Wed Jan 01 2020 11:13 December Film Roundup:
A pretty highbrow month with some well-done films but not a lot of joy. Thank goodness for the Muppets, that's all I can say.
- Knives Out (2019): The highlight of the month, right off! A really fun film that pulls off the delicate dance of not being a traditional murder mystery that we've all seen before, but also turning out to, yes, be a traditional mystery after all. I'm always there for an eccentric detective, and quite often there for the story of a wealthy family who lost everything.
- Ad Astra (2019): I did not enjoy this movie but it had one perfect science-fictional detail, it dramatized a real-life detail I'd never seen dramatized (astronauts being paranoid about their psych evaluations), and its final message was one I've never seen presented in filmed SF, so in some sense it was good? I appreciate it on an academic level but it didn't move me.
I kept thinking Natalie Portman was going to be in this, but that's a whole other 2019 space-madness movie, Lucy in the Sky, which has an oof IMDB rating of 4.5.
- The Stranger (1946): Not quite the "together at last" I was hoping for from an Orson Wells/Edward G. Robinson matchup, but definitely a watchable thriller. I enjoyed the small-town machinations—who will bring the ice cream to the tea social?—as well as Robinson playing a cultured character closer to his real-life persona more than the "thriller" bits, but it's all part of the puzzle.
- Muppet Treasure Island (1996): My nephew's introduction to the Muppets! He was enraptured! However, he was also enraptured by Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (2018) when we slapped that up on the TV to keep him busy, so it's tough to exclude the null hypothesis.
As for myself, it was great to see Tim "the human Muppet" Curry serve up the ham, and I loved the fresh Kermit/Sam relationship where Sam—whose defining characteristic is craven service of power—sees Kermit as "power" rather than a suspicious intruder to be reported on Nextdoor.
Overall, this adaptation made me want to read the book, whereas The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) makes me feel like I've gotten everything good that the book has to offer. That's an impossibly high bar to expect from a film adaptation, but Christmas Carol meets it.
- Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978): Seen at the museum with Rachel, Brett, and nephew. I could lose the ice-skating intro, but what's really nice here is Bert and Ernie's child-logic "Gift of the Magi", and what's really nice is the gentle way Big Bird's Santa obsession is handled. Unlike basically other Santa story I've ever seen, this is a dual-layered story that you can appreciate on its own terms whether or not you Know.
After seeing this we walked through the museum's Jim Henson exhibit, and nephew (again, no previous Muppet experience) instantly recognized and loved the Big Bird puppet. Although we didn't run the experiment, I don't think he would have reacted the same way to the mo-cap dataset used to map Benedict Cumberbatch onto a CGI Grinch.
- The Irishman (2019): Speaking of mo-cap datasets. Saw this on the big screen (at the museum, again) the way Martin Scorsese intended. It was very enjoyable, though the enjoyment was tempered by the interjections of a film-snobbish audience member during the intro. I came here for a movie; I don't need the live show!
Anyway, this was a really solid straight-down-the-middle gangster film, but overall I'd rather see a weirdo entry in the genre, like Comfort and Joy.
I knew going in that The Irishman had a scene that was filmed in a bank in my neighborhood. It's an antique bank building, and I was looking forward to it as a little easter egg. The whole time I expected the old-timey bank scene to show up in the 1960s timeframe, but that scene takes place around the year 2000. My own private plot twist!
- Uncut Gems (2019): The lights went down and the soundtrack let out a big Tangerine Dream BWAAAAAAAM and I thought "oh, shit, this is by the Good Time guys, isn't it?" Yes, it is. This was certainly more fun than Good Time. I expect for a certain type of moviegoer these films are an adrenaline rush like Gravity. For another type of moviegoer these films are way too stressful and you have to walk out. I guess I'm in the middle? I was along for the ride, but I'm probably not going to keep seeing these, assuming I start paying more attention to directors' names.
One cool thing about Uncut Gems is that it's set in 2012 because the plot hinges on real-world events from that year, but if you live in NYC it's pretty easy to see it was filmed recently. Scorsese would have spent millions digitally erasing the LinkNYC kiosks and changing the ads on taxis, but the Safdie brothers are more chill. It's not important to the film!
Fri Jan 10 2020 19:37 The Crummy.com Review Of Things 2019, Part One:
Here's our Christmas card photo. I impulsively volunteered to wear the Patience suit for an NYPL photo shoot that I don't think ended up being used for anything? I would not repeat this experience, but I'm glad I did it: I got a taste of what it's like to be the weirdo in Times Square everyone has decided to ignore. So let's start this Review of Things off right, with:
The Crummy.com Books of the Year are the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirsten. I can't say enough good about these books: how they're fantasy and science fiction at the same time; how tight the integration is between worldbuilding, character development, and plot; and how varied the pacing is. I'm so glad that the Internet has let the books come out of midlist purgatory, find their audience, and give Kirsten a way to finish the series.
Some other notable books I read in 2019:
- Lifelode by Jo Walton (Sumana's recommendation for a Steerswoman readalike)
- The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carre
- Minitel: Welcome to the Internet by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll
- Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson
- Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot by Vera Tobin (Of huge interest to writers but not, according to reactions when I talk about it, to anyone else)
I finished volume 3 of Mark Twain's autobiography, as promised. He's the Twainiest! Also, I recently learned about the incredibly sleazy tactic UC Berkeley used to keep copyright on this book until 2047, when it would have otherwise expired in 2003. The best I can say is that, judging from the contents of the autobiography, Twain himself would have approved.
I've been reading Bleak House for most of the year; it's slow going! But not for the reason I expected: there's a whole other subplot in here that I don't find super engaging.
The Crummy.com Game of the Year is "Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead", an open world zombie survival game that's also run as a modern open-source project, with pull requests and code review. Not only is this great for keeping gameplay fresh in these kitchen-sink roguelikes where wealth of detail is really important, it's really good to see on its own. This could be the gaming gateway that gets The Kids interested in software development best practices!
Other fabulous 2019 games I played include "Baba Is You", "Untitled Goose Game", "Dicey Dungeons", and "Super Mario Maker 2".
I wrote four short stories in 2019: "Meat", "Mandatory Arbitration", "User Error", and "The Scene of the Crime". Three of those stories feature a character who in one of my luckier future timelines becomes my Sherlock Holmes, a character who is remembered long after I and all of my other work have been forgotten. Very positive about this character, is what I'm saying. Really fun to write.
I assembled a NaNoGenMo novel: Linked by Love.
I'm getting much more aggressive this year about placing my fiction, so hopefully we'll see some sales. In terms of novels, there's good news and bad news and for now I'm gonna have to go with a big NO COMMENT.
I created only one bot this year, Secretly Public Domain, and I made it for a specific activist purpose which is more or less seeing results. As per NYCB passim I had some additional bot ideas, did the fun part of the work, and let the code sit in the
programming/2019 folder of my archive.
I decided not to keep Almanac for New Yorkers going in 2020. There's one more year of life in the project, thanks to 1939, and the 1938 almanac for San Francisco, but the project wasn't super popular and 2020 isn't the year. Maybe later.
I do have two "just for fun" bot ideas that I'm gradually seeing through to completion. One of them is going to have to wait until I'm sick or otherwise mentally impaired and have nothing better to do than go through a huge amount of text, but you're gonna love it. And by "you" I mean "Allison".
Sat Jan 11 2020 09:53 The Crummy.com Review Of Things 2019, Part Two: Film:
Well-covered throughout the year as always; what you're here for (assuming you're here at all) is the top ten!
Most of the movies in this year's top ten come from the 1980s, due in large part to Bill Forsyth's dominance of the scoreboard. Sorry to be the person in the Youtube comments on a rock video saying "Wish I had a time machine! I'd go back to the 80s and relive the same ten-year span over and over until I died! Who's with me? haha!"
- Wings of Desire (1987)
- Knives Out (2019)
- Breaking In (1989)
- Comfort and Joy (1984)
- Face/Off (1997)
- Gregory’s Girl (1980)
- Working Girl (1988)
- Puppy Love (1985)
- Booksmart (2019)
- Sweet Charity (1969)
On a meta level, I love how almost every year my top film of the year has been one I went into without any particular expectations. Keep the surprises coming, I say.
If you only care about recent movies, here's my top list from 2019:
- Knives Out (2019)
- Apollo 11 (2019)
- Booksmart (2019)
- Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)
- Born Bone Born (2018)
I snuck Apollo 11 in there even though I saw it on January 5th, because it's just that good. As always, I've updated Film Roundup Roundup to include about thirty recommended films that in I either first saw or first reviewed in 2019.
Sat Jan 11 2020 13:41 Leonard's Excursions 2019:
Just a memorandum of some of the unusual travel and fun things I did in 2019.
Early in the year I took my first trip to Chicago, for DPLAFest. I stayed with Beth and we did some fun tourist things, like the Chicago Architecture Center boat tour! Accept no substitutes! Or do, it's probably okay. But the CAC tour was great.
We also hit the Chicago Art Institute, which was a real highlight, since Beth is a fine artist who went there all the time as a kid and talked about her favorite pieces. A few of my favorites which I'll share with you, via the medium of website links rather than my own awkward photos.
- The Artist Looks at Nature by Charles Sheeler. This is the piece hung directly to the right of American Gothic. Beat the lines!
- Cow Relieving Itself by Nicolaes Berchem the Elder. Nuff said.
- Robot by Alexandra Exter. Absolutely incredible, especially considering it's from 1926!
- i\Ω.. by Jacqueline Humphries. The Smooth Unicode of fine art!
- Eviscerated Corpse by Mike Kelley, the work that
made my 14-year-old mind stop in its tracks at LACMA and understand contemporary art.
They've also got the old floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange off in a corner! A corner I guess they use for events, since I don't think the Chicago Stock Exchange originally had a grand piano on the floor. Some live music would have really classed up the joint, though, I tell you what.
In May, my sisters came to New York and surprised me with a weekend of tourist activities and a fancy dinner!
For my birthday we planned a getaway in upstate New York at a rented house with a few friends. Allison and I did some stargazing and saw a little bit of a meteor shower. Shout out to Rodgers Book Barn, the perfect mix of "peaceful rural atmosphere" and "huge used bookstore". Thanks to Zack and Pam for driving.
Allison and I went to a Manfred Mohr retrospective at a gallery. Never heard of him before but it was definitely art the two of us can agree on. I really liked his plotter-esque pictures from the 70s and 80s, such as P2400-297d_5225__black. The names of the artworks feel like program filenames; I was expecting a bunch of
PS: in June, Sumana and I randomly ate dinner at Copinette, a French restaurant on the former site of Copain, the much fancier French restaurant that Gene Hackman stakes out in The French Connection. You live in New York for a while and these odd coincidences become smaller and less common, but they still happen!
Sat Feb 01 2020 22:11 January Film Roundup:
Welcome to Space January! Thanks to the museum's new 2001 exhibit and its filmic tie-ins, I got to see lots of space flicks in January. Next up: Space February!
- Apollo 11 (2019): I was blown away by this film, made almost entirely from unused contemporary footage synced with mission audio. There's a little illustrative CGI and on-screen graphics, but it's mostly just amazing shots of people and equipment. Two bits stick in my mind in particular. First, a long, long pan through rows of computers and rows of desks that ends up in what you see in other movies as Launch Control. It was like seeing the whole iceberg. Second, this movie dramatizes the 1202 incident, creating a near-Uncut Gems level of tension, without having to stop and explain what was going on. You just hear the real-life participants dealing with the problem and you get the gist. I may be watching this again at the museum soon; that's how good it is.
- High Life (2018): I was 100% engaged in this Silent Running style story with this guy and his daughter, and then that story turned out to just be a framing device for a J. G. Ballard type of thing in flashback. Claire Denis told the story she wanted to tell, but I was not into it until the flashback ended, at which point my interest abruptly resumed. So not a recommendation overall.
Caution to doesthedogdie.com fans: I don't think I've ever seen this many dead dogs in a movie.
- We saw a bunch of more or less spacy 2001-inspiring shorts. Some of this called back to 2013's computer film festival with droning and strobe lights, but a couple stood out: John Whitney's Catalog, which true to its name felt like a sizzle reel; and Colin Low's special-effects extravaganza Universe, narrated by Douglas Rain and starring a daredevil astronomer. Watch 'em online!
- The Earrings of Madame De... (1953): This is... a film noir. I see why it's not marketed as such: it's super femme and it takes place in the 19th century. But it's the story of someone who makes one bad decision and has to keep hustling and doubling down and improvising until the aftermath ruins her life. Just awesome. Would love to see more stuff like this.
- Dolemite is my Name (2019): Doing a biopic as a comedy is a great idea; there should be more. Pure moviemaking fun. Loved the cameos. One obvious comparison is Ed Wood, but this movie seems to care a lot more about accuracy. The main liberty I found in IMDB trivia was dramatizing the filming of some scenes from the Dolemite sequel as though they were from Dolemite. Presumably just for fun.
- Ikarie XB-1 (1963): For the 1960s this is some impressive psychological sci-fi. Like watching two really good TOS episodes back-to-back. A little heavy-handed, but I repeat myself. I went looking for director/screenwriter Jindrich Polák's other stuff and randomly found a time-travel thriller comedy (Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (1977)) and an ET-like family movie (The Octopuses from the Second Floor (1987)). A solid body of work!
But here's the secret to Ikari XB-1's success: it was based on a Lem novel! One of the early ones, the ones that never got translated into English but provided seemlingly endless grist for Eastern Bloc filmmakers (see First Spaceship on Venus, which is basically a bad version of this movie but it's easier to tell the characters apart). It's a little moviegoing treat, like finding a Billy Wilder writing credit.
And the surprises keep coming: when researching this I learned that MIT Press is reissuing six of Lem's books later this month! Including a new translation of The Invincible, which I've never read. Very exciting. Don't sleep on Memoirs of a Space Traveler and His Master's Voice!
Got a hot Television Spotlight tip for ya today: "The Repair Shop", a wholesome BBC reality show where conservationists who normally (I'm assuming) make top £££ restoring Rembrandts and Louis XIV cabinets, turn their skills to family heirlooms brought in by random people. You may have noticed that I only like reality shows where people are nice to each other, and this one's 100% collaborative, very relaxing to watch.
Wed Mar 04 2020 17:01 February Film Roundup:
I wasn't kidding about Space February:
- Remember the Night (1940): Really nice rom-com with heart and a satisfying bittersweet ending. Brought down a bit by the stereotypically racist "comic relief valet" role given to Fred Toones at the opening. I dunno, you make this nuanced, funny piece that carries powerful emotions across eighty years and I gotta put a big asterisk on it because of cringey racism. Not to single out this movie in particular; Fred Toones has 223 roles listed on IMDB, thirty-five of which are "Porter (uncredited)". He played "Porter (uncredited)" in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington!
Filmmakers take note: Remember the Night is effectively an edgy Hallmark Channel Christmas movie and could be remade as such.
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): My first time seeing this on the big screen, and it was preceded by a talk from Film Roundup fave Douglas Trumbull! Some cool photos and juicy special-effects gossip. Then, the movie! It's not great. Reading between the lines of Trumbull's talk I feel like I got an understanding for what went wrong. But I've been reading The Best of Trek, an old series of books assembled from fanzine articles, and fans in that era were pretty hungry. Easy to turn up our noses today, when there's an entire streaming service being kept alive by original Trek programming.
As with Star Trek V, I'm gonna stand up for this "bad" movie as having a heart of pure Star Trek. First, nothing else has the scale of the V'ger flythrough. The Dyson sphere in "Relics" is bigger, but 1) it's just a sphere, 2) the Enterprise barely goes inside. This is klicks and klicks of varied, mysterious organomechanical sensawunda. Great stuff.
Second, it's common knowledge that ST:TMP is a rehash of a TOS episode. But is that so bad? Why not take a classic episode, crank up the humanism, and give it a lavish big-screen makeover? Isn't that better than where we are now: redoing the first "good" Trek movie over and over?
Bonus from discussion: Trumbull is working on a cinematography technique involving filming at very high framerates. He's been working on this for a long time—Brainstorm (1983) was supposed to be a showcase—but the return of 3D movies, which are filmed at high framerates, means movie theaters now have projectors that can show these films.
Trumbull made bold claims about the immersive qualities of films made using this technique, claims I think could be tested relatively easily by reformatting the 2016 Ang Lee movie Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. I haven't seen that film, but it was shot at a high framerate and was panned for problems Trumbull says he has solved. That contemporaneous Slate article paraphrases him as saying that eliminating flicker creates a better film experience—the opposite of what I heard him say in person—so presumably he's learned something from Billy Lynn. Just noticing things from outside the industry here.
- Space is the Place (1974): I was really into the first scene, which takes place on a TOS-like alien planet with weird flora, but they must have used the whole budget on that scene because the rest takes place in hospitals and warehouses and is mostly dull. Big credit for early Afrofuturism, and the nonchalance with which all characters accept the science fictional premise. Sun Ra goes to the youth center to rap with the kids and a lot of them are like "who's this old fogey?" but there's no "I'm skeptical that you just spent several years in space."
If you're a fan of Sun Ra's music then I'm sure the music redeems it, but I'm not (sorry, Jake). In fact, this film made me realize I'm not really into Frank Zappa anymore. When I was in college those long guitar solos seemed like the sort of thing I should like, and would grow into as I matured, but during this movie I kept thinking "I know their styles are polar opposites, but this is boring me in exactly the same way as a thirteen-minute Frank Zappa song." So, it's good that this film got me to examine my preconceptions.
- Alien (1979): Rewatch with Sumana. It's still great! Before showtime I asked Sumana some diagnostic questions to see what she knew about this movie from cultural osmosis. "There's a famous scene in this movie. Do you know what I'm referring to?" She didn't at the time, but during The Scene she gave me a significant elbow nudge.
- Dark Star (1974): Also a rewatch with Sumana, but I originally watched Dark Star in the pre-Film Roundup era, so I'll go into a bit more detail. Like Space is the Place, this has some great scenes, but at feature length it's a slow ride. I was thinking "man, that ending seems really familiar" and chalked it up to having seen the movie before, until Sumana also mentioned finding it familiar. Turns out it's a ripoff of "Kaleidoscope", a really good Ray Bradbury story we'd both read. You thought Stephen King's student-film "Dollar Babies" were a bargain, but plagiarism is even cheaper.
Sumana found the dude-heaviness of Dark Star a bit tiresome after the greater diversity of Alien, which is reasonable, but I think Dark Star gains power if you see it as a movie made by a buncha guys who are worried about being drafted.
Mon Mar 09 2020 19:24 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog, September 1980:
The big highlight here is Steven Gould's very un-Analog "The Touch of Their Eyes". Good writing, cool 'superpower'.
A couple other bits worth mentioning:
In an inversion of the usual, Mack Reynolds's "What the Vintners Buy" is an era-typical sexist romp right up to the end where there's an incredible plot twist that should have been revealed at the beginning of a much different story. For the record, the twist is that the entire interstellar economy is a scam, with every planet spending all its money on a genetically tailored drug produced by some other planet. Too clever to leave unexplained, too specific to rip off.
And in a "no longer satire" moment, Susan M. Schwartz's "The Struldbrugg Solution" mentions a college class called "Myth in the Classic Stan Lee Comic".
Back cover ad pushes The Number of the Beast with the blurb "Look Where Heinlein's Been for the Last 7 Years". I admit I haven't exactly been cranking out the novels, so I probably shouldn't snark. In fact, maybe this ad points the way to what my work has been missing: "sensual scientists."
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