Mon Sep 01 2014 09:49 August Film Roundup:
Another month full of major progress on major projects, but I managed to squeeze in four features:
- The Women (1939): This was pretty fun! It brings together every single 1930s stock character of women in film and lets them duke it out. Just when you think the film is too classy to feature a Margaret Dumont-esque gold-digger, too middle-aged to feature a showgirl ingenue, and too urban to feature a profane cowgirl, BAM! Gold-digger, ingenue, cowgirl! I did not appreciate how the film started by comparing every major character to a different domesticated animal, but that was over quickly enough. Recommended overall. Oh yeah, the ending is super creepy and so over-the-top that I can only hope we're supposed to read it as the filmic equivalent of sarcasm. "Come back to me, male gaze!" Geez. Gimme a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ending any day. Still recommended.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): The nerd favorite. I had a really good time. The fact that it's based on an established comic book world meant that they crammed in a bunch of cool stuff without really explaining it, which is exactly the right speed for me. It still strains under the weight of its canon--there were a lot of proper nouns I didn't care about, and I thought the main plotline with its supervillains and its revenges was dull. But in the interstitials there is so much great stuff. Cute semi-humanoid aliens! Improvisational violence! Using a mech to control another mech!
As usual, I would have done things differently. This time I did do things differently, and you will eventually be able to read the result as Situation Normal. But just as an example, consider "Four Kinds of Cargo", the acorn that became SN. If the POV character of that story were the Captain, it would be a by-the-numbers space opera, like Guardians of the Galaxy, because that's how the Captain experiences life. So instead the POV character is Kol, the guy who is just trying to survive, who is trying to make the Captain's space-opera fantasy work, simultaneously intrigued and frustrated by her ability to change everyone's minds with an inspirational speech.
In GotG terms, the correct POV character is Rocket. You can have the doofy white guy who brings everyone together, but he shouldn't be the POV character. The American people understand this. I've seen people talking about this movie as if Rocket is the lead, because that's the right way to do it. But that's not the way it happened.
The one place my ignorance of the comic book let me down was when the unaccountable police force/military/governing body led by Glenn Close with her big swoopy hairdo and Peter Serafinowicz with his creepy British accent turned out... not to be evil? Not guilty of anything worse than imposing the bourgeois values of its Federation-type civilization on a band of criminals? That was unexpected, and I'm not sure whether my cognitive dissonance was the intention or if they're just saving the evil for the sequel.
PS: there's a lot of tasing in this movie. I guess that's how horrifying violence becomes comedy violence.
- The Phantom Tollbooth (1969): I was pretty sure I'd seen this before. I remember telling my great-aunt Lejeune about the book when I was six or seven, and the next time we went to her place she'd found a VHS copy for me to watch. But now I've actually seen The Phantom Tollbooth and I don't remember one frame of this movie. So I think I've conflated it with the time Lejeune showed me Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings.
I'm not going to accuse this movie of 'ruining my childhood', because it's just a dumb movie, but... it's a dumb movie. I am a fan of Chuck Jones's fluid gag-packed animation, but it's a bad fit with the cerebral subject matter of The Phantom Tollbooth, except in a couple cases like the integration of typography into everything in Dictionopolis, and the ever-shifting bodies of the Demons of Ignorance. The demands of the animated-feature-film medium require changes to the plot that frequently undercut the message of the book. An example will suffice: as Milo sinks into the Doldrums, the Lethargians stop being lethargic and become very enthusiastic indeed about sneaking up on Milo and violently killing him. Why? Because a book may vividly describe procrastination and laziness as perils in themselves, but when you're watching a cartoon all the evil things have to have pointy teeth and nasty Grinch faces.
Other examples: Milo permanently screwing up the sky when he takes over for Chroma (don't experiment, kids, you might destroy the world!), Tock dying and being resurrected for no reason other than that's what happens in the third act. It's obnoxious. One addition I really liked is that the Mathemagician's castle includes a wall of digital computers—something that probably wasn't on Norton Juster's mind when the book came out in 1961.
In the "don't really care" file, movie Milo lives in San Francisco instead of what is almost certainly New York in the book. The only reason I could think of for doing this was ease of obtaining filming permits, but this was after John Lindsay made it really easy to obtain filming permits in New York, so who knows. I guess San Francisco was a more magical, kid-friendly place in 1969 than New York.
Oh yeah, there's songs in this movie, they're all very 1969, and I'm not a big fan of 1969 music.
- Popeye (1980): This was one of the movies for which I forever saw promos on Comedy Central in the '90s. Like all the rest of those movies (Meatballs, M.A.S.H.) it looked like a classic 'unfunny 1970s comedy' so I gave it a wide berth. Heh heh, 'berth', get it? Little nautical humor there. You don't think that was funny? Now you see how I feel about these movies!
I decided to watch Popeye after hearing the Laser Time tribute to Robin Williams, where it was mentioned that Popeye was directed by Robert Altman. I thought "I've never seen an Altman film before, I'll give it a shot." I brought it up to Sumana, who was even more skeptical than with Celine and Julie go Boating:
S: Altman does ensemble films. Aren't there like four characters in Popeye? Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and I'm leaving space for one I don't know about.
S: Who is Swe'pea?
L: A baby.
S: Can a baby really be a 'character'?
L: How about J. Wellington Wimpy?
L: Poopdeck Pappy?
S: Are you just making up names?
I pressed on without Sumana. Imagine my surprise when a screenwriting credit for Jules Feiffer showed up! I knew I was in for a treat. A treat that was not forthcoming.
OK, yeah, honestly, I knew this wasn't going to be a good movie, no matter how many big names were attached. I watched it out of morbid curiosity. I would compare this movie to 1941: an unsuccessful experiment made while Hollywood was figuring out the parameters of the summer blockbuster. It looks great! There are some hilarious sight gags. But the action scenes were overwrought--maybe they should have brought in Steven Spielberg to direct the action scenes in Popeye and had Altman direct the comedy in 1941. There are a lot of characters in Popeye—more than I could have ever made up names for—but they're all pretty shallow and there's not a lot of good character comedy. I'm also disappointed that they never dramatized the time Popeye spent living in a garbage can.
The songs are a big problem. I mentioned to Rob I was going to see Popeye and he went on and on about how great songwriter Harry Nilsson was, so I'm not gonna say they're bad, but they're... really avant-garde for a musical adaptation of a Popeye cartoon? They play fast and loose with meter and rhyme and are generally not catchy. The problem is deepened by the inclusion of the insanely catchy theme from the cartoons, which tosses all the other songs under the bus. I do like that Shelly Duvall sang her songs slightly off-key.
(4) Sat Aug 02 2014 12:37 Month of Crowdfunding 2014!:
After taking a break last year because I didn't have a steady paycheck, Month of Crowdfunding (né Month of Kickstarter) has returned! (2011) (2012) Here's how it works: every day in August I will pledge to some crowdfunding project or another. Yes, that's pretty much it.
Unlike previous years, I will not be doing writeups of each project I back, because I am in the middle of novel revisions. I will just edit this post every day with a brief update. I will also not be trawling the crowdfunding sites every day looking for quirky, offbeat projects. That worked in 2011 when Kickstarter was very small, and it worked in 2012 because I created special software tools for making it work. This year, I will rely heavily on a revolutionary new concept I call crowdnepotism.
Here's how it works. If your friend has a crowdfunding project or Patreon that you want me to support, or you've backed a project and you'd like me to back it as well, please let me know through a comment on this post, a message to @leonardr on Twitter, or an email to email@example.com. Please do not tell me about your own project. Tell me about anyone's project but your own. The true meaning of Month of Crowdfunding is found in focusing on other people. That's the only limitation. If you say it's okay, I'll mention you as the person who suggested the project to me in the list below.
Speaking of which, the list below. The projects backed so far:
- The Ashville Blade - Supporting the journalism of a friend of Sumana's.
- "A History of Mobile Games: 1998-2008" - Just seems like a cool book.
- Dj CUTMAN, creator of a chiptune podcast that I listen to at work.
- "An Alphabet of Embers", an anthology
edited by Shweta and suggested by Zack.
- Designers and Dragons, a "comprehensive, four-volume history of the roleplaying game industry." (Found via @CrowdBoardGames and unknowingly ratified by Jim Henley.)
- Ninja Pizza Girl, "a serious game about bullying, emotional resilience – and pizza delivering ninjas", suggested by Nathaniel.
- Andrea Phillips's writing
- Epanalepsis, a graphical adventure game.
- Ben Briggs' chiptunes.
- Jenny LeClue, another graphical adventure, suggested by Andy Baio.
- Mia S-N's illustrations, suggested by Sumana.
- Accessing the Future, an SF anthology.
- Stretching the notion of "crowdfunding", I sent some money to Saladin Ahmed, who just had his basement flood.
- The games of Anna Anthropy.
- The games of Avery Mcaldno.
- Tree Climbing for Climate Change Research
- Why the long face? Functional morphology of a unique fossil porpoise
- Legends of Beforia, a card game prototype by #botALLY Patrick Rodriguez.
- Kris's comics, yay. (Not suggested by Kris.)
- African Skies: Establishing an Observatory for Students in Ghana
- I think the name of this project is too corny to say. It's a butter knife that works like a cheese grater.
- [Yeah, having troubles keeping this up to date, sorry.]
- Noisebridge reboot
- Critical Distance
- Dawn of the Algorithm (suggested by Mike Mongo)
- MS treatment for Paul Jessup, suggested by Saladin Ahmed, paying it forward.
As with the previous two Months, my daily budget is $25 or whatever it takes to get a cool reward. That corresponds to a $2 monthly Patreon pledge. And don't forget, crowdnepotism is a registered trademark of... what, now there's paperwork for registering trademarks? Screw that.
(3) Fri Aug 01 2014 17:49 July Film Roundup:
I saw most of these movies on airplanes, and I have no regrets. Not about that, anyway.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): A fun and surprisingly violent Wes Anderson quirk-fest, seen on the plane to England. I initially thought the fake Nazis were a weird touch. Like, Wes Anderson's love of typography must accommodate even the most evil Fraktur, but he doesn't actually want to do Nazi graphic design, so he holds off a little bit. Is this unfair? Then I got to thinking: this is supposed to be a 2014 version of a comedy from the 1930s. And The Great Dictator had fake Nazis. There were those Three Stooges shorts with the "Nazties" or whatever, and "Der Fuhrer's Face" featured the "Nutzis". So I guess it makes sense retrohistorically? Not necessarily the choice I would have made.
- American Hustle (2013): Seen on the way back from England. I've never been so glad that a film was really long. I'm going to give this film the faintest possible praise: I'm glad I spent 138 minutes of a transatlantic flight watching it. However, it's not as good as a real 70s con-man movie, so I think they should have re-released The Sting instead of making this. That movie was made in the 70s and set in the 30s, so the relative timeline matches.
I dunno, while I was watching I just kept thinking about the logistics of putting together a period piece. "Ah, this dry cleaner scene lets the wardrobe department show off an entire collection of 70s clothes in an unobtrusive way." Not a sign of deep engagement.
- The Lego Movie (2014): I only saw about ten minutes of this, because American Hustle tired me out, but it was enough to make me realize that my drawer story about Lego people (in which a family starts reconfiguring their house into a spaceship, to the increasingly violent dismay of their homeowner association) is probably gonna stay in that drawer forever.
- Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974): Oh yeah. Here's my earlier, briefer review. I imported the DVD some time ago to watch it with Sumana, and it finally happened this month. Forty-five minutes in, Sumana was very reluctant to continue, but she stuck it out and ended up appreciating what remains IMO a hell of a film. Not a top ten film, because of that incredibly slow first hour, but really great.
Sumana asked me specifically what I love about this film, and it's this: Celine and Julie discover a world of endless repetition and emotional repression, where women are relegated to subordinate parts in petty melodramas. So they break into that world and destroy it with the power of goofing off. It combines the fun of the Marx Brothers with the simple, satisfying closure of an action movie. Very eristic.
- The King of Comedy (1982): The first good Jerry Lewis movie I've seen. Has the Dog Day Afternoon thing going on where there's a lot of peril but almost no violence. Has one of my all-time favorite bits of IMDB trivia: 'Martin Scorsese has stated that he "probably should not have made" the film.' But he did make it, and it's awkward and squirmy from beginning to end, one of those films that I'm really glad I saw but I'm going to try never to see ever again.
Amazingly, I believe this film was the originator of the "Basement Dweller" trope. This is now a supercliche (it showed up again, along with Robert de Niro, in American Hustle), and I can't think of an earlier example than this, complete with nagging offscreen mother. Shatner's "Get a Life" SNL sketch is from 1986 (and written by Bob Odenkirk, apparently). I dared to find the "Basement Dweller" TV Tropes article, even though as I'm writing this I have to leave to go to work, but King of Comedy is not mentioned in the "Film" section, and everything mentioned in that section is post-1982. So... chalk one up for method acting, I guess.
(2) Thu Jul 17 2014 09:23 The Average Minecraft Skin:
Currently my two spare-time hobbies are 1) Situation Normal revisions and 2) gathering Minecraft data. Yes, I'm still at it! There's a lot more data than I anticipated! I'm up to about 175,000 maps, and I've branched out into archiving mods and texture packs. There's even more I could do, but pretty soon I'm going to have to put away the data-gathering part of this project for six months or a year so I can get other stuff done.
My reach keeps expanding because whenever I decide that a certain dataset isn't interesting and I won't bother with it, I immediately come up with something really cool to do with the dataset. For instance, Minecraft skins, the little images that are bitmapped onto your character in the game to make you look like a penguin or Jean-Luc Picard. I never really cared much about skins, but in the process of deciding not to bother with them, I discovered that Planet Minecraft, one of the biggest repositories of skins, lets someone who uploads a skin specify a gender ("male", "female", "interchangeable", and "other"), as well as a category classification ("animal", "cartoon", "famous person", etc.). Now I was interested! Skins are data about how people present themselves in the virtual world, data that I could gather and graph.
Here's a simple graph showing the skins available on Planet Minecraft, broken down by category and gender:
In every category male skins are drastically overrepresented, but the discrepancy is smallest in "Other". Why? My guess is that "Other" is where you'd put a skin that you made to represent yourself.
Since there are only two different sizes for skin images, you can average a number of skins together to get a new skin. Here's a skin that is the average of 100 of the most popular "female" skins on Planet Minecraft:
And here's the average of 100 of the most popular "male" skins:
That's a pretty preliminary result, but I think it's interesting. The major sexual dimorphism among Minecraft skins—the shape of the eyes—comes through loud and clear. If you want to use one of these as your actual Minecraft skin, I recommend going in with an image editor and erasing the upper-right part of the image. Otherwise your character's head will be shrouded in a ghostly hat, and it won't look good.
Sun Jun 29 2014 11:03 June Film Roundup:
It doesn't get better than this. I liked every single movie I saw this month. Two, maybe three of them are in my top ten. I guess that's what happens when you only see time-honored classics and movies you've already seen and loved. I'm posting this a little early because I'm going on vacation next week. Have fun!
- Ghostbusters (1984): When Sumana said she wanted to see Ghostbusters my first thought was "She's going to love the fake Atlantic cover." And she did like that, and she liked the rest of the movie, because Ghostbusters is fabulous. 'Nuff said.
- Godzilla (1954): A top-ten movie for me. I'd seen the American version once and the Japanese version once, but never on the big screen. This movie speaks to me because it takes something silly and cheesy and gives it a real emotional core. That's what I always try to do with my work, and when you see a work of fiction that deconstructs the Godzilla mythos, that's what they're trying to do to Godzilla. (I admit I have dabbled in this myself.) But there's no need to deconstruct anything--just strip away the goofy stuff that has accumulated over the past sixty years, and you have the raw power and horror of the original. You leave the theater totally mystified and overwhelmed by Godzilla's invincibility.
The one false step: the first appearance of Godzilla, when it puts its head over the hill, doesn't look good. A hill can be any size, so there's no sense of scale.
- The Terminator (1984): Hard for me to believe this came out the same year as Ghostbusters, because I never heard of this movie until 1991 when Terminator II came out. Wasn't it Sylvester Stallone who starred in Terminator? Weird.
Anyway, this movie's... all right. (Sorry, Sukiko.) Definitely my least favorite of the June films, despite being the only one that passes the Bechdel test. I liked the basic concept, and seeing Sarah Connor's transition from harried waitress to seasoned freedom fighter. I liked seeing the sleazy side of the L.A. of my youth. Not a fan of the heavy-handed satire; Robocop (see below) would do it much better. I haven't seen Terminator II but I feel like it's got the material to be a much better movie, and IMDB agrees (8.5 vs. 8.1).
There's a lot of skulls in the future scenes. Like, disproportionately many skulls. I guess the robots invented a weapon that turns a human into a pile of skulls?
- Solaris (1972): I was apprehensive about the length of this movie, especially in the context of a brief clip I'd seen a few years back, which was the dialogue-free scene with the car driving on a Japanese highway for several minutes. But I can't say no to a Lem adaptation, and after two years of stretching myself with art films I was up to the challenge. And it was fun! Having read the book definitely helped. This is the earliest filmic use I've seen of my beloved "dingy spaceship" aesthetic. Probably not going to see it again because of the length, but an excellent movie. Next up: Stalker, I guess.
- Robocop (1987): What a weird, weird movie. Like Godzilla, it wants to have its B-movie cake and eat it too. And it does! Twenty-five years, later, it's still got that cake in the feezer. But unlike Godzilla, it doesn't do anything to elevate the material. I think enough has been written about the way Robocop managed to simultaneously satirize and embody the blood-lust of the Hollywood blockbuster, so I won't add more, but how about this example: Robocop shows you a fun stop-motion animated effect and then it's embarrassed about it. Stop-motion isn't cool in 1987. So then it shows you a fake commercial with some really cheesy Ray Harryhausen type stop-motion, just so you know Robocop is in on the joke.
I dunno, man. It's like there's two movies here in one package: a totally off-the-wall movie full of wild ideas and a dull Terminator-like cop movie. The satire is a couple levels above Grand Theft Auto, but that's a really low bar to clear. And it's so violent. If they were getting some emotional mileage out of the violence, like Godzilla does, I could see it. But that never happens!
I'm also pissed off at how the movie's critique of capitalism suddenly starts pulling punches in the final scene. But Robocop contains what for me will always be one of the great moments of cinema: the comedic slow-burn of ED-209 encountering stairs for the first time. It's so good. I'm so happy I saw that.
PS: I'm no master criminal, but if I were being hunted by Robocop I'd aim for the mouth.
- Silent Running (1972): Unlike most of my reviews this is spoiler-free because I want to watch Silent Running with Sumana. This was my third or fourth time seeing this movie, and the first time on the big screen. I picked up a few details I'd never seen before, and it was fun to see it with Tully Hansen, a known #botALLY, but also in the theater were Hal and Babs, who hated it ("It's so earnest." -Hal), so I feel like I have to defend it.
Silent Running is my second-favorite movie. It's my second favorite in a different sense than The Big Lebowski is my favorite. Lebowski has a good concept that's executed perfectly. It's the movie I wish I could make. But I'm not a filmmaker. Silent Running has a perfect concept that's executed near-perfectly, except the plot makes absolutely no sense. It's the movie I could fix.
All right, so it's earnest. It's okay for a movie to be earnest! Earnestness is the difference between Godzilla and Robocop, and I stand with Godzilla. If I were writing the screenplay I'd give it more nuance, but the core is perfect. The movie starts with an act of redemptive violence—the way movies like Robocop end—and then it turns out that the violence wasn't redemptive at all.
Visually, this film is so beautiful it hurts. The cramped but relatively tidy interiors are the missing link between the roomy jet-set aesthetic of 2001 and the "dingy spaceship" aesthetic of Star Wars and Alien. (Solaris, of course, was ahead of its time). Yeah, great movie all around, but the plot doesn't make sense. You might also try Moon (2009), a more modern take on the idea whose plot also doesn't make sense.