Randomness for 1/14

Standard

1) The Chinese government’s extensive “social credit” surveillance system rewards loyal citizens and punishes whistle blowers.

2) Relationships vs Algorithm at Netflix.

3) For the First Time in More Than 20 Years, Copyrighted Works Will Enter the Public Domain.

4) The Fall and Rise of M. Night Shyamalan

5) Forgery Experts Explain 5 Ways To Spot A Fake. Video.

6) Dating while in therapy? The advice column answer to this question is both kind and its not interested in the way we bullshit ourselves. Excellent.

7) How to take awesome food photos by Helen Rosner. (This is a terrific primer on visual composition)

Movies with Mikey vs. 8 Harry Potter Films: The Path to Success

Standard

Hey, let’s talk a little bit about something that way too many people have already talked about: the Harry Potter films. And by “talk about” I mean “share this series of three Movies with Mikey episodes about the franchise.

Go ahead and watch. They’re good. If you’re not sure why you should bother, read more below.

The first time I told someone outside my family that I planned to binge all eight Harry Potter movies (nearly 20 hours worth of films but maybe more with bathroom breaks depending on beer) their reply was “Better you than me.”

And I get it. They’re kids films–at least at the start. They have good choices mixed with the not so good, and an inconsistent tone in some places. They take a while to hit their stride. It’s the BLOODLINE effect: how many hours do you have to watch before it “gets good”?

But I thought that binge-watch was valuable. The first movie is adorable, like a 130 million dollar school play. The last is as intense as any big-budget thriller. Making that journey is no easy feat.

I wouldn’t consider myself a Potterhead, or whatever Rowling’s Potter fans call themselves. I don’t visit Pottermore, write fanfic, or play quidditch IRL. I haven’t memorized the biographies of the supporting cast, so I couldn’t tell you where Minerva McGonagall took her gap year or whether Professor Sprout makes her own hats. I’m not that sort of fan about anything.

But I have read the books more than once (unusual for me) and I think there’s a lot to learn from the way the movies stumble and then correct themselves as they go on (which is a weird way to describe that process, I know, because movies don’t create themselves, but you guys know what I mean). I’m always interested in the creative choices behind a work that affects me deeply, which is why I’ve watched Beyond Stranger Things a half-dozen times, and I’ve already watched this three-part documentary twice.

In these videos, Mikey covers the onscreen character choices, the studio-level hiring decisions, and everything in between, showing how they came together to become this weirdly compelling long-form story. And I say “weirdly” because this sort of thing shouldn’t be my jam (except for all the death) but it is, and Mikey touches on that, too.

If you’re interested in how creative work gets made (esp in a group/corporate environment) give these a watch. They’re funny, insightful, and breezy. Neumann is also one of the few Patreon accounts that I feel I can afford to support, if you want to know how strongly I feel about his work.

Anyway, this is where I confess: I just binged these movies last July for my birthday, and watching this documentary makes me want to do it again, just to pick up on more elements that change in each installment: costuming, camera movement, sound design, and so on. And it just so happens that I got a box set for Giftmas. Maybe it should be a reward for finishing this round of edits on my new book.

AQUAMAN

Standard

I bought a ticket to AQUAMAN. Deliberately.

If I’m speaking honestly, Aquaman might be the second superhero I ever really liked as a kid. (after ’67 Spider-man, obviously). This was before I was reading comics, and my sole exposure to the genre was cartoons. I had to look up the name of the show–The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure–but he was my favorite character, with the rings coming out of the bridge of his nose and water blasts/balls/whatever that he threw.

Then came Superfriends and, yeah, lets just drop the whole thing there. Even as a dumb kid I knew Superfriends wasn’t going to fly. I didn’t find a version I liked again until the New 52, which made him just about the only character from that particular reboot that I thought was well served.

Anyway, I almost skipped the film because of that anecdote about Jason Momoa tearing out the end of bookworm Amber Heard’s book because she wasn’t paying attention to him. More here: although it sounds as if he only did it once and she actually likes the dude, annoying prank notwithstanding.

The movie is gorgeous, and dumb, and utterly predictable. There’s a three-stage plot coupon/fetch the macguffin story, with Our Hero as the dumb guy who inexplicably wins over his mentor/super-hot love interest through his ability to… I dunno… withstand a bunch of blows to the head?

Which is a little unfair, because they give Aquaman a bunch of nice heroic moments. Then there’s this:

Character in movie: Atlantis needs something more than a king.

Me, in theater: A democracy.

Character in movie: It needs a hero.

But whatever. the whole pick-your-autocrat-through-trial-by-combat was as stupid in BLACK PANTHER as it is here, but it’s fun to watch. And for once, Ocean Master doesn’t come across as a dink.

Plus, Amber Heard in her fluorescent jelly fish dress, and the drumming octopus. And jousting from the back of a sea horse. And and and. The film is dumb and beautiful and eager to please. Buy some popcorn and have a few laughs, but try not to think about Amber Heard’s book.

Fantastic Beasts 2 and the Basic Appeal of a Thing

Standard

In a now-deleted tweet, another author wrote that the Fantastic Beasts movies sounded like the Star Wars prequels, because they focused on worldbuilding at the expense of characterization. That got me thinking about the basic appeal of fantasy stories, and what role worldbuilding and characterization plays in making that appeal long-lasting.

If someone as savvy as the one mentioned above thinks the Fantastic Beast films have Star Wars Prequel-level characterization, that’s a major failure of the WB marketing department. Whatever the flaws of the Fantastic Beast movies, boring lead characters are not one of them. Newt Scamander might be the most peculiar hero of big budget studio adventure films in my lifetime. Even something as simple as the way he stands when he talks to other people subverts the idea of a male hero, the guys who wipe a trickle of blood from the corner of their mouth with their fist.

Honestly, I found Newt’s body language off-putting at first. His body language suggests that he believes other humans are dangerous predators, even the friendly ones. Imagine a Harry Potter who can barely make eye contact with Draco. It’s a bold choice, and it’s about a thousand miles from sulky, petulant Annakin and whatever Liam Neeson was doing.

One the problems with the second film is that the newer additions to the story aren’t as distinctive as the characters from the first film. Grindelwald’s hench-people in particular are a bunch of stoic blank-faces and a big disappointment from the writer who created the faculty at Hogwarts.

But I have to ask, if you want to talk about interesting characters, what about Harry Potter as a character? He comes from an abusive background (without the harmful damage kids in that environment get in the real world). He’s good at sports. He’s earnest and brave and snubs Flashman… er, I mean Draco from the start of the story.

We like him because, in part (and I’ll get to the second part in a bit), he’s a good guy in difficult circumstances, but it’s the specifics of those circumstances that make his story compelling. That’s on the worldbuilding.

Really, it’s Hogwarts. Hogwarts is the centerpiece of the appeal of the Harry Potter stories. Yeah, the characters. Yeah, the names of the characters (which I love). Yeah, the mix of plot threat, magic, interpersonal character bonding and conflict–Rowling has a sense for mixing those things in just the right order. But the Harry Potter books work so well because of a fairly ordinary Brave Young Hero in an extraordinarily appealing setting.

There’s a moment in FB2 where the story briefly returns to Hogwarts and it’s announced by that musical motif. You know the one I mean. It made me wonder why the other characters didn’t have their own music. Shouldn’t Credence’s scenes have their own little jingle? Shouldn’t Grindelwald’s? (Or maybe they did, but if so I didn’t notice) It would have helped establish the various factions in the plot, and helped us connect them.But Hogwarts deserves its own jingle because Hogwarts is the place we want to be.

Personally, I think the worldbuilding is an obsession with fantasy readers and fans. I have seen people complain about The Lies of Locke Lamora because it didn’t give them a sense of the world as a whole. It’s been said that a crime novel is, at its core, about a city, while a spy novel is like a tourist’s travel guide. Well, I think fantasy readers want their novels to be expeditions into fictional places, and I suspect Rowling has plenty more travel guide in her.

This isn’t to say that characterization isn’t important–obviously it is–but I think what really matters (this is the second part I mentioned above) is the relationships between the main characters. How they’re connected, how that relationship is tested, how it survives (or doesn’t).

I think this is the biggest flaw in the FB2: not enough emphasis is put on the connections between the characters. Jacob and Queenie spend most of the movie apart. Credence and Nagini need a scene to demonstrate the powerful connection between them to make his climactic choice meaningful. Leta’s connection to Newt is demonstrated powerfully, but not her connection to Theseus. And Grindlewald’s connections to his henchfolk is simply assumed.

Yeah, the movie has problems, but I think it’s better than people think. As I said on Twitter, in a few years’ time I expect people to reappraise it, especially in light of the FB series as a whole, however long many movies turns out to be.

But I’ll sum up by saying the worldbuilding has to have lasting appeal to sustain a long series, which I think the HCU (Hogwarts Cinematic Universe, ‘natch) does. Also, it helps to have interesting supporting characters and standard heroic leads with strong relationships to the other characters, because it’s the connections the readers will invest in, not the characters themselves. IMO.

Short Reviews from this Year’s Halloween Binge

Standard

Some short reviews of Halloween-themed binge watches from this year (which isn’t over yet, obviously).

Horror is at once my least- and most-favorite genres. I don’t like stuff that too gross or gory. I’m not a big fan of torture, or grime, or people being torn apart. Misogynistic torture porn is my least favorite sort of movie. Spooky, evocative supernatural stories might be my favorite.

Anyway, this is what I’ve watched so far this year. And I’m sending this out as a first draft, so please forgive any awkward phrasing.

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (Netflix streaming): A quiet, understated ghost story about a timid live-in nurse who comes to care for a horror writer with dementia. She slowly comes to realize that the author’s most famous work may not have been fiction, and that her house might be haunted. There’s not a lot of story here, but there is a lot of quiet dread.

The Shining (Netflix streaming): Kubrick’s horror classic still holds up today, and it does so without a lot of shadowy figures in dark rooms. King himself was unhappy with this adaptation because he wanted an everyman actor to play Jack Torrance, because to him it’s a story of an average man who loses control. King thought Jack Nicholson was too much of a wild man, and famous for his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But this is Kubrick’s story, and he’s got other things on his mind. Brilliant film, full of unforgettable moments.

Ringu (library dvd): Somehow I’ve missed this up until now, but I confess that I admired it more than I enjoyed it. There are, as far as I can tell, two sorts of ghost story. One where the main purpose of the story is to uncover a hidden truth, and one that doesn’t have a hidden narrative to uncover. The Shining was the latter, while Ringu is the former. That hidden narrative was interesting enough, but it didn’t feel solid.

The Sixth Sense (Netflix streaming): Everyone talked about the twist ending of this show, but what really makes this movie work is that it has two twists. The first is spoiled by that famous four-word line of dialog, and it takes a long time to get there. Still an enjoyable movie, though.

1408 (library dvd): A haunted hotel room is a fine idea for a story, but this whole thing feels expensive but uninspired. I enjoyed it while I watched it, but I’ve already forgotten most of the story.

Kwaidan (Netflix dvd): A big hit at Cannes in 1965, this anthology of ghost stories is very long and very beautiful, in a lavish studio technicolor way.

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix streaming): Probably the scariest thing I watched this year, and I loved it. The combination of kids in danger, sound design, and continually building tension made me turn it off, more than once. After the first few episodes, I felt acclimated to it and was happy to binge to the end. Loved it, except the end. Honestly, the ending was pretty much a betrayal of the first nine-and-a-half episodes. But the rest of it was ::chef’s kiss::

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Netflix streaming): I never watched the sitcom or the various cartoons, and I never read the comics, so I put this one on my queue solely based on the strength of the trailer. The show aims high, mixing horror and comedy and a bit of camp, which is not an easy tone to hit. It has a great cast, sharp writing, and it amazing to look at.

Ash vs The Evil Dead season 3 (library dvd): Speaking of difficult tones that are hard to get right, this third season of Ash vs the Evil Dead works like gangbusters, introducing Ash’s daughter, and losing some of the convoluted plotting off the earlier seasons. Even Lee Majors makes a brief return. I said above that I didn’t much care for gore, but I make an exception here. They don’t always get the tone right, but but they get it right enough that I can stick with it. It’s a shame the show was cancelled, but what a send off. I loved it enough to take a chance on the dvd commentary (which I regretted, as usual).

Constantine (Netflix streaming): There’s a lot of money and energy and charisma behind this, but it just doesn’t hold up.

Frailty (library dvd): Axe murder is one of the horror tropes that I try to avoid as much as possible, because it’s usually an excuse for fake gore, and I’m not a fan. But this movie turns the camera away at just the right moment, leaving the focus on the murderous father on a mission from God and his relationship with his sons. Super effective and very creepy.

It (2017) (library dvd): There are a few problems with this film, especially the way they treat Beverly as a plot device. But it has tremendous energy and a fantastic balance between youthful camaraderie and the threats surrounding the kids, whether supernatural or not. The structure was so solid I did a beat sheet for it. Now I just need to find time to break it down farther.

Ganja & Hess (library dvd): This is art-horror from the early seventies, a vampire movie directed by a Bill Gunn, a black playwright, actor, and director who also plays a supporting role here. Like a lot of older artsy movies, it tries the patience at times, but it also thwarts every genre expectation (in a good way). The original film was butchered by a distributor who wanted to show a blaxploitation film, but it’s been restored to the 110 minutes it’s supposed to be. Worth seeing, mostly because it’s different and an under appreciated classic.

The Night Stalker (my own dvd): One of the few movies I own. It has problems, but the structure is perfect, and it deserved to be a huge hit when it first aired. I watch it every year, and still love it.

Salem’s Lot (1979) (my own dvd): Far superior to the 2004 version, this simplification of Stephen King’s original novel still has chills, even 40 years later. My wife didn’t think much of it, since much of the staging and performances are dated, but revisiting it over the summer convinced me to pick up a copy of my own, and I’m glad I did.

The Transfiguration (Netflix streaming): Another art-horror film, this time one that combines the vampire story with hood dramas. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy in Harlem who is obsessed with vampires and blood-drinking. This is another slow, quiet film, without much in the way of supernatural elements. I’m glad I saw it, but I probably won’t watch it again.

He Never Died (Netflix streaming): Like Kwaidan, this isn’t exactly horror, but it’s close enough to qualify. Henry Rollins plays a sort of immortal vampire, but one who feasts on flesh as well as blood. And he’s lived for so long that he has pretty much given up on life. Then he discovers that he has a daughter, and his quiet, controlled life begins to spin out of control. The movie is funnier than it sounds, with Rollins giving a quiet, droll performance, but it looks like that miniseries about the character will never happen.

Interview with a Vampire (Netflix streaming): This holds up much better than I expected, possibly because it’s a period piece that feels so grounded in its period. Few things become dated as quickly as a child actor’s performance (see Salem’s Lot above) but not Dunst. But the real strength of this film is the relationship between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. They’re great together.

Hereditary (Netflix dvd): Probably the second scariest thing I’ve watched so far this year. It felt a little confused, but it was one of a number of stories where the protagonists were threatened by spells and magic rather than traditional monsters or hauntings. Great performances, with a whole bunch of scary images at the end that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s not often that I see horror films that make magical rituals or other spell casting work, but boy, does it.

The Ritual (Netflix streaming): This one combines a ritual magic story with a lost-in-the-woods monster story, and is mostly getting good word of mouth based on its unusual (and highly effective) monster design. The monster is not the real appeal, though. It’s the mounting tension and inexplicable threats the characters face.

The Wailing (library dvd): The third and final film about horror driven by magic spells, and this one had my wife and I guessing until the very end. Who is trying to do harm? Who is trying to help? It’s a longish film and starts off as a sort of horror comedy, with a buffoonish protagonist. As it progresses, shit gets more and more serious, and the buffoon turns into something else. I don’t think the film was playing fair 100% of the time, but I still loved it.

Evolution (library dvd): A quiet piece of French body horror about children in an island community who are being experimented on by their “mothers”. It’s weird and unsettling, filled with long quiet moments and blank, staring expressions. I liked it, but sometimes I thought it was deliberately trying my patience. Art/body-horror, if you can believe it. Side note: the ocean is creepy.

Slither (library dvd): This James Gunn horror comedy isn’t as funny as I remember it, but it was still pretty great. It’s hard to believe this was a huge flop that scared filmmakers off horror comedies for years. Nathan Fillion was his usual charming self, but some of his dialog could have been sharper. it was Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker that really make the film work. We could stand to have more alien invasion horror.

The Endless (Netflix streaming): A bunch of people have recommended this to me, but the sound mix made it hard for me to hear. I’ll have to try again another time, maybe when I have a chance to really crank the volume.

The Monolith Monsters (library dvd): I’ve seen this several times over the course of my life, and it was nice to revisit. It’s the only black and white show on this year’s list, which is unusual for me, but I really love the central conceit, about mindless alien stones that petrifies people.

Stranger Things (Netflix streaming): Oh hey there’s this sci-fi horror thing on Netflix you might have heard of. It’s pretty great. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but every time I put it on, I end up getting hooked.

Randomness for 10/10

Standard

1) Honest Kathleen Turner is best Kathleen Turner.

2) A Songwriting Mystery Solved: Math Proves John Lennon Wrote ‘In My Life’. Mathematical analysis applied to musical authorship, which I find damned interesting.

3) Political Moderates Are Lying: How group social dynamics push moderate voters to extremes. (Not a perfect article, but interesting.

4) Meet the Facebook Detective, a Citizen Sleuth Who’s Helping Solve Murders With Social Media.

5) A reliable credit-card skimmer detector: a card that detects multiple read heads.

6) “The first time the bears steal human food, they are relocated 30 miles away. The second time, it’s 60 miles, and the third time it’s 100. After that, they become consumer product consultants.”

7) This obituary is wild.

Long Live Physical Media

Standard

Hey, check out what arrived in the mail:

Salem's Lot 1979 blu ray

Last month I had a hankering to watch this, but it wasn’t available on the streaming services I pay for (and I try not to spend money renting tv shows or films on streaming, because budget). Luckily, Netflix had the dvd.

And it was terrific. Better, in fact, than I remember. Bonnie Bedelia has this incredible presence without ever raising her voice, and James Mason is always a great villain. Sure, it’s got that 70’s trumpet-blare-freeze-frame-zoom-in “scare” technique, but I love that shit.

But when I decided I wanted to have it so I could watch it whenever I please (aka this coming Halloween), I bought a physical copy. Sure, it would have been easy to buy it on iTunes, but hey, there are some downsides to that.

Read here the tale of the guy who had movies he’d previously purchased suddenly disappear from his account.

For those who don’t want to click, the Reader’s Digest version: iTunes had an agreement to sell movies put out by a certain distributor. Later, for whatever reason, that agreement ended and the distributor pulled the movies from iTunes’s store.

Which is when iTunes began deleting the movies from its customers’ libraries. It didn’t matter if you paid them to “buy” the film, because the film isn’t yours. It’s theirs. They can take it away from you at any time.

If I were to guess, I’m sure they set up their program this way to put pressure on the distributors they deal with. The head honchos at iTunes know that pulling a film from a fan’s library pisses them off in a big way, and they can instruct their CSRs to throw up their hands and blame the distributors. But really, it’s a fine reason to bypass iTunes all together, at least if you’re planning to purchase films or TV (iTunes will let you burn a music playlist to a cd, which reminds me that I need to do exactly that when I get home)

In truth, I don’t own a lot of films or tv shows, and several that I do have been gifts. But the ones I really enjoy? The ones I want to watch every Halloween, or whenever I’m feeling sad for no good reason at all? I buy physical media.

The downside is that, with our upcoming move almost certainly going to happen, we’ll be carting around physical copies. But like I said, I don’t own very many, so it’s no great burden.

Finally, yeah, sales of physical media are fading as streaming becomes easier and more profitable, but physical media won’t be going away completely. Smaller companies are already jumping in to capture that market.

My suggestion: support them. Own your own stuff.

Dodging Both Rock and Hard Place: the Uncompromising Hero

Standard

I watched MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT last week, then rewatched BLACK PANTHER a few days later, and I was struck by the similarities. Both are about good men in a situation where other people expect them to be ruthless if they want to succeed. Both refuse but succeed anyway, partly through a circle of incredibly competent friends, and partly through their own awesomeness.

Exceedingly minor spoilers for both films.

“You are a good man, with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king.”

To me, that’s the central line in THE BLACK PANTHER. T’challa is a good man who readily accepts the self-serving policies that have been handed down to him. Yes, black people around the world are oppressed, but Wakanda stands apart. That’s how it’s always been. They don’t liberate. They don’t conquer. They live happily and prosperously inside their secret country, minding their own bees wax. In fact, the first action scene in the film is a sequence where The Black Panther interrupts a rescue mission for the needs of the Wakandan state.

It’s Nakia who speaks up for doing the right thing, and W’Kabi who repeats the self-serving conventional wisdom. T’challa is ready to follow that tradition without even considering what it really means, right up to the point that he has to save someone’s life.

So, where T’challa talks and talks about doing what’s best for the country–what keeps them safe–but the first time he’s faced with the choice between helping and keeping his national secret, he helps. He doesn’t even consider his options first. It’s just “Here’s a person I know who has been hurt. We will help.” When questioned by his friends, he can’t even come up with a justification. It’s not a carefully thought out decision. It’s just him listening to his “good heart.”

Obviously, Killmonger is the other extreme. He wants to use the power and resources of Wakanda to kill and conquer. “The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire.” For him, nothing has value except power: not the lives of the enemies he’s recorded in the scars on his body. Not the girlfriend who helps him on his heists, and not the Wakandan traditions that put him on the throne.

If Killmonger had not blown off The Black Panther’s call for a resumption of their trial by combat, the climax of that film might have gone very differently. The Dora Milaje would have been honor bound to stay out of the fight, and Shuri, Nakia, and Ross’s attempt to stop the shipments of weapons would have failed. That’s a much better chance at victory, but Killmonger couldn’t honor the local tradition because he doesn’t care about doing the right thing.

With MI:FALLOUT, Ethan Hunt is continually put into situations where the expedient thing is to sacrifice someone else for sake of the mission. It’s pretty much the entire plot, front to back.

But because this is a movie, the protagonist can be as clever/fast/tough/resourceful as he needs to be to make it all work out. The real thrills come from seeing how effectively the movie makes you think he has to “go there”, then lets him be the hero instead.

The biggest difference between MI:F and TBP is that T’challa wields incredible power and authority. When he decides to do the good but not expedient thing, he only has to give the order, then endure the astonished expressions of his pals. For Ethan Hunt, he’s surrounded by enemies and allies he can’t trust (plus a couple of real friends, obviously). The stakes are much higher than “Our culture will have to open up to the world” so the tension is greater.

Fact: I enjoyed them both. The only thing I hope they do with the second Black Panther flick is to make T’challa as smart as he is in the comics. I want to see him win not because he used a clever karate move. I want him to show off his brains, too.

And, just to say in passing, that earlier this week I rewatched both Jack Reacher films, and as I said on Twitter, Christopher McQuarrie is a severely underrated writer/director. No matter how frantic or desperate the movie gets, it never feels like the story is skimming over something important. Great stuff.

Randomness for 7/31

Standard

1) The Legend of John Arthur, the Toughest Man in America.

2) Don’t Feed The Trolls and Other Hideous Lies.

3) What the Data Says About Producing Low-Budget Horror Movies.

4) Raising the barre: how science is saving ballet dancers.

5) What Happened When I Tried To Talk To My Twitter Abusers.

6) Ten Changes Made in the Lord of the Rings Novelization.

7) A ‘beer sommelier’ explains how pouring a beer the wrong way can give you a stomach ache. Video

Why You Should Go See BLINDSPOTTING

Standard

Would it seem incongruous is I said these two different things about BLINDSPOTTING:

1) It’s a film about gentrification.
2) The last 30 minutes have more tension and intensity than any thriller or action movie I’ve seen in the past year.

Typically, when I see a movie in the theater, I don’t bother doing any more than a tweet about it. For example:

or maybe:

But this film feels too complicated for a simple tweet. It’s like a buddy comedy where the funny bits are suddenly cut short by the very real possibility of tragedy. It’s a coming-of-age story for two characters who are already grown men. It’s social and political commentary hung on a frame work of friendship and dumb choices and being unable to erase your past.

Anyway, see this movie as soon as you can, if you can. It’s funny and sad and thrilling and extraordinarily vital.