", and that it was... a sports movie. At this point I was even more skeptical, but I was inside the theater so I figured I'd go with it.
And it's... a sports movie. But it has three things going for it. First, it's also a breaking-down-the-barriers movie. Sumana liked how much screen time was devoted to Indian girls with short hair. Second, this film contains three awesome songs. Third, the hugeness of Dangal magnifies the working parts of a sports movie so that they're impossible to miss, much like the way Plato's republic is designed to make obvious the virtues that go into an individual human being.
Characters are ludicrously fictionalized to make them fit the sports-movie villain roles. Victories that in real life were incredibly lopsided are dramatized as knuckle-biting buzzer-beaters. There's also one place where I detect a shear effect between fiction and reality, but am not sure what the reality is. These girls spend up to the age of about ten training to be wrestlers and wrestling boys on a kind of freak-show circuit. Everyone's attitude is: A girl? Wrestling? Whaaaaa? It really seems like Dad is the first person in India to have the idea that girls can wrestle.
But at the beginning of act two they go into a gymnasium and it's full of girls doing wrestling. Turns out India has a whole wrestling thing going. Girls leagues and everything. So what's with all the incredulity in act one? Even if Dad's neighbors are ignorant hicks, it seems like a former national wrestling champion should know that he didn't invent girls' wrestling.
A similar thing happens at the end where people are saying "If an Indian wins the women's wrestling championship, girls all over the world will know they can do anything!" Was American sports movie exceptionalism ever this bad?
PS: The posters show Aamir Khan with the four actors who play the daughters at different ages, as though they're four different characters in the same timeframe. I love this.
- Taking Off (1971): A fun squares-go-hip comedy from the same Universal Studios indie-director push that gave us Silent Running (1972). The surest way to get me to see a film is to compare it to an Elaine May film, which Metrograph did, and I took the bait. Taking Off delivers with awkwardness, culture clash and bad original songs—it's like a much cheaper Ishtar. When a woman with a lute drops the F-bomb thirty times in the sort of singing voice you associate with "Greensleeves", you know you're in for a good time. Also features New York grime and the glorious tacky interior of a 1970s Catskills lodge.
- New York, New York (1977): With Liza Minnelli and Mickey Rourke. No, that's not right, it was Robert de Niro. Everyone's favorite video... hero. Mickey Rourke isn't in this at all. Don't know what I was thinking.
The all-too-relevant story of a man who can't deal with the fact that his girlfriend is more talented than he is. The museum's handout claims the problem with the relationship is the "two lovers' equal musical talent", but let's go to the tape. Liza Minnelli actually is a world-class singer, whereas Robert de Niro is a Method actor who learned to play the sax for this movie. It's quite clear she is the superior musician.
As such, the balance of power shifts over the course of the movie, and by act three de Niro is nearly out of the picture and Minnelli's character is just lapping up the fame. Basically, everything that's in La La Land that didn't come from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, came from this movie.
Overall I was not crazy about this film. La La Land is more fun and my favorite Scorsese de Niro is still Rupert Pupkin, by a long shot. But those two musical numbers at the end really are amazing. And character actor Lionel Stander is great comic relief as the agent who speaks in inscrutable aphorisms. It was a classic "that guy" moment, where I knew I'd seen him before, but turns out the only place I've seen him before is the introduction to the TV show Hart to Hart. Not the show, just the introduction, which I've only seen once. That's how memorable his face and voice are.
- Pride (2014): As a sidelong way of talking about this movie I'm going to bring back sports movies for a bit and talk about Cool Runnings (1993). It's a film I haven't seen since it first came out, and I'm not sure why I saw it at all—I think a friend's dad took us? But it sticks in my mind as the only sports movie where I think "Maybe I should rewatch that and see if it holds up."
Why? Because Cool Runnings is the only sports movie I've ever seen that dares to violate the ironclad rule. In this shocking film, the underdogs don't win at the sport. It's not a movie about winning; it's about sportsmanship. Other sports movies allege that it's not whether you win or lose, but if you win, who cares whether or not it's whether you win or lose? Cool Runnings strips all of that away and teaches the only lesson a sports movie has to teach, the hard way.
(The basketball sequence in Meatballs (1979) has a more cynical take on this, and IMO is the best part of that lousy movie. One reason I'm iffy on whether Talladega Nights (2006) is a sports movie, is that it mocks the very concept of 'winning'. I admit I haven't seen every damn sports movie, although it sure feels like it, so please tell me about other sports movies that don't end with a win.)
Anyway, I bring this up because Pride is a non-sports example of a movie where it's a matter of historical record that the underdogs lose. Like Cool Runnings, it does much better than a "win" movie would of showing the virtues that can survive a loss: community, solidarity, tolerance and old-fashioned stubbornness. It really goes for the heartstrings, but sometimes that's what you need.
I was sure Bill Nighy was going to bow out after his first scene, having done his bit for low-budget film, but he was gracious enough to stick around for the whole movie—a nice surprise. Also, most of the women in this movie look like one or another of my relatives. The whole time I was thinking e.g. "Wow, Aunt Pat and Aunt Anne are really hating on each other."
(1) Wed Jan 18 2017 13:20 Jokes For Minecrafters:
The last time I went to California, my nephew told me lots of punny jokes about animals ("Why are cats so vain? Because they're purr-fect.") He'd gotten these jokes from a Pokémon joke book, in which the jokes were about Pokémon ("Why are Meowth so vain? Because they're purr-fect."), and kindly translated the Pokémon into real animals for my benefit. Which worked out well because the jokes had clearly been about real animals to begin with.
This reminded me that I'd been meaning to report back about two other joke books about a common childhood obsession: Jokes for Minecrafters and Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters. I'm really interested in the shady but seemingly profitable world of unlicensed Minecraft books. I've seen Minecraft self-insert fanfic being sold as an 80-page chapter book at Target! I applaud Mojang's lax stance on fan works but that seems a little excessive.
I recall from my own childhood that this sort of obsession-feeding book is usually a big disappointment once obtained. Themed joke books are the worst because they're often a big cash-in on preexisting folk jokes. Plus you have to find someone who's as big a nerd as you, and wants to listen to you tell the jokes instead of reading the book themselves.
I was prepared for disappointment, but I had to find out what Minecraft kids' jokes were like, so I ventured one more time into a world I'd abandoned long ago. Fortunately, this time I didn't have to pay the Troll Book Club to send me two slim paperbacks. I just put the ebooks on hold at NYPL.
And... the best joke in the series is probably the very first one in Hilarious Jokes for Minecrafters:
Q: What happens when a creeper walks into a bar?
A: Everyone dies.
It's all downhill from there. Here are the two runners-up:
Q: Why do players shop at Endermen yard sales?
A: To get their stuff back.
Q: Do zombies eat popcorn with their fingers?
A: No, they eat their fingers separately.
I'm not here to make fun of bad jokes, because comedy is hard, but most of the book is more like this:
Q: What did the pig say to the creeper?
A: Nothing. The creeper blew up the pig.
Many entries have the form of jokes, but are actually Minecraft trivia. Here's one I didn't know:
Q: How do zombies and skeletons keep from burning during the day?
A: They stand on soul sand.
This one hasn't aged well:
Alex: "What do you call a polar bear in Minecraft?"
Steve: "I don't know. What?"
Alex: "Lost, because there are no polar bears in Minecraft!"
I need some help on this one:
Q: What happened when it became so cold in the icy biome?
A: The snow golems were holding up pictures of thumbs!
There are also many jokes that require knowledge of the Orespawn mod, which I'd never heard of. One book had a separate chapter dealing with "mods", but a lot of Orespawn jokes were not in that chapter. This seemed unfair to kids who are just trying to understand jokes and maybe laugh a couple times.
This one makes me irrationally angry:
First player: "I heard the End has its own soundtrack."
Second player: "What does it sound like?"
First player: "You can only hear it in the End."
This one has an artifact that makes me think most of the book was copy-and-pasted from an IM conversation:
You might be a Minecraft addict if you forget to give your mom a present for her birthday and instead get her a Minecraft account XD.
Anyway, I'm here to tell you that the terrible Amazon reviews of these books are more or less accurate. In the spirit of reconciliation, I thought I'd close by trying my hand at corny Minecraft jokes:
Q: How does Steve detect if someone is raiding his marijuana stash?
A: He uses a BUD switch.
That one's on the house!
Mon Jan 16 2017 13:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Accomplishments:
Library Work: In 2016 SimplyE went from a two-developer team with me as backend guy, to a seven-developer team with me as architect. We launched the SimplyE reader for NYPL patrons and started work on rolling it out to other libraries across the country. We also launched the Open Ebooks project, which led to our brush with power.
I'm not comfortable bragging about the SimplyE product because it needs a lot of improvements, and I feel like saying how nice it is will lead to people thinking (or at least asserting) that I'm okay with the status quo. But if you compare it to the status quo ante, it's really damn good. We took checking out an ebook from a 17-step process to a 3-step process. And I'm totally happy bragging about the team, which is incredible. For the first time I ran a bunch of job searches and decided who to hire, and I think the past year's work has proven I made good choices.
At the end of the year, NYPL recognized our team with a Library Leadership Award! To the right is our official team photo (two of the developers are not pictured). I think this is an incredible achievement for a team that basically didn't exist a year ago.
Writing: Late 2015 I pitched a number of novels to my agent and we decided on Mine, a Rendezvous with Rama type political thriller. Lately, though, I'm haunted by the pitch I wrote for Nice Things, a novel about the fascist takeover of the Federation. Sometimes when I sit down to write Mine I feel like I should be writing Nice Things instead, but most of the time I'm glad I'm working on absolutely anything else.
Progress on Mine is slow but steady. But slow. My increased responsibilities at the library haven't been good for writing time.
Short stories I wrote in 2016 include "Quest For Boredom" (which I... supposedly sold??? but haven't heard back), "The Girls Boys Don't Notice" (possibly the best title I will ever come up with), "Fool, Professor, Peasant, King", and the unsellable "Unicode Changelog", which I might self-publish.
Situation Normal is still on the Desks of Editors.
Bots: I've drastically scaled down my use of Twitter because I don't like what it does to my brain. As a corollary, I don't really like that my whimsical software encourages people to spend more time on Twitter. So I've stopped putting bots on Twitter. Also, Twitter randomly suspends my bots without telling me. After the completely innocuous Vintage Groaners was suspended, I decided it wasn't worth the hassle.
I've thought about taking down my bots in a fiery cataclysm, rather than letting Twitter pick them off one by one, but a lot of people get happiness from Minecraft Signs, Hapax Hegemon, and (finally!) Smooth Unicode, so I'll commit to keeping the big ones working at least. I have a solution in mind for my computational creativity going forward, but I'm pretty damn busy so it's going to be a while. I've been doing this stuff since 1998 and it's still something I like, so consider this not a goodbot, but rather au botvoir.
Here's the 2016 robot roll call:
(2) Sun Jan 15 2017 20:25 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Games:
If you've come for cutting-edge gaming news, I must disabuse you of the notion you've somehow acquired. I buy computer games when they're ported to Linux. Then apparently I only talk about them at the end of the year. Let's get started!
Two excellent tabletop games stick in my mind: the thrilling Pandemic Legacy, about which much has been said elsewhere; and the unassuming Stinker, which once you play it is revealed as an absolute marvel. Stinker cleverly fixes all the problems, large and small, with "spell-something" games and "one-person-judges-everyone-else" games and "come-up-with-something-funny" games. It's not as surefire a hit as Snake Oil, but I love it and it's usually a hit when I introduce it to new players. Stinker is the Crummy.com Board Game of the Year.
Three years ago I closed the book on non-tactical RPGs and declared Mother 3 the all-time winner. Well, now I gotta re-open that book because Undertale improves on the formula. It's clearly based on the Mother series, but it has a solid new combat mechanic, a lot of memorable characters, and a type of humor I like better than the humor in the Mother series (which I do like, quite a bit). I really disliked the climax of Undertale, but a lot of Mother 3 was rambling and unfocused, so it kind of cancels out. Undertale overcomes my prejudices to become Crummy.com Computer Game of the Year.
Runner-up is Duskers, the space exploration game which combines survival horror with system administration. Your typing speed can make the difference! Super creepy, but feels a bit unfinished.
Other computer games I enjoyed a lot in 2016: Mini Metro, Stardew Valley, RimWorld, Beglitched, Brogue, Caves of Qud, Sunless Sea, and XCom: Enemy Unknown.
Sat Jan 14 2017 12:32 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Books:
Nearly all the books I read in 2016 were in electronic format. I either read library books through SimplyE, or I dug through the piles of ZIP files I've accumulated through Simon Carless's video game StoryBundles. Greg Millner's Perfecting Sound Forever was the only paper book I read in 2016 that I recommend; in fact, it's the Crummy.com Book of the Year.
I've got seven more super-recs and I'll give little capsule reviews for them, since they predate the first occurrence of Book Roundup. I read a decent amount of fiction, but you'll notice there's not much fiction on this list. What happens in my head when I read fiction seems highly idiosyncratic, so I'm more comfortable recommending super-detailed nonfiction.
- The four-volume Designers and Dragons by Shannon Appelcline, an incredibly broad survey of role-playing game publishing. This is absolutely not for everybody but I loved the uncovering of weird little experiments and the anecdotal gossip.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey. This book is a deep dive into what I would argue is the invention of worldbuilding. It does a great job explaining how the unreadable parts of Tolkien make the readable parts so compelling. Here's the money quote IMO:
[P]eople can tell the genuine from the fake, even when it comes to making up names. Do not make them up, therefore.
There are a series of amazing close reads that show how Tolkien worked, e.g. by finding weird stuff in medieval texts (What is the name "Gandalfr" doing in the middle of "Tally of the Dwarves", when "alfr" means "elf"?) and making up a retcon.
- Digital Apollo by David A. Mindell. Narrative of the computer architecture of the Apollo, the process of designing it with each piece being made by a different contractor, how it performed during each mission and how it was changed after each mission.
- Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein. 'Nuff said. Everything I've read by Perlstein is great.
- Starboard Wine by Samuel R. Delany. Like the Tolkien book, a really useful book on the techniques necessary to write fantastic fiction, but written by a practitioner.
- ZZT by Anna Anthropy - Great coverage of an obscure but incredibly important game. Like the cover copy says, "[N]ot everyone has played ZZT, but everyone who played it became a game designer."
- Way Station by Clifford Simak - Introspective prose captures a type of melancholy that science fiction could be doing all the time but doesn't attempt very often.
Tue Jan 03 2017 20:30 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2016: Film:
Film: Maintaining Film Roundup Roundup (now updated with 150 high-quality films!) makes it pretty easy to come up with a top ten for 2016:
- Man With A Movie Camera (1929)
- Dekalog 10 (1989)
- Tampopo (1985)
- Inquiring Nuns (1968)
- Approaching the Elephant (2014)
- Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004)
- A Short Film about Killing (1988)
- Dekalog 1 (1989)
- Hail, Ceasar! (2016)
- The Defiant Ones (1958)
Look at that list, we got four documentaries on there.
My lower-tier "recommended" list gets longer every year; here's a quick stab at the top ten of my twenty-one recommended movies from 2016:
- Moana (2016)
- Ghostbusters (2016)
- Deadpool (2016)
- Caucus (2013)
- La La Land (2016)
- Avanti! (1972)
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
- Three Colors: Blue (1993)
- Synecdoche, New York (2006)
- It (1927)
I'm not really happy with calling that second tier "recommended" because it implies I'll scoff at your decision to see a solid film like Arrival or Kung Fu Hustle that I didn't put on my list. Hopefully no one does the data gathering necessary to deduce (incorrectly) that I'm scoffing at you.
After several years of Film Roundup I think I can now make what to me looks like a normal person's top ten film list, containing only movies from 2016. All of these were worth watching:
- Hail, Ceasar!
- La La Land
- Star Trek: Beyond
- A Beautiful Planet
- Shin Godzilla
- The Last Arcade
Kind of a boring list though! Where are the nuns, the fourth-wall-breaking gangsters, or the convicts handcuffed to each other? Answer: in movies from previous years.
Mon Jan 02 2017 11:57 December Book Roundup:
Just a few notes on the books I read in December 2016. Books marked with a * are ones I read for free through NYPL's SimplyE mobile app. (Big news on that coming up! Also, I guess I should write a simple explanatory post for people who don't want to read my RESTFest talks.)
- *Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson. This was fun sci-fi spycraft, and just as the concept started to get old there was a MEGA TWIST that kept me interested to the end. The sequel, *Europe at Midnight, went deep into the world of the TWIST. It reminded me of Giles Goat-Boy, except good. Presumably there's a third book... yes, there is. I've requested that it be added to the NYPL collection.
- Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. Combining observational humor and pop science creates a book that reminds me of two of my favorite authors, Susan McCarthy and Mary Roach.
- *The Dead Mountaineer's Inn by the Strugatsky brothers, translated by Josh Billings. The big standout in this book was a wonderfully clueless, desperate alien who doesn't get a lot of page time.
- Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner. Sumana read this book a while back and raved about it. I must agree: it's really, really good. It takes recorded music, something you're already familiar with, and makes it clear how weird it is and how many social constructs surround it. Then it retells what you thought was an artistic history in terms of technological changes and business decisions. A lot of nonfiction books give you the facts, but Perfecting Sound Forever gives you a hidden history of something you've been living with your whole life.
- *Double Entry by Jane Gleeson-White. Not as good as Perfecting Sound Forever but also does a good job of showing that something frequently thought of as an objective record of reality is actually a measurement taken through a mess of social constructs.
Sat Dec 31 2016 19:08 December Film Roundup:
Looks like December 2016 has escaped its holding pen! As you flee, please consult this Film Roundup for next steps and valuable offers from our partners.
- Blue Collar (1977): Solid work/heist movie with Richard Pryor doing a Peter Falk-like job of putting comedy and drama into a single role. In fact, the movie poster shows Pryor twice, once doing a "drama" face and once doing a "comedy" face. Like those old Greek masks, I guess. Not pictured: Pryor's co-stars. A good thriller with authentic 70s grime. Cool factory footage means this was probably Krzysztof Kieslowski's favorite Richard Pryor movie.
- Plunder Road (1957): Some films noirs claim to be LA-centric, but only Plunder Road has the guts to focus entirely on the logistics of highway transportation. High quality popcorn noir. The smog inspection scene made me laugh.
- La La Land (2016): The movie that picks up where Plunder Road left off. It's a pretty musical, a genre you don't often see in modern American films, and I was enjoying the settings and the low-tech accomplishments of craft and the fact that it's more emotionally realistic than most pretty musicals, and then the ending happened. Such a great ending! It recontextualizes the entire movie in a way that only works because you spent 90 minutes in a pretty musical with above average emotional realism. I'd go into more detail but for once I think I don't want to spoil you.
The whole movie I was thinking "I know Ryan Gosling is a different Ryan than the guy from Deadpool, but they look exactly the same and I can't remember the other guy's name so I'm going to pretend this is a Deadpool prequel." This did not enhance the movie as much as I thought it would.
- Ghatashraddha (1977): "Such a good movie!" - Sumana's mom. A Kannada New Wave weepie in the style of the Apu trilogy. It was pretty good, but I didn't like it as much as Sumana's mom does.
The print I saw included a hilarious subtitle. Two teenagers from the village school are arguing, the younger one runs off in a huff. The older one: "Tut! Poor fellow!" I kind of felt it didn't mesh with the tone of the rest of the film.
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016): This year's Christmas movie with Susanna. Finally, the superb junkyard art direction of the Star Wars universe is matched by an appropriate storyline: "we got the job done but everybody died." I know they only did it to avoid answering the question of why these people weren't in Episode IV (possible alternate answer: "they were somewhere else"), but it was so good to watch some characters in this universe unconstrained by the burdens of myth. A surprisingly high recommendation.
- The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964): Clearly an inspiration for La La Land, but the new film is more to my taste in a couple ways. First, Cherbourg isn't really a "musical" in the [HB]ollywood sense, it's more like an opera or a very long cantata. Second, this film has the same ending as La La Land, but because it's an understated French film and not a noisy American musical the really cool thing doesn't happen on screen.
Unlike my Deadpool fantasy, this film really is kind of a sequel to Lola, a film I saw in 2014. I didn't notice this until IMDB trivia time afterwards. I would definitely pick this movie over Lola.
As the year draws to a close (actually, afterwards; I'm writing this addendum on Monday) let's turn the Television Spotlight on the beloved classic, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (1968-2001). I don't think I've said this explicitly on NYCB, but when I was growing up my family did not own a television. You might think this was snobbish behavior, but I don't think Mom and Dad went around bragging about this at parties, and looking back on 1980s TV I have to say it was a solid choice.
This means that I didn't see any Mister Rogers' Neighborhood until I was thirty-seven, but no harm done. MRN is really good for kids who have serious problems in their lives, who need an oasis of ritual and calm, and the problems in my life started right around the time I grew out of the MRN age group. Now that I'm an adult I see MRN as a good model for talking to children without condescending to them or ignoring their concerns. The thing that stood out to me is that when he shows you a potentially unfamiliar place like an art gallery or an airplane, he always takes the time to verify that there are bathrooms there. He goes into the airplane bathroom and shows you how everything works. So you don't pee your pants on the plane flight because you're afraid to use the toilet.
Of course, some of these techniques only work on television. Mister Rogers will frequently ask you a question that sounds rhetorical, and then proceed as though you had answered it. I believe is the source of the common "can you say X?" parody construct. The semi-rhetorical question is incredibly condescending when someone does it to you in person. But Mister Rogers never acts like he heard your answer. You both know it's television and he can't hear you. Instead, he'll answer the question himself. "Is this the right shape? No, certainly not." He waits for you to give your opinion and then he weighs in with his own. If you don't say anything, that also works.
In general, this show is not my thing and never would have been, but I really admire the dedication to the target audience, and the field trip segments are always cool.
Thu Dec 15 2016 10:46 little of my collections have enabled in contemplation:
I created a blackout story as a present for Allison and decided to retroactively make it my 2016 NaNoGenMo project. I call it "Amazon Prime". Enjoy!
Tue Dec 06 2016 09:49 At work, in the morning, when it's quiet:
Sat Dec 03 2016 16:54 November Book Roundup :
Please join me in writing a long-overdue Crummy feature, Book Roundup. Hmm, I'm being informed I have to write this myself. Please join other NYCB readers in reading a long over-due Crummy feature, Book Roundup. This is part of my up-ramping effort to post to NYCB more often and to control more of the information I put on the Internet.
It works like Film Roundup, but with less detail. At one point I pledged less detail on Film Roundup and it hasn't really worked, but here I'm serious. I'm just going to mention the books I read that I liked or that I need to remember I read. I'm reading most of these books on NYPL's SimplyE reader, and since libraries don't keep track of which books you read, this is a great way of remembering what I've read.
- Carnegie by Peter Krass. Read for work research. The true story of a poor radical who became a rich reactionary who convinced himself he was still a radical.
- The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner. A history of Bell Labs that does a good job explaining the relationship between the Labs and the AT&T monopoly. It's always awkward to see UNIX called a programming language. I don't think this impeaches the overall accuracy of the book, but there are probably similar technical errors I couldn't catch.
- Speer: Hitler's Architect by Martin Kitchen. A well-deserved hit job on a man who successfully cultivated an image as The Guy Who Didn't Know. It's petty of me but I really liked the architectural criticism aspect of the hit job, which always ended with Kitchen mentioning that the site of Speer's Eternal Palace of the Volk (or whatever) now holds a parking garage (or whatever).
- Exploding the Phone by Phil Lapsley. The Idea Factory reminded me that I'd checked out this book a long time ago and wasn't able to finish it before my DRM license expired. It's the same story as The Idea Factory, where the phone system is a big time-share computer, but from the perspective of the computer's unauthorized users.
- Comic trade paperbacks! Sumana and Leonard agree: Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3 is the best! Leonard agrees: Gwenpool Vol. 1 is fourth wall fun. It got a little gory but not as bad as your average Deadpool. I'm assuming there's a connection between the two? But it didn't actually happen in the book. I don't think I'm ever going to like low fantasy but Rat Queens volumes 2 and 3 are pretty nice.
Thu Dec 01 2016 22:37 November Film Roundup:
A few movies seen in a miserable month. Really high success rate
though! Plus, this is the first month since the beginning of Film Roundup where every feature I saw is a
new release. Maybe that counts for something in this messed-up world. Naw, who am I kidding? Update: turns out that's not even true, I forgot about Avanti! when I was writing this. When I was writing this I knew there was probably a movie I'd forgotten and I'd have to write an update like this one, and now it's happened.
- I saw a long series of Kieslowski shorts and the standout was Hospital
(1977), a slice-of-life documentary shot in a Warsaw trauma center where everything is super Communist and falling apart. Even the hammers don't work properly!
Unglamorous gore and unsexy nudity abound. For half these people it's
the worst day of their lives; for the other half it's just a normal
day of improvising.
- The Target Shoots First (2000): Watch it on Vimeo! A thought-provoking documentary about managing creative people in an anticreative environment/being creative with the disappointing materials on hand/being uncertain about the moral valence of your creative work. This film has a fun Office Space vibe, I think because of the editing. It was filmed at the last moment your boss might think "it's just home video, not like this could end up in a movie or anything."
I loved the Aerosmith cameo. Steven Tyler saying "such a deal!" has become a catchphrase in our household. I'm pretty sure it's Steven Tyler who says that, but I admit I would fail any "Aerosmith member or random old dude of equivalent age?" test.
- The Age of Shadows (2016): Man, Korean movies, huh? This was
much more violent than the corresponding American R movie would have
been. You think you're out for a classy espionage movie and it's just
people getting murdered from the first scene to the last. In between
the murders there were some cool fights, some good espionage, lots of
nice looking period sets and costumes. I do not recommend overall
because the amount of gore takes it past Robocop territory, but
Sumana liked it.
There's a suspenseful scene where you don't know whodunit, but the
real question is, whocares? There are maybe six characters here, we're
near the end of their movie, and I'm not so attached to any one of
them that I'm going to be shocked by a revelation that this one
is the Cylon. And... I was right not to get attached to any of these
- Avanti! (1972): Pulling out a new Billy Wilder DVD is like uncorking a vintage bottle of wine--an unrepeatable experience. At least I assume that's what it's like, from the way wine snobs talk about wine. We opened Avanti! uncertain as to the precise mixture of dark and funny in its bouquet, and... it's about 70-30. Laughs and callbacks all the way through, but it's a rom-com about a guy having an affair, handled with the attitude you'd expect from the director of The Apartment and Double Indemity.
Caution: includes fat jokes. They don't even land anymore because Juliet Mills is not fat by 2016 standards, and probably not even by 1972 non-movie-star standards.
- Arrival (2016):
Sometimes I'll tear up during a movie and I
resent it. It feels cheap, like I'm just having a physiological
reaction to the soundtrack. This happens a lot during
trailers. Sometimes it's a good movie and the content legitimately
makes me tear up. This happens pretty reliably when someone's spouse
or kid dies and you have to see the effect of that death on the
surviving spouse or parent. (Parent death, not so much, maybe because
that's actually happened to me.) Three Colors: Blue and
Waiting both did this to me.
Because of its narrative structure, Arrival made me not just
'tear up' but full-on cry in the theater. There are things about this
adaptation that I am iffy on, but the one thing at the core of
"Story of Your Life" is done incredibly well, it
perfectly hits my pain points, and kablooie.
I think this is not most peoples' reaction to Arrival, so here's a review for normal people. I'd
have cut some stuff at the beginning but it's a good movie overall. It
does a good job showing big-idea space opera on a small budget.
Pictured to right: the Heptapod B sentence I wrote by accident
while baking Thanksgiving cheesecake.
- Moana (2016): In Albany for Thanksgiving, the family
divided into two
warring camps: the camp that was
seeing Doctor Strange and the camp that was seeing
Moana. I was in the Moana camp and even though the
theater was filled with noisy children,
I don't regret it. Great movie. Good songs, silly and heartwarming in
the right ways. Tons of sea life, no central villain... could this be
the Star Trek IV of Disney animation? There was a moment during
one of the songs where I thought "Cool, they're combining animation
with live action like in Mary Poppins WAIT A MINUTE THIS IS ALL
Sumana braved the 2.5-hour running time of Doctor Strange
and came back with a tale of... distracted driving? Doesn't sound very
'strange' to me. I thought these Marvel movies were supposed to have Iron Man punching things. Anyway, later that week Sumana saw Moana and also loved
it. I'm not wild in general about Disney animated features but I must admit
they've been on a roll lately.
(2) Wed Nov 02 2016 22:41 October "Film" Roundup:
October was a Krzysztof Kieslowski month at the museum, so we saw a lot of his
stuff with a few other things mixed in. Kieslowski is Sumana's favorite director, whereas I had seen
one of his films. Tons of new stuff, many new favorites, some
duds... it's all in a Film Roundup's work!
- Film (1965): Or as Wikipedia calls it, "Film (film)". I make the decision on a case-by-case basis whether to review shorts, so don't look for consistency. Instead, look for post-Sunset Boulevard Buster Keaton doing Samuel Beckett's version of a Buster Keaton movie. Like Dali/the Marx Brothers, it's a conceptually satisfying matchup (the great surrealists! the great existentialists!) but one that's spoiled by a lack of mutual admiration. Groucho didn't like Dali's screenplay for Giraffes on Horseback Salad, and he was correct--it sounds like a disaster. Beckett had tried to get Keaton as Lucky for the American production of Waiting for Godot (and it's even possible Waiting for Godot was inspired by a Keaton short) but Keaton turned down the part because he didn't 'get it'.
Film isn't a disaster and it even has some really good gags, but if you don't 'get' Waiting for Godot you certainly won't 'get' this movie, even if you're the star.
- The Double Life of Veronique (1991): I saw Blind Chance
(1987) a couple years ago, and it was pretty decent, so although this
movie disappointed me I didn't write off Kieslowski's entire oeuvre
because of it. It starts off pretty good, and then the romance subplot
kicks in and both Sumana and I lost interest. On the plus side, I
believe this is the first film I've seen that shows a Minitel
terminal. (It doesn't get used.)
- Safety Not Guaranteed (2012): A fun date movie. Good laughs, good
chemistry between the weirdo characters, is okay with leaving a couple
things unexplained. Recommended.
- The Scar (1976) and Short Working Day (1981):
Although I'm not impressed by Kieslowski's storytelling when it comes
to romantic love, when it comes to talking about work, I think he's
right up there with Billy Wilder. These are awesome socialist-noir
films about the impossible job of being a middle manager in a planned
economy. Their protagonists are forever squeezed between the Workers
and the Party, unable to make anyone happy. Maybe it's all a
metaphor for filmmaking or something slight like that, but the sheer
number of films Kieslowski made about work makes me think he finds it
really interesting. I'm gonna give Short Working Day the nod,
because it's shorter and has more action. But they're both good.
- Shin Godzilla (2016): First, I gotta say I did not like this
Godzilla design. Did not like how dinosaur-like it was. I say: classic
Godzilla all the way, 90s Godzilla an acceptable substitute. Also
mystified by this movie's attempt to retcon "Godzilla" as an English
word. But whatever. Like all the Godzilla films that aren't completely
silly, this one's about the humans, not the monster, and it's solid.
A long time ago I suggested that the The West Wing should do
an annual Halloween episode: a noncanonical story about an alien
invasion or zombie attack. Well, here it is! This is a
Godzilla movie done as an episode of Veep. Lots of
walk-and-talk, lots of government incompetence on display. It was kind
of corny but definitely closer to the original Godzilla than to
the silly stuff in its emotional resonance.
I saw this subtitled, and although I prefer subtitles in general, I
gotta say a dub might be better here. There are a gazillion charaters
in this movie and each is introduced with a caption giving their name,
organization, and position within the organization. Some of these
people are only in the movie for one shot! The same thing happens for
every military unit we see, each distinct piece of hardware
fruitlessly deployed against Godzilla, etc. So you have to read all
that, and keep it separate from the dialogue subtitles that are
on screen at the same time.
- Dekalog (1989): This is a famous series of ten made-for-TV
movies, roughly modelled after the (Catholic version of the) Ten
Commandments. Its IMDB rating is a near-unbeatable 9.1, meaning if it were classified in the movie list it would be the third highest-rated movie ever. But it's classified as a TV show, so it's tied for 19th place with True Detective. I'm gonna say
we saw half of the Dekalog: we saw 1, 2, 9, 10, and A Short Film About
Killing (a.k.a. "5: The Extended Cut"). A lot of them show how a
miracle can ruin your life—a pretty solid concept.
None of the Dekalog films we saw were "bad", but IMO the Dekalog films dealing with romantic love (2 and 9) are
merely "pretty good", whereas the ones that deal with other emotions (1, 5, 10)
are some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen. There's a lot
of talk about A Short Film About Killing, and it is quite the
punch in the gut, but I want to put in a good word for Dekalog 10
("Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Stuff").
Going in to the 9-10 double feature, I was thinking "Do we really
need two films about coveting different things?" But I
was wrong: we do! A flim about coveting your neighbor's wife is a
romantic-love movie, which we've established I don't think Kieslowski
does very well. Whereas coveting your neighbor's stuff... it's not a
work movie, but it's close, and Kieslowski nails it.
We had some fun coming up with the previews they must have run on
Polish TV when Dekalog was airing. "A ten night television
event!" "You'll cry, you'll cry some more!" But Dekalog 10 has a different emotional arc than the other films in the series. It's about two brothers whose
lives are almost ruined by a miracle, but because they
fundamentally love and trust each other, they make it through the
Kieslowski gauntlet with only minor damage. I guess you
gotta end the series on a happy note.
- Tampopo (1985): Saw this movie with Ashley Blewer (it's one
of her faves) and absolutely loved it. So fun and good-hearted. Starts
with a cool fourth-wall-breaking intro of the sort you used to see in
American movies in the 1950s. One of the best of the year for me.
Caution: this movie is not for faithful readers of
doestheturtledie.com and doestheoysterdie.com. The turtle scene was
pretty rough for me (real turtle, fer sure) and doesn't do anything for the film as a whole. I created my own "Phantom Edit" by closing my eyes when it became clear the turtle was gonna get it.
- Three Colors: Blue, White, Red (1993-1994): Gonna cover the
trilogy as one item because I want to publish this entry and move on. All three
films are really solid. The ending of Red was cheesy in the
same way as the ending of Blind Chance, so points off for
that. I'm going to give the prize to Blue, even though
White is a comedy with the actors from Dekalog 10
playing brothers again! As always, it comes down to Kieslowski's treatment of romance. It seems superficial and kind of petty in White. Whereas his treatment of the aftermath of spousal death (Blue) brings nightmares to vivid life and his exploration of telecommunication and surveillance (Red) seems downright hip for 1994.
Thu Oct 06 2016 21:51 Reviews Of Old Science Fiction Anthologies: 1972:
Just finished Donald A. Wollheim Presents The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, an old SF anthology with one of those funky 1970s Yves Tanguy-esque cover paintings, obtained, I believe, through Jed Hartman. While it's fresh in my mind I wanted to take note of my favorite stories from the book. If nothing else, it's sometimes useful for me to go back and remember stories that I really liked.
As you'd expect from a year's-best anthology all the stories in this book are pretty good by 1972 standards. I'd say the champion is probably "Real-Time World" by Christopher Priest, which is weird in a way I found really interesting. Has a PKD-like plot but written in a different style. Honorable mention to Joanna Russ's "Gleepsite", which is weird in almost the same way, and a lot shorter. R. A. Lafferty's "All Pieces of A River Shore" was my favorite story in the book all the way up to the last paragraph, which enraged me to the point that I've bumped it down to third place.
Runners-up: Paul Anderson's "A Little Knowledge" was slight but really fun to read. Larry Niven's "The Fourth Profession" (Hugo nominee!) combined the superb inventiveness characteristic of the very best SF with a very 1972 conception of the range of acceptable human behavior. The introduction to "The Fourth Profession" mentioned it was originally published in a Samuel Delany anthology series called Quark, which looks like it's got a lot of good stuff.
Now that I've started writing all this down, I'll conclude by mentioning that I recently read the September/October 2011 F&SF and my favorite story was "Aisle 1047", Jon Armstrong's goofy story of brand warfare.
Sat Oct 01 2016 22:19 September Film Roundup:
Ah, September, the month of cinematic disappointment. Wake me up when September ends. What's that you say? Well, just gimme like five more minutes.
- The Seven Samurai (1954): Okay, I've learned my lesson. No more Kurosawa films that take place prior to the Meiji Restoration. I think I've now seen all the big ones and although this one is clearly the best of the lot, it couldn't hold my attention for three hours. Some good scenes, but way too slow for me, and minus points for the blah romance subplot.
- Mikey and Nicky (1976): If you're like me, nothing I can say will talk you out of seeing an Elaine May crime drama starring Peter Falk, but a used DVD of this movie goes for a hundred fifty bucks, and what do you get? A pretty normal 1970s dramedy. I saw Mikey and Nicky at Metrograph for $15, a significant savings, and I don't regret spending the money, but it's the least good Elaine May movie I've seen.
Is it funny? Kind of. Is it awkward? Definitely. Does everything go wrong? Absolutely. It's interesting to see a woman's take on the 1970s small-time crooks immortalized by male directors like Sidney Lumet. But this isn't even May's best "Person A is person B's friend but also trying to kill them" movie. (That's A New Leaf.) It's the kind of movie that other people like more than I do.
There's only one Elaine May movie that I haven't seen (The Heartbreak Kid, DVD also $150 used) so I'll only have one more chance to say this in Film Roundup: The fact that May is still in movie jail over Ishtar is one of the great injustices of the film industry, especially because Ishtar is a really good, really funny movie.
- I saw a number of old Vitaphone shorts at Film Forum, but they were nothing to write blog about. However, there was also a really interesting talk from Alejandra Espasande, an archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with a (kind of too long) clip show afterwards.
One of our New York traditions is a variety/clip show called "Kevin Geeks Out". We don't go very often because it starts at 9PM on Thursday in Brooklyn, but host Kevin Maher makes it a fun time with guests, games, etc.
As you might imagine, "Kevin Geeks Out" has a certain attitude towards the unlicensed projection of short motion picture clips in an intimate but definitely commercial setting, and the attitude of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is... at the other end of the spectrum. However, the two clip shows were very similar in tone. Where Kevin Maher might have told the story of the infiltration of vaudeville performers into Hollywood via appropriate clips taken from... various sources, Alejandra Espasande told the story through ephemera from the collection she manages: PSAs, newsreels, and especially movie trailers.
The Academy has a collection of about 65,000 film trailers, most of which came from a single dealer's collection. The most interesting bit of the evening was Espasande's remark that this dealer did a lot of business with people who were making documentaries, because it was easy to get movie footage via the movie's trailer, and almost impossible to get it from the movie itself!
She didn't go into detail on this, and there was no Q&A, so I have only speculation to go on. But I could see this making sense in the pre-1972 era, when copyright had to be registered and film collectors were underground. The studio wouldn't bother to copyright trailers, so they (and the footage within) would be public domain. However, this authoratative-seeming web page says:
A scene from a movie that also appears in a coming-attraction trailer can be regarded as enjoying the copyright protection of the movie, in cases where (as is common) the movie was copyrighted but the coming-attraction trailer was not.
And yet, this equally authoratative-seeming page says:
Many of these trailers also contained material that appeared to be from the movie but was actually shot directly for the trailer. That material, since it did not contain a copyright notice, would also fall into the public domain.
Your honor, IANAL. The defense rests.
- Speaking of unauthorized screenings, this month the Television Spotlight focuses on something that never aired on television: the 1995 pilot for the Robert Altman/Gary Trudeau collaboration "Killer App". I have no idea why we thought this would make a good introduction for me to the world of Robert Altman. It feels a lot like a Aaron Sorkin joint (or mushroom, I guess). There's the ensemble cast, the snappy dialogue, the interest in work and the workplace. But it's not a ripoff--this was made the same year as The American President, and Altman does this stuff all the time (or so I hear).
By 1990s television standards, this is an incredibly accurate look at the tech industry. The triumph, the entitlement, the douchiness, the desperation... it's all there. All the technobabble makes sense. It's really impressive. The only unrealistic element is the far-too-intelligent personal assistant AI. There's your product, folks! Put that thing on a 3 1/2" floppy and sell it! The spam filter alone is a decade ahead of its time!
I could point out other flaws but it's a pretty fun 50 minutes and the point is moot because those flaws ensured it didn't make it to series. Check it out--it's
Thu Sep 01 2016 23:45 August Film Roundup:
August was a month with a lot of writing and relatively little film-watching, but I've got a number of good selections for you.
- Three Days of the Condor (1975): Really solid Watergate-era thriller that holds up very well except for a certain Watergate-era naivete at the end; and the horrible, squicky, unrealistic romance subplot, which nearly ruins it. It's awful! A lot of 1970s films have squicky romance subplots, and you know I don't do this for everything, but I'm going to blame it on the proverbial male gaze. Like, compare this movie to A New Leaf (1971), a hilarious romcom about a man's attempt to romance/murder an innocent bystander. It's squicky and it works fine, it's funny and it serves the purposes of the movie, because the creepy dude isn't the hero. My point is a) there are movies that age well in this respect, even in the 1970s and b) I don't think it's a coincidence that A New Leaf is directed by a woman.
Anyway, this film has that one big problem but if that's not a deal-breaker for you, it's pretty exciting.
- The Last Arcade (2016): Documentary about a video arcade in Manhattan started out interesting like a normal documentary about something with a lot of history. Then the arcade shut down, the documentary started skipping forward in time to show what happens to the space and the people, and it got really interesting. There's a moment where the film sets up an easy villain, but the truth is more complicated than that framing will allow. Good stuff.
- The Wild Bunch (1969): This movie was a long watch for me since I think it makes its point in the first (awesome, disturbing, non-ASPCA-compliant) scene. There are some good bits afterwards but it never made it back to that level for me. Is it possible to get a full theatrical release for a fifteen-minute film? Asking for a friend.
- In & Out (1997): Sumana watched this movie in her youth and wanted me to see it. It's... all right? There were some good jokes. The fourth-wall-breaking motivational tape was a classic. We had an interesting discussion afterwards about how stereotypes have changed since 1997, and whether Tom Selleck's character really could have travelled from LA to the middle of Indiana in eight hours. It's an open question! Does he bring a camera crew, or does he hire local stringers? Does he have to finish the Oscars telecast before he can leave, or is he just there for the red carpet preshow?
Sorry to spoil the ending, but this film ends with the same trick used in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Misleading cinematography implies that you are watching two dudes about to get married, but no, that could never happen, it's just a pleasant/disturbing dream.
- Waiting (2015): What a sad movie. Pressed all my buttons. Variety would call it a "weepie". Then I couldn't call Sumana afterwards because she was asleep in a different time zone. Don't be like me! Watch Waiting responsibly, with someone you love.
I think this was the first Indian movie I've seen with serious curse words. Lots of swearing in this one. And waiting.
- Big Trouble in Little China (1986): If I was a movie director... I'd make lousy movies because I never went to film school. But my life had gone differently and I was now known as a good director, I'd like to be compared to John Carpenter. His films are full of love of genre, over-the-top action, and goofy practical effects. He's not as sophisticated as, say, Edgar Wright, but I'm not known for my sophistication either.
In my hypothetical life I'd like to be remembered for a They Live or The Thing but I'd settle for a Big Trouble in Little China. Mashing up American-style and Chinese-style action movies is a great idea, and although this movie doesn't rise to the comedy-horror level of a Ghostbusters or a Gremlins, it's a really fun experience. I didn't even have to use my 1980s racism cringe. I gotta say it was a good movie.
IMDB trivia confirms my suspicion that the first scene of this movie was added due to studio interference. It ruins the pacing of the movie, frames Kurt Russell as the hero when he's actually the sidekick, generally doesn't make sense, and you should just skip to the second scene. Also according to IMDB trivia, "At one point, the film was going to be a sequel to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension." Believable!
- Inquiring Nuns (1968): Inquiring nuns want to know! An adorable film about the nature of happiness and the nature of interviews. The two nuns are super engaging, trustworthy and effective in drawing out their interview subjects, but their presence heightens the artificiality of the experience to the point that I often wondered if the subjects were putting on a performance rather than seriously engaging with the question. Like the guy who ends up reciting a sappy poem he wrote. Gimme a break. Those nuns are too polite to give you the tough love you need!
Strong recommend overall. Includes vintage footage of the Mathematica exhibit. Don't miss the riveting scene where the two nuns interview another nun!
- This month let's shine the Television Spotlight on the 80s classic Macgyver. I'm talking about the original, not the reboot (which we haven't seen but the trailer doesn't look good). We've been watching a bit, focusing on the earlier seasons. It's a cheesy, cheesy show, but the character is fun and I have a hypothesis that Macgyver is the climax of 80s TV action.
See, Macgyver the character lives a thrill-a-minute life of danger, but he hates guns and never engages in gunplay. This is a formula designed for maximum broadcast-friendly excitement. You can't show someone getting shot in the face, but you can show someone being shot at and missed. And you can show as many explosions as you want: TV explosions throw everyone clear, so no one gets hurt and it doesn't count as violence. Now you got your formula: people shoot at Macgyver, he makes a bomb out of a car battery and toothpaste; there's a huge explosion, everyone goes home happy.
The AV Club's guide to Macgyver has been very helpful, though I think the author of that guide likes Murdoc way too much. It's not that Murdoc isn't a good villain, it's that he's someone else's villain. He's the Joker. The Joker puts a lot of effort into his capers. He needs to fight a super-square like Batman, someone with a lot of equipment and a plan for every contigency. Macgyver doesn't have a plan! He's the anti-Batman. It's like the Joker taking on Bugs Bunny. Bugs would just stretch out of the handcuffs and walk away. Anyway, there's a lot of good stuff in Macgyver as well as many cornily enjoyable takes on standard TV action plots.
Tue Aug 02 2016 19:07 July Film Roundup:
Rising global temperatures, political documentary series, and
blockbusters in franchises I care about ensure that I spend a lot of
time in air-conditioned theaters this summer. The result is a Film
Roundup for the ages! Specifically, ages 13 and up. (Sorry—COPPA
- Armageddon (1998): The film so bad it got its own Film Roundup Special.
- Blood Simple (1984): Looking back this movie feels like a
dry run for Fargo, but on its own terms it's really good, sort
of a twisted version of "Gift of the Magi". Saw it with Sarah and we
both enjoyed it a lot. Keeps the tension going to the penultimate
shot! Then you get one shot of resolution and leave the theater a
- Kung Fu Hustle (2004): Fun action film that keeps the
violence cartoonish to the point of showing people with Road
Runner-type rotating legs. It sure beats The Mermaid, although
no one thing was as funny as the police station scene in The
That said, I'm not really clear on who hustled whom or what the
hustle was. Perhaps I, the audience member, have been hustled?
- The Sound of a Flower (2015): Inspiring Korean drama of a
woman pansori performer who just wants to portray a Ghostbuster on
stage, but the rules of nineteenth-century Korean opera require that
Ghostbuster roles (plus all other roles) go to men. Will her
high-pitched singing break the glass [ceiling]? It's basically a
sports movie, so yes.
This was the consensus Asian Film Festival choice between me,
Sumana, and one of her friends; and as often happens with consensus
picks we were all kind of let down. Pansori is a genre that's not that
interesting to me, and although I'm not qualified to judge, according
to the programmer of the film festival, star Suzy Bae's pansori
singing isn't great.
- Antigone (2016): We made an unprecedented third excursion to a live theater event. This was a local theater production and it wasn't great. I'm interested in seeing other things in the same space, because it's relatively convenient and incredibly cheap compared to other theater options in New York.
- Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016): I liked
this documentary a lot because I came into the movie knowing
absolutely nothing about Norman Lear, and
learning about him from a short documentary was a lot more
entertaining than learning the same facts from Wikipedia.
Like, just as an example, Norman Lear wasn't just a successful TV
guy. At one point he was the producer of five of the top ten network
shows. He plowed his millions right back into television, producing a
special called "I Love Freedom" to push back against the religious
right, a special which featured Robin Williams playing the American
flag. He bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence and sent it
on a road trip in an attempt to inoculate people against
anti-American authoritarianism. And in the interviews he really opens
up and talks candidly about the darkest parts of himself. Compare
someone like Mel Brooks, who shows up in this movie and spends most of
his scene telling one really long joke. Really interesting show.
- Bob Roberts (1992): Tim Robbins film suffers from all the
problems you'd imagine from a political mockumentary made by a
stereotypical Hollywood liberal who writes, directs, stars and performs the folk song parodies. Seriously, watch Tanner '88 (below)
instead. Giancarlo Esposito does a good job with what he's
given. Sumana and I agree there there are several minutes of footage
after what really should be the last, creepy shot of the movie.
- Ghostbusters (2016): Really solid. I prefer the
worldbuilding in the original, but I find 2016's escalating gags
funnier than 1984's more situational humor. No reason you can't have
both. In fact, have them
Unlike a lot of modern action movies (see Star Trek: Beyond:
below), I could follow the action scenes even when they got
complicated. And looking forward, the end of this film gives me confidence the
sequel will avoid the
worst problem with Ghostbusters II (1989).
- Caucus (2013): This documentary about the 2012 Iowa
caucuses does what Bob Roberts was too self-righteous to do:
present a complex portrait of a man whose politics are awful (here,
Rick Santorum). This film is full of people you will hopefully never
have to care about, humiliating themselves to no purpose, but Santorum
is the standout.
He's got a couple great scenes, but the one that sticks out in my
mind has a frustrated Iowan throwing a big blob of generalized
resentment at Santorum, and he listens and sympathizes and probes
around the conspiracy theory for some normal conservative
sentiments he can agree with. It's a sign of how low the bar has been
moved since 2012, but I found that really touching. Rick Santorum
does the basic job of a politician.
- Chicago (2016): A fourth live theater production! We saw the all-female Takurazuka production. Sumana likes
Chicago and she also likes it when women play roles that are
the eternal birthright of men, so we dressed up (slightly) and headed
to Lincoln Center, where we we ran into our friends Mirabai and Kate,
also there to see Chicago! A pleasant surprise.
I'd never seen Chicago before, so seeing it in Japanese was
a nice stretch. Overall I would rate the musical as "okay". After the
show Takurazuka did a medley of their greatest hits, with elaborate
costumes and cross-dressing galore. As usual when we go out to a
live theater event, I'm unhappy with the cost, but Takurazuka did give
me the feeling of seeing something that I'd never be able to
experience any other way, so I'm glad we went.
Mirabai, a big Chicago fan, was not impressed by my trivia
tidbit: that according to IMDB ratings Chicago was the
155th-best movie of 2002, the worst performance of any Best
Picture winner. Maybe you'll be impressed! Who knows? Actually I'm a
little suspicious of this number; I did some spot checks on some well-known 2002 movies and the only
one I saw with a higher rating than Chicago was The
- Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004): Super enjoyable
documentary of the Shirley Chisholm campaign. Unlike most long-shot
presidential candidates, Chisholm had a good plan: to get some
delegates and use them as leverage to affect the party
platform. It's the plan Bernie Sanders started out and ended up
This is a fascinating film, partly due to the inclusion of tons of
candid footage from two contemporaneous films where people heard about
the Chisholm campaign and thought "I must follow them around!" but
never actually released a film. Caucus gives you the 'real'
candidates by showing the abrasive effect on their emotional defenses
of a grueling sequence of public events. These unfinished films
achieve 'reality' by going right into Chisholm's Congressional office
and convention hotel room. It helps that she's the same person in
private as in public. The scene where Chisholm is watching the
convention on TV, she picks up the phone and tells her delegates to
vote how they want—it's the kind of moment that's often
dramatized but that documentaries rarely have the camera running to
show you for real.
Director Shola Lynch showed up for a Q&A afterwards and mentioned
some fun trivia about Shirley Chisholm's initial congressional run, plus what
happened in 2004 when she took the film to Chisholm's Florida home to
screen it for her. Chisholm originally hadn't wanted to watch the
movie, didn't even have a VCR, but now she was sitting, watching, not
saying anything, and Lynch was getting really nervous, until a friend
called Chisholm's phone and she went off to answer it. Lynch overheard
(paraphrase of a paraphrase): "No, I'm busy! We're going to be late!
We're going to be late to the Early Bird Special! I'm watching the
most incredible film!"
- Star Trek: Beyond (2016): I'm not going to say "Trek is
back!" but... people who understand Trek are in charge again. There's
a decent story here, and I respect the fake-out where the villain from
a bad Trek movie (Ru'afo) turned out to be the villain from a good
Trek movie (Colonel West).
The Simon Pegg script does a lot to save this movie, at the cost of
making Scotty's relationship with Keenser ever weirder. Lots of cool
spaceship grunge—Star Trek finally stealing the best
thing about Star Wars. Nice character moments between Spock and
McCoy, some cleverness during the impossible-to-follow action
scenes. We old-school fans have to take our enjoyment where we can,
Oh yeah, I saw this movie in 3D (not my choice) and I totally
forgot about it the whole time I was writing this review, until just
now. It felt like a normal 2D movie. Don't know what that says about me
or the movie.
- And finally, it's time to shine the Television Spotlight on the
most authentic political mockumentary, Tanner '88 (1988). What
better way to introduce me to Robert Altman's work than to watch this
Garry Trudeau collaboration? It occupies the place where you'll find a
lot of middle-highbrow cinema, a space that used to baffle me, where
the attitude is humorous but there's not a lot of jokes per
se. Overall recommended, partly for entertainment value, partly for
its influence, partly for sheer cleverness.
Behind-the-scenes interview says that Altman had such a great time
doing Tanner '88 that he wanted to keep it going after Tanner's
inevitable loss. This is an attitude shared by many real presidential
candidates, but the amazing DNC episode is the highlight of the series
and it's good that HBO pulled the plug afterwards because you can
already feel it start to go downhill.
Sun Jul 10 2016 08:50 Film roundup Special #2:
- Armageddon (1998): The first hate-watch in Film Roundup history! I saw this movie when it came out, in a "friend has an extra ticket" scenario, and like the other movies I saw for free while in college (Very Bad Things, Mars Attacks!, The Phantom Menace), it's awful. But unlike those other movies, people didn't seem to notice that Armageddon was bad! It was the top-grossing film of 1998! It's in the Criterion Collection! (Albeit more as a "representative sample" pick than a "good movie" pick.) Where I saw a uniquely awful film, others saw only a cheesy summer blockbuster.
At the time, my hatred for Armageddon focused mainly on the many, many plot holes and scientific errors in the film. But that's a pretty superficial way to look at a movie. Silent Running has huge plot holes and it's a great sci-fi movie. When I saw Armageddon was showing at the museum, I knew I had to watch it again, eighteen years later, with more mature eyes, to try and see deep into the horror.
Well, it's still bad, and the plot holes and scientific errors are still at the core of its badness. The fundamental problem—pointed out by Ben Affleck during the filming of the movie—is that it would be easier to train astronauts to operate a drill than to train oil rig workers to operate in microgravity. This movie is two and a half hours long, and a lot of that time is devoted to making excuses for why, no, it makes more sense to bring in the oil rig workers.
A big part of this work is establishing that there will be normal Earth gravity throughout this movie. This is because it's 1998 and they can't shoot the whole film on a wire like Gravity, and the sets are too large to pull an Apollo 13. But this technological limitation also makes the plot semi-possible, because Earth gravity negates most of the skill differential between a trained astronaut and a trained oil rig operator.
The one good twist in this movie makes all this unsavory exposition pay off. It's about two hours in and, after seeing one space scene after another clearly shot in Earth gravity, you've forgotten that these people are supposed to be on an asteroid and not on a cheap sound stage. Then a character remembers that, despite appearances, the story has them in a low-gravity environment, and they can exploit this fact to get out of a tight spot. Eureka!
Another big part of the necessary work is introducing four more characters to a cast that's already got way too many characters, because not even Michael Bay can convince an audience that experience on an oil rig translates to skill in piloting space shuttles. So they have to bring in some astronauts after all. It's okay, though, these are the pilots, so they're Air Force jocks, not loathsome NASA nerds.
'Cause this movie hates nerds. Our heroes are nice people, by blockbuster standards, but they're all jocks, except for Rockhound, the creepy Steve Buscemi nerd, and Truman, who was a jock before a tragic accident left him settling for nerddom. I'm sure there's a good movie somewhere that hates nerds, but a) filmmaking is a technically sophisticated activity that demands precision, so on some level all directors are nerds, and b) it's a circle-squaring operation to celebrate a twentieth-century space program while hating on the nerds who build the hardware and keep everything running. In the far future when spacecraft are toys, like muscle cars, you can do it, but not in 1998. I mean, we tried it! NASA was on board and everything. A ton of money was poured into the concept. And we ended up with Armageddon. I see Interstellar (2015) as an attempt to fix this problem, but it swings too far in the other direction and veers into uncritical nerd worship.
The action scenes in Armageddon are illegible. There's a lot of hardware on screen but the effects haven't aged well. The cuts are too fast and there are too many characters. (For much of the movie the characters are split into two groups that don't interact but are filmed on the same sets!) That's why most of the action scenes are accompanied by frequent cuts to a map or readout, or accompanied by shouted measurements, just so we can understand what the hell is going on. It's like hearing "rising tension... rising tension!... moment of maximum tension!... whew, everything's fine!".
So, it's a bad movie, but the world is full of bad movies. What's special about this one? Something dark and horrifying about Armageddon's badness made me willing to watch it again—something I rarely do even to good movies—to figure out why exactly I hate it. Then I read the little flier they hand out at museum showings, and it clicked into place.
Here's the essay the museum chose for Armageddon. It's by Jeanine Basinger, who taught film to Michael Bay at Wesleyan. Just as Armageddon spends a lot of time trying to convince you that its plan is a good idea, this essay spends a lot of time trying to convince you that Michael Bay is a smart guy. His prize-winning student film "told its story clearly, but in a highly nonverbal manner. Bay was ahead of his age group, but he was also ahead of his time. He still is."
[Armageddon] is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense.
That was written in 1999. Now it's 2016 and according to IMDB trivia many of the participants in Armageddon have backed off or disowned it. Ben Affleck mocks the movie in his DVD commentary. Michael Bay has called Armageddon his worst film, although I don't know if he did this before or after Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Billy Bob Thornton, Armageddon's most stalwart defender, is quoted as saying "It's not THAT bad..."
When reading that essay I was transported back, not to 1998, but to 2004. Because that essay reads like a National Review article from a Yale history professor who taught George W. Bush. That's the missing key. Armageddon is uniquely horrible because it serves as a prophetic microcosm of the forthcoming Bush administration.
It begins with the Twin Towers being destroyed. An incoherent response is carried out in a laughably incompetent way. The poindexters who think they know better than the tough-talking action hero get their comeuppance. After a brief period of triumphant flag-waving, the whole thing turns out to have been a huge disaster, and everyone involved backs away from it or pretends it didn't happen. The result is used as an object lesson in how not to do things. The best available defenses are "It's not THAT bad..." and "simply and directly, without pretense."
Michael Bay is absolutely a smart guy, but you don't have to be stupid to make a bad movie. I do think Armageddon belongs in the Criterion collection, but it should be experienced the way I've experienced it: initial, superficial hatred; followed by the realization that something can be an obvious disaster in the making, and happen anyway, to cheers and applause; then the sad hollow satisfaction of being proven right.
Because I'm all about celebrating the cinema, I'll close with the good things about Armageddon. The initial narration and the first scene are pretty exciting—Gravity ripped them off, so you know they're good. One joke made me laugh (Rockhound's parting shot to the loan shark). And finally, Steve Buscemi couldn't save the movie Armageddon, but when the actual 9/11 happened the former firefighter went back to his Little Italy firehouse and put in several days of volunteer work. The guy's a mensch.