(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.
Mon Jul 04 2016 09:34 June Film Roundup:
This month's movies are all over the place. I also wrote a huge essay about a movie I saw on July 1, so there might be a supplemental post as well.
- Rise of the Legend (2014): Fun, generic popcorn martial arts movie with a generic name. Best thing about this one was a small heist subplot—it's a full-fledged heist but it's just one part of a larger plan—and a character named "North Evil".
- Putney Swope (1969): Anarchic Groucho Marx-style comedy meets the 1960s counterculture in a film that's got a good number of laugh-out-loud moments and a pretty impressive Molotov cocktail effect (possibly achieved with a real cocktail, I dunno) but is ultimately a huge mess. It was an extremely offensive movie in 1969, and it's still pretty offensive, but mostly for different reasons, which is its own kind of accomplishment.
The worst part for me was the pretty common low-budget movie conceit where someone is a terrible boss and bad at running a business, but is rewarded with huge success because... it's a satire? The director is extrapolating their experience in the film industry to the business world as a whole? I've never figured it out.
I'm glad I saw this, but it's not great. If you want a bitingly satirical Mad Men-era film about advertising that's based on an understanding of the business, check out the 1960 short Your Name Here. If you just want more commercial parodies, watch the first few minutes of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957).
- Time Table (1956): The first scene of this movie is best-of noir material, and there's a twist at the start of act two that's handled really well, but really the first ten minutes is all you need. It's public domain, so see for yourself. The great theme of a plan that's perfect but brittle, undone by the slightest error, isn't done justice.
- Monkey Business (1952): Definitely inferior to the Marx Brothers Monkey Business, this lesser Howard Hawks feature focuses on Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers acting like teenagers. Cary Grant gets a haircut which, in retrospect, yes, is the haircut that teenage boys had in 1952 but adult men did not. It took me a while to catch on because of all those movies from the same period in which 25-year-old actors with that haircut are playing high school students.
Not a great watch, but it was really refreshing to see a romantic comedy where the couple starts off married and in love, and stays that way for the entire movie.
- Synechdoche, New York (2008): Distressing and effective. reminds me of a Buster Keaton film in the creative ways it keeps twisting and escalating its premise rather than letting the one joke ride. Recommended.
- Heaven Can Wait (1943): This film puts on the big screen the unspoken American worldview that mixes Christianity and Epicureanism, and shows how it creates an arbitrage opportunity between heaven and hell. The story's okay, but all the characters are cartoony stereotypes. Specifically it reminded me of a Tex Avery cartoon, the way the film was scored, the orchestra constantly quoting from old-timey songs.
Sometimes the techniques used by Code-era directors to sneak filth past the censors come off as humorous and sophisticated (Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson? again), but in this movie it just seems sleazy. Despite valiant efforts, only a couple of scenes really connected with me on an emotional level.
- Approaching the Elephant (2014): A pretty amazing documentary about a free school, with a lot to say about fundamental questions of political science. I found it really interesting because I think a free school would have been a much better environment for me when I was a kid than public school. Not really an option for me, though. Also, Lucy, the girl who's one of the focal points of the documentary, is the same age as and acts a lot like my niece Maggie. This film is really effective at showing that unstructured spaces attract a wide variety of people who don't "fit in", including bullies.
(2) Sun Jun 19 2016 16:39 Paris Pictures: Versailles:
I'm back with another Paris trip photoessay! This time we venture to
Château Versailles, a short train trip from Paris. Versailles is a
small commuter city whose major attraction is the residence (and occasional prison) of kings; sort of if
New Rochelle used to be the capital of the United States.
There are four parts to the Versailles experience and it all depends
on how much you want to pay and how far you're willing to walk. We
paid full price and walked all day, we saw it all, and I'm here to
tell you that the best thing is right at the end. I would not have
chosen to go to Versailles, but I'm glad Sumana suggested it as our
Let's start at the Château proper. This was... a big palace with
a lot of history. You get in a big line, which goes through a metal
detector and then shuffles as a single unit through one extravagant
room after another. It's not what the original architects had in mind
but it does instill the intended sense of being dutiful and oppressed.
I took lots of pictures of this stage, but afterwards I realized 5000
other people had taken the same photos that day, so I won't show most
of them. I will show the big Hall of Mirrors, which was really
intimidating back when mirrors were an advanced technology, but which
now kind of feels like a tinpot dictator showing you his Hall of
"Yeah, it's all on one chip, no big deal."
There was a big gallery of paintings of French military victories,
from which I took this dyptich I call "Leonard's Two Moods":
In a sop to the non-bloodthirsty, the gallery of military prowess was balanced by a
hall of statues honoring humanists and statesmen who "spread the glory
of French civilization without drawing the sword." They were able
to get some big names, like Descartes (left).
In the many Versailles gift shops we learned that
Frédéric Lenormand wrote a series of mystery novels
staring Voltaire, including Le diable s'habille en Voltaire
(The Devil Wears Voltaire), which according to the back-cover
copy is the book that finally delivers the long-promised
Voltaire-Satan grudge match! I don't read French well enough to read a
historical-fiction novel, but I'd love to see some translations of
There's a restaurant (a branch of Angelina, a famous Paris
hot-chocolate joint) in the main Château. Their croque monsieur was
the only bad food I ate between the time I got off the plane at De
Gaulle and the time I got back on the plane a week later. Generally
museum restaurants are not great, so not too surprising. However the
hot chocolate was excellent! And it's hard to beat the ambience; it
called to mind a Ken MacLeod quote about how "our children giggle and
eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers."
Speaking of which, let's move on to part two of the Versailles
Journey, the gardens! This is a park about twice the size of Central
Park, all done in the perfect shaved-trees geometric format that seems kinda
creepy to me but it's just the way the French do parks. We took some
establishing shots for Sumana's mom just so she could see we made it.
This part of Versailles is free, so if you're a cheapskate
and just want to have a day in the park, this is for you. It's also
the part of Versailles with the most replay value. Lots of kids
running around eating ice-cream. You can rent a bike or a boat.
Near the entrance you see this fountain full of statues of frogs,
and statues of people being turned into frogs. There's an implied
threat that the king might himself turn you into a frog. (He had the legal right to do this, though it was rarely exercised.)
A lot of the gardens operate on the hedge-maze principle. You leave
the beaten path, wander around in the trees and eventually stumble
into a fountain or statue grouping. Unfortunately, although you're
free to wander through the mazes, the fountains and whatnot are all
caged behind gates, so you can't get a good look at them! Kind of
spoils the fun.
You can't really see it in that picture, but the latticework on
that gate says "XIIII XIIII XIIII XIIII".
A lot of people call it a day after seeing the main chateau and a
bit of the gardens, but we pressed on! We took in the Grand Trianon,
the palace that Louis XIV had built to get away from it all. This
was the exact reason he'd had Versailles built, but when
you're the king, truly "getting away from it all" would require
delegating important decisions to someone else, and Louis XIV was
not the delegating type, so he brought "it all" with him wherever he
went. If he'd lived longer he would have probably built another
palace even further away.
Because of this history the Grand Trianon made for a disappointing
sequel to the Château. It is a little more informal, though; you get to see Louis's
man-cave, where he would bro down for some billiards.
you're over here you can check out the Petit Trianon, originally
built for Madame de Pompadour but later occupied by Marie
Antoinette, of unhelpful-suggestion fame. This is still more
informal, a little closer to something a modern person might be able
to live in. And if you're undeterred by the fact that it's now well
into the afternoon and you've been walking all day, you can step
outside the Petit Trianon into the Queen's Hamlet. And this is where it gets freaky.
I had of course heard that Marie Antoinette had "dressed up as a
milkmaid", but there were a lot of slanders going around about ol'
Marie, so a) I wasn't sure this had
really happened, and b) I'd assumed it had maybe
happened once, at the sort of party you see nowadays where
frat boys dress like they're homeless.
Well, I'm here to tell you that it didn't happen once. It happened
all the friggin' time, and the Queen's Hamlet is where
The backyard of the Petit Trianon is pretty normal, with winding paths through a
natural-looking constructed environment. Trees, bridges, a theater,
a "temple of Love"; what the French would consider an English-style
park. Then you enter the Hamlet, a working replica of a farming
You know in
Constellation Games where Tetsuo Milk creates the Ip Shkoy
Replica Village with its convenience store and printing press, then
goes around pretending to be all the inhabitants? It's like that, but it happened for real, in the 1700s, and it wasn't even the first time someone had done this. It was a fad!
There's a barn-type building with chickens and other farm animals.
There's a little pond with its own fairy-tale lighthouse.
There's a mill that doesn't do anything.
There are many other single-use buildings--a dairy, a "boudoir" whose only purpose seems to be to let Marie have a conversation in private, etc.
Over the centuries the Hamlet has fallen into disrepair and been
restored with modern techniques. Here's the main house, which we
couldn't enter because it's undergoing renovation. That's right,
we're restoring the replica farmhouse to recreate the effect of the
And it works! It's clearly fake, but the part of my brain that likes this sort of thing doesn't care. Even with tourists and kids running around, the Hamlet
is a nice relaxing place to be. There's something deeply appealing
about these tidy replicas of rural life. It reminds me of watching
Peter Jackson's Hobbiton. Sumana called it the "Pinterest mom" look.
In general we found the French attitude towards Marie Antoinette
confusing. The Versailles gift shop was full of kitsch indicating a
demand for the pomp and decadence of pre-revolutionary
France, and the doomed queen in particular. But most tourists, having gotten
within a mile of her really nice Minecraft base, were not
willing to walk out here, to what, in our opinion, is the highlight of the park.
So we asked a French friend about history's final judgement
on Marie Antoinette, and he thought about it a long time and said,
"Well... she wasn't French." 'Nuff said!
Wed Jun 01 2016 07:02 Mad May Beyond Film Roundup:
It is with great pride that I announce Film Roundup Roundup, a page that collects my recommended films in one convenient table, without any of the bad movies or nuance-adding reviews that clutter these monthly blog posts. Of all the films I've written about on NYCB over the years, there are about 125 that I'm willing to go on record and say that you, random person on the Internet, should check out. I'll update the list... at least once a year, how about that?
And now, the latest candidates for addition to that big list, though I set up the toolchain before I wrote these reviews, so none of 'em are on there:
- A Beautiful Planet (2016): A 3D IMAX film shot on the International Space Station. It was edutainment aimed at the casual viewer (someone sitting in the theater hadn't known there was an International Space Station, and I hope they came out of the theater feeling better about humanity), but I didn't come to be edutained, I came to recapture the thrill I got from Gravity (2013)! And... it's fine as long as you don't compare it to a fictional experience like Gravity. It's a cinema verite documentary about life on a space station. There's a cool Blair Witch-esque scene filmed during a spacewalk, and lots of microgravity shots. The astronauts are competent and nothing goes wrong. This was in and out of theaters like a flash, and I do think it benefits greatly from the IMAX treatment, but to simulate the experience at home, check out Sunita Williams's 2014 tour of the ISS. Oh, according to the website if you're in Columbus, Ohio it's still showing until June 10.
- Rien a Declarer (2010): Seen with Sumana at her recommendation. A mismatched-cop comedy about the collapse of nationalism in the face of the European Union. It was pretty fun, had some Hot Fuzz moments, but it's no Hot Fuzz. There seemed to be jokes surrounding the fact that Benoît Poelvoorde's character is extremely racist, but I couldn't make them out; maybe the joke is that no Belgian could be that racist? But it seems quite possible! His extreme nationalism is comical, but why shouldn't it be paired with racism?
- Mad Max (1979) This isn't Mad Max, it's.... no, hold on. This is Mad Max, but it's not what I want from the series. It's a kinda generic exploitation flick with cool car stunts. According to IMDB trivia, the canonical explanation for why this movie isn't like the others, is that there was a nuclear war two weeks after the events of Mad Max. The real reason is "no money", a problem I'm sympathetic to. But if you're allowed to say "two weeks later there was a nuclear war", a whole lotta movies could be the prequel to The Road Warrior. For instance, what if The Jerk (1979) was secretly the first Mad Max movie? All you'd need to do is change the footage at the beginning of The Road Warrior to show Navin Johnson being shot at in a gas station. Much more satisfying.
Speaking of which, Memorial Day weekend was Mad Max weekend at the museum, so I also saw...
- Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981): This is more like it. Cool worldbuilding, clever eyeball kicks, exciting chase scenes. I was not a big fan of the feckless community of refinery operators, but I did like how even though Max is central to the movie he's only a supporting character in their overall story. It creates a western-style loneliness that is used to excellent effect in Fury Road, and of course in...
- Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): This one I'd seen before, a long time ago, and I thought it was really stupid. And... it is stupid, but it's also very fun. This is the one where the series comes into its own as an anthology that shows different approaches to post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. Probably the most realistic entry in the series, not that we're going for realism.
Thunderdome also gets points from me for not having a "villain" per se. Auntie Entity is coded as the villain, but by Mad Max standards she's pretty chill. Max blows up her city, and she stands on the rubble and shouts "We will rebuild!" and everyone's still with her. That's the kind of popular support Immortan Joe can only dream of.
So... I guess from most perspectives I like this one better than The Road Warrior. The action scenes are a lot better in The Road Warrior, though, and that's really the heart of the series. Fury Road remains the best entry, because it combines the super-dense worldbuilding of Thunderdome with the nonstop action of Road Warrior.
- McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): One of the truths of genre fiction is that if you set out to deconstruct or destroy a genre, it is likely you will simply produce an example of it. Thus it is in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Robert Altman's "anti-western" and the first Altman film I've seen. It's a very good western, full of loneliness and corruption and sad little schemes brought low.
It was quite entertaining to watch Rene Auberjonois effectively play Quark. On the other hand, this has one of the cruellest scenes I've ever seen in a movie. Not that it's more violent or sadistic than other movie scenes, in fact it's a really good scene. Just... what a mean thing to do to a minor character I didn't realize I cared about until this scene started.
Tue May 17 2016 21:45 Paris Pictures: Musée des Arts et Métiers:
Hey, how's it going? I've got a ton of important stuff to do, but that
just means I can procrastinate by putting up pictures from
our Paris trip. Today I'd like to introduce you to the Musée des Arts et
Métiers, a museum not found in either of our guidebooks but
recommended by every French person we talked to. You know how The
Da Vinci Code starts in the Louvre? Well, Foucault's
Pendulum isn't having any of that mainstream nonsense--it starts
off in Arts et Métiers, a museum of Science
and Invention with none of that postmodern self-reflection seen
in museums whose exhibits were updated after, say, 1995.
That's probably why it's not in the guidebooks; it's kind of
old-fashioned and disjointed. You'll walk through a bunch of
exhibits that don't seem to have changed since the 1960s, and then
suddenly jump forward in museum time to the electronics age (mid-1990s I'd say). You
check out some cool old computers and awkard "interactive" exhibits,
then you walk through a doorway or around a corner, and you're back
in the 1960s with things behind glass in wooden cases.
Nonetheless, if you're reading this weblog, this is a must-see
museum when you're in Paris, because the amount and type of
incredible stuff they have is off the charts. Here's just a sample
to whet your appetite:
I figured out who buys all that Statue of Liberty kitsch in New York
—it's tourists visiting from Paris! Parisians love the Statue of
Liberty. There's a 1/4 scale model on the banks of the Siene, there's
this thing (I think a 1/16) in front of the museum, another one
outside the Musée d'Orsay. Look, you gave it away, it's ours
now... don't make this weird, France.
This is the sort of thing you come to the museum for: Léon Foucault's 1862 apparatus for
measuring the speed of light with a rapidly rotating mirror. To see
how it works you can either watch a very slow video or promise yourself you'll
the Wikipedia page later and then never get around to it.
Or how about this wicked bastard? This is a steampunk oscilloscope, made
by Rudolph Koenig in the 19th century. On the left is a big stack of
Hemholz resonators, each designed to pick up one specific frequency
and dampen all other frequencies. Each resonator is attached to a
little gaslight. You set all the gaslights blasting away, and when a
resonator vibrates it makes the flame of the attached gaslight
Then you turn the crank on the right to rotate the mirror
(everything had a rotating mirror back then), and the resonant
frequencies of whatever sound you're playing show up visually as wavy
lines across the mirror, versus the undisturbed lines of all the
frequencies not present. There's almost no signage on this thing and I
had to sit through a slow five-minute audioguide explanation to figure
out what's going on here but it was worth it!
Perhaps the plastic arts are more your speed. Here's a show-offy
piece by Colville from the 1855 Universal Exposition, which
demonstrates all the colors the manufacturer is capable of slapping
onto a piece of porcelain. It really reminded me of the DOS color
palette the way there are adjacent dark and light versions of the
Or maybe you're too pure, too abstract for such material
concerns. Maybe you'd like to take this sample case door-to-door,
selling geometric solids to the public? This was briefly a popular
business model among the Willie Loman types of nineteenth-century France, who eventually gave up and
used the shapes to study geometry. These two pieces are by Louis
Dupin (1846) and Baradelle (1805).
You know that the French Revolution gave birth to the metric system
and had its own calendar, but did you know they also used decimal
time? Tragically, counterrevolutionary clocks, like this two-faced
example, made it easy for slackers to continue using the old system,
and decimal time was only the law of the land for about a year. Look
at it! The decimal time face is the tiny one on the bottom! They're
not even taking it seriously!
Sumana with a model of the Jacquard loom, distant ancestor to the
mighty general-purpose computer. What we didn't expect was all
the other looms that came beforehand! They were all here in
one big room that people walked right through, not knowing how cool
the things they were seeing are.
Here's an example: a model of an earlier loom controlled by holes
punched in paper. Now that's computery! Looks just like 1980s
dot-matrix printer paper. (We also saw a full-size loom that basically
ran off a player piano roll.) The problem here is that it's one
huge sheet of paper. If you want to add or remove an
"instruction", sucks to be you. It's like programming in BASIC when
you can't change the line numbers. Whereas the Jacquard loom is
programmed by small cards that are tied together. It's a lot easier
to go in and change something.
There was a whole exhibit hall about keyboards and other input
devices, a section I like to call "Telegraphy and Typewriters". The
museum is full of unusual keyboard layouts. You'll have to trust me
on this because I'm showing you a stenography typewriter, and those
still have weird keyboard layouts. The second picture shows the
box the stenography keyboard came in, and another, more spidery
stenography keyboard in the background.
Here's perhaps my favorie piece from the "Telegraphy" section of
that exhibit hall. This brave inventor refused to succumb to Not
Invented Here syndrome. In an era when everyone was inventing weird
telegraphy keyboards, this person thought "We already have
keyboards! The keyboard has been around and successful for hundreds
of years! I'm not going to reinvent the wheel!"
I'm going to close with this shot of the classic
Minitel terminal. The museum had a very Pavel Chekhov rah-rah
attitude towards all things French, and I don't begrudge this
attitude—technologically the French have a lot to
be proud of. But sometimes it was kind of a stretch. Did you know
that the European ground station for the Telstar satellite was in
France? I don't really think that's sufficient grounds to
display a model of the Telstar in a museum exhibit and do a whole
thing about it. You made Minitel! Minitel was
amazing! You should do a whole Hall of Minitel! Just a suggestion.
Sun May 01 2016 18:10 April Film Roundup:
Man, this took forever to put together. I can't believe how many movies I saw in April, given that we spent a week in France, where everyone knows they don't have movies. Enjoy:
- Dracula (1931): Introduced by Guy Maddin! The projectionist accidentally (?) started showing us the original, and then had to start over with the version with the Phillip Glass soundtrack, and you really can tell the difference. It made a slow-paced movie seem action-packed. I haven't read the book and didn't really know anything about the plot apart from "vampire bites a buncha people", and I thought Renfield was great. I liked his abrupt turn from snob to craven Torgo-esque servant. If anything, it was a little disappointing how the best plot element in the movie happened right at the beginning.
I also liked how Van Helsing doesn't pussyfoot around like a lot of movie scientists. He's like "these bite marks indicate it's a vampire, therefore vampires are real, deal with it." Also enjoyable whenever Mina would glare really hard at her Zeppo-esque fiance trying to work vampire magic on him.
The ending was super disappointing! Dracula gets staked offscreen and you don't get to see what could be a great Bela Lugosi death scene.
Since Jeanne Thornton is a big Guy Maddin fan I decided it would be cool if I could get him to autograph my Dracula ticket to her, so after the show I looked around for him, but he had disappeared... like a vampire! Or like a guy with
something to do other than watch the movie he introduced.
(If the tone of this review seems different from usual it's because I basically copy-and-pasted it from an email thread with Jeanne.)
- Buck and the Preacher (1972): Seen as part of a Sidney Poitier retrospective at the museum. Overall these films gave me an appreciation for Poitier's skill in psychologically intense action roles. The only movie I'd seen him in previously was Sneakers (1992), where he scowls a lot but doesn't do much action. In The Heat of the Night (1967) is on my list but we haven't seen it yet.
Anyway, around 1989 I remember a movie about black cowboys came out (I don't remember the name and can't find it) and it was... not controversial, but it was remarked upon as unusual. But having discovered old movies after starting Film Roundup, I've learned that that movie would have been right at home in Hollywood fifteen years earlier. The 1970s saw tons of action movies and thrillers that have been stuffed into the "blaxploitation" box, plus a good number of westerns and comedies by and for African-Americans.
Something happened in the 1980s, maybe due to the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster, and now we mainly remember Blazing Saddles (1974), a movie directed by a white guy that plays the "black cowboy" idea for laughs. Blazing Saddles is a really funny movie, but it came out in the context of movies like this which took the same topic seriously. So it's like we're yukking it up at Spaceballs, but all we remember is Buck Rogers and we've all forgotten about Star Wars.
You don't need a "reason" to put black characters in a period genre piece, but this movie has a very good reason and it gives the plot, which is basically cribbed from Wagon Master, some real heft. It helps that the ending isn't a big disappointment like Wagon Master's was. A really solid movie overall.
I could have used a little more of Harry Belafonte's con-man preacher. There's a great scene where he's sweet-talking himself into Sunday dinner and you can see the pioneer ladies thinking "He's obviously a con man, but it's not like we have a real preacher..." But probably the best scene is one where Buck and the Preacher rob a telegraph office, but they can't get at the money, and rather than let it become a Dog Day Afternoon situation they just cross the street and rob the bank as well!
- Francofonia (2015): Kinda disappointing film from the director of the gorgeous Russian Ark (2002) (one of the first films reviewed on NYCB). There's a plotline that's really good, and it's the one that you see in the promotional material for the film, making you think it's the whole film, but there are two or three other plotlines sprinkled in and none of them are very good. I did like seeing Napoleon mugging in front of the Louvre's collection of paintings of him. And that one plotline is really good. Maybe a "Phantom Edit"-type vigilante operation is called for.
On the plus side, when we went to Paris this made me feel better about skipping the Louvre. There were specific works of art I wanted to see in Paris, but they were all in the Pompidou Centre.
- The Defiant Ones (1958): An intense, personal thriller.
Poitier and Tony Curtis are great, and the supporting cast includes
Theodore Bikel as the Southern sheriff, plus
Lon Chaney Jr. doing the same twitchy-eyed thing he does in The Indestructible Man (1957). One of those films you can recommend just by saying who's in it and asserting that they didn't screw it up.
- Paris Blues (1961): Conveniently, we saw this movie the day we left for our Paris vacation. There's a scene with Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll on the bridge by Notre Dame, and twenty-four hours later we were walking that same bridge. Really great.
The movie itself is pretty light fare, but it's an enjoyable rom-dram that doesn't settle for easy answers, and it's got hot jazz and great shots of nighttime Paris. I got a strong Commander Riker vibe watching Paul Newman pretend (?) to play the trombone.
- Tomorrowland (2015): I'd been wanting to see this movie for its retro-tech cheese factor, but then it was shown on the flight back from Paris at an inconvenient but not quite ignorable angle, and I got enough of it to see that it all plays out as you'd expect, but not enough to say that I've really 'seen' the movie. So let it sit eternally on this dread threshold, neither seen nor unseen, neither Rounded Up nor un-, until the end of days!
- Blow Out (1981): This started out great but rapidly went downhill, where The Parallax View (1974) starts out okay but ramps up the tension throughout. I feel like Brian de Palma is wagging a Hitchcockian finger at me for my supposed voyeuristic love of exploitation movies, whether they're trash like the fictional movie-within-a-movie in Blow Out, or Hollywood fare like Blow Out itself, or something highbrow like Blue Velvet. But I don't seek these movies out, buddy, I just watch what they show at the museum, so the joke's on you.
Anyway, I would have liked this movie a lot more if there had been less crazy John Lithgow and more John Travolta out in the woods with a shotgun mic. My recommendation is to watch The Parallax View and The Conversation (1974) instead of seeing this. Sure, it takes more time to watch two really good movies instead of one mediocre movie, but you can't rush quality.
- Shuffle Along (2016): Our second Broadway excursion. Post-Hamilton we've decided to pay more attention when our theater-loving friends say something's great and we should get in on the ground floor. And... problems with this technique are now becoming apparent.
Shuffle Along is a good time. It's an all-black musical about the creation and staging of another all-black musical. It deals with serious topics in a funny way, it's got great old-timey costumes and tap dancing. If I saw a musical every week I too might be thinking "yes, this is a cut above, a true classic", and recommending it to all. But since I don't, it was well within the range of "normal musical" to me. The love story was meh. The history bits suffered from major show-don't-tell issues (occasionally also a problem with Hamilton).
We saw a preview, so maybe everything has been improved 100%, but what hasn't changed is that tickets start at eighty bucks a pop. I'm not prepared to pay that much for entertainment on a regular basis. And this strategy has worked really well for me. In all my years in New York the only live performance I've regretted missing was Bryan Cranston in All The Way, and they're turning that into a movie, so no harm done.
- Zootopia (2016): Seen on a double-date. There was a lot of fun stuff in this. The worldbuilding was great, and the design of Zootopia the city makes me feel like the movie is taking place on a space station or a ringworld or something. As with Inside Out (2015), there was also the hint of something deeper but I don't think the "deeper" thing was put together coherently enough to deserve credit. And even at the superficial level Inside Out was a lot deeper than this movie, if that makes sense.
For me, the best cop stories are stories about systemic problems that the cops can't fix or are making worse. Zootopia is that kind of story, but this could easily have been an accident that happened in the course of building a more superficial story about the same topics. According to IMDB trivia a lot of the movie was reworked after the first test screenings in 2014, so that could have caused it, or maybe the creators of the movie didn't want to "overthink" things. (Bah!)
The Discworld Watch novels also deal with the topic of the responsibilities of a police force in a multispecies society. In fact I think it gets a little tiresome seeing the Watch novels deal with this issue over and over again, but Terry Pratchett clearly gets it. And I don't think Zootopia does because it creates problems of systemic racism and addresses them as though they are problems of personal prejudice (which it nails with cringey gags).
Is a shrew crime boss terrorizing your city? Maybe his grip would be less secure if he didn't know 100% that there are no shrews on the police force! That sort of thing. It's hard to fault Zootopia for being "unrealistic" in this regard, since very similar things happen in real life. And I'm spending a lot of time on this because Zootopia does seem aware that something deeper is going on, and interested in addressing it, but it feels like the edges got sanded off.
Having written all this I can't square it with the fact that my favorite cop movie is Hot Fuzz (2007), a cinematic tribute to all the cop movies I hate. Could it be that I contain... multitudes?
Speaking of the shrew crime boss... The Godfather came out in 1972, long before I was born. When I was a kid you'd sometimes get a Saturday morning cartoon doing the Godfather bit, and it felt a little old-fashioned, like seeing Clark Gable in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Now it's 2016. This movie came out forty years ago and we're still doing extended riffs on it. Not a 'parody' per se, but a long reenactment with no twists or jokes. I love some Maurice LaMarche but it feels like this bit came out of a "Man, have you heard LaMarche do Brando? It's incredible, we gotta put him in the movie!" type discussion. They shoulda had him do the frozen peas commercial instead.
IMDB trivia: "This is the tenth film from Walt Disney Animation Studios to feature a character who is revealed to be the villain of the movie as a surprise[.]" Not much of a surprise anymore, is it?
- That's it for movies. But there's one more thing to take care of. This month, let's focus the Television Spotlight on Columbo (1971-2003), a mystery show where there's no mystery. You know who the killer is—it's the celebrity guest star, the first act is them committing the murder—and you know what's going to happen—Peter Falk's Columbo is going to come in, get the killer to underestimate him, and then bust them.
It's tempting to say something like "you'd think this wouldn't work," but why wouldn't it work? It works fine. You know exactly what's going to happen in a Bertie Wooster story, but it's still hilarious. What doesn't "work" is lazy mystery shows that assume they can fool us because we don't know how to watch television. As with many TV shows, Columbo's plots are a metaphor for the process of the show's production: the triumph of patient competence over flashy genius.
I came into Columbo a few years ago because Sumana's parents were big fans. I'd heard of it, sure, but thought it was just another 70s cop show like Kojak. But you put them side by side and there's no contest. Columbo might be the earliest fully modern television show. It's the Tristam Shandy of TV.
That said, individual episodes can flop. Each episode is basically a long face-off, so it succeeds or fails on the chemistry between Falk and the guest star. And the 70s episodes are a lot better than the 90s episodes. But overall, a hell of an achievement. As your guide to sorting out the good from the bad, I recommend the Columbo podcast Just One More Thing.
Well, see you next—ow! I banged my shin on Tomorrowland (2015), which for some reason is sitting right in the middle of this high-traffic dread threshold! Oh, right, the curse. Well, only one way to undo my hasty decision—express an opinion about the movie! It was a nice surprise to see Hugh Laurie as the scenery-chewing villain. Bye!
(2) Sun Apr 24 2016 17:40 I'm Stuffed With Pastries And Drunk With Power:
Sumana and I just returned from an anniversary trip to Paris, courtesy
of Sumana's mom. We had a great time, and as time permits I'll be
putting up mini-travelogues of the major sights we saw. I'll start things off with a catalog of our lesser adventures and discoveries.
As always, I travelled exclusively by private bus. We had to make
some minor livery changes to make my usual ride street-legal in France.
We skipped the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, Paris's two biggest
tourist traps. However we did take a boat cruise of the Seine the
first day, so there is proof that I was near the Eiffel Tower
at some point.
We were more enthusiastic about Montmartre, home of the
perspective-tastic steps seen in Celine And Julie Go Boating.
I loved the Jardin du Luxembourg. For some reason people were
always taking selfies next to this statue.
Also in the garden but a bit harder to find
The Luxembourg also features a functional Beaux-Arts latrine (not
The most touristy thing we did was a walk down the Champs Élysées,
which was the Paris equivalent of walking through Times Square on
Broadway, then crossing the street and walking back. It was cool at
the start (Arc de Triomphe), and again later on once it turned into
a park, but I'm gonna let this picture sum up the middle:
We ate a lot of great food! I won't be sharing pictures of the food
because I don't take good pictures of food, but I'll say that raw
milk cheese is fabulous, and pastries and bread were routinely as
good as the best you can get in New York. High-quality carbs and
cheese: the culinary highlights of my trip.
We went on a food tour with two other tourists and since three of us were from New York, when we went into the cheese shop the tour guide said "Look, you can get most of these at Murray's, so we're just gonna focus on the raw milk." Much appreciated.
We didn't eat at La Grenoille but I thought it was cute and
it can stand in for a lot of Paris restaurants. I tried escargot, as well as the mysterious Futurist dessert known as the floating island, and my verdict for both is "meh".
We also didn't eat at this restaurant, because it was closed, and
because the passive-aggressive note taped to the window ensures that
no one will ever eat there again.
(My translation: "We will reopen
upon completion of the work to stop the recurrent floods of fecal
water from the WC installed in the basement. We are waiting on the
leaseholder to act.")
But I'm sure you're asking: what do the French think of America
in today's Je Suis Charlie world? Well, here's the answer,
in sidewalk menu form.
Bad luck, rest of the country! According to France, New York City
is coextant with the United States, and Toronto stands in for all of
Canada. It could be worse; in the airport I saw a French guidebook
for "New York + Brooklyn". I mean, I get it, we didn't really leave
Paris, but I know there are different regions in France.
This tote bag we saw in a €1.20 store (i.e. a dollar store,
but more expensive) managed to achieve greater overall accuracy by
avoiding pesky details. Not sure where that subway map comes from though.
Okay, that's it for now, but tune in soon for scientific
instruments, Duchamp's obviously fake readymades, and the Tetsuo
Milk-approved netherworld of Versailles. Just to whet your appetite,
here's the sort of thing you see in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a
really cool museum that wasn't mentioned by either of the guidebooks we used, but was mentioned by every French person we asked.
An early steno keyboard! Awesome. See you next time.
Sat Apr 02 2016 22:10 March Film Roundup:
Roundin' up the films, roundin' up the films... oh, hi. I didn't see you there. Because I'm looking at my computer monitor, typing this paragraph. Hey, you want to hear about some movies?
- Deadpool (2016): Saw this with Sarah (now my official "Sumana doesn't want to see this movie" buddy) and liked it a lot more than I thought I would. There was a ton of violence but only one scene made me squirm in my seat. Not in a good way like The King of Comedy. Just awful, that scene. Anyway, everything else was good! The R rating really gave Deadpool room to stretch out and depict a healthy attitude towards perverted sex. A big part of my distaste for superhero movies is their PG-13 treatment of material that really needs either a G or a hard R. Good job dodging that bullet (but not any other bullet), Deadpool.
However, I'm still holding out for Zack Snyder's big-budget treatment of Ambush Bug, and the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Netflix original. Why get my hopes up only to have them pre-dashed? Take a look at this handy chart and you'll see why Ambush Bug is the best:
|Metafictionally aware||Not metafictionally aware|
|Has metafictional superpowers||Ambush Bug||Squirrel Girl|
|No metafictional superpowers||Deadpool, She-Hulk||Superman or whatever|
- Dragon Blade (2015): It happened again! A Chinese movie started out really fun and lighthearted, then took a horrifying turn, and then had a sappy tacked-on ending, without ever acknowledging the abrupt shifts in tone. The first part of this movie is really great, friendly and big-hearted, with Jackie Chan and John Cusak together-at-lasting to their (and your) hearts' content. But then... it's not great, let's leave it at that. I would put this movie alongside The Invention of Lying (2009) where the first half of the movie is incredibly fun and creative, and then, eh, turn it off and do something else. Or watch the first halves of both! Make it a double half-feature!
As is only appropriate for a movie about Roman soldiers, the inaccuracies in this movie are... legion. It makes me question the history I've learned from other Asian martial-arts films. Did a CGI whale really swallow the Korean royal seal in 14xx, as The Pirates claimed? Did that guy in The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom really have to deliver those snacks? Whom can I trust?
- The Barker (1928): From Film Forum's "It Girls" series. I would not describe this film as good, but it has some fun carnival bits. You know that I don't automatically think a newer film automatically supercedes an older film on the same topic, but Nightmare Alley (1947) is just better in every way, a much better "seedy side of the carnival" film, despite having to deal with the Hays Code. I'm not even sure this film is supposed to be seedy at all. It does have the traditional flapper floozy, but there's a twist—you'll never guess which group 11 transition metal is the primary constituent of her heart! Oh, you guessed. I suppose I could have clued you in more gradually.
The thing I found most interesting was how they did this film as a hybrid talkie. The lively carnival scenes have sound and the scenes in the carnival wagon have title cards. Did sound break upon the scene when this movie was halfway done? Were they experimenting to see how much talkie audiences could take? I don't know, and don't care enough to try to find out.
- It (1927): Now this is more like it. In fact, this is exactly like It. At first glance this movie may seem like an outdated slog. A movie based on an essay in Cosmopolitan written by a woman named Elinor Glyn? What vision does the name "Elinor Glyn" conjure up for you? Personally, I thought "Margaret Dumont as a Cardassian". When the movie started with a character picking up Cosmo and reading the essay that is the basis for the movie, and then Elinor Glyn herself showed up in the movie to talk about the essay she wrote, I was merely confirmed in this opinion. And yet, why shouldn't middle-aged 1920s society women be able to write scandalous, sexy comedies with ridiculous didactic self-inserts? Middle-aged men have been doing that for decades with much less impressive results.
It is fun, the jokes still land, and it shows exactly what it's like to be one of those girls who's always getting entangled with Bertie Wooster. Even the essay is interesting, although I maintain that adapting an essay to a feature film is a bridge too far. The concept of "It", which is generally glossed as being identical to "sex appeal", is actually closer to the very modern notion of "cool". Overall, a pleasant surprise.
Movies in the "It Girls" series I wish I'd seen, solely based on their titles: Safe In Hell (1931), Why Be Good? (1929), Loose Ankles (1930) and a supremely honest movie that's just called Dames (1934).
- The Straight Story (1999): David Lynch's proof of concept that he can make an effective film without employing any of his usual cheap tricks. Except! Apparently he can't make a film without making an actress cry and filming it. (Funny scene though.) Overall it was fine, and I'm probably not gonna like any Lynch movie more than I like this one, but not a very high recommendation from me.
- I saw a block of children's shorts at the museum during the Children's Film Festival, and most of them were forgettable but it was all worth it because at the end of the shorts was... a new A Town Called Panic animation! Yes! A Town Called Panic: Return To School (2016?), 22 minutes of non-stop stop-motion silliness! It's not on IMDB and I could find no English-language information about this film, but it exists, I saw it, and I laughed and laughed.
BTW, when researching this entry I learned that the 2009 A Town Called Panic feature film is on Amazon Prime. Here's my review; basically, I give A Town Called Panic the highest recommendation I can give a movie without implying that it has anything to say about anything.
This month the Television Spotlight shines on Drunk History, a Youtube series that made the leap to basic cable and has been going strong for long enough that I'm comfortable spotlighting it here even though there's (hopefully) many more seasons to come. Sumana has written about the uses of history in Drunk History, Hamilton, and the comics of Kate Beaton, so I'll just say that all three use anachronism to deconstruct the accepted narratives of Serious History. Drunk History treats Serious History as an inhibition to be broken down with booze, and then tries to build the wall back up with 100% literal reenactments that treat the drunken ramblings of the narrator like they're Shelby Foote talking about Gettysburg. Great stuff.
I'm pretty sure Drunk History was also the inspiration for the hilarious, Mormon-friendly Kid Snippets Youtube series, which means that even as it's still on the air it's paying back in inspiration to the indie-web-film community that spawned it.
Sat Mar 05 2016 18:22 February Film Roundup:
This month quite a few non-feature-films make it into Film Roundup. Could this be becoming... a blog?
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992): Really unpleasant, reminds me why I put off Twin Peaks for so long: I was afraid it was all gonna be like this. David Lynch gets a lot of credit for putting women actors through harrowing emotional experiences and filming it, and that's sort of the core of what I don't like about highbrow film. I don't know whether this opinion will prove popular or un- but I think the constraints of working with a 1990s television network and Mark Frost, Hill Street Blues writer, made Twin Peaks a LOT better than the corresponding David Lynch Movie (i.e. this movie) would have been.
- Hail, Caesar! (2016): Fun in a way that seems light and fluffy until you look beyond the boundaries of the silver screen and give a moment's thought to what's going to happen after the movie, at which point you know true terror. "Terror" may be a little strong. My point is this, like the movies it depicts, is a fun movie that carefully keeps all the ugliness out of the frame. There's a metafictional cleverness here that is unique even among Coen movies and subtle enough to miss. Recommended.
- Hamilton: An American Musical (2015): Live theater makes its first appearance here at Film Roundup. After months of living with all my friends and loved ones being obsessed with the Hamilton cast recording, our tickets, purchased in the mists of time, finally came due, and Sumana and I saw Broadway's hottest musical with Brendan, his friend, Rachel Chalmers, and her kids. It was good! The subject matter and the high information density of hip-hop brought me in, and the solid performances kept me interested. I've lived in New York City ten years and I think this is my first Broadway musical, so you can tell this isn't really my thing, but Hamilton is a genuine crossover hit.
- Man With a Movie Camera (1929): Another "believe the hype" selection, though after 85 years the hype on this drop has settled down to a dull roar. This docudrama about filmmaking has aged incredibly well. You get the thrill of the avant-garde with the comfort that comes from the avant-garde having been proven right and adopted by the mainstream. The cinema verite style may have seemed weird to moviegoers at the time, but it's not verite anymore--it's a glimpse of life in a long-away place. The rhetoric of editing has become standard, and for good reason--this is great stuff.
You can watch this film online. As with most works from 1929, the copyright status is unclear, but it tends to stay up longer on Youtube than most feature films.
- Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006): A goofy comedy with no villain, just stupid people sabotaging their own lives. I think Sumana is a bigger Will Farrell fan than I am, but he's fun. Gary Cole is great as always. Some might say this is the dreaded 'sports movie', and it certainly has the sports movie plotline, but to my way of thinking, in a 'sports movie' about NASCAR racing, the characters would be the cars themselves. Ever give any thought to why Cars (also 2006) is terrible? Here's your answer!
- Executive Suite (1954): A fun, realistic story of corporate intrigue. Barbara Stanwyck doesn't get much to do, but it has a nice bit of nerd wish-fulfillment as the industrial designer fights his way to the top.
- Mermaid (2016): a.k.a. "Mei ren yu". The non-filler parts of this movie are hilarious verbal comedy, pretty decent slapstick, and horrifying violence against marine life. Why do I keep walking into this trap? I'm just gonna lay it out here, spoilers be damned: this movie has a scene where trapped mermaids are massacred with automatic weapons. Also a scene right out of the Iron Chef octopus episode that made me stop watching Iron Chef. Does the whale die? Some do, some don't! Spin the wheel! Not recommended. Just find the police station scene online and watch it, 'cause that scene's a riot.
- I went to IFC and saw the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Short. The best one was World of Tomorrow, already reviewed in Film Roundup past, but the eventual winner (Bear Story) was also good. I also enjoyed Sanjay's Super Team, and was a little disappointed in We Can't Live Without Cosmos. The non-nominees inserted into the program were not great, and mainly served to illustrate an odd trend in which French animators specialize in animating realistic fur and link to their Linkedin accounts in the credits.
- Ran (1985): Some movies I watch because I think they'll be great, or at least interesting. Some movies I watch even though I'm not super excited about them, because other people think they're great and I want to understand why. It's not as clear as you'd think that the "I'll like this" movies have a better success rate than the "other people like this" movies, but Ran is in the latter category and did little for me. It looks nice, I liked a couple scenes, but eh.
Here's a hypothesis I'll be testing: I like Kurosawa's modern movies a lot better than his old-timey movies. Ikiru stays with me, probably will stay with me for the rest of my life, and historicals like The Hidden Fortress and Ran just feel like dudes hitting each other. Not as much depth, you know?
In lieu of Television Roundup this month I'd like to put in a good word for a company I don't like very much: Amazon. Specifically, Amazon Instant Video. If you spend $8 a month on Netflix you can stream the output of their recommendation engine all day long, but if you want to watch something in particular, you're likely to be disappointed, because Netflix's selection is terrible. That's why they put so much work into the recommendation engine! From one who knows.
By contrast, Amazon Instant Video has an excellent selection of classic, arthouse, and just plain old films. I generally want to watch specific titles, and about 90% of the things I put on my wish list are available on Amazon for the price of a video rental. Remember that? Back when there were video rental stores, you could borrow some Criterion DVDs and the works of big-name arthouse directors, but could you get an obscure noir, a 1950s office comedy, or an undistinguished war movie that you only want to watch because there's a character with your name in the movie? The answer was no. Same with the public library (still a good place to borrow seasons of television though).
So we frequently purchase the time-limited right to stream a movie from Amazon. It ends up a bit more expensive than Netflix, and if we watched a movie every single night it would get pricey real fast, but it's a lot more satisfying for casual use.
We do sometimes have Netflix-style nights where we just want to watch something that's free on Amazon Prime, and unfortunately we recently encountered the worst documentary I've ever seen, a thirty-minute piece on Queen that's part of a series of terrible music documentaries. They're all rush jobs cobbled together from still photos cadged from Geocities fan pages, old television footage, and interviews from other peoples' unfinished documentaries.
There's no Queen music in the Queen documentary. The interview subjects tell rambling stories laced with vague, inaccurate recollections. It's like Drunk History, except nobody's drunk, just frequently wrong. I know people get things wrong in interviews, but it's the filmmaker's job to fact-check and find some way of conveying the correct information, and that didn't happen here. We peeked at a couple other docs in the series and although they're all awful, only the Queen documentary was hilariously awful.