Sun Jan 13 2019 19:33 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2018, Part One:
Hey, how are you doing? I've been putting off writing this post because there's books and plays and etc. from 2018 I'd been meaning to write about, and I never did. Now I've got to get it out by way of explaining why these things I've never mentioned before are on my best-of-the-year list. So I'm just going to put the little essays I was going to write in here. It'll be a good time. Let's start with the easy one, where I already have detailed records on my consumption:
Film - There's nineteen new films on Film Roundup Roundup, but only films I hadn't seen before are eligible for the best-of awards, so no The Apartment or Fargo. Here's my top seven for 2018:
- The Court Jester (1955)
- Big Business (1988)
- The Death of Stalin (2017)
- your name. (2017)
- Sorry to Bother You (2018)
- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
- Lots of Kids, a Monkey, and a Castle (2017)
Kind of a surprising result for me; I remember reading the screenplay for The Court Jester back in the BBS days and thinking it wasn't funny at all. Even now, if you look at the IMDB quotes page it doesn't seem like a terribly funny movie. But what they filmed is funny as hell. The "flagon with the dragon" bit is a good example. It's a famous movie line that I find tiring in and of itself, but that line isn't the main joke; the jokes focus on the folly of using an annoying tongue twister as a mnemonic.
Theater - Sumana and I saw a few shows in 2018, and the one I liked the best was "The Play that Goes Wrong", which we saw on Broadway. Like Big Business in the Film section, this play shows a mastery of different types of comedy—verbal, physical, character, meta... It's constantly switching things up, setting up and claiming callbacks, and exploring every variant of its simple premise. Hits all my comedy buttons, basically.
Books - Two books I read recently that really stand out for me are And There I Stood With my Piccolo and But He Doesn't Know the Territory by Meredith Willson. Willson's main claim to fame is that he composed "The Music Man", and NYCB readers know how much I love that musical. After we watched The Apartment, Sumana said: "You know, the saddest part is he didn't get to use those 'Music Man' tickets."
Territory is an inspirational book about the incredibly frustrating eight-year process of writing and producing "The Music Man". It's really nice to read as someone who's trying to work on large long-term projects. But nearly as inspirational is Piccolo, a book Willson wrote and published in 1948, almost a decade before releasing the project he's remembered for today. At this point Willson is close to nobody in show biz, just a guy who works in radio, mostly behind the scenes. But he puts out this book of hilarious stories and hot takes anyway, because who cares? The work speaks for itself. Both of these are outstanding books full of great anecdotes.
In similar "funny person makes random observations" territory I really enjoyed the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. I read the first volume as a huge hardcover book and it was a big chore, but reading it as an ebook is a much better experience, especially since there's lots of good stuff in the end notes. Volume 2 has lots of Twain's thoughts on copyright, and his not exactly Mr. Rogers-esque experience of giving Congressional testimony on the topic. I was saving volume 3 for the new year, but guess what—this is the new year!
In 2018 I started reading Vikram Seth's Indian epic A Suitable Boy. Sumana is a huge fan, and this gives us a fun topic to discuss while she waits for the serially-delayed sequel, A Suitable Girl. It's really funny! I'm a couple hundred pages in and finally getting comfortable with all the characters and their relationships. But they keep adding more characters! BTW A Suitable Boy is one of those late-twentieth-century works where there just isn't an ebook available. It's pretty common, but not usually a big deal unless the book is both well-known and really long. The Power Broker is another example—I haven't read that one because it isn't physically compatible with the way I read now.
Other great books I read in 2018 include Hemmingway's A Moveable Feast, Picking Up by Robin Nagle, Broad Band by Claire L. Evans, Wartime by Paul Fussell, and Lying For Money by Daniel Davies.
On that cheery note, I'll see you... in the future! Right now I'm going to go eat some food.
Sun Jan 20 2019 10:05 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2018, Part Two:
Again, taking this post as an opportunity to discuss some things that maybe should have had their own entries, but let's take what we can get, huh?
Audio - Two recently discovered podcasts are worth your time. Farm to Taber, which focuses on the nuts and bolts of sustainable agriculture, and Gimme That Star Trek.
There are a ton of Star Trek podcasts that go episode-by-episode, but who has the time? In fact, I record an episode-by-episode Star Trek podcast and don't even release it, that's how much respect I have for your time. (If you do have the time, try Treks and the City.) "Gimme That Star Trek" mainly talks about the larger themes of Trek and ancillary material like the comics. Try "Is Starfleet Military?" and see if it grabs you.
Games - The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Slay the Spire", which delivers my favorite part of roguelikes—emergent properties coming from random combinations of a large set of items. Honorable mention to "Dead Cells", which doesn't have much combo going on but is a fun feat of procedural generation.
I got a Switch in 2018 and haven't done anything super unusual with it but I have had a good time with the first-party games, especially "Breath of the Wild". I know I swore off Zelda games but the huge open world and side quests of Breath of the Wild made it easy to swallow the main arc, where a kid goes to four dungeons. "Nintendo games are fun" is an accurate but boring thing to say, so I'll say it but not dwell on it.
On my phone, I had a great time playing a game called Freeways, which I think will appeal to people who like Mini Metro. To me the darkness, the lonely desert, the directions identified only by highway numbers, brings back the nighttime Central California landscape I drove as a teenager. Honorable mention to Holedown. Dishonorable mention to another game that I won't name, which is a really good game but turns into gacha hell if you dare try to complete the main storyline.
Personal accomplishments - I finished a draft of Mine but it needs some serious work and I don't want to think about it right now, so moving on... I started putting my short fiction out there again and sold a story! ("Only g62 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments" from back in 2016.) Presumably will be published this year. Wrote five stories in 2018: "The Blanket Thief", "Why You Deserved to Die", "The Universe Pump", "The Wheel of Chores", and "The Procedure Sign". Got a good feeling about three of those, at least.
I'm coming up on the five-year mark of the Library Simplified project. It's an uphill battle, and 2018 didn't bring the breakthroughs I was hoping for, but we are making progress and there's no technical reason why this thing can't work, so I'm still hopeful.
The year in bots: I was mainly focused on other things, but I was inspired by the Internet Archive's holdings and API to create four new bots: Junk Mail Bot, Yorebooks, Podcast Roulette, and Almanac for New Yorkers, which premièred on January 1.
"Almanac for New Yorkers" is a replaying of an "urban almanac" for 1938 by the Federal Writers' Project. Advice on when to plant soybeans is replaced by info on what's playing at Carnegie Hall, and it's all written with that dry midcentury American wit that is better-known today from the WWII Army field guides these people would be writing in a couple years. There are two more of these -- 1939 for New York and 1938 for San Francisco -- so if the Almanac proves popular this year, I'll queue up another chunk for 2020.
Okay, I think that covers everything. If not... I'll just write another blog post! See you around!
Sat Feb 02 2019 18:41 January Film Roundup:
Howdy-doo. I've completed my collection of Coen Brothers movies and I'm ready to pass judgement on the oeuvre as a whole. Also saw some disappointing Bollywood epics with Sumana. Let's get started!
- Raising Arizona (1987): This one's on the 'goofy' side, and it's fun. IMDB trivia says this was made to be as different from Blood Simple as possible, and those two movies do span the early Coen dramatic range.
I initially assumed that Gale and Evelle were a gay couple and was disappointed when it turned out they were brothers.
- Barton Fink (1991): I saw this in, like 1998, and then I saw it again with Sumana in July 2012, just before I started Film Roundup as a regular series. So I almost Film Rounduped it last time, but not quite. A little frustrating. But Barton Fink is a great arthouse movie, and it's fun to watch up to three times. The first time you're going in cold. The second time you know the trajectory and you catch all the foreshadowing and symbolism on the way. The third time you know what you're going to catch and there's a kind of second-order pleasure in seeing it all come together.
Don't get me wrong: I'd rather be watching it for the second time or even the first. But Barton Fink remains a real pleasure. The Buscemi/Goodman/Turturro triumvirate is in full flower, and it's great.
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): I love the period-ness but I can't stand the main character. Like if the Dude just complained in the bowling alley instead of trying to get his rug back. This guy's got a bunch of friends he doesn't deserve and he mistreats 'em all, but not in an innovative way, just regular entitled jerkiness. And I'm not into the music. This is a movie that shows you the ending first because that's the only part with any action, and doesn't even make it clear it's a flash-forward—seems like a decision made in the editing room.
John Goodman as Roland Turner steals what little of the show he's in. A weird side note: Turner's henchman is named Johnny Five, an anachronistic, irrelevant reference to another movie that I don't think even Thomas Pynchon would try. It's just inexplicable. If I'm ever at a Q&A with the Coens I should make this my Q.
- A Serious Man (2009): The project finale! Another period piece, more enjoyable overall than Llewyn Davis. Takes a while to get going and the main character is another sad sack, but at least he's trying. Or maybe it's not even that he's "trying" but that bad things really are happening to him.
- Main Hoon Na (2004): a.k.a. "I'm Always Here." A Bollywood classic that blatantly mixes Tom Clancy-type thriller and goofy college romcom. It... is okay, but if I'm going to sit through a three-hour movie I want more than "okay". Sumana and I had more fun riffing than watching the movie itself. There is a really good part during the closing credits, where the crew gets to be on-camera goofing off. The producer signs a big novelty check, etc.
Fun, spoileriffic fact: the main villain in this movie dies the same way as the main villain in Raising Arizona.
- Manikarnika: The Queen of Jansi (2019): This movie's got an undercurrent of Hindu nationalism that's kind of disturbing. Sort of reminded me of Ken (1964), but it's a live grenade instead of a museum piece. The action scenes are not all that was promised; we expected more aunties with swords. Also the British accents were all over the place, which was very distracting. During the movie I thought they'd cast a group of Eastern European backpackers as the British officers. But from what I can tell, those parts went to American and Australian actors living in India. Not that my British accent is great. I'm not volunteering.
And now, the conclusion. For the first time in Film Roundup history I'm giving rough numeric scores to movies, just so I can compare my overall opinion of the Coens' works against the IMDB consensus:
Survey says the Coens consistently produce above-average work but had a slight dip in the 2000s. What I learned from this project is how much value I put on the 1990s Coens in particular. The six movies from 1991 (Barton Fink) to 2001 (The Man Who Wasn't There) are my favorites by far, and include some of my favorite movies of all time. But apart from that ten-year stretch they're not really making movies for me. I don't think these movies are "bad" necessarily, but I like specific things and there was a magical period where the Coens were really into those same things.
For the record, here's my ranking, with my faves at the top:
- The Big Lebowski (1998)
- Fargo (1996)
- The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
- Barton Fink (1991)
- The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
- Blood Simple (1984)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
- Hail, Caesar! (2016)
- Raising Arizona (1987)
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
- No Country For Old Men (2007)
- Burn After Reading (2008)
- The Ladykillers (2004)
- A Serious Man (2009)
- Miller’s Crossing (1990)
- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
- Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
- True Grit (2010)
Some miscellaneous notes on the films as a whole:
- There's a stock character who I really like whenever they show up: the highly eloquent, super-polite character. Buster Scruggs, Professor Dorr, Ulysses Everett McGill, Charlie Meadows and Maude Lebowski to some extent. Maybe there's a character like that in The Hudsucker Proxy, it's been a while. Most of the time this character is a villain, but Troy Nelson is my favorite thing about Inside Llewyn Davis—just a really nice square with his head screwed on straight. Which I guess makes him the villain in that topsy-turvy movie.
- In the moral calculus of Coen Brothers movies, the worst thing you can do is leave someone to die. It doesn't come up every single movie, but I believe there's a consistent pattern. This is how you find out Buster Scruggs is a bad guy. Llewelyn Moss leaves someone to die in No Country for Old Men and it's the only thing that makes him feel bad in the whole movie. The only non-self-centered thing Llewyn Davis does in his whole movie is check on Roland Turner when he ODs. Arguably "leaving someone to die" is what kicks off all the problems in A Serious Man, if you're determined to make the prologue have something to do with the movie.
In real life, actively killing someone is worse then leaving them to die, but in Coen movies homicide doesn't usually have a moral dimension—it's the "shit" in "shit happens". Most of the body count is accidental, or else caused by Bad People like Anton Chigurh, characters who we know won't have any moral growth. The morality play happens afterwards, in how the survivors deal with it. The leaving-for-dead scenario is a good way to give big dilemmas to characters who would never realistically kill someone.
Mon Feb 18 2019 12:00 The Art of Python:
For a couple years Sumana has been mixing up the tech conference experience by adding aspects of performance and dramaturgy to her talks (see e.g. Python Grab Bag and Code Review, Forwards and Back). Now she's scaling it up by running an arts festival at this year's PyCon North America: "The Art of Python". You can submit proposals until the end of the month — music, dramatic performance, visual art, and so on.
I would love to see this became a regular feature of technical conferences. Many aspects of programming can't be expressed in traditional talks (xkcd does a lot of this), and it's also just fun to talk about programming in ways other than lectures—I like to do it in fiction, for instance. If you're interested, check out the CFP!
Thu Feb 28 2019 23:39 February Film Roundup:
- Black Panther (2018): It's a superhero movie, but with a difference: Wakanda is great! As usual, I have a limited interest in the people solving their problems with fight scenes. But I totally want to see the effect on the MCU of Wakanda stepping onto the world stage! When Iron Man shows up, we know it's a one-off. We're not going to have everyone flying around in suits. But Wakanda is a full scale science-fictional invasion of a world like our own, the sort of thing for which I longed in Thor: Ragnarok. I definitely want to see this.
But apparently everyone dies in Infinity War, so it won't happen and I watched this movie for nothing? Man, no wonder it got snubbed for Best Picture. You think they're going to make a sequel to Green Book where an alien kills everyone?
- The Wandering Earth (2019): a.k.a. "Liu Lang Di
Qiu". Finally, we've found it: a good version of Armageddon. Could
this be the one that heals the wound? It's got the scope: the plotline of the first half of the movie is repeated four thousand
times across the planet, but we only see the struggles of one group. It's got the visuals, solving a common
problem of 'realistic' science fiction by turning Earth into both an
alien planet and a dingy space station. It's mostly stupid, as befits
a blockbuster, but really clever in a few places. You may think that
Deep Impact is the good version of Armageddon, but as
someone who recently saw part of Deep Impact while getting a
haircut, I say nay.
Downsides: the action scenes are way too long and I found them hard to read for similar reasons to Armageddon. Like Interstellar, this movie continually reminds you of the better movies it's ripping off, and in fact it's the same movies, plus Gravity. Special caution to doesthewhaledie.com premium subscribers: there's a dead whale in this, but it's been dead for a really long time. Like, are we upset by a whale fossil? There's got to be some limit, right?
Old video game watch: the black market guy is playing Contra
on a Famiclone. Yes, even in post-apocalyptic deep space, the 80s
classics never die. Also, Zhou Qian has eight Zelda heart stickers
on the chest of her spacesuit. It's never explained, but talking it out with Sarah afterwards, I speculated that it's like the kill marks on your fighter plane, except Zhou Qian hates killing, so they're tally marks of the lives she's saved.
- The Net (1995): Like Antitrust, this movie has a bad technical rep. Sumana and I saw it because of this bad rep, in search of cheesy fun. (Here's her review.) But apart from the McGuffins, it's not too bad. The basic point is totally accurate; in fact the movie now seems prescient in some ways.
Overall, this was the expected cheesy fun, and it reminded us of The Parallax View (1974), a much better thriller that's also a better metaphor for the destructive power of the Internet.
- Sweet Charity (1969): This month's pleasant surprise. A
cynical musical, but not nihilistic like Pennies From
Heaven, with snappy Neil Simon banter. It's pretty long, but
set pieces keep it moving, and outside of the first scene there's no
The choreography is incredible, all designed to point out how ludicrous the human body is. The "Big Spender" number looks like something Bertolt Brecht or Fritz Lang would do. One of them Weimar guys. I guess it makes sense since Bob Fosse would go on to do Cabaret in 1972.
Sumana and I were disappointed by the ending, which the best thing
you can say about is it's faithful to the musical and not the cop-out
alternate ending that was filmed in case of studio interference. While playing our frequent game of "fix the bad media thing" (most
recently deployed on a terrible Star Trek: Discovery
episode) Sumana came up with a much better ending: bring back
Ricardo Montalban's character, not to swoop in and provide replacement
romance but to pull Oscar aside for a man-to-man. It's the sixties, brother, Women's Lib is on the way, and Oscar needs to get over his hang-ups and just marry the girl.
Don't sleep on the elevator scene. Pure comedy niobium!
- Funny Face (1957): I don't know what Discovery's
computer sees in this one. It starts off fun with a couple good numbers, but rapidly becomes
dull. The idea that Audrey Hepburn isn't model material because of her
"funny face" is ludicrous. Also the funniness of her face is
strictly of the "you had to be there" variety, and that whole concept
is grafted on from a different musical. But not grafted in a cool way, like in Face/Off. Seriously engaging with continental philosophy would have made the film interesting, but that didn't happen--Empathicalism here is the humanities equivalent of the computer in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
The final blow: the poster for this movie says "Presented in a real new dimension
in motion picture entertainment". Are they trying to trick people into
thinking this is a 3D movie? Cause it's not. Although there is a scene where someone throws spools of cloth at the camera, a classic "gratuitous 3D" technique.
Sun Apr 07 2019 17:26 March Film Roundup:
Just finished some rewrites for a novel, so... time to do more writing! At least you get to see this stuff right away!
- Heaven Can Wait (1978): I saw this a couple months ago but forgot to review it. I remembered it when Sumana mentioned the admiral in Mary Poppins who fires a cannon from the top of his house every day. The millionaire in this movie has his servants fire a cannon every day! Is this a common thing? Is this why rich peoples' houses are spaced so far apart? Or maybe there was one obnoxious dude in Beverly Hills who did this and a lot of movies from the 60s and 70s are mocking him.
Moving on to the film itself: Elaine May's screenplay is really funny and misanthropic, except the last act, which seems written by someone who's a lot less funny and doesn't hate humanity at all. Thus, I left the theater disappointed and in a mood to forget that I'd ever seen this movie. There is a character in the last act who randomly drops dead just so the plot can work out, and I admit that is both funny and misanthropic, but not the kind I want to support with my ticket purchase. But up to, I'm gonna say, the 100 minute mark (the length of a normal, sensible movie), Heaven Can Wait is a great comedy.
- Captain Marvel (2019): Another month, another Marvel movie. I really liked seeing 90s LA—a little bit of home! And I know just enough about Marvel canon (from reading She-Hulk) to appreciate the little twist. Downsides: although this is a space opera Marvel movie it focuses entirely on the parts of that toolkit I don't care about: the galactic empires with their huge cities and clashing militaries. Are these the same people who dragged down Guardians of the Galaxy? (Answer after checking wiki: they are one such group of people. Geez.) Bring back garbage planet! (In fairness, there is a garbage planet here: the Earth.)
Near the end, when the villain... well, he's not 'the' villain, he's pretty minor, sort of an Assistant Undersecretary for Villainry, but real annoying. He's trying to taunt Carol into hand-to-hand combat, clearly setting up an Indiana Jones moment where she bypasses the fight scene by zapping him with her superpowers. The taunting goes on for a while, and before long I was pounding my fists on the theater armrests quietly chanting "Zap! Zap! Zap!" She does zap him eventually and it's cathartic. Anyway, I offer "Zap! Zap! Zap!" as an all-purpose attempt to fast-forward a narrative to its inevitable conclusion. Hasn't worked yet, though.
- Wings of Desire (1987): I was skeptical about this one, and saw it for two reasons: 1) Sumana wanted to see it, 2) Peter Falk. I'm glad I saw it. It's moving, humane, thought-provoking, beautifully shot, Peter Falk is a perfect choice. I don't have a lot to say because (as I feared) this film doesn't have a whole lot of plot. But I loved it anyhow; that's how good this is.
- Some Like It Hot (1959): This was my third viewing, the first on the big screen, and just to get it out of the way, this movie is funny as heck. Okay? That's a given. Top tier comedy. Big recommendation.
Now, I want to discuss two other facets of this movie: one good and one bad. The good is that this movie shows a character discovering their queerness and struggling to understand it, and the attitude of this 1959 Hollywood movie is total acceptance. I won't presume to try to fit Jack Lemmon's character's journey into modern categories, but it's clearly different from what Tony Curtis's character goes through, and Some Like It Hot is 100% sympathetic to it. The last time I saw this, I hadn't seen enough other old movies to realize how unusual this is.
The bad: the gangsters. Compared to the rest of the movie, the gangster plot is sloppy and lazy. The gangsters provide the thanatos that you want in a Wilder movie, but it's not well integrated. Just feels like a bunch of stereotypes and coincidences and references to other movies now forgotten. I'd like to see an edit that loses the gangsters after the speakeasy scene, but I don't know if you could do it without new footage.
- Us (2019): This had a ton of cool ideas, but I'm feeling some regression to the mean after the all-around fave Get Out. This was less science-fictional and more like a normal horror movie, with all the fridge logic that implies. I admit I don't watch a lot of normal horror movies so I don't know whether certain things are innovative here. Like, I have the feeling that a lot of horror movies take place over one night and end with the sunrise. Whereas in this movie, when the sun comes up it's just an act break and a change to a different horror subgenre. There's also some Edgar Wright type stuff where horror is filmed as though it were comedy; that's probably pretty common? Overall this was decent, but my "seeing it live in a theater" experience was nowhere near what I got out of Get Out.
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