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.
Fri Feb 19 2016 13:33 The Ephemeral Software Collection:
A lot of stuff has been happening around the Minecraft Archive Project, and NYCB is no longer the best place to put all this information, so I've created a separate website for it: The Minecraft Archive Project. It incorporates most of the stuff I've told you over the past year-and-a-half, about why I'm doing this, what's in the captures and who has copies of the data, but there's also plenty of new stuff, which I'll summarize.
The big thing is that I've started a whole other collection, the Ephemeral Software Collection, which is now bigger than the MAP. My goal with the ESC is to archive software that's likely to be overlooked, forgotten, or destroyed by a takedown notice. Also stuff that I just think would be interesting to have around. The ESC contains the non-Minecraft stuff I got from CurseForge in the December capture, but it also contains a ton of Git repos that I cloned from GitHub.
I asked around about games that had active level creation/modding communities, searched the GitHub API for the names of those games, and cloned all the repos that showed up in the search results. Then I started branching out, running searches for classic games like checkers and Snake, as well as more general terms like 'surreal' and 'gender' and 'senior project'. This is how I got the data for That's Life!. IMO the most significant part of the ESC capture is 750 gigabytes of games created for game jams.
I stopped when I ran out of old hard drives to fill up. You can see the full list of ESC collections; there are about 100 of them.
Before creating this web page, when I heard about another source of Minecraft maps or other ephemeral software, I had two choices: 1) do a lot of work to incorporate it into the MAP, 2) do nothing, feel guilty, eventually forget about it, and suffer a nagging feeling that I'd forgotten something important. Now when I find out this sort of thing, I stick it in the "What I Didn't Capture" section and then forget about it guilt-free. It's a nice system.
I guess the only other piece of news is, I did another MAP capture in early February to see if it was too much hassle to do a capture every month. Total haul: about 75 GB of images and binaries. It was a pretty big hassle, but that number implies that I save about twice as much stuff if I act within one month than if I wait a year, so I'm torn.
Tue Feb 16 2016 09:29 #botUPDATE:
Last week I fell ill and my cognitive capacity was limited to simple bot work. I created That's Life!, a bot which posts distinctive lines of code from Conway's Life implementations.
For reasons that will shortly become clear, I have cloned about 4000 Git repos that contain implementations of Conway's Life. (Well, I trust my reasons are already clear, but my overall strategy will shortly become clear.) That's a lot of code, but how to pick out the Life-specific code from generic loop processing, framework setup, etc?
Well, I have also cloned about 14,000 Git repos that contain Tic-Tac-Toe implementations. I used Pygments to tokenize all the code in both corpora. Any line of a Conway's Life implementation that contains a token not found in the Tic-Tac-Toe corpus is considered distinctive enough to go in the bot.
Alas, my condition deteriorated, until I was no longer able to write code at all. So I turned towards fulfilling my final vision for The Lonely Dungeon: augmenting the text clips with spot art. This meant a lot of miserable grunt work: scrolling through about 30,000 candidate images, marking the ones that looked cool or weird. But I was already miserable, so I was able to get it all done.
The Lonely Dungeon is now complete! We've got line drawings executed with varying levels of skill, glorious oil paintings, tons of maps with mysterious labels, and old RPG advertisements from magazines. And now I feel better and I can go back to work. Great timing!
Mon Feb 08 2016 09:04 The Lonely Dungeon:
Dear diary, once again I have created the greatest bot ever. It's The Lonely Dungeon (Tumblr, Twitter), another in my tradition of "out-of-context selections from a very large corpus". In this case the corpus is all those RPG sourcebooks that came out in the late 20th century.
I found these books fascinating when I was a kid. They were full of secret information, obscure contigencies, bit characters with weird motivations, worldbuilding for made-up societies. Each paragraph was a little story about why this part of the game couldn't be handled by the normal rules.
Now the books have been replaced by newer editions, or just forgotten since nobody plays the games anymore. As forbidding as they seemed, all those crypts and forests and space stations were incomplete unless someone was going through them and uncovering their secrets.
One of my current interests is worlds that end not through some calamity, but because the inhabitants get bored and move out. Like Minecraft Signs, The Lonely Dungeon is a spotlight picking out features of abandoned worlds.
I've been working on this bot for over a year in spare moments. For the first time in Leonard bot history, The Lonely Dungeon's primary medium is Tumblr, so that I can give you the full OCRed text of the text box. It's better for accessibility, especially as those scans can be difficult to read. I had to learn a lot about PDFs and image processing, and I've scaled back this bot from my original plans, but those plans are still on the table in some form. More on this when it happens! In the meantime... keep adventuring.
Sun Feb 07 2016 16:38 January Film Roundup:
How you doin'? I'm bringing the beginning of February into this post just so there's more than two things in this list. I was pretty busy all month and we spent a lot of evenings watching this month's Television Spotlight. Missed the whole Coen brothers retrospective at Film Forum, oh well.
- Office (2015): a.k.a. "Hua li shang ban zu". A gorgeous musical with a lot of great songs and a really dull, standard issue plot. So, effectively an American musical from the 1950s. I was hoping it would turn into the Chinese version of The Apartment, but it didn't get much past The Pajama Game. However, unlike other movies with dull plots, this movie is always fun to look at, and most of the songs are really fun. So, semi-recommended.
- McFarland, USA (2015): You know my feelings about sports movies, and this was sports movie all the way, but I was really interested in this one. I'd been wanting to watch it for a while, and finally saw it with my sister Rachel when she was in town. Why? Because this movie actually happened to us.
In 1989, our dad abruptly moved us to the San Joaquin Valley where he became a cross-country coach at the local high school. (For all I know he got the idea watching the 1988 Griffith Park race that's recreated at the climax of McFarland USA.) Dad saw talent in kids that didn't have a lot of options, and helped them develop that talent. I remember him talking about the McFarland team and I probably got dragged to McFarland for meets. So this wasn't just a movie for us. As soon as the immortal line "We can't afford to live in Bakersfield!" dropped, Rachel and I knew that what we were seeing was raw and real.
How can a by-the-numbers sports movie also be raw and real? It's simple: selection bias. My dad's story was very similar to Jim White's, but there's no movie about Dad, because his abrupt move to Arvin wasn't an exile in which he would forge a sporting dynasty. It was the rash decision of a dying man. For me, hanging over every scene of McFarland USA is the awareness that a feel-good sports movie can abruptly turn into a depressing indie film about a shattered family.
Some nitpicks: In the early meets, the McFarland team is running against schools like Palo Alto (240 miles away from McFarland), not schools like Wasco (12 miles away). I guess kids from Bakersfield and Fresno don't make good sports-movie snobs. We were also certain there would be a plot point about running in tennis shoes without breaking them in, and got kind of annoyed when it didn't happen.
- Sabrina (1954): Billy Wilder is nearly able to make a romance between 55-year-old Humphrey Bogart and 25-year-old Audrey Hepburn not seem creepy. It's a really fun movie, with great performances, assured female sexuality, Wilder's trademark respect for office work, and humor that ranges from sophisticated observation to jokes about butts. Good stuff.
And now, the Television Spotlight, focusing on a show that we started in January and finished in February:
- Twin Peaks (1990-1991): Seen many years after Beth gave us the Season 1 DVDs, but not quite late enough that we can immediately switch over to the new season premièring in 2017. This was really solid, really fresh compared to other shows of the time. Over the years I'd picked up the impression that the characters in Twin Peaks were completely illegible, like aliens, and I wanted to see how they pulled that off, but the truth is they didn't try. The inhabitants of Twin Peaks are... quirky. Slightly weirder than most sitcom characters. Disappointing in theory, but I didn't mind because for the most part the characters are very well-realized and likeable. And there are a couple characters who are more on the "alien" side, though I don't think it advances past the level of a Star Trek episode.
The second season was still fun but not as strong. I got the sense that the showrunners were winging it and maybe fighting a bit. Characters came close to explicitly saying "Terrible David Lynch things keep happening to me, so I'm going to go find another TV show to be in." or "Remember me? I'm the interesting villain! This other villain is a dime-store piker compared to me!"
We also rewatched the Psych parody/homage episode "Dual Spires", which was baffling when we first watched it in 2010 but is now revealed as a solid mass of references. Well, I guess that was pretty clear the first time we watched it, but now we get all the references. Not a great Psych episode, but worth it just as a game of "spot the in-jokes".
(2) Fri Jan 22 2016 23:07 The Minecraft (And Other Games) Archive Project:
As suggested in the previous Minecraft Archive Project post, I have now completed a capture of the CurseForge family of sites. They host a lot of Minecraft stuff I hadn't downloaded before, including the popular Feed the Beast series of modpacks, lots of other modpacks, mods, and a ton of Bukkit plugins (not really sure what those are or how they differ from mods TBH).
CurseForge also has sites for Terraria and Kerbal Space Program, as well as many other games I haven't heard of or don't care about. I paid $30 for a premium membership and grabbed it all, downloading about 500 gigabytes of images and binaries. This doubles the size of the 201512 capture (though it probably introduces a lot of duplicates).
Here are the spoils, ordered by game:
|Game ||What ||Capture Size (GB)|
|Firefall ||Add-ons ||<1 |
|Kerbal Space Program ||Mods ||23 |
|Kerbal Space Program ||Shareables ||1.8 |
|Minecraft ||Bukkit plugins ||19 |
|Minecraft ||Customization ||<1 |
|Minecraft ||Modpacks (Feed the Beast) || 15 |
|Minecraft ||Modpacks (Other) ||87 |
|Minecraft ||Mods ||33 |
|Minecraft ||Resource Packs ||80 |
|Minecraft ||Worlds ||45 |
|Rift ||Add-ons ||7.5 |
|Runes of Magic ||Add-ons ||1.8|
|Skyrim ||Mods ||6.4 |
|Starcraft 2 ||Assets ||4.7 |
|Starcraft 2 ||Maps ||46 |
|Terraria ||Maps ||4.8 |
|The Elder Scrolls Online ||Add-ons ||<1|
|The Secret World ||Mods ||<1 |
|Wildstar ||Add-ons ||1.7|
|World of Tanks ||Mods ||40 |
|World of Tanks ||Skins ||12 |
|World of Warcraft ||Addons ||48 |
Here's the really cool part: CurseForge projects frequently link to Git repositories. I cloned every one I could find. I ended up with 5000 Minecraft/Bukkit repositories totalling 47 gigs, 103 Kerbal Space Program repositories totalling 6 gigs, and a couple hundred megabytes here and there for the other games. That's over 50 gigs of game-mod source code, which I predict will be a lot more useful to the future than a bunch of JAR files.
These numbers are gloriously huge and there are two reasons. 1. this is the first capture I've done of CurseForge, and possibly the only full capture I will ever do. So I got stuff dating back several years. 2. CurseForge keeps a full history of your uploaded files, not just the most recent version (which is typically what you'd find on Planet Minecraft or the Minecraft forum). Some of the World of Warcraft add-ons have hundreds of releases! I guess because they have to be re-released for every client update. And it doesn't take many releases for a 100MB Minecraft mod pack to start becoming huge.
Anyway, as always it's good to be done with a project like this, so I can work on other stuff, like all the short stories I owe people.
Sun Jan 10 2016 08:36 Minecraft Archive Project: The 201512 Capture:
On December 27th I started the third capture for the Minecraft Archive Project. Previous captures ran in February 2015 and March 2014. This time I collected about 420 gigabytes of material.
Here's the breakdown by what I believe the new files to be:
|Type||Number of files||Collective size|
|Maps (MCPE)||1552||2 GB|
|Resource packs||2137||30 GB|
|Resource packs (MCPE) ||176||172 MB|
|Mods||6082 ||10 GB|
|Mods (MCPE)||1839||1 GB|
|Server records||25923||361 MB|
|Blog posts||6562||129 MB|
This time I think I was able to archive about 60-65% of the maps I saw, compared to 73% in the last capture. Even so, we ended up with 33k new maps in this capture versus 22k in the last one--and I didn't even get the adf.ly maps this time! (Nor will I--it's a huge pain and I'm sick of it.) 2012 was the single biggest year for custom Minecraft maps, and there was a downward trend visible in 2013 and 2014, but it looks like 2015 was really huge.
Couple new features in this capture: I started keeping track of blog posts and server records from Planet Minecraft. Server records are especially important because they usually feature screenshots, and in twenty years those screenshots will be the only record of what those servers looked like.
I've completely given up on the idea of archiving public servers--it's still theoretically possible but it's a full-time job for two developers, so I'd need to get a grant or some volunteer interest from the modding comunity. In fact, a few months ago the multiuser server I played Minecraft on went down, and I don't know whether my stuff is still around. That's life! Gonna archive the screenshots.
The full dataset is now about 2.4 terabytes. I bought a new drive to store the archive and set it up with XFS, and it does seem to improve the performance when iterating over the file set.
As always I'm putting a copy of the data on a server at NYPL Labs, and I recently gave Jason Scott a drive that contained the first two captures, so he can do whatever Jason thing he wants with the data. I don't have any plans to make this archive public, or even to re-run the Minecraft Geologic Survey on the new data. My maximum supportable commitment is spending some time once a year to shepherd these scripts through saving a representative sample of this artform.
I'm going to leave everything else to the future when the archive becomes valuable to other people. I am doing exploratory work for adding a third site to the archive, but that's all I'll say about that for now.
Thu Jan 07 2016 08:07 The Crummy.com Review of Things 2015:
Another year has gone, but what's the big deal? Let's remember the magical moments, like 12:12:12 on 12/12, or June 30th's leap second. Good timestamps, good timestamps. Here are the most worthwhile investments of my hard-earned 2015:
I've been giving books short shrift by only mentioning a single Crummy.com Book of the Year, and in 2015 I started reading books on my commute (partly because I'm developing a tool that helps people read books on their commute), so I can afford to mention more than one. I have records of reading 25 books this year, and probably a couple more slipped through the cracks, but I've got a solid best-of slate.
The 2015 Crummy.com Book of the Year is Dragonfly: NASA And The Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough. So much good stuff in that book. If you want to write fictional dingy spacecraft, you can't do better than looking at the dingy spacecraft we've actually built.
- Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (who needs her own NYCB post)
- Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
- You Can't Win by Jack Black (not that Jack Black)
- The Space Opera Renaissance, ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (book needs its own NYCB post)
- Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers
Honorable mention to Mallworld by Somtow Sucharitkul, a book that I didn't love, but I was blown away by its inventiveness. In 1982, Sucharitkul crammed Mallworld with all the jokes that would later be used in Futurama.
Saw ninety-one features this year. As always, only films I saw for the first time are eligible for consideration, though that only eliminates three. Here are my must-see movies:
- The Americanization Of Emily (1964)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- The Brink's Job (1978)
- Inside Out (2015)
- Sullivan's Travels (1941)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- The Breaking Point (1950)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
- The Parallax View (1974)
- Nightmare Alley (1947)
And this year's bumper crop of "recommended" films:
- The Best of Everything (1959)
- Clueless (1995)
- Wagon Master (1950)
- The Crimson Kimono (1959)
- The Godfather, Part II (1974)
- Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
- Inside Man (2006)
- The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
- Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014)
- Ed Wood (1994)
- How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)
- Brainstorm (1983)
- Invention For Destruction (1958)
Honorable mentions to the burglary in Rififi (1955) and the hotel tour in The Shining (1980). I don't want to sit through the whole movie again but those scenes were awesome.
Looking at the list of my follows I feel like I need to broaden my bot horizons because I love all of Allison's bots (except that damn Unicode Ebooks, which still has three more followers than Smooth Unicode) and I love bots that post images from image collections, and that doesn't seem like a very diverse set. Anyway, here are my faves of 2015:
Didn't play a lot of new video games this year because of the persistent problem with my computer shutting off if I dare to start up a game. I did replace the computer near the end of the year, so there will probably be more games in 2016. In the meantime, the Crummy.com Game of the Year is the super-atmospheric This War of Mine; its only flaw, which it shares with nearly all games, is that it's not roguelike enough.
A couple runners-up and honorable mentions:
- 80 Days
- Mini Metro
I played board games pretty regularly but the only new game I remember is the much-loved "Code Names", which I also think is great.
I'd wanted to do an escape room this year, but put the idea on hold when Sumana wasn't interested. Near the end of the year, though, Pat Rafferty (who now works at an escape room in Portland) invited me to join his room-escaping team, and I
leapt stood up at the opportunity. As part of a crew of six, I helped to repair a drifting spacecraft. It was really immersive, finally allowing me to live the experience of crawling through a Jeffries tube.
My only complaint is the puzzles were free-to-play iOS game-level stuff. I understand why you have to do it that way, since none of us would be able to repair a spacecraft in real life, but it meant that a very immersive exploration experience was constantly interrupted by having to decode some Morse Code or solve cheesy riddles. Same reason I didn't like Myst. I did like the puzzles that made you combine objects.
Stereotypically this section would be called "Going Outside", but all the things I want to talk about happened indoors. In fact, two of them happened in the same building: the Town Hall Theater near Times Square. In fact, all of them, since I moved the escape room to the previous section,
Sumana and I both grew up listening to NPR, and we're both fans of the schticky comedy and down-home existentialism of A Prairie Home Companion (though less ardent fans than we were as teenagers). 2015 was the year I told Sumana (paraphrase) "You know, PHC does shows in New York, and as a project focused around a single individual who has been doing it since before we were born, it might not be around for much longer. We should see it live while we have the opportunity." Sumana was convinced by my airtight logic, and we caught the April 25th show. We had lousy seats but it was fun!
Then, near the end of the year, the PDQ Bach Golden Anniversary Concert Kickstarter was announced. As per previous paragraph, Sumana and I are also fans of Peter Schickele's ur-podcast Schickele Mix, so we went through a similar process, although I ended up going to the concert alone. This time I had a great seat! Beautiful music, lots of laughs, I'm really glad I went.
As you can see from the associated pictures, I lost a lot of weight in 2015. I still have a little more planned, but I'm very close to the impossible-seeming target weight I set in July. I found the Atkins diet to be very effective. I don't think I have a lot of self-control, but I am very, very stubborn, and Atkins lets you substitute stubbornness for self-control.
Because of this I didn't exactly spend a lot of time in 2015 exploring New York's burgeoned restaurant scene, and the Food section will be correspondingly short. However, I want to give a special shout-out to the King of Falafel halal food truck in Astoria. See, most places, if you order a meal without the carby thing, they'll simply omit the carby thing, yielding about 60% of a meal. However, if you order a plate at King of Falafel and ask for no rice, they will fill up the empty space with more meat and salad, and you still get a full meal. Thanks, King of Falafel. Saved my sanity.
Also this sugar-free flourless chocolate cake recipe is good for managing your chocolate cravings. Honorable mention: xylitol.
People say that being on Atkins normalizes your energy level, getting rid of the highs and crashes, and I've found this to be true but very inconvenient, since the highs are where I do all my creative work, and the crashes happen at night, a.k.a. "getting sleepy", or they happen at 2 PM, when I drink some tea, problem solved. Right now I feel like it's 1:30 PM all day. Anyway, if you don't count the amazing work I did going from Before to After, 2015 wasn't my most productive year, since I spent half the year in power-saving mode.
But I did finish Situation Normal, and handed it off to an agent, so the book is officially Not My Problem. I've started work on a new novel, Mine, my take on the classic Big Dumb Object In Space story.
I wrote four short stories: "We, the Unwilling" (a bonus story for Situation Normal); "The Katie Event" (the third in the Awesome Dinosaurs trilogy, which you haven't seen because the second in the trilogy needs a revision); "Worm Hunt" (exploratory work for a novel I probably won't write); and "Only G51 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments", which I think I can sell if I ever get around to sending it out.
I gave three talks of note:
I crafted a fabulous NaNoGenMo entry with a one-line shell script: Alphabetical Order.
Four bots came from my fingers in 2015:
I also breathed new life into Smooth Unicode by implementing beautiful emoji mosaics.
Finally I want to wish all of you readers the best in 2016, and to ask you to tell me what you liked in 2015. or what you're proud of accomplishing. I like other peoples' posts like this (Here's Allison's, here's Darius's), and I think taking a moment at the beginning of the new year to look back is satisfying in a way that can't be matched by the corporate "best of the year" lists that dominate the end of the old year.
(1) Tue Dec 29 2015 17:13 December Film Roundup:
The final Film Roundup of the year! Step onto the red carpet, and... no, wipe your feet first! Geez.
- The Last Blitzkrieg (1959): A weird little war movie that I watched for only one reason: it's the only movie I've ever heard of that features a character named Leonard Richardson. Except that's not really his name! "Leonard Richardson" is an alias the main character steals from a red-blooded American POW to carry out a nefarious scheme.
This movie was nearly interesting--there were some moments when it could have taken a really cool turn, got some dramatic irony or moral ambiguity going, a la The Americanization of Emily. But nope! It's a normal WWII movie that was made fourteen years after the war ended. Bizarre.
- Sunset Boulevard (1950): This is a great movie. Exactly as you'd expect me to say. Classic dark-roast Wilder. 'Nuff said.
- The Breaking Point (1950): The sort of surprise that keeps me coming back to the museum. Sometimes I know a film will be great ahead of time, sometimes for educational purposes I watch a "classic" I don't think I'll like, and once in a while I'm blown away by a film I had no particular expectations for. Such was The Breaking Point. This film rises above popcorn noir by focusing not on the gritty glamor of the underworld but on the corruption of a decent family man. Great, great stuff.
- Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (2015): Guy Maddin somehow gets a job doing the behind-the-scenes documentary on a Canadian war movie. He does his best to bite the hand that feeds. Some good lines ("A war movie is a funeral with no body.") and great gags. The weird video effects are inspired by 80s VHS movies and video games, and thus I find them less annoying than the usual silent-movie schtick. I think Maddin should stick this film on Vimeo.
- Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015): Pretty educational. It was fun to hear Truffaut be a huge fanboy. If I'd known about the book this film is about, my "French New Wave films are secretly genre films" theory would have gotten off the ground a lot sooner. The things you miss out on by not going to film school.
- The Golden Cane Warrior (2014): Starts out really cool, but the best character (the martial-arts mom) dies in the first act, her kids take over, and the middle of the film is kind of a slog. It comes back together for the big fight at the end. Sumana liked it more than I did.
A character in this movie does the most heroic thing you can do in this sort of movie: she stops a village from being burned down, preventing the traditional "burnt village" scene. The villagers get slaughtered anyway, but a valiant effort.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): This was going to be my Christmas movie to see with Susanna, but she had to take care of her new baby, so I saw it with John and the niblings who were old enough for it. This movie provides a good illustration of the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars: J. J. Abrams ruined Star Trek, but he did an excellent job with Star Wars.
It's totally Abrams-friendly! Star Wars is based on action set-pieces and eyeball kicks, not thought experiments. The Star Trek characters are all military officers who serve together, but the Star Wars characters are distinctive archetypes, so it doesn't bog the film down to give everyone their scene. We expect a Star Wars movie to have a megalomanical villain, so it's not a disappointment when it happens every single time. The morality is cut and dried: light side, dark side. You can make the hero fight a giant spider in the second act and it makes perfect sense.
I think Star Trek is an important contribution to human culture, whereas I think Star Wars is a fun couple of movies that got out of hand, but I gotta face facts: the Star Wars movies that actually get made are now better than the Star Trek movies that actually get made. I don't like it, but that's what how Hollywood works.
Anyway, a really fun movie. I'm especially tickled that they made the hypothetical "plumbing contractor who works on the Death Star" from Clerks into a compelling, canonical Star Wars character.
- The Last Picture Show (1971): I guess this is the month where I watched movies that claimed to feature "The Last" of something. Appropriate, as this is The Last time I will watch this film. I'm not going to say this is a 'bad' film, there's a lot of good in it, but it hits too close for comfort (I basically grew up in that town) and I also encountered two of my common bugbears:
One, as I've mentioned before, ninety minutes is kind of my cutoff point. I'll watch almost any kind of film if you can keep it to ninety minutes. If you go beyond that point, I need something compelling, like a plot, or fight sequences, or I get antsy. This film is over two hours long, and...
I'm averse to films that could end at any time. The Last Picture Show is such a film. It has a through-line, sure, but since the point of the film is that life is a stochastic process that just creeps at its petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time, I'm sitting here at minute 90+k unsure if this movie's ever going to be over or what. Whereas Celine and Julie Go Boating has a rough first hour, but by ninety minutes a plot is apparent, and by the two-hour mark you can see what has to happen for the film to come to a conclusion.
Just to end on a positive note, it was nice to see young Jeff Bridges. And if you want a cynical 1970s black-and-white Bogdanavich film about the horrible past that's funny and full of life, check out Paper Moon (1973). That movie's more my speed.
- The Cheap Detective (1978): Rewatch with Beth over New Year's Eve. A classic pre-Airplane! spoof with incredible casting (Peter Falk! Louise Fletcher! Stockard Channing!) that gets a lot of laughs out of its absurd dialogue but isn't the perfect classic I remember, because I mentally edited out the bad/boring/offensive parts.
Hilarious and worth a watch, but not tight enough to be a work of genius. Trying to do The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and Casablanca all at once makes it less a tightly focused experience like Airplane! and more like the omnibus spoof movies that dominated stupid comedy in the 2000s. I do think this movie is funnier overall than Airplane!, but I prefer verbal comedy to sight gags, and there's no wasted space in Airplane!. Unless I mentally edited that movie as well.
And now, the Television Spotlight focuses on a show that we watched in its entirety
- John Adams (2008): Hamilton-mania continues to run rampant in our household, and I had the idea to apply HBO's recent miniseries to Sumana's forehead as a sort of poultice. We had a good time and enjoyed the subtle shout-outs to last month's poultice, 1776. The John/Abigail relationship is always a winner.
If you look at the reviews for this movie, you'll see that a lot of the low-rated reviews are based on complaints about historical inaccuracies, but they're generally pretty minor inaccuracies, well within the range of... Creative License. In fact, in the final episode, Adams, talking to John Trumbull, makes the 'historical inaccuracy' critique more effectively than most John Adams reviewers, who admittedly may not have made it to the final episode. Just a little bit of fourth-wall breaking to send you on your way.
I haven't read the book but I think this series does a good job of portraying Adams the way he might have seen himself: as an unappreciated figure, always working away in someone else's shadow, a man whose greatest accomplishment as president was having the guts to do nothing when the public was demanding he make a horrible mistake.
Tue Dec 01 2015 22:17 November Film Roundup:
I remember this month's movies being meh-ful, but when I went back to the list there were three really good movies, and I'd just allowed my memories to be overwhelmed by the underwhelming movies, because I saw the three really good movies all in a row. No more! Let joy be unconfined!
- Aparajito (1956): I believe this movie was bankrolled by Indian moms looking for effective ways to guilt-trip their children. I saw this while Sumana was out of town. Sumana really wants to watch the Apu trilogy, and I'm happy to watch these movies with her, but it's the kind of episodic character study stereotypically associated with foreign film and it's not a great way for me to spend my alone time. PS: Call your mother!
- My Name Is Nobody (1973): An attempt to deconstruct the spaghetti western a la Sergio Leone, the way John Ford deconstructed his own work The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I don't think it works very well. Ford's films are full of humor and in Liberty Valance he uses that humor to fuel the dramatic irony. I find spaghetti westerns effective insofar as they're bleak and kinda humorless, and this film pours on the humor to create a satire of the genre. Admittedly this was (barely) pre-Blazing Saddles, so I understand why this movie was made, but between Blazing Saddles on the lowbrow end and Liberty Valance on the highbrow, the western is pretty well deconstructed by 1974.
This movie contains an awesome sight gag involving more pool balls on a pool table than I've ever seen before. I'll always remember that sight gag and I've already forgotten most of the rest of this movie. On IMDB for this film Sergio Leone is credited with "idea", and I hope his idea was "you should do a gag with a bunch of pool balls on a pool table" and not "what if you made a film that exposed the shallow conception of heroism in the western?" Because John Ford already had that idea.
- 1776 (1972): Among movies whose titles are years, the one with the largest delta from the year the movie was made is probably One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the smallest is Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). In between we have... this fine movie. You may know that Sumana is obsessed with Hamilton, but I don't want to listen to the soundtrack until I've seen the play, so we saw 1776 together as a compromise move because our Hamilton tickets aren't until next year.
Sumana found it a learning experience since 1776 was a big influence on Hamilton. We agree that it's incredibly ahistorical and that the songs are overall not great (Sumana: "Do we really need a song about how Jefferson plays the violin?"). The villains (i.e. the Southern reactionaries) have the best songs, like the one that exposes New England's complicity in the slave trade. Howard da Silva does a great job playing Benjamin Franklin as I've always pictured him: as America's wacky Falstaffian uncle. According to IMDB da Silva also portrayed Franklin "in a National Park Service film presented in the 70s and 80s at Ben Franklin's home at Franklin Court, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania," making this also the federal government's official portrayal of Franklin.
- Johnny Guitar (1954): Didn't find it that enjoyable, and in retrospect I mainly wanted to see this because everyone in the screenshots looks like Jeff Goldblum in Buckaroo Banzai. Not a good reason to see a movie. I did like Joan Crawford being real brassy. Just a hunch, but I think this movie is a lot better if you're a forty-year-old gay man. I feel that's the approximate shape of the thing I don't understand here.
- Out of the Past (1947): Stereotypical film noir with a character named Leonard! Boosts my hypothesis that Leonard is a perfect film noir name. For heroes, villains, thugs, cops, society gents or skid row bums... "Leonard" always works. Consider naming your next noir character Leonard!
Oh yeah, everything else about the movie. The first few scenes defied convention with their setting and mood, but it settled in to the familiar pathways pretty quickly. Overall... popcorn noir, recommended, but not highly.
- Nightmare Alley (1947): Now this is some noir. It starts at a carnival, the place where all happiness is false and misery is paraded as entertainment. And it all goes downhill from there, and you're along for the ride. Great stuff. In particular the portrayal of a ruthless woman psychiatrist who sleeps in a Ruth Bader Ginsberg outfit seems unusually progressive for 1947.
- Clueless (1995): One of Sumana's all-time favorites, and an entry on our "women directors" watchlist. I saw it for the first time this month and I gotta say this is a great movie. The characters change over the course of the film, they avoid being John Hughes teen stereotypes, and the only real villain is dispatched pretty early on, allowing for plenty of conflict that's not predicated on someone being the antagonist. Lots of laugh-out-loud moments for me.
One weird thing: the cell phone jokes don't land anymore. You can see them happening, you know they are jokes, but everyone has cell phones now so the jokes don't do anything. They're like the ghosts of jokes.
- The Crimson Kimono (1959): Wow, what an unusual movie. It's resembles noir, but it's too procedural, too earnest, and it has a happy ending. None of the cops are crooked; they just have personal problems that get in the way of their work. It goes overboard showing that Japanese-Americans are good, patriotic Americans. In general, it has too much faith in humanity to be film noir. But it was more daring in its time than more cynical movies, and it's the rare movie that makes me want to seek out more of this director's vision. Really glad I saw this one.
- It's the Old Army Game (1926): At this point I gotta say that W.C. Fields, like Jerry Lewis, is one of those comic legends I just don't find funny. A misanthropic loser can be a hilarious character, but I only laughed at some of the physical comedy (like the Stooges but more highbrow). The best thing about this movie was that the Zeppoish love interest resembles Derek Waters from Drunk History, allowing me to pretend that the whole thing was a Drunk History vignette gone wrong.
This silent film includes a title card containing must be the ultimate W.C. Fields line: "I'll hit him in the face with this kid!"
- In honor of Clueless, this month the Television Spotlight focuses on Square Pegs (1982), a really smart television show about high school girls, created by SNL writer Anne Beatts. It's clever and funny in the same way as Clueless, but it's even better because it focuses on the misfits rather than the popular kids. Watch it today! Includes Devo.
Fri Nov 27 2015 16:09 Roy's Postcards Return[s]!:
Back in 2009 I started a project to transcribe and put online over 1000 postcards my dad bought in the 1980s. The toolchain that took things from postcards to web pages was always kind of rickety, and the project petered out altogether when my sisters sent me about 500 more postcards that Dad sent them. I decided I wouldn't start it up again until I'd transcribed all 1500 postcards and could put everything up at once.
Now it's done! The best way to experience it is through the daily @RoyPostcards bot. This is a labor of love for me, so I'm not as concerned that people follow along, but I tried to add interesting commentary whenever I could, and it's an interesting glimpse into everyday life in the 80s.
Sun Nov 01 2015 16:17 October Film Roundup:
This month starts very mainstream, with lots of gunplay and explosions, but—plot twist!—takes a right turn into the avant-garde. And then ends with some random stuff. Just the way I, and, hopefully, you, like it.
- Inside Man (2006): A Sumana recommendation. I never would have seen this movie based on the poster. It looks like "Denzel Washington Has A Gun: Part XI". If I were in charge of the poster it would just say "SPIKE LEE MADE A HEIST MOVIE". However, the point is moot, the poster was designed, let's just live with it.
This movie's really fun. It's got good twists, all the characters are genre-savvy ("This isn't Dog Day Afternoon"), and the tension to violence ratio is very very high. It's also full of classic New York set pieces like the cops suddenly falling into a big argument about MTA trains versus Metro North. Good stuff.
Fictional video game watch: the kid in this movie is playing a PSP game that's a parody of 50 Cent: Bulletproof.
- Sneakers (1992): Another Sumana recommendation. I know that this is Brendan's favorite movie, but it's... not my favorite movie. It is okay. I like its portrayal of pre-Internet tech companies and the common varieties of nerd. The action is corny, and even though they've both done thrillers before I feel like Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier are kind of acting below their pay grades. I... don't regret seeing it? But not a revelation or anything.
- The Martian (2015): Matt Damon, regretting his performance in Interstellar (2015) as the least competent astronaut imaginable, called a Hollywood do-over and portrayed the most competent astronaut imaginable. Seen with Sarah, who disliked it, not as much as Interstellar, but she felt it was like watching a documentary. I like documentaries, so although I wasn't crazy about this movie I had a good time. I loved the 'aha!' moments of puzzle-solving that did duty for plot twists.
My least favorite thing about The Martian: Jeff Daniels's incompetent NASA administrator. I don't object to portraying NASA brass as incompetent, but when something like this happens, and your reaction is sustained incompetence, you can't keep your job. Yet there he is in the epilogue, still running NASA, happy as a clam. I hate clams. Always so damn happy. Who do they think they are?
This film takes an Alphaville strategy where, logically, the film must be set in the future, but the Earth scenes are effectively set in 2015. All the gee-whiz technology is in the space or Mars scenes. It's a good choice, and something you don't notice watching the movie in 2015, but I don't think it will hold up well. But maybe it's better than having some token future changes. Also they did a lot of smaller-scale time skipping, where events on Mars are interspersed with what happens on Earth twelve minutes later, when Earthlings become aware of what happened in the previous shot. I think that decision will probably age well.
Fictional video game watch: this movie mentions real video games. No credit.
- In Bruges (2008): They say the neon lights are bright... in Bruges. This was a fun movie that had some laughs, some really good plot twists, and then disappeared up its own ass trying to set up an ending with maximum dramatic irony. Great dialogue though. I was inspired to see this movie by this random NYCB comment from 2012, so beware! You never know when you might inspire me?
- Bombay Velvet (2015): I witnessed an interesting phenomenon during this movie. It's full of things Sumana hates in movies—mainly graphic violence against women—but unlike other movies the presence of these elements didn't make her hate the movie as a whole. She really liked this movie, because pretty much everyone in the movie is Indian. Getting to see a nearly all-Indian cast in a gritty retro-noir movie is a rare occurrence.
This is an Indian movie for people who love American movies, which may explain why its IMDB rating is a measly 5.8 compared to Baahubali's bestounding 8.8. The Scorsese influence (via Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker) is really strong. In addition to the violence and the lavish spectacle you get riffs on other Scorsese films: Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy; maybe Shutter Island, I dunno, didn't see that one. The political corruption was top-notch.
Overall it's kind of a borderline recommendation for me, but I thought it was a better take on the "rags to blood-soaked riches" story than Scarface, so if you love that kind of movie, I think you'd really like Bombay Velvet.
Also, Bombay Velvet probably has the best soundtrack of any movie I've seen since the invention of Film Roundup. Hot nightclub jazz + all-out Bollywood singing. It's great.
- The Forbidden Room (2015): I feel like Guy Maddin is the Thomas Pynchon of avant-garde film. He surveys the landscape and says "Damn, this is a landscape of pretentious crap. I'm going to show you how it should be done, but at the same time I'm going to be really goofy so you know I don't take it seriously." And that's The Forbidden Room. It's a pretty fun movie but it's really painful to look at. Everything looks like it's been sitting in a film canister in someone's garage for sixty years, and the fact that it's intentional doesn't help.
The only visuals I enjoyed were the animated appearance of the nightclub singer Blob-U-Lo(?), a sort of incomprehensible phenomenon that can only be perceived as a hole in space. Super creative. He/it sings a song about being obsessed with butts, in case you were doubting the Pynchon comparison. Here's the music video.
- World of Tomorrow (2015): A fun sci-fi short, full of cool ideas and abstract eyeball kicks. Recommended.
- Cosmodrama (2015): I pitched this to Sarah as "the antidote to The Martian", and that much is correct. In The Martian an astronaut is abandoned by his companions and must rely on Science™. In Cosmodrama a group of astronauts are abandoned by Science™ itself, and must recreate their knowledge of the universe from scratch. It's a French film, so you know it's all a metaphor for the human condition.
For the first time ever, I was annoyed that a science fiction film included too much science. You could take the title literally: it's a dramatization of Cosmos (1980). Unfortunately this makes it unclear which of the movie's ideas you're supposed to take seriously once you leave the theater.
If you're already up on dark energy you don't need to see people explaining it; if you're not, this film makes it feel like a plot device instead of a real-world scientific mystery. I really liked the use of Lee Smolin's hypothesis about universes being created inside black holes (this is the official multiverse cosmology in Constellation Games, BTW), but it's just a hypothesis at this point. In the movie it's presented as a discovery and it's likely to read as technobabble. Especially since it's accompanied by real technobabble that has no factual basis.
In a Lem-esque twist, the astronauts are never named and are identified in the credits only by their specialties. One of them is "the semiotician" (Lem would have written "the cyberneticist"). In another Lem-esque twist, this movie wants to be Solaris but isn't nearly as deep. It looks great though. A classic 1970s spaceship in glorious digital high definition.
- The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014). A.k.a. "The White Haired Beauty", a.k.a. too many other titles to count. A mediocre Chinese historical action movie. Little bits of it were cool, but overall not worth the running time. Probably the best thing about this movie is that its historical hook is an incident called "The Case of the Red Pills". The pills sound really gross. Oh, also there's a plot point where someone gives the order: "You must deliver these snacks." The snacks look delicious.
- How To Marry A Millionaire (1953): Pretty fun, so long as you don't expect a step-by-step guide. Apparently marrying a millionaire is a matter best left entirely to chance. Some surprising plot twists as William Powell, initially set up as a creepy old guy, turns out to be a mensch. Also a baffling sequence before the titles, where the orchestra plays the overture for, like, four minutes, and you're just watching the orchestra do its thing. I didn't come here for no Leopold Stokowski, I wanna see some dames pass the Bechdel test! We speculated this was to make the experience feel like watching a Broadway musical, but How To Marry A Millionaire isn't a musical. My current hypothesis is, that bit was just supposed to play as people were walking into the theater.
There's a fashion show in this movie, and although the outfits everyone wears for the rest of the movie still look cool and glamorous, nearly everything in the fashion show is tacky and ugly. And I gotta ask: did that stuff ever look good or is it a joke?
And now, the continuation of Television Roundup. We actually finished a show this month!
- The Legend of Korra (2012-2014): Really really fun. Creative action scenes, good humor, realistic family dynamics, cute animals, enough twists on the "Chosen One" narrative that it wasn't annoying, a big ensemble of characters who wax and wane in importance over the seasons. We had to pay attention at close to an adult level since it's assumed we watched a previous show we didn't actually watch. We had a lot of fun speculating about the worldbuilding. Highly recommended.
Random character notes that I enjoyed: Every season Korra figures out she's being manipulated a little earlier, until in the final season she's too smart for that plot twist to work at all and they have to give that job to Bolin. Bolin, whose job throughout the series is to be Phillip J. Fry. Seriously, he never makes a decision or says a line that Fry wouldn't make or say in the same situation. It could get tiresome, but Bolin gets less time after season two. And Varrick has a cool arc that reminds me of Londo from Babylon 5. Londo starts off as a buffoon, then becomes a monster and ends up a tragic figure. Varrick starts out as a buffoon, then becomes a villain and ends up a hero—but he never stops being a buffoon! Also, he's Dr. NakaMats. Great stuff.