Mon May 01 2023 21:40 April Film Roundup:
Sumana was out of town for Pycon, so I saw a few films from my "Sumana probably won't like this" queue of movies from the 60s and 70s.
- The Drowning Pool (1975): Paul Newman is an actor I only recently discovered. He did all his big films before I started watching movies, or (in most cases) was born. So, like Marilyn Monroe, I mainly experienced Newman through the medium of a low-fidelity black and white picture of him used in a commercial context. Well, he's lots of fun, charismatic, charming, and he's the second-best thing about The Drowning Pool. The best thing is that the climax of this tense noir thriller is an epic slapstick set piece. The whole time they were setting up the pieces of the set piece I kept thinking "Are they really going with the slapstick? That's so awesome/tonally jarring!" It was as if the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II showed Vito Corleone carefully assembling a giant banana cream pie. Recommended, I guess?
- A Guide For the Married Man (1967): I'm kind of angry at this movie for not having the courage of its Billy Wilder convictions. Ed spends the whole movie teaching Paul how to cheat on his perfect wife Ruth without getting caught. It seems like good, practical advice, I wouldn't know. Ed keeps mentioning how highly he thinks of Ruth, and how cheating discreetly is the best way to protect her feelings.
At the climax of the film, Paul's fumbling, jowly Walter Matthau attempt at infidelity is foiled when Ed is noisily discovered in the motel room across the court, cheating on his own wife with... some blonde. C'mon! He should have been cheating with Ruth! It's so obvious! Do I have to do everything around here?
As you can tell, loosening Hollywood restrictions are on full display in this film. Nowhere is this more visible than the set design. Since this is a bedroom farce, we see a whole lot of bedrooms, and most of them follow the traditional Hays Code rule of separate beds. However, it's now the swinging 60s, and you are apparently allowed to do one scene where two people share a bed without one having one foot firmly on the ground. Sort of like how PG-13 movies today are allowed a single F-bomb. They use a double bed for that scene, as well as for a joke about tearing up a bed looking for something, which prefigures Gene Hackman's paranoid search in The Conversation.
Includes a huge number of celebrity cameos, plus one cameo that wasn't known to be a celebrity at the time: a nearly silent role for Majel Barrett. As a bizarre bonus, all of the celebrities are credited as "Technical Advisers," not their character names, leading to IMDB quotes page entries like this:
Technical Adviser: Joe?
Technical Adviser: Yeah. Hi, baby.
Technical Adviser: Hi, honey.
Technical Adviser: How are the kids?
Technical Adviser: Fine.
- The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975): When I was watching this it didn't seem nearly as funny as I was expecting, but in retrospect it was pretty funny; just more of a character study and less of the wacky Jack Lemmon farce I was expecting. In fact, if you squint this could be a crime-and-grime sequel to The Apartment (1960).
Did you know that Peter Falk played the lead role when The Prisoner of Second Avenue was nothing but a humble Neil Simon play on Broadway? He couldn't appear in the film because he was busy doing Columbo. Just one of the many interesting facts I learned from David Koenig's behind-the-scenes book Shooting Columbo.
Now, it's time for a Spring Television Spotlight, highlighting interesting episodic serials we've enjoyed over these cold winter months:
- Poker Face (2023-): You know I love Columbo, if only from the paragraph I just wrote. Poker Face is designed to bring back everything good about Columbo, and it delivers: the class warfare, the convoluted coverups, the physical tics and gimmicks, the 70s font, and polite good triumphing over rude evil. Of course, it's 2023 and you can't have this kind of cop show feature an actual cop, so you also get a lead character who isn't even supposed to be solving these mysteries; she's just that nice. This opens up the best innovation of all over the Columbo formula: the retroactive insertion of Charlie into the story via flashback.
See, Lieutenant Columbo doesn't show up until there's been a murder. This makes logical sense and avoids Murder, She Wrote-esque suspicions that he is some kind of murder magnet, but it also means the cat and mouse between him and the villain of the week takes a while to get started. In Poker Face, you see the villain set up and carry off the killing as usual, but then you see the same events from Charlie's perspective; she was there the whole time, conveniently just out of frame, ignorable and ignored. It probably takes the same screen time as the getting-to-know-you phase of a Columbo, but the viewer is pleasantly occupied the whole time, recontextualizing everything they saw up to that point.
Like the original Columbo, this pushes a mystery-lover's intellectual buttons without actually being a mystery at all. Once we discovered that this was part of the formula, Sumana and I started playing the "where is Charlie?" game in the first part of the episodes, trying to find her in the lacunae of the narrative.
If I had to complain, I'd say the season finale really bit off more than it could chew; maybe it was originally longer and it got edited down.
- Hello Tomorrow! (2023-) Beautiful visuals kept us coming back for yet another entry-level story about a con artist who's caught feelings and is now in over his head. Everyone looks great, the acting is good, and Alison Pill brings her trademark insane smile. Recommended, even though you could just watch it with the sound off.
- Star Trek: Picard (2020-2023) Now that it's over, I'm comfortable saying this is the weakest Star Trek series so far. It never had a great season, and it was too arc-driven to have standout episodes. It had a few outstanding ideas, mainly around using the Borg and positronic androids to explore the fuzzy edges of identity in a networked world, but there'd always be some boring Romulans or previously unknown child or Chosen One narrative to bring it down. It was more successful as a character study and a fanservice nostalgia trip.
As a final complaint, I'm annoyed how huge, entirely relevant, interesting things would just get Memory-Alpha-holed between seasons when they switched showrunners. Where's Dr. Jurati in season 3? Really seems like she could help with this problem! I'm not just being an annoying Star Trek nerd: they came up with a really good idea for the Borg in season 2 and then immediately went back to the same-old same-old. Sumana sent me an appropriate meme for this situation. Anyway, the best treatment of the Borg continues to be found in Star Trek: Door Repair Guy.
Actually, let's end this on a positive note. My three favorite breakout characters from Star Trek: Picard: Agnes Jurati, Cristóbal Rios, Liam Shaw. All of them staying true to the Star Trek tradition while also bringing in character traits we haven't seen much of.
Tue Apr 04 2023 22:36 March Film Roundup:
- Guarding Tess (1994): Watched this in a previous month and forgot about it. Don't blame me; just as the credits rolled, a guy from New Jersey passed by my window and shouted "Fuhgeddaboudit!" What could I do? It was post-hypnotic suggestion. Anyway, I remember it now. A fun movie with Nicolas Cage trying out a more buttoned-down persona—in fact, excessively buttoned-down in a very intense way. I really think this goes off the deep end into thriller territory in act three, but you can't have this kind of Hollywood movie in 1994 without it either turning into a romance or a thriller, so would I rather it be a romance? You bet I would! A May-December romance between Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine sounds great!
- The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953): Way too long, and indifferently edited. Great Dr. Seuss props, but the cinematic vision seems to be "build sets for a German Expressionism musical and then shoot non-musical scenes on it". Possibly this is an effect of selection bias, since a lot of songs were filmed and then cut, leaving a still-too-long film that's no longer much of a musical.
There's a really weird thing visible in an early chase scene that later on turns out to be easily explained—it's a prop that's out of continuity. After cutting most of the songs, someone took a long chase scene from the end of the movie and spliced it into the beginning, just to pep up the beginning with some more action. That's the kind of movie this is: scenes don't need to be in any particular order. I didn't like it in The Last Picture Show and I don't like it here.
- Brewster's Millions (1985): Some books get lots of movie adaptations because the books are really famous, like Dracula. Some books have no movie adaptations at all, like Constellation Games. (Call me, Spielberg!) And then there are books like Brewster's Millions, which has been made into thirteen movies and two plays without the book ever being super famous. It's just a great, simple premise for a comedy that transcends time and culture. In fact, one final version of this movie could be made as humanity transitions to a post-scarcity economy. Who am I kidding, post-scarcity just makes this concept more interesting! How can you possibly spend a million dollars when nobody needs money anymore? The comedic premise is immortal!
Miscellaneous notes: this is the kind of movie where characters break out into applause just because someone spent a lot of money. From internal evidence in the screenplay, I believe the John Candy part was originally written for Dan Aykroyd. And see Sumana's blog post on the definition of an asset to get a feel for what it's like when we watch movies.
Finally, my preferred Brewster's Millions strategy would be to buy the rights to works of literature and then put them in the public domain. In fact, I've already done this, with the original Brewster's Millions—you're welcome.
- Dinosaur 13 (2014): A bit of a letdown after watching the director's astounding and similarly-named Apollo 11 (2019). I felt like this film picks the most severely wronged parties in a story featuring bad behavior from everyone, and treats them as uncomplicated heroes. I admire the restraint in not blowing the budget on bad CGI animations of dinosaurs.
One interesting glimpse behind some curtain or other: they interview the guy from Sotheby's who ran the auction for Sue, and he talks a lot about wanting to make sure the skeleton went to a good home, rather than ending up in a private collection. Dude, you're running an auction, the highest bidder is going to get the skeleton, it's pretty simple. What exactly did he do? Negotiate the McDonalds sponsorship to boost the Field Museum's bid? Surreptitiously kick undesirable bidders off of the conference call?
N.b. this is also the kind of movie where people applaud when someone spends a lot of money, though here it happened in real life.
Fri Mar 03 2023 17:10 February Film Roundup:
- Love in Space (2011): Gives you more for your money by cutting between four different rom-coms going simultaneously. This was fun, except the astronaut couple are incredibly incompetent in un-astronautish ways, which really took us out of the story. Simple solution: they're not really astronauts! They're wacky space pirates who stole a spacecraft and don't know what they're doing. Problem solved, the movie is fun again.
In related news, I do not believe the Love in Space Wikipedia page that any portion of this movie was shot on the International Space Station. You can see the Hong Kong wire work in the microgravity scenes. But that's one of those assertions like the supposed ARPAnet reference in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, easy to make and difficult to dispel.
This is a good time to mention (or rather, there will probably not be a better time to mention) that I've now seen the 1985 episode of Benson ("Scenario") that supposedly has an ARPAnet reference, and it doesn't have one either. There is someone using a computer to communicate with the Department of Defense, which is pretty close, but the ARPAnet isn't mentioned, no IMPs are seen, and they clearly got the whole idea from Wargames.
- Dirty Dancing (1987): You know I love the midcentury Catskills resort lifestyle (in media, probably not in real life), so this was a lot of fun. Very reminiscent of Footloose, with Jerry Orbach excelling in the John Lithgow role. He really switches between "I'm a doctor and I've got to help this patient without being judgemental" and "I'm a dad and I'm going to be very judgemental about my daughter's choices."
Wed Feb 01 2023 18:26 January Film Roundup:
- Pathogen (2006): This was entertaining, though I'm grading on a huge curve here since the director was a teenager (she's now a non-teenager horror writer and director). The actors differed dramatically in talent, with some bringing real creepiness to their scenes and others not convincing me that knew the camera was on.
I love a good zombie attack in a store, partly because it serves as an inadvertent document of consumer culture at the time and place the movie was made. There was a scene in Father of the Bride that needlessly took place in a Vons, but I loved the trip back to 1990s California. Could have used some zombies, though. Take note, filmmakers!
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966): You know what's so far removed from our current-day context that it's no longer entertaining? The comedies of Plautus! Their stock characters and farcical scenarios are simple and dirty enough to entertain modern audiences, but the language and cultural barriers are so big that it's easier to write something new that conveys the same feel. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum does a great job of starting over, using the "remake" logic that would become more common starting in the 90s: pick a bunch of the most memorable moments from the original and jumble them together.
I saw this film in high school, which means that about as much time elapsed between its release and my first viewing as between my first viewing and my second. I remembered that it was pretty funny and that "Comedy Tonight" is a great song, but it didn't register to me how well the film captures the squalor of antiquity; everything's gross and the food is crawling with flies, and through it all people are just trying to live their pathetic little lives. I find it creatively inspiring.
Of course, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum embeds 20th-century American attitudes about what's funny and what you can joke about, so the clock has already started again. For instance, that incredibly long chase sequence at the end needs to go. It makes a Roman chariot race look like the Indy 500 (i.e., very boring to watch). Also the pointless harem girl dancing. The male love interest is very Zeppo-ish, and I'm not sure if that's supposed to be a joke, but it ain't funny.
PS: Sumana was very pleased to discover the referent of a clip from the ST:TNG/Reading Rainbow crossover where Michael Dorn steps out of his dressing room in Worf makeup and says "Stand aside; I take large steps."
- How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967): More 1960s musical adaptation fun, featuring sumptuous midcentury modern sets and Robert Morse Jerry Lewising his way across them. Good satire, good songs. Ending is kind of a cop-out but they get a good song out of it. Ends with an LBJ impersonator, which I feel like you rarely get in movies amidst the many Kennedies and Nixons. Good fun overall.
- Rancho Deluxe (1975): I was excited because I misread the description of this movie and thought it starred Jeff Bridges and Sam Elliot, which would make it a Big Lebowski pre-meet. In my defense, who casts Sam Waterston in a western? Louis DiGiaimo, casting director of Rancho Deluxe, that's who.
This movie has a 6.3 on IMDB, which is mediocre at best, but most days I'd rather watch a 6.3 movie from the 1970s over a 7.3 from the last ten years. Rancho Deluxe has a decent neo-western idea, the plot way more complicated than the comedy can support, lots of nice location shots. Ultimately nothing mindblowing, except...
There's a lengthy scene where Jeff Bridges and Harry Dean Stanton engage in pothead-level mind games with each other while playing Pong in a bar. The scene is shot so you see the game of Pong with the actors reflected in the monitor, making it perhaps the world's first Let's Play, and showing William A. Fraker developing the skills he would later use on Wargames. Simultaneously, the soundtrack features probably the only Jimmy Buffet song that mentions Pong.
- Fun with Dick and Jane (1977): Hey, look, a movie from the 1970s with an IMDB rating in the low sixes. Sometimes when preparing these reviews, I look at Roger Ebert's review of the same movie, and then regret it because he's just got the movie dead to rights and I can't think of much to add.
In this case, Ebert points out that the first half of Fun with Dick and Jane is biting social satire, as the privileged attitudes of the George Segal/Jane Fonda yuppie couple collide with the cruelty and bureaucracy of the American welfare state. Then the satire fizzles out and it turns into a silly crime comedy that's about as satirical as Breaking Bad, albeit much funnier. I would recommend this one, there are a lot of good jokes, but there's a lot of untapped potential here.
In my role as unofficial content note provider for old movies, I feel obligated to point out that this movie has brief, pointless blackface; and a Taxi Driver-like sequence of unexpectedly tolerant transphobia. In my role as raconteur of my own personal experiences, I want to mention that I was very excited when Dick and Jane parked their murder car outside the famous Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, a place I remember visiting (though not regularly) to buy CDs. But then we see them rob some other random record store! I guess they couldn't film in the Tower; a big disappointment.
After writing that I decided to look up what Roger Ebert thought of Rancho Deluxe: He hated it, and I can't find much to disagree with, but I still had a good time.
Wed Jan 11 2023 12:02 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2022:
Here we go, another year gone and I'm no wiser than before. But I do have some quality recommendations for you!
2022 was a year where I read a few really long books rather than a lot of shorter ones. Here are my top three of 2022:
- The Power Broker by Robert Caro
- Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes
- Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum
The big live event for me in 2022 was seeing Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the Music Man revival. It's my favorite musical, as I've surely mentioned here before, and seeing a live professional production live of it a real bucket-list event. We're not going to end up like that sap in The Apartment!
I also did more museum outings and whatnot than I did in 2021, and even took a trip to California to see my family, for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
As usual, Film Roundup Roundup is up to date with 21 new recommended motion pictures among the ones I saw in 2022. My top ten for the year:
- Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
- Local Hero (1983)
- L.A. Story (1991)
- Glass Onion (2022)
- Roxanne (1987)
- The Lost City (2022)
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
- The Afterlight (2021)
- Stalag 17 (1953)
- WarGames (1983)
The Crummy.com Game Of the Year is I Was A Teenage Exocolonist. Other games I enjoyed in 2022 include ZERO Sievert, The Barnacle Goose Experiment, and Vampire Survivors. Of our daily games, the ones I most look forward to playing every day are Framed and Artle.
Ugh, don't ask me about The Constellation Speedrun right now. It will be done eventually. I am working on it today, and this blog post is but a procrastination measure. 2022 saw publication of four of my short stories (see previous post) and I finished three more: "Or Current Resident", "A Place for Monsters", and "Expert Witness". I also wrote two Yuletide fics. Not what I'd hoped, but not too bad.
Thu Jan 05 2023 08:27 The Procedure Sign:
My bad-dystopia-SF parody "The Procedure Sign" is out in Issue #16 of Etherea Magazine, a steal at USD $2.
Tommy stared at a blank concrete wall painted hospital green.
He heard the hot-air hum of a projector starting up behind him. He
squished his eyes closed, but the headband gave him an electric
shock that jolted them open.
I did not expect to ever sell this story, because its satire skates so close to the edge of being simply bad. "The Procedure Sign" was directly inspired by an item in the ancient Strange Horizons "Stories We've Seen Too Often" list:
A mysteriously-named Event is about to happen ("Today was the day Jimmy would have to report for The Procedure"), but the nature of the Event isn't revealed until the end of the story, when it turns out to involve death or other unpleasantness. [Several classic sf stories use this approach, which is one reason we're tired of seeing it. Another reason is that we can usually guess the twist well ahead of time, which makes the mysteriousness annoying.]
More seriously, the story was also inspired by the experience of my own mysterious Event: being baptized into the LDS church when I was eight. Assuming the story has any real emotional edge, that's where it comes from.
Wed Jan 04 2023 14:04 Our Morning Games:
In the year or so since Wordle became very popular, bringing along with it the more general online game model of "everyone gets the same quick game every day". Since then, Sumana and I have curated a set of games that we play together most mornings over breakfast. Many games have gone in and out of our list, and I figured the start of a new year was a good time to make some recommendations. I hope you find some fun with any or all of these:
- Framed: guess a movie from increasingly obvious stills.
- Artle: guess an artist through their artwork. I find this one very educational.
- Globle: guess a country via distance from other countries. This also has a new "capitals" variant.
- Flagle: guess a national flag as the arithmetic sum of other flags.
- Subwaydle: guess the trains taken on a trip through the NYC subway system (also available for a few other cities). This is mainly a Sumana game because I don't like the weird, convoluted routes it comes up with, as if for a spy trying to shake a trail.
- OEC Tradle: This was originally "guess the country from its exports" but it's currently going through US states.
- There are a lot of variants of Heardle (now owned by Spotify), which is basically "Name That Tune", but we enjoy Heardle Decades and TMBG Heardle (originally a Casey Kolderup project).
There are also two slower-paced games that we don't necessarily play every day:
- Redactle: guess the Wikipedia article by filling in blacked-out words.
- After spending a while playing Wordle, Dordle, Quordle, Octordle, etc. we spent quite a while with no Wordlelike in our rotation. (I actually have a separate post in draft form for those who are into the N-ordle series of games.) Recently we picked up Squareword, which can be played just like Wordle but which adds a surprising depth of strategy to the formula if you want to take it slower.
Mon Jan 02 2023 15:53 December Film Roundup:
- Paddington 2 (2017): Watched based on an in-movie recommendation in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. It's fine. Fun kids movie.
- Moonstruck (1987): More fallout from Massive Talent, though this time taking the form of "I've been wanting to watch that Nicolas Cage movie." A rom-com from before the formula was fixed in the 90s, with a tighter focus on the other family members and a little less on the main couple. In fact my favorite part of Moonstruck was the interlocking stories it told of different romances in different stages of life. Olympia Dukakis is great in this, and John Mahoney is a pleasant surprise.
There's always a sacrificial or decoy boyfriend in these movies, and I always feel bad for the guy. The most pitiful victim of this trope is Bill Pullman's character in Sleepless in Seattle, whose disqualifying problem is serious allergies. The guy has trouble sleeping! He's practically your title character!
- Glass Onion (2022): A fun addition to the franchise. The setting was a lot less interesting than the cool old house in Knives Out, but the obnoxious douchebags were a lot more colorful and fun.
- A Christmas Movie Christmas (2019): A big missed opportunity. Sometimes when I can see a better movie conceptually near the less-good one that got made, it's understandable what happened: the better movie would have cost a lot more or taken longer to shoot or required better actors. But a Christmas romance parody doesn't need a bunch of expensive Zucker and Zucker one-off gags. You could shoot it in the same time and budget as a regular Christmas romance, with the same equipment and sets and actors. The magic is all in the screenplay.
This screenplay starts off really promising, but it loses its way quickly and we just get a cornier than usual Christmas romance with an extra dose of creepiness. That was possibly a commentary on Christmas romance movie creepiness, but it's hard to say for sure--again, a screenplay problem. The good news is that the space of concepts used in Christmas romances inhabits a vague public domain, so nothing's stopping people from ripping off this idea and doing five new Christmas romance parodies every year until someone gets it right... and then ripping it off ten times a year.
- Made in Heaven (1952): We watched this after Sumana's Wikipedia browsing turned up the old British "flitch of bacon" tradition/incentive for marital harmony. Like a lot of old British traditions, the flitch trial fell into disuse until it was revived in a Victorian-era work of fiction, and like a lot of old British movies, this is a cheesy farce where people scheme about cheating on their partners and evading postwar rationing. Everyone in this movie is stupid, and the higher-status they are, the stupider. As opposed to the Ealing comedies where everyone is smart but the high-status people are too smart for their own good. Recommended, but only in hopes that a better, modern comedy will be produced to take its place as the champion of bacon rom-coms.
- Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941): Yes indeed, here he comes, played by Claude Rains. This was based on the same play that became Heaven Can Wait (it also has a sequel and a second 2001 remake with Chris Rock). It's a cool concept but how many of these do we need? I'm concerned that we're about due for another one.
Admittedly, in 1977 I would have said "Do we really need to go here again?" and then the Elaine May/Warren Beatty version would have blown me away. I feel like the characterization of the trainer is done better in the 1941 version, but the most crucial dramatic issue--a character dropping dead in the final act for no good reason--is handled even worse here. A reason is given for the death, a reason that really ought to result in significant changes to everyone's behavior, but nope, everyone just ignores it. It's like they noticed the problem in the screenplay and patched it with duct tape. Anyway, this was fun for its genteel 1940s approach to death, but I'm on team Elaine May 4 life.
Sun Jan 01 2023 18:44 Yuletide Reveal!:
Now it can be told! I wrote two stories for Yuletide 2022. The one for which I anticipate more interest is The Practical Boyfriend: A Post-Scarcity Rom-Com. This is a brand new Constellation Games bonus story, the first one in ten years, depicting the meet-cute between Tetsuo Milk and Ashley Somn at the beginning of the contact mission. Guest starring Curic and You'll Only See Kis Echo!, a character you've forgotten about. It's got laughs, romance, and Tetsuo designs a game!
As a fan of high-quality 2012 releases, I'm sure you also enjoy Subset Games' FTL, a death-in-space simulator that inspired certain bits of Situation Normal. Now I'm closing the circle with an fanfic called Try, Try Again, where I used the gallows-humor style of Situation Normal to tell a story in the FTL universe.
Wherever you find yourself today, I wish you a happy new year, and happy reading and writing!
Fri Dec 23 2022 09:07 For Your Consideration:
If you're looking to catch up on stories published in 2022 so you can fill out your Nebula or Hugo nominating ballots, you've come to the right blog post. Here's are the stories I had published this year, conveniently sorted in descending order of "plausibly might win an award":
- "When There is Sugar" (Diabolical Plots) - Sweet science fantasy story about resilience in the aftermath of war.
- "Two Spacesuits" (Clarkesworld) - SF mystery where Internet rabbit holes go weird.
- "The Scene of the Crime" (Clarkesworld) - Space opera time travel story about labor relations.
- "Stress Response" (Analog November/December) - Space opera silliness where exactly the wrong person goes into space and it works out fine.
There's a chance a fifth story will be published this year, and I'll mention it in an update here, but it's going at the very bottom of this list, since I wrote it as a parody of bad SF. Makes me laugh every time, though.
(1) Fri Dec 16 2022 16:10 When There is Sugar:
Diabolical Plots has my latest story, "When There is Sugar". A touching fantasy story about baking and teaching with a decommissioned military robot.
The oven hissed as it turned rain to steam, moving less than a living thing would, but more than an oven ought to move.
“I suppose you should come in,” said Berl. It was a royal gift, and well-meaning, if a little patronizing.
This is my pandemic baking story, written in the depths of despair, a time now known only as October 2020. It came from Sumana's request to write a sweet story about a robot oven, as opposed to the grimdark-lite atmosphere of Situation Normal, which was about to be published. I think I did a good job, but Sumana still holds out hope for a gentler, more Bob Ross type of robot-oven story.
Thu Dec 15 2022 18:31 My RSS!:
Since listening to KUSC in college I've been a fan of the old BBC radio program(me) My Word!, an ur-quiz show with a focus on chin-stroking erudition, shameless bluffing when erudition fails, and cornball shaggy dog stories. About ten years ago my fandom took a big hit when the BBC stopped pouring decades-old My Word! reruns down whatever transcontinental pipe eventually got it broadcast on American radio stations' streaming websites. But recently I discovered a large cache of episodes uploaded to the Internet Archive in 2020, including a bunch of episodes I'd never heard. Jackpot!
I really wanted to get this cache turned into an RSS feed so I can listen to episodes alongside my podcasts. Kevan's Fourble service can do this pretty easily, and in fact it already has, but what I'd really really like is an RSS feed that incorporates the information about broadcast dates and shaggy dog stories found in this particular item's carefully written description. That will dramatically improve the usability of the "podcast" and allow me to listen to the episodes in rough chronological order, rather than alphabetically according to the first vocabulary word lobbed at the panelists.
This is, in fact, a job for The Syndication Automat, a project I created in 2004, the semi-early days of RSS. Back then it was sometimes necessary to employ vigilante justice to make RSS feeds for websites that didn't have them. This was actually the original use case for Beautiful Soup!
Of course, hard times soon struck the Automat as every website got its own RSS feed, RSS feeds themselves were ditched in favor of Twitter and Facebook, and then Twitter and Facebook melted down, leaving us with nothing. (I'm extrapolating a little here.) 2009 was the last time any of the Automat's old feeds were updated. But podcasts still stand, the cockroaches of syndication, so it makes perfect sense to bring back the Automat one more time to host The Doubly-Unofficial, Partially Chronological "My Word!" Podcast Feed. Painstakingly hand-crafted by a script I painstakingly hand-crafted to deal with tons of edge cases like "two shows that use the same vocabulary word" and "shows where the filename doesn't precisely match the vocabulary word" and "shows where the general era of the show is known but not the exact broadcast date". I took care of all that stuff; all you have to do is listen.
If you just want to make a podcast out of the MP3 files in an Internet Archive item, and not do any other processing, you can use my very tidy, edge-case-free Python script, which depends on the modules
To generate a fast and cheap version of my DUPCMW!PF, I'd invoke the script with this command line:
from datetime import datetime
from feedgen.feed import FeedGenerator
from internetarchive import get_item
def __init__(self, ia_item, destination_url):
self.item = self.fetch_item(ia_item)
self.feed = FeedGenerator()
for file in self.item.get_files():
if file.format != 'VBR MP3':
def fetch_item(self, ia_item):
def add_entry(self, file):
entry = self.feed.add_entry(order='append')
mtime = utc(datetime.fromtimestamp(int(file.metadata['mtime'])))
entry.enclosure(file.url, str(file.size), "audio/mpeg")
if __name__ == '__main__':
$ python roughdraft.py bbcmyword https://www.crummy.com/automat/feeds/myword.xml
While producing this post I discovered that not only is there another, smaller, differently organized collection on the Internet Archive, but there's a significantly larger (but less well described) archive on RadioEchoes, which also has an even bigger archive of My Word!'s inevitable but lesser companion, My Music!.
Fri Dec 09 2022 14:22 November Film Roundup:
One of the biggest months for Film Roundup yet! I'm including a movie from early December, but that only makes it slightly larger!
- Ballet 422 (2013) - At first I thought this was just a random documentary about a random guy, but it seems Justin Peck is the hot young thing of ballet choreography. Nice twist at the end. I enjoyed the focus on the logistics of setting up a ballet performance, especially the costume design. Don't think I didn't notice how licensing concerns shaped what parts of the performance we see!
- Now You See Me (2013): A fun heist movie that's utterly undone by an insistence on having an unguessable twist ending. It's unguessable because it's stupid! Just go with one of the other possibilities; we don't know which one it is! It was fun to see the pre-condo 5 Pointz show up in a movie.
- Reign of Fire (2002): Unlike Now You See Me, this movie makes no sense from the get-go, and it's better for it. Still not a good movie, but at this point in history it's enjoyable to see an action movie that's not based on a preexisting media property. They tried to make Reign of Fire into a media property but failed, probably due to a wyvern's curse or something cool like that.
After watching this film we discovered that Sumana and I pronounce "wyvern" differently; she says it sort of like "given" and I say it more like "my turn." Although the so-called dictionary sides with me, I prefer Sumana's pronunciation, so that's the way we say the word in our household. Also because of this movie we say "wyvern" a lot more than we used to.
- Weird (2022): A fun musical biopic that becomes increasingly unhinged until it finally sides entirely with the "pic" over the "bio", but as cool as Weird Al is, do we need this movie and the much funnier Walk Hard? Need or not, we have them both.
- Six Degrees of Separation (1993): I really don't know what this movie is trying to say. Some movies scold you for watching them, but this movie scolds you for something the characters and the screenwriter are doing but you're not! The dialogue was great, which makes sense since this is an adaptation of a play.
- WarGames (1983): A pleasant surprise, a hacking movie where the hacking feels naturalistic and real. This movie had a real (and not entirely positive) effect on cybersecurity policy, from the time when policy was determined by making a movie and hoping Ronald Reagan watched it. The third-act mad scientist is not really necessary, but I have to admit his lair was pretty damn cool. The clueless parents are also fun.
- Wedding Banquet (1993): Another enjoyable New York immigrant rom-com. I really enjoyed the big party; it feels like they had an actual party once they finished filming, since they'd already rented the space. Or maybe they filmed the party, I don't know if that's plausible logistically, but it seems easier to actually have the party since you're not going to have to do a lot of retakes.
- Wyrm (2019): This movie chosen partly because of its name, as we were in the grips of wyvernmania. A fun indie film with a vaporwave aesthetic and an aggressively awkward Napoleon Dynamite feel. Just as I said "I hope we don't spend the whole movie on this premise," the thing I was afraid wouldn't happen til the end of the movie happened, and the movie started focusing on the aftermath. So, great timing.
- John Wick (2014): We watched half of this movie before deciding the cleverness/gruesome violence ratio was way out of whack and giving up. I'm kind of interested in the third movie where John apparently picks up a book at the 40th Street research branch of the NYPL, but just that scene.
OK, I've watched that scene on YouTube, so I'm good now. It looks like they actually filmed the action scene on location, as opposed to Ghostbusters where the Rose Reading Room is real but the stacks are in a set in LA. I have to deduct one point, though, as NYPL employees are seen not wearing their employee badges.
- Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): Now here's a movie that doesn't care that you can guess the twist: it just keeps you guessing when the twist will be sprung, Hitchcock style. Fun performances from everyone, and an extra bonus twist at the end which we did not guess. That's the other secret to great drama, BTW: spring the twist the audience was guessing as soon as they guess it, then hit them with another.
- The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022): Adaptation (2002) is one of those pre-Film-Roundup films that I didn't review in NYCB, but I remember it fondly and have occasionally returned to it for comparisons. This movie practically demands a comparison, as it takes the most comedic parts of a fairly serious comedy and uses them as fuel for an infernocrusher romp. A lot of fun.
- The Train (1964): We watched Andor, the Star Wars series for people who think Star Wars is silly. (That's right, a Television Spotlight embedded in this movie review! What will I think of next?) It was really good, so good that we started looking into its cinematic inspirations, like this movie and the next one. The Train is a counterheist movie, with the thrill and pacing of a heist but with the theft being carried off in broad daylight and the heroes responsible for stopping it—without damaging the goods, which gives it an air of those fight scenes where Jackie Chan is juggling an expensive vase. I went in hoping something a bit more like The General, but maybe that's true of every film I see.
- Stalag 17 (1953): The most violent Billy Wilder film I've seen, but it's still got plenty of space for banter. Specifically the masculine jocularity found in military pocket guides, which is a perfect match for Wilder's style. There's also more space for slapstick than in a typical Wilder movie. The wartime setting allows for a happy ending while still letting Wilder get his ultimate wish of making a movie where almost every character fails to fulfill their dream. Highly recommended.
- Father of the Bride (1991): I remember writing an article for my high school newspaper decrying the state of Hollywood comedies, with this movie being Exhibit A. I said this unfairly, based on the trailer, without having actually seen the film, and having no real sense of the cinematic traditions I was supposedly hearkening back to. Now that I have seen the film, I'd like to offer a crucial correction: I was actually talking shit based on the trailer for the 1995 sequel to this movie. Everything else I remember is accurate.
This is a character-driven comedy which gets its humor by putting bland characters in moderately aggravating circumstances—the scourge of mediocre comedies then and now. It's especially noticeable because it stars Steve Friggin Martin and Diane Friggin Keaton, in the same year Martin does the hilarious L. A. Story. That's the clearest example of "one for you, one for me" I'm aware of. The best thing I can say about this is you don't often see a rom-com from the perspective of someone who's not a party to the romance.
I kind of feel bad slamming Father of the Bride because it's not terrible, just kind of a nonentity. It's not terribly funny, and it's sentimental in a way that requires a lot of humor to balance it out. Roxanne, for example, was great, because its love story was intertwined with an over-the-top farce. Who's going to uphold these standards, if not me? I've been fighting this rearguard action for almost thirty years and I'm way too invested to stop now!
Sun Nov 27 2022 18:05 ████:
Like today's algorithmic creativity tools, many NaNoGenMo projects take as their grist the results of other peoples' creativity and hard work: years, even centuries of work. My own In Dialogue and Amazon Prime are manipulations of public domain texts, and for Alphabetical Order and Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene I took the entire English literary canon as my input. Linked By Love mined thousands of books for their back cover copy—by far the most difficult part of the book to write. For 2022, I've created a NaNoGenMo work that reuses no one's text but my own.
████ is a blackout piece made from the text of my unpublished novel, Mine. I've redacted every word that shows up in one of my two published novels, Constellation Games and Situation Normal. You'll see lots of names, places, technical terms, odd digressions on Cleopatra and zucchini, punctuation, and (I assume) typoes. That's it.
This is an appropriate source text since Mine is a story about people preserved as the things around them are erased, and then juxtaposed without context. But really, I could tell you it was about anything and you'd have to believe me... for now.
Mon Nov 07 2022 07:43 Stress Response:
As promised, the November/December issue of Analog includes "Stress Response", a Ravy Uvana story in which Judicant Uvana helps a young human who went into space believing it would be a big, fun adventure... and who still believes that at the end of the story! Have fun!
The big change I made after my writing group critiqued "Stress Response" was explicitly explaining why the stress response happened; no one got it and without that crucial piece of information the story feels like watching someone else's vacation slides. Many, many times my writing group has told me "Leonard, you need to explicitly explain the thing instead of expecting us to figure it out."
Two more stories of mine are coming up in Analog: "Meat", the first Ravy Uvana story I ever wrote; and "Race to the Bottom", a flash piece that explains why everything is so terrible. Both coming out next year, I guess? I've deposited the checks!
Fri Nov 04 2022 21:37 October Film Roundup:
- The Man from the Diner's Club (1963): Who says product placement is new? This movie is product placement. Gets a decent amount of comedy out of the concept of credit cards, some out of super inaccurate models of how 1960s computers work (Desk Set is way more forward-thinking), and there's a whole gamut of pratfalls and physical comedy. A fun watch overall. IMDB trivia spreads rumors that the film was originally intended as a Jerry Lewis vehicle, and Danny Kaye is maybe a little too old for this shit, but I just can't believe Jerry Lewis in any kind of white-collar profession. Even when his character's rich, like in The King of Comedy, it's clear he got rich being a clown.
Sumana recently showed me an old Mad About You episode where Jerry Lewis plays a billionaire, but it's very unclear how this "billionaire" acquired his wealth because he never shows any business acumen; he's always goofing off at his desk, trolling people and buying social media sites and so on. You see how Jerry Lewis has taken over this review of a movie he's not even in? Ludicrous.
The poster slogan for this movie is "You'll be hanging from the laffters at the funniest picture since money went out of style!", and I want to register that you can reuse this slogan when making comedies in a post-scarcity society. I may not live to see if, but I know it'll happen one day.
- The Cutting Edge (1992): A fun film that combines the two cinematic obsessions of the 1990s: Howard Hawks-esque hate-to-love rom-coms, and athletes playing the wrong sport. More training montages and less actual figure skating than Yuri on Ice kept me from getting sports bored. One of the rare films that suffered the "surely the Soviet Union will still exist by the time out movie comes out" problem.
- Gorky Park (1983): This film did not have that problem. I liked the police procedural elements but once the political conspiracy is revealed it seems relatively penny-ante, though I guess that too is realistic. The sets (indoor and outdoor) are great and there are a number of excellent comic relief characters, including Ian McDiarmid as a nutty professor.
- Titanic (1997): The film I felt like I'd seen, but I'd really only seen a big chunk of the first, less interesting half. The epic runtime of Titanic makes more sense if you see it as two movies: an upstairs-downstairs romance followed by a Miracle Mile-esque thriller of betrayal, personal cowardice and societal collapse. That second movie is really compelling, the first movie I found a little dull, but I admired how it carefully shows you everything that's going to be destroyed in the second half.
- The Afterlight (2021): The film with no IMDB page, and the first once I saw in the theater (at the museum, natch) since Gravity in March 2020. There are certain scenes that get written into one screenplay after another, certain shots that are reused verbatim across the history of film, and this movie mashes a lot of those up into something that can get pretty hypnotic. The unique constraints around the showing of this movie make it difficult to see, but it's worth seeing if it comes to your town; there's a fun twist at the end and the closing credits are touching.
(1) Sun Oct 02 2022 21:04 September Film Roundup:
It's an rom-com Roundup this month, with lovers being reunited and old public domain British source material galore!
- Saving Face (2004): I keep forgetting to mention this film, which we saw months ago, and this is a good month to remember it. I don't remember much about it but it was a good watch, and as I recall the family dynamics were treated very realistically.
When I was thinking of this movie it really reminded me of Kal Ho Na Ho, but I think that's mostly because they were both set in Queens in the early 2000s. Saving Face was actually filmed in Flushing!
- Fire Island (2022): I'll be very disappointed if it turns out the working title of this movie was not Prejudice and Pride, and that it changed to its current, boring title by studio interference. I have not read the source material, and had a lot of fun during the movie listening to Sumana speculate about who was who.
I was intrigued by the scene where Bowen Yang's character cringes out at a party by narrating a 'gay Star Trek' SNL sketch starring Jason Bateman. I assumed this was a meta reference to an actual SNL sketch Bowen Yang was in, but it looks like it's referring to a sketch from 2005 that is not viewable online. This implies Howie saw that sketch on broadcast TV when he was, like, 15, and it was formative for him. It took some research to unravel this, but I can now say that was a good character beat and not just an in-joke.
PS: There is a Merry and Pippin in this movie.
- 10 Things I Hate About You (1999): The Taming of the Shrew is one of the trickier Shakespeare plays to adapt into a modern setting, and although I thought this movie as a whole was only so-so, I liked its approach to the central issue of shrews and their taming. The two main characters effectively 'tame' each other by adapting into more suitable partners for each other, and isn't that what happens in a lot of rom-coms, and real relationships?
The film ends with a helicopter shot of a band playing on the roof of a building, but it's not like the Beatles rooftop concert, they're way up there and there's no way anyone can hear them on the ground. And then the helicopter swoops towards the band in what IMDB trivia confirms was a terrifying experience for them. Where are they going to run? They're on a roof!
10 Things I Hate About You was turned into a TV show, but the only actor to reprise his movie role was Larry Miller, who plays the Baptista role. This seems to happen pretty often. I assume everyone gets right of first refusal, but the stars see it as an imposition on their time and only the character actors see it as a regular paycheck.
Finally, I want to note that during this film I came up with an all-time great riff: "I've found her celebrity crush list! Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamil... Cesar Romero?"
A quick Television Spotlight: we watched Only Murders in the Building, which I think gets much better in season 2 as they stop trying so hard to ape the form they're parodying (which resulted in lots of boring subplots) and lean in to wacky, nonsensical comedy (which resulted in me enjoying a Martin Short performance for the first time ever). I will say that season 1 was more effective at the Hitchcockian finger-wagging where they try to shame you for enjoying the thing they're showing you, but no one actually enjoys that—you're being shamed!
We also watched all of The Goes Wrong Show in the space of a coupel days, and see Sumana's review for that. Just really, really funny. I appreciate that the fictional actors all have consistent characters that lead to different styles of comedy as things Go Wrong.
Thu Sep 01 2022 21:15 August Film Roundup:
By chance I ended up watching all of August's films without Sumana, so this is a bunch of films from my huge cinematic pile of "Sumana probably won't like these." And I think I was right!
- The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962): I admit I mainly watched this movie because the title sounded kinda dirty for a 1962 Hollywood film, and I wanted to see what they'd try to get away with. In fact, I suspect this is why most of the people who've ever watched this movie decided to watch it. They don't try to get away with very much. There are some good jokes, but if you watch to the opening credits you've seen a lot of them. Then you can enjoy the classic 1960s animated opening credit sequence, and move on with your evening.
- Raffles (1939): Another film watched in the spirit of "how much can they get away with?" I read The Amateur Cracksman in the early 2000s and liked it a lot, but the mood of the stories—jewel thieves are awesome and jewel owners have it coming to 'em—seems irreconcilable with the Hays Office diktat that Crime Doesn't Pay. How would the film end? Would they tack on a jarring ending that restored the tottering edifice of conventional morality? Sort of: the ending is ambiguous. A decent ending, though. Way better than the ambiguous ending of The Devil And Miss Jones. David Niven is fun, and I enjoyed the odd moment where the cops take a break from not solving crimes to watch cricket on the office TV. Relatable!
Rififi (1955) is famous for its 30-minute silent heist sequence, but there's an eight-minute heist sequence in Raffles that's got just one line of dialogue—kind of a test run.
- The Black Godfather (1974): What if Michael Corleone had a social conscience? I guess it might go like this, but this film's "get the drugs off the streets" plotline seems copied from other blaxploitation movies and not an attempt to critique or rip off The Godfather (1972). (The other guy's definitely Vito Corleone, though.) Although this isn't a good movie overall, there are certain parts that are disproportionately good given the low budget. Half the stunts are cheesy MST3K fare, but half are really impressive and well-executed. There's a sequence shot in a coffin warehouse (SYMBOLISM) where the titular Black Godfather makes heavy use of his portable suitcase phone. They built a sci-fi Dick Tracy-esque prop out of a suitcase and a telephone and a tape recorder, and it looks pretty believable. Stuff like that.
- Repeater (1979): I forgot everything about this movie, including why it was in my queue, and I stayed mystified for the first five minutes (7% of the running time!) but eventually I figured out that Repeater is a British parody of/homage to the French New Wave. It's got a strong Celine and Julie go Boating feel, and if you start both movies Repeater will end around the time Celine and Julie gets interesting, so it's got that going for it. But it's always got a little bit of British snark that isn't present in the very sincere Celine and Julie or, let's say, Truffaut's parodies of American genre film, which is what they were really going for here. That said, I had a good time. There are bits that are super pretentious and some that didn't seem to fit the movie at all, but also some really good... I don't know the filmmaking term for those little vignettes that you string together when your movie doesn't have a through-line, but some good ones of those. Bonus: a pre-Young Ones Alexei Sayle.
Old video game notice: there's a pretty long montage set in an arcade in (I assume) Wales with lots of fruit machines and novelty games as well as some kind of Space Invaders electronic thing and a Cinematronic Space Wars cabinet.
Sun Aug 07 2022 15:04 The Scene of the Crime:
My new story "The Scene of the Crime" is published in the August 2022 issue of Clarkesworld! This is my second published Ravy Uvana story, after "Mandatory Arbitration", and I just did copyedits for "Stress Response", which will become the third one near the end of the year.
The first draft of this story was much more complicated, with a time loop and a parallel universe, plus with Dr. Miew denying to the end that there was any time loop at all. Way too complicated! A lot of writing the first draft is throwing ideas at the wall, and a lot of the second draft is seeing which ideas stuck to the wall and picking up the others.
(1) Sat Aug 06 2022 14:48 July Film Roundup:
- Romancing the Stone (1984): I said I wanted to watch this last month, and we did, and it was a disappointment all around. Diane Thomas had a really good idea and would have gone on to improve the state of 1990s rom-coms if she hadn't died, but The Lost City, directly inspired by this film, does a better job in every respect except for some excellent set dressing in Joan's apartment. Danny DeVito's fun, too.
I keep thinking of cool scenes from this film but they're actually scenes that fill the same plot beats in The Lost City, that's how closely related the two movies are.
- Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022): Loved it! The first film of the pandemic era to give me an intense "movie" thrill. Fun, silly, heartwarming, lots of action. The idea of picking a Chosen One based on her all-around mediocrity is brilliant. "I'm learning how to fight like you." is a perfect line.
This was so good I'm seriously considering watching the directors' previous film, Swiss Army Man (2016), which I'd previously consigned to Trash Humpers territory.
- The Lebanese Rocket Society (2012): An interesting documentary covering the often-interlinked topics of "how did this thing happen?" and "how did everyone immediately forget that this happened?" It also starkly exposes the divide between what space travel means for average people (cool optimism) and what it means for governments (blowing up the other guy). At the end there's an elaborate counterfactual flight of fancy of the sort you don't normally see in documentaries, but I can't complain, I wrote "Panspermia Cannon".
- Dinner at Eight (1933): A very pre-Code film based on a play that's wacky and lighthearted all the way through except for one BIG HONKING SUBPLOT that's dark as hell. As if William Faulkner guest-wrote one chapter of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. Really enjoyable overall with its Wilder-esque cynical/sincere attitude towards romance.
- Chicken People (2016): A decent documentary about a weird hobby disrupted by an epidemic. Yes, at last, it's Film Roundup: The Movie! This was all right. The chickens were cute, and it didn't feel patronizing the way some "weird hobby" documentaries do.
- All of Me (1984): Our expedition into Steve Martin's golden-age comedies continues. This one has Lily Tomlin too, so it's gotta be good, though Tomlin's character spends the first act of the movie bedridden and the rest of the movie only visible in mirrors. Not her best physical comedy outing, is what I'm saying. Enjoyable overall, and also features a pretty big part for my mom's old friend Michael Ensign. (nb. this has not been independently confirmed, and my mom was known for telling tall tales, but "I was friends with that ST:TNG guest star" is a really weird thing for her to walk into the living room and lie about)
We recognized the mansion in this movie from a Columbo episode, looked it up, and found that it's the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills, Hollywood's go-to rental when they need to shoot on location in a real mansion. In addition to that Columbo episode, it's the mansion in There Will Be Blood and Jeffrey Lebowski's place in The Big Lebowski--though for obvious reasons Lebowski didn't film in the rooms with the huge staircases that I associate with the place.
- 50 First Dates (2004): Saw this on an airplane, making this the first film I saw outside the house since Gravity in 2020. It was a great movie for killing time on an airplane. In another example of weird Hollywood synchronicity, this is basically a much lower-brow version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also 2004), but its endless iterations get at a point that I don't think Eternal Sunshine touches: there's something special about the act of falling in love, as distinct from being in love, and there's something appealing about repeating just that bit over and over. After all, romance novels usually focus on the "falling in love" bit and leave the rest to an implicit HEA.
- Encanto (2021): And I saw this on the way back. This was fun and I'm not complaining that it ran way longer than 90 minutes (airplane), but the pacing seemed off, or at least different from other animated kids' movies. We spend a whole lot of time meeting a whole lot of characters and not much time doing things. I guess it's just more psychological than similar movies that are more quest-focused, more of an Arrested Development kind of thing.
- Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): Between this and The Breaking Point (1950) it seems clear to me that just a really basic racial consciousness can really improve your film noir. This was really good, with great moments of tension, but in the finale chase it gets incredibly didactic, a cardinal noir sin in my book. As soon as you see a road sign saying "STOP DEAD END", you know what you're in for. We get it! Admittedly it's the same kind of unsubtlety you see in Star Trek ten years later, so I guess audiences do need to be hit over the head with this stuff.
- Pick of the Litter (2018): A bonus movie that we saw maybe a year ago and I kept forgetting to put in Film Roundup despite Sumana's occasional reminders to write up "the guide dog movie". No more! This is a movie that knows its audience well enough to make it clear that all the dogs end up fine. A wholesome movie, the dogs are all good, and some interesting logistical bits around their training.
Fri Jul 01 2022 20:33 June Film Roundup:
In June, the theme was "wacky comedies." I am pushing for the theme for July to also be "wacky comedies," but running into some resistance. We may end up splitting the month, Solomon-style.
- Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989): Silly and fun, and I didn't expect what a big heart this movie has. My mental stereotype of Bill and Ted was that they were idiots, a more lovable version of Beavis and Butt-Head, but they're not idiots at all; they just have a learning style that flourishes under independent study instead of classroom lectures. I'm also down for any movie that features chaos in a mall (e.g. Dawn of the Dead (1978), which I didn't put in Film Roundup because I didn't see the whole thing, only the mall part; such is my commitment to mall chaos).
- Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991): Another pleasant surprise! I'm grateful whenever a successful franchise really shakes things up and goes into a different direction for the second outing, like with Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. Speaking of which, Sumana and I are both big fans of William Sadler as Death. I will venture that working a big in-joke into your screenplay based on a typographical error in an earlier draft of your screenplay is a very bad idea... and yet this is somehow a stone I'm not comfortable throwing.
- Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020): This one was not that surprising, but it was definitely enjoyable and they came up with some new time travel gags along with resurrecting old favorites from the first film. I loved how they showed that really nice people don't need to become cynical as they age, but that relentless niceness and positivity can become suffocating. Basically this movie did a good job tying up loose ends that most people probably didn't feel needed tying.
There's a cameo in this film that's quite brief—I think this person is on screen for about two seconds—but acts as a perfect punchline and solution to a plot puzzle. Great cameo. Now that I type this out, though, there was also space for a cameo by Cameo; a missed opportunity.
Possibly the best line in the film is "Welcome to, and sorry about, Hell." Really captures the handoff from one generation to another.
- Hindi Medium (2017): A departure from the month's theme, more of a dark comedy, with lots and lots of unsubtle social commentary. A lot of Indian movies are loose remakes of American or European movies, but you could adapt this into an American movie without changing much at all, since India and the US have the same relevant problem.
Adding to the growing list of "stock characters Leonard likes": the secretly corrupt or hypocritical authority figure who talks the talk well enough that for a couple of scenes you think they might be for real; e.g. Principal Lodha in this movie.
- Coming 2 America (2021): Very similar feeling to Face the Music, with a father learning to pass the torch to his children and unnecessarily tying up loose ends. It was definitely good to see Cleo McDowell return with his trademark skirting of trademark law. I bet his influence means that Zamunda's intellectual property laws aren't that strict... they might not even be in WIPO!
- The Lost City (2022): A very enjoyable film with Sandra Bullock doing her usual action/romance/comedy thing. Mainly made me want to re-watch Romancing the Stone (1984), which was a Mom rental choice in the late 1980s and which I saw before I understood what "romance" was. Kind of an important key to comprehending a romantic comedy! Anyway, all the actors are having a good time, it's fun.
Side note: it seems a lot easier to get Brad Pitt to be in your movie if you can promise his character will be quickly killed off. (See also: Deadpool 2). Sure, it makes sense, but it seems more brutal with Pitt than with other big-name actors. Jeff Goldblum was only in a couple scenes of Thor: Ragnarok, but he accomplished this by stepping offstage for most of the movie and having a long lunch.
Side note #2: Beth, Loretta's publisher, goes way beyond what any of my publishers would ever do for me, and beyond even what I'd imagine Nora Roberts' publisher doing for her. In fact, when I saw a trailer for this movie a while ago, I assumed Beth was Loretta's wife, based on her determination to find her and rescue her. This lead to some intense expectation shear in the first ten minutes of my viewing.
- Royal Wedding (1951): A forgettable cash grab except for a couple interesting things. First, this film is in the public domain because the copyright registration wasn't renewed. Second, that ceiling dancing routine! So fun!
I'd heard of the ceiling routine and remember reading some years ago that the exact mechanism used to film it was a closely kept Hollywood secret, but after seeing it, that seems like a cocktail of hogwash and flimflam. We watched the scene once, formed a hypothesis (they rotated the set and camera in sync), and went back and rewatched. We saw nothing inconsistent with our hypothesis, which we later confirmed through Wikipedia.
Not only that, this solution is telegraphed by an earlier scene where they tilt the set floor during a dance routine to simulate a ship's deck. Basically, this seems like a secret that couldn't have survived the invention of the VCR, or being a projectionist in 1951 and seeing the scene every night. Maybe Fred Astaire was right and it really was a more innocent age.
You know what? It was a more innocent age, because in most Fred Astaire movies, Astaire's dance partner is presented as his girlfriend or his wife, but in this movie Jane Powell is playing his sister. In the show-within-a-show they're billed as "Tom and Ellen Bowen," and the only reference to how weird this looks is one random joke. I'm sure it reads just fine in the screenplay, where the dance sequences are just [DANCE SEQUENCE GOES HERE], but the dance sequences in the finished product have Tom and Ellen Bowen enacting stereotypical pornographic scenarios like "I'm the king and you're the housemaid" and "we are literally a romantic couple." In fairness, royal weddings and incest do traditionally go together.
- Shrek (2001): Yes, we got Shreked. Is that a thing? It is now! See, if you Shrek your downline, then when they Shrek their downline, you get a percentage of all the Shrekitude! This could be you in the bright green Cadillac!
Apparently I'm supposed to review Shrek as a movie? It's bad. The concept is fun, there's some gags, it picks up near the end... But the main characters are annoying and the visuals are ugly. Shrek is the best-looking humanoid in this movie. To be fair, they bit off more than their 2001-era CGI teeth could chew. But when I picture this movie re-modeled with better CGI and rereleased with the same sound track, I don't want to watch that movie either. That hypothetical movie seems worse, because there is a certain charm to bad CGI and I'm impossible to please. That reminds me, I want to watch Lawnmower Man.
- Shrek 2 (2004): Despite the disappointing Shrek Sumana wanted to watch this because of a post she saw on Tumblr that said the sequel was way better than the first movie. That's definitely true! The CGI is much better, as are the gags, and there's even a subtle mystery (what's up with the king). Basically, Shrek walked (made fart jokes) so that Shrek 2 could run (do character comedy).
Actually, there's a joke I didn't get until just now! The fairy godmother is a crime boss... like the Godfather. I didn't notice because they don't hit you over the head with it like in Zootopia. So, good job, Shrek 2.
We will not be watching the other two Shrek movies, because that Tumblr post said they were terrible, but I admit a sick interest in knowing at what point they bring back "All Star" for the meme.
- Roxanne (1987): We closed out the month with another quality Steve Martin rom-com. This and Spaceballs (also 1987) are among the first movies I remember being 'new'—there were ads for it in the paper, and later on it showed up in the video rental place, and that's how I experienced movies until college. I guess what this says about me is, I started reading the newspaper in June 1987. Anyway, decades passed, I've now seen the film and it's quite fun. A little bit tame, maybe, but enjoyable. Good job making the lead character a firefighter rather than a cop, and we also enjoyed the subplot about the discovery of a comet. It's a good all-purpose subplot for a character who needs a little punch-up. Just think how much it would improve Shrek if Shrek and Donkey were rival comet hunters!
Hall of fame riff, when C. D. Bales can't drink from the wineglass and asks for a straw: "He did not expect that."
Sat Jun 04 2022 19:07 May Film Roundup:
After nearly ten years, it finally happened: we watched a movie on the last day of the month solely so I'd have something to put in Film Roundup. A busy month, I guess, with our viewing time spent on Better Call Saul (chilling!) and Strange New Worlds (excellent!).
- L.A. Story (1991): An excellent, funny, surreal rom-com. I don't know if there's any box-office truth to the stereotype that men only watch rom-coms when obligated to by "the old ball and chain", but I do like this genre a lot better when the humor has some edge (like Remember the Night (1940) or Intolerable Cruelty (2003)), or when it's really weird and goofy, as it is here. Great humor, solid emotional beats, and good chemistry, as you'd hope for when your two leads are married IRL. Also, Muppets-style cameos galore, a tradition that I wish more comedies would adopt, except sometimes bad comedies do it and it just makes me dislike them more.
Tip for screenwriters: early on, this film establishes a platonic friendship between the male lead and a secondary woman character, solving what we in the rom-com-ology business call the "Clark Gable conundrum" and priming the viewer to read his wackiness as eristic.
We saw this on DVD, and the DVD seems to have been made around 1997, which is early enough for not-that-entertaining "special features" and Easter eggs, but not yet in the golden age of historically useful director commentaries.
SanDeE*'s name is not given its proper respect in the credits (Sarah Jessica Parker is just credited as "Sandy"), but it's correct on the IMDB page.
Sat May 07 2022 12:04 April Film Roundup:
- The Quiet Earth (1985): Watched this for free on Youtube because Kris mentioned it, and it really is a very Kris movie. The sort of movie you show your kid when they're ten if you're engaged in an experiment to create another Kris. However I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. There is a very distinctive climax to this film about half an hour in, and the rest of the movie is less cool and a bit anticlimactic. Cool ending though.
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010): We watched this because it came up on Framed and Sumana hadn't seen it. I saw it in the theater, pre-Film Roundup, and it holds up pretty well. In fact some of the cinematography that used to read as explicitly videogamey now just looks like Marvel-style action movie stuff, indicating a Man with a Movie Camera style triumph.
I wasn't the biggest fan of Allison Pill's performance in season 1 of Star Trek: Picard, but I loved her work in season 2 when Dr. Jurati hum-de-dum with the spoiler lady. I guess you could say I've been allisonpilled. Anyway, it was a big surprise and treat to see her as Kim Pine in this film, and to then notice how her performance in Picard uses those same moments of frustration and sarcasm.
- Downhill (2014): We borrowed the DVD from some friends who'd joined Sumana on the Coast-to-Coast Walk dramatized in the movie. As we started to watch the film, Sumana got out her maps and paraphernalia for her walk... which included a postcard advertising this movie! Sadly, that was the highlight of the evening.
Downhill leans heavily on the walk as a natural through-line, and the plot is very episodic and haphazard. Which would be okay except the movie also has the all too common problems of "no one's particularly likeable" and "one super d-bag spoils everything," so why keep watching? The answer proved to be Jeremy Swift (Higgins from Ted Lasso), and the nature views, which were spectacular.
- Departures (2008): I couldn't remember the name of the movie because Passages is a better English name. Even when I knew that wasn't it, my mind kept filling in "Passages" and I had to do some embarrassingly specific search like
japanese film funeral washing best foreign picture. Anyway, this is a nice little film. Also very episodic, but I didn't mind because everyone tried their best instead of being a jerk. There is a lot of scenes where people grieve a dead loved one but they found different ways to show it so it doesn't get repetitive. Content note: it's possible they killed an octopus for this movie. I stopped watching Iron Chef altogether ten seconds after the Chairman unveiled those tanks full of octopus, so I'd want to have known.
Sat Apr 02 2022 13:22 March Film Roundup:
A real big month for movies that each parody a lot of other movies. But a real small Roundup of such movies, only two:
- Support Your Local Sheriff (1969): While watching this milquetoast comedy I started to think that Blazing Saddles might specifically be a parody of it, but when looking at IMDB afterwards I decided they're going after the same cliches, and Blazing Saddles gets to the heart of the matter in a way that makes Support Your Local Sheriff hardly seem like a parody.
I've made fun of Mel Brooks's sentimentality before, and I will do so again, but the best parody comes from a place of deep love for the thing being parodied, and I did not feel that love with Support Your Local Sheriff. It felt more like an ancestor of the Scary Movie franchise. There were a few good gags, but damn if I can remember what they were.
I think Blazing Saddles first came to mind while watching this because both films use the technique of letting the joke run way too long—the mud fight in Sheriff, the bean dinner in Saddles. I almost never like this. I guess Space Ghost Coast to Coast pulled it off a couple times.
To say something nice about Support Your Local Sheriff: James Garner's character does try really hard to resolve situations nonviolently, in an almost Star Trek way. But is that supposed to be admirable, or part of the joke?
- Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story (2007): From the sunset of the "toss some super offensive gags into this comedy, it's fine" era of Hollywood, to be followed by the dawn of "offensive gags are okay so long as the characters are seen to take offense." Overall this was really fun, less because of the source material and more because it's a wide-ranging comedy that doesn't care about presenting a coherent world because it's parodying other movies.
To draw a comparison to the "let the joke run way too long" thing I mentioned earlier, let's discuss Eddie Vedder's cameo in Walk Hard, where he gives a rambling introduction speech. I can see the argument that this is the same type of joke as the bean dinner in Blazing Saddles, but I beg to differ. In fact, I demand to differ! The screenplay starts off with a few pure repetitions, then starts mixing up the rhetoric as you understand that this is a joke based on repetition, and then ends when it runs out of good ideas. Versus a physical comedy bit that's just the same thing over and over.
Sat Apr 02 2022 12:25 Two Spacesuits:
My story "Two Spacesuits" is published in the April 2022 issue of Clarkesworld! I wrote "Two Spacesuits" in 2017, and over time the subject matter—your normcore parents join a self-medicating Internet cult—has only become more and more relevant. I made a few minor edits in late 2021 to set the story during the pandemic, instead of the sprawling 21st-century untime you see in a lot of these stories, but everything apart from the obvious "curbside pickup" type stuff was there originally. Thanks to Neil Clarke for picking up the story.
"Two Spacesuits" has a heavy focus on one of my big writer themes: cognitive dissonance and the defense mechanisms we deploy to deal with it.
“You’re still doing it! Oh my God! You make up these stories to explain your behavior to yourselves. When one story falls apart you just switch to another one.”
As a writer I hope I don't come off solely as an observer of human frailty, but this is one of my favorite kinds of human frailty to observe. There's a bit of this in Constellation Games when Ariel and Dana are talking about Curic's ambivalence:
“We'd pick an option at random and create post hoc rationalizations,” said Dana. “Humans do it, too.”
In Situation Normal, Evidence causes this behavior as a side effect (this is why Evidence is called that!), and this is most clear in "We, the Unwilling," the SN bonus story, where Evidence pushes the POV character into ever more extreme states of cognitive dissonance:
“You ask the Internet about Captain Jim Kirk,” said Nor firmly, “and then we can do business based on a shared understanding of the facts.”
“I don’t want to,” said Kenta. There was nothing else to say. The only possible next step towards completing the mission was to avoid certain pieces of information.
Can readers expect a respite from further explorations of this concept in The Constellation Speedrun? My sources say no.