(3) Tue May 12 2015 07:00 The Future Is Prologue:
I'm experimenting with writing a prologue for Situation Normal, to reduce the thrown-into-the-deep-end feeling typical of my fiction. I say 'experimenting with' rather than 'just doing it' because I wrote something and it wasn't a prologue. I'd just turned back the clock to before the book started and written a regular scene.
I don't like prologues for the very reason I'm trying to write one: they're introductory infodumps. I usually skim them, unless they look like the Law and Order style prologues where the POV character dies at the end of the scene. But this book has so many POV characters already, I don't think I should go that route.
I talked it over with Sumana and she gave me the idea of pacing the prologue as though it were the first scene of a short story. That's something I've done before, so I know I can do it again, and it doesn't mean big infodumps, just more internal monologue.
I'd like your suggestions of genre fiction books with effective prologues. Prologues that made you say "yes, I want to read a whole book about this stuff." I can't think of many examples but I admit I'm blinded by prejudice.
Sun May 03 2015 08:43:
Sumana spent a lot of time out of town this month, so I took to opportunity to clear out a bunch of items on my "movies I want to see but Sumana doesn't" list. But there's also plenty of movies we saw together. How can you tell the difference?... I think you'll be able to tell.
- Chappie (2015): Dev Patel lives up to his name in this story of a really poorly run technology company. Tetravaal produces two competing products, each run solely by the lead developer, and the lead developers don't even have offices. Each has a cube right next to the other lead developer, for maximum bad blood. The security policy is terrible, and employee safety is not a priority. I guess this is how the film industry works. I mean, you write what you know, right?
The robot is cute. I was expecting some violence but not Robocop level violence, which maybe made it inappropriate for a date night. I was expecting to see more than two South African actors in this movie from a South African director set in Johannesburg. Seems a little weird?
Speaking of Robocop, there are a couple obvious movies you could compare this to, but I'd like to bring your attention to Robot and Frank (2012), a really wonderful movie we saw shortly before I started Film Roundup. I'm not bringing up Robot and Frank because I think it's better than Chappie (although I do think this), but because it takes a much different approach to the same basic premise. They'd make a great double feature.
- Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014) A.k.a. "Kundo: min-ran-eui si-dae". Not to be confused with Transformers 6: Age of the Rampant. This was a fun movie with many of our favorite martial-arts elements: heists, Robin Hood type gangs, women and Buddhist priests kicking ass, etc. I especially liked the Faceman of this particular A-Team, who turned to a life of crime after acing the civil service exam but getting civil service-blocked due to a lack of family connections.
- War of the Arrows (2011): The museum's martial arts curator was really psyched about this one, but although archery is technically a "martial art" I don't think it's one of the more cinematically exciting ones. In terms of dramatic structure, I liked how the brutish loot-and-pillage villains of the first act all got killed and were replaced by a squad of cooler-headed villains.
This film is especially un-recommended for fans of doesthewhaledie.com sister sites doesthedogdie.com and doesthehorsedie.com. In a Korean movie, you can kill four dogs in the first scene and not even be the bad guy!
Oh yeah, also, all of these Korean historical action films have a village getting burned. Even The Pirates, which despite some notable missteps is supposed to be a lighthearted romp. Village gets burned in the middle of the film. It's awful! I have a pretty high tolerance for watching film violence, but it has to be coded kind of cartoonish for me to enjoy it, and burning villages I just can't watch. Why is that scene even in the movie? Most of the time it's just to make us hate the villains. C'mon, it's a silly action movie. I'll stipulate hating the villains.
- Ed Wood (1994):
As an afficionado of cheesy movies, the worst we can find (la la la), I didn't expect to learn much from this heavily fictionalized biopic. But it surprised me! This movie makes the really interesting argument that Ed Wood wasn't an abnormally bad director; he was an abnormally good producer. Obstacles that would have stopped other people from putting out a bad movie, didn't stop him. Ed Wood looks like the worst director in the world due to survivor bias. He's actually the worst director whose movies were finished and released. (And let's be honest, Coleman Francis is worse.)
If Ed Wood were as good a director as he was a producer he'd be Roger Corman, the SyFy Original of directors, a guy who consistently delivers mediocre B-movies on time and on budget. But the movie Ed Wood, like last month's Bowfinger, is a celebration of the drive to actually get a movie made, damn the quality. And that's the producer's job. The conversation between Wood and Orson Welles really drives this home. They're talking about producing, not directing.
I don't know what to think about Bill Murray's portrayal of Bunny Breckenridge. It's so over the top campy in a way that should have been on its way out in 1994, but after researching Breckenridge's life a bit I'm willing to believe it's an accurate portrayal.
- The House of Hate (1918): Another lesson I learned from MST3K is that it's okay not to watch all of a serial. That's why I felt perfectly fine leaving during intermission when the museum showed The House of Hate, long thought totally lost and newly restored from a Soviet print that cut it down to three hours from its original seven—a story more interesting than anything in The House of Hate itself. It has some decent silent-era action, but I didn't get the feeling I got during Reds, that I was leaving just as things were getting good. It's like watching characters bounce around a Markov chain. There's a lot of silent film I love, but the immaturity of the medium + the narrative constraints of a serial = bleh.
- The Godfather, Part 3 (1990) The triple threat of movies Sumana doesn't want to see: a really long movie about man-pain that she's already seen. I came in expecting it to be a disaster, and I don't think it needed to be so long, but I liked it. It's a disaster compared to the original Godfather, but I don't like Part 2 as much as everyone else, and this was just one step below that—still pretty good! It was great to finally see some bits of continuity with the New York I know, like the zeppoli stands at the Italian festival. I also loved the machinations in the Vatican.
I suspect part of people's dissatisfaction with this movie vis-a-vis part two is they want to see Michael Corleone acting like a badass, calling in hits, going out like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface. Instead the whole movie's about Michael being tired of this shit, which is probably a metaphor for the franchise but is a good topic for a film.
- The Wrestler (2008): Another movie Sumana wouldn't want to see, and not one I'd normally choose to see, but I remembered there was a fictional NES game in this movie, and I was in the mood to have something on in the background while I did computer stuff. Probably not what Aronofsky wants to hear, but this movie was great at being on in the background. If I had to give it my full attention I would have been annoyed at the by-the-numbers plot structure, but Mickey Rourke gives a great performance and the NES game is all it's cracked up to be.
According to IMDB trivia, "The film reportedly moved wrestler Roddy Piper so much, he broke down and cried after a screening." Big respect for that.
- Gentlemen Broncos (2009): The forgotten response to the surprising success of Napoleon Dynamite, it's as if Jared and Jerusha Hess decided to turn all the quirky nerdy rural Mormon humor sliders as high as they would go until everyone got sick of it. And... this is the point where everyone got sick of it. I didn't even know this film existed until I read about it on Boing Boing. And those sliders are a little high even for me, but overall I liked this movie and I'm really close to saying I really liked it. It presses one of my less-often-activated cinematic buttons of showing multiple adaptations of the same basic idea, a la The Five Obstructions.
This movie went on my no-Sumana list as soon as I saw "The vomit-soaked story..." in the Boing Boing review. It's too bad there's so much gross-out because I think Sumana would like it otherwise. It's got a very strong Garth Marenghi's Darkplace vibe. You've never heard of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace? Great, now I'm the blog telling people about visual experiences they've never heard of. Wait, that's good, because now you know that Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is hilarious and you should check it out.
- Night Shift (1982): A not-that-funny romantic comedy about the unionization of sex workers. Some classic Visicalc action doesn't redeem the lack of laughs; it's like they put the primal elements of comedy—sex, death, money—in a beaker and expected comedy to form spontaneously. I guess it's better than Pretty Woman, but I haven't seen Pretty Woman so I'm just going on my mental stereotype of the politics of that movie. Michael Keaton acts like he's in a totally different movie, a movie that also wouldn't be good if you were watching it, but glimpses of it come as a relief.
- The Best of Everything (1959): Absolutely amazing office dramedy with snappy banter, glorious NYC location shots, genteel sleaze, struggles of modern women, etc. I didn't like how the movie picked the least sleazy of all the sleazeballs for the heroine to hook up with, when her friend was able to find an actually decent guy, but I guess a girl's got to play the hand she's dealt. Definitely going on my best-of-the-year list.
There seems to be a strong connection to 9 to 5 (1980) in that the newly-minted secretary comes in to her first day of work drastically overdressed wearing a big ridiculous hat, but according to IMDB trivia, Jane Fonda talked to women who'd been in that situation and learned it was a common mistake, so both movies are based on a now-vanished reality.
- The Americanization of Emily (1964): Also going on my best-of-the-year list thanks to its almost-perfect script by Paddy Chayefsky. If Billy Wilder had directed this he would have sanded down the rough edges and this would be one of the greatest films of all time. But why look a gift horse in the mouth, it's really really really good. Snappy dialogue, a farce/fiasco/farce double-twist, and a brilliant core concept. And, hell, if Chayefsky had brought this script to Billy Wilder he probably would have said "Yeah, I fled the Nazis, I'm gonna take a pass on mocking D-Day," and that would be totally fair.
One little quibble: despite the title, the movie doesn't really focus on Emily.
- Reservoir Dogs (1992): The ultimate showdown, years in the making. I don't like Quentin Tarantino, but I love love love Steve Buscemi. Who will win? And hey, this movie's good! It's more restrained than Pulp Fiction, probably due to the tiny budget, but see above re: gift horses. The nonlinear narrative makes a lot of sense dramatically. The way Mr. Orange's "commode story" is dramatized is damn impressive. I could do without the graphic violence, but I knew what I was in for. The performances are good, but especially noteworthy is America's sweetheart, Steve Buscemi. He's so good he got the part Tarantino wrote for himself, meaning that although Tarantino still acts in the movie he's only got about three lines. Let's lift a glass to Steve Buscemi, savior of Reservoir Dogs.
Thu Apr 02 2015 10:55 March Film Roundup:
We saw lots of stuff this month but not a lot of feature films. The upside is that a lot of what I did see is online for free.
- A Matter of Life and Death (1946): a.k.a. "Stairway to Heaven" but tragically with no Zeppelin on the soundtrack. I'm really impressed by Roger Livesy. He keeps showing up in propaganda films (previously The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) and bringing so much humanity to the role that he subverts the propaganda aspect. This film is no Colonel Blimp (another film that really could have used some Zeppelin on the soundtrack), but it's really weird and worth seeing. Half the film takes place in heaven, specifically a heaven for Allied service members during WWII. A sort of heaven as USO club. There's some great morbid humor where e.g. a squad of American flyboys whose plane has just been blown up come into heaven and head straight for the Coke machine. Ribbing their lieutenant when he asks for officer's quarters, etc.
As with many genre works created by people unaccustomed to genre fiction, the fantasy setting falls apart on the slightest examination. Like, where are the Russians? There are no Russian soldiers in this movie. I don't expect a British propaganda movie to show dead Nazis in heaven, but there's no mention of hell, and one of the main characters is an eighteenth-century French nobleman—certainly an enemy of the British in his day. There are Americans who died in the Revolution. Those guys hate the British. In fact, the postmortem hatred of colonized peoples towards the British underpins the best plot point in the movie. We see Indians, so the issue isn't religion. Where are the Russians?
Sumana proposed that the Axis powers have a separate heaven, to keep fights from breaking out, and they'll be integrated after the war in a divine Marshall Plan. But this means that the paperwork hasn't gone through to transfer all the Soviet soldiers from the Axis heaven to the Allied heaven, so there must be all sorts of post-Molotov-Ribbentrop fights going on in the other heaven, and that's a much more interesting story than the one we have here.
- Brotherhood of Blades (2014): OK but not great Chinese period piece. I don't have much to say about this one. I'm gonna keep going to see the museum's martial arts series but they only stand out for me when there's a stylistic twist (Tai Chi Zero) or an unusual plot (The Pirates).
- Film festival special! Sumana and I saw two runs of shorts from the International Children's Film Festival. It was really good, thanks to the general conflation of "animation" with "children's film" (only one film we saw had no animated component). You get a ton of animated films that, although kid-friendly, weren't necessarily intended for children, and which can explore some really dark territory. Here are the ones I liked, with links to full video or at least trailers or IMDB pages where possible.
- 5.80 Meters - Surreal and French, incredibly realistic CGI, my fave.
- Eyes - Chuck Jones-ish, literal "sight gags", Sumana's fave.
- JohnnyExpress - Incredibly dark comedy with super-colorful Pixar-style animation.
- Mythopolis - Clever and sweet.
- Me and my Moulton and A Single Life are Oscar nominees, so you know they're too good for full-length online videos. All you get is a trailer! A Single Life is effectively a music video, so that "trailer" includes a good portion of the film.
- Submarine Sandwich - "Like a Sesame Street short." - Sumana
- Imagination - Gumbyesque and Cyrillic.
- Leaving Home - Funny until it takes an abrupt turn into sad.
- By the Stream - Sad the whole way through.
- Eyes on the Stars - From StoryCorps, illustrates the stubborn badassness necessary to become an astronaut.
- Giovanni and the Water Ballet (trailer only) - Initially I was upset that the museum tricked me into watching a "sports movie", but I was won over by the hilarity of the relationship between Giovanni and his girlfriend Kim. This film is full of Dutch people being incredibly Dutch in different ways.
- Tigers Tied Up In One Rope. It's like The Human Centipede, for kids!
- Electric Soul - Visually great but nothing really happens.
- We also saw the three Wallace and Gromit shorts on the big screen, which are still totally fun and charming.
- And, not related to the film festival, but featuring a similar lack of feature-length movies I can review for you, we saw this retrospective on Jim Henson's commercials, which was absolutely hilarious. It started with the Wilkins Coffee ads (plus the many variants used to sell regional brands of bread or bottled water or luncheon meat). It also showed some fake promotional "behind-the-scenes" videos where Henson, Oz, and company get hired to do some Wilkins-style commercials, but spend the whole day goofing off on set instead of filming. Lots of other good stuff. The whole thing was really funny and Karen Falk of the Jim Henson Company did a great job curating.
- The Girl Can't Help It (1956): Frank Tashlin's test run for Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, released the following year. I imagine Tashlin telling Jayne Mansfield: "Everyone else looks at you and sees boobs, but I see socially incisive, character-driven comedy! With jokes about your boobs." In any comedy involving the intersection of gangsters with the non-gangster world, the question is whether it's the gangsters or the squares who will steal the show, and here, as usual, the gangsters run away with it. Edmond O'Brien's mob boss quickly reveals hidden depths, and Mansfield's gangster's moll gets a ton of good lines with the stick-up-his-ass male lead acting as straight man. Fun, but not as good as Rock Hunter?, which itself isn't as good as I'm making it sound here.
- Europa Report (2013): Every dramatic element in this movie comes from somewhere else, as does much of the footage. But it's effective, and pretty incredible that you can now take those pieces that required blockbuster money to realize back in the 1980s, and do them justice with a budget like that of a SyFy original movie. In fact SyFy should start doing originals like Europa Report.
This film has a bit of the tentacle monster prejudice problem, in that it's very easy to read as a horror movie but I really don't think it is. It generally avoids or subverts viewer expectations regarding the obnoxious found-footage genre. So maybe that's part of the general mood of subversion. Not original on the level of plot or characterization, but a very well-made film, and fun to watch.
- Bowfinger (1999): Frank Oz returns, hopefully with a little more professionalism than when he was drinking beer and dancing with girls when he should have been filming those lunch meat commercials with Jim Henson. Sumana really liked this movie when it came out, and I like it too, but not as much as she does, I think. The concept is great but I feel like it's got an indie-movie plot full of Hollywood-movie comedy. At this point I've watched a lot of movies about an absurd situation becoming more and more absurd, and I like it better when the escalation is driven by the characters trying to change strategies and dig themselves out of the absurdity. In Bowfinger the characters never change and the escalation is shown by involving more hardware in each successive scenario.
The only characters in this film who change are Bowfinger's crew, who start off knowing nothing about film but who show the hard-working entrepreneurial spirit traditional to American immigrants and become good enough to get steady work in Hollywood, unlike the rest of the losers in this movie. That's your subtle indie-movie humor there, and I wish the other characters had had real arcs.
Mon Mar 02 2015 22:51 January Film roundup:
- The Music Man (1962, 2003): We marathoned both versions of The Music Man. I'm attached to the 1962 original, Sumana to the 2003 remake (which you can see on Youtube). We laughed, we learned, we sang along. It's such a good musical, with the greatest resolution to a con job I've ever seen.
The 2003 version does a couple things better—notably the mayor—
but most of the actors in the 2003 version are too young for the part and look even younger than they are. Matthew Broderick doesn't have the gravitas to play Professor Hill. More like Graduate Student Hill, amirite? There's a line where he tells Marian she's "twenty-six years late" to her Lovers' Lane assignation. Kristin Chenoweth is 35 in this movie and she looks about 28. Some shots had to be redone with a stunt double because Broderick's umbilical cord was visible.
Overall, the 1962 version is still the best. I mean, Cary Grant refused to play Harold Hill because he wanted to see Robert Preston do it like he did on Broadway. That's a hell of an endorsement. And one thing we hadn't noticed before was that Preston isn't afraid to massively camp it up when he's putting the con on River City. I guess what I'm saying is it takes judgement, brains and maturity to play—I say that any fool can fast-talk his way through the Harold Hill part, and I call that sloth.
- The Parallax View (1974): This movie was super tense and really freaked Sumana out. I liked the way it would seem like a character was becoming important to the story and then, jump cut, they're dead now. The central concept of the movie is brilliant. The set pieces are pretty good and the final one is incredible. Recommended overall.
Video game watch: there's a scene where a scientist is playing Pong with a chimpanzee.
- The Pirates (2014): I was initially very excited about this story of medieval Korean pirates chasing after a renegade whale. And there's a lot of goofy action but all the fun was spoiled for me because the whale dies! Yes, the tragic destiny of this movie's majestic whale is to be graphically killed and become a CGI whalefall. Boooo. Not recommended.
Unaccountably other people don't consider this a deal-breaker. The movie was made, Sumana recommends it, and Sarah scoffed when I mentioned the possibility that a whale's gory death was a reason to dislike the movie. I am alone! I was afraid this would happen so I went online ahead of time looking for a Whale Death Warning, but even with hindsight the best I can find it this vague statement in an Amazon review: "Also, having the movie scenes with the Mother whale and the baby were to raw and disgusting for under aged people to watch.." I'm not even sure whether this is talking about the death scene or the (completely unobjectionable) nursing scene. That's why I'm starting a new website, doesthewhaledie.com, as a public service to whales and whale allies who want to be spared these graphic portrayals. Here's the initial site mockup I used to secure VC funding:
|Movie||Does the whale die?|
|Star Trek IV ||No! 🐳|
|The Pirates ||Yes|
|The Little Mermaid (initial establishing shot)||Probably not|
|That National Geographic special from the 80s ||OH GOD|
- Kid-Thing (2012): A modern illustration of my aphorism that the French New Wave directors made films that would be much better as genre films. You can read this film as an unpleasant indie dysfunctional-family dramedy that's mean and only kinda funny, the sort of film that considers Napoleon Dynamite a phony big-budget sell-out. Or you can read it as a really effective horror movie that relies solely on the fact that kids are assholes. Either way, it was refreshing in a Celine and Julie way to see a ten-year-old girl get the sort of screwed-up Huckleberry Finn part that usually goes to boys.
Annie squishes a grub in this movie, and there's a dead cow, so if you feel about grubs or cows the way I feel about whales, don't see this movie. Not recommended in general, except maybe for certain real-life ten-year-olds. I couldn't find an MPAA rating, but if your kid is ready, you'll know.
Video game watch: at one point we see Annie playing Devil World on the family TV using a N64 controller. This may appear to be a ridiculous inaccuracy, since Devil World was a Famicom game and it never even came out in America, but it's actually one of the subtlest, truest portrayals of video games I've ever seen in a movie. The "N64 controller" has AV cables coming out of it, indicating that it's an all-in-one system loaded with pirate ROMs. Specifically, it's the Power Player Super Joy III, which comes with Devil World and displays the flashing "FUN TIME" we see earlier in the scene. So the filmmakers got it absolutely right. Annie's playing Devil World on a crappy pirate Famiclone because that's the only game system her family can afford.
- Pennies from Heaven (1981): One of the most cynical movies I've ever seen, not just that its attitude is cynical but that it thinks the audience will swallow gritty 70s cinema if we also get fabulous show-stopping musical numbers where Christopher Walken does a tap-dancing pool table striptease. (Highlight of the film.) Fred Astaire, who's unwillingly in this movie via archive footage, said (courtesy IMDB trivia):
I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They don't realize that the thirties were a very innocent age, and that [the film] should have been set in the eighties - it was just froth; it makes you cry it's so distasteful.
I wasn't there in the 30s, but I think someone who says "it was a very innocent age" is really making a statement about their own mental state. Anyway, this sort of gets at the problem, but it doesn't explain how Paper Moon can be a 70s-cinema movie set in the Depression that's very cynical but also funny and a great movie. Doesn't explain Sullivan's Travels.
The secret ingredient is, again, that vague concept called "heart". Paper Moon and Sullivan's Travels have heart; Pennies from Heaven just hates musicals. But it also has to prove its technical chops to demonstrate that its hate does not spring from jealousy. And the film's technical chops are amazing, absolute first class. So the film is really good at being the thing it hates. It's like a talented lit-fic author writing a novel deconstructing the science fiction genre and then denying the book they've written is, in fact, an exemplar of a school of science fiction that flourished in the 1970s. So how about some heart with your cynicism? That's Dr. Billy Wilder's 100% reliable nostrum.
Thu Feb 26 2015 21:48 Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF October 1985:
The first story in this magazine is James Tiptree's "The Only Neat Thing to Do", and the introductory copy introduces the main character as "a green-eyed young woman who happens to be one of the most appealing characters you are likely to encounter in these or any other pages," and my attitude was "Pffft, green eyes, sure, we'll see about that... DAMMIT." This story's so good. It starts out with this perfect wish-fulfillment space adventure but look at the title, folks, it's not gonna end well. Argh, so good.
Harlan Ellison still hates Gremlins, in fact he says he's been getting letters from people who scoffed at his Gremlins hate but now they've seen the movie they're swallowing their pride and sending him "toe-scuffling, red-faced, abnegating appeals for absolution." I'm harboring a doubt or two here, because he's also saying other people who took his advice (and presumably didn't see the movie) are thanking him.
Given that Gremlins has consistently been a well-regarded film since its release, why would someone say "Thanks for warning me off the movie I haven't seen that people still seem to like."?
But all that's in the past. In this issue Ellison doubles down, telling people not to see The Goonies due to "utter emptyheadedness", which, okay, at least it's a critique and not 'the lurkers support me in email.' Also on Ellison's shit list for this month: Rambo: First Blood Part II, A View to a Kill, and The Black Cauldron. He loves Cocoon, Ladyhawke, and Return to Oz, and who's to say he's wrong? Not me, 'cause I haven't seen any of those movies.
There's some really corny back-cover copy in one of the ads for books, but I know from experience that writing back-cover copy is the worst, so as a professional courtesy I'm not going to make fun of it. Kind of weird that most of the stories in this issue are SF or horror, but all the ads are for fantasy books.
Halley's Comet fever strikes the classifieds! There's an ad for Halley's Comet, 1910: Fire in the Sky, sort of a historical recreation by Jerred Metz. Also a "HALLEY'S COMET. TIE TAC or Stick Pin. Four color enamel and beautiful." I'm hyping up the Halley's Comet thing because I happen to own a mint in-box Halley's Comet Hot Wheels car the likes of which are currently going on eBay for a measly $5.32 used including shipping. C'mon! This is my nest egg here! I demand... demand!