Randomness for 1/14

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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)

“Mankind Was My Business”: The Annual Repost of the Best (Objectively) Version of A Christmas Carol

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Each year, I share this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which is still my favorite of all the versions of that famous story.

Because of the way they portray the ghosts and the spirits. There is no spookier version, and even fifty years later, the animation is gorgeous. So great, in fact, that it won an Oscar for short animated film, and prompted the Academy to change their rules so that shows that were first broadcast on TV were no longer eligible for their reward.

It’s the Wilt Chamberlain of animation.

If the embed doesn’t work, here’s the link.

Honestly, I think these times need this story more than ever. If you haven’t seen this version, this is your chance.

Short Reviews from this Year’s Halloween Binge

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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.

Heroes For Hire Cancelled by Netflix

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On social media I’ve been pretty open about how pleased I was with the second season of Iron Fist. It wasn’t perfect, but it did away with the unlikable Danny Rand of the first season and told a more interesting story, with better villains, interesting fight scenes and, unfortunately, the lingering effects of a couple of bad decisions from the first season.

It didn’t help. Nobody watched. Iron Fist was cancelled shortly after the season dropped.

And now, Netflix has cancelled Luke Cage, too. There won’t be a third season for this well-reviewed, well-received show.

With Iron Fist, it was no surprise. The first season was bogged down with terrible choices, some big and some small. The biggest was turning the show into yet another neo-noir when the material called for a lighter touch. the small–well, there were dozens of little ways that the show turned Danny Rand into an unlikable jerk, and that shit adds up.

And viewers don’t forget. Few people will feel an urgent need to revisit a seriously flawed show. Only a dedicated few–like lovers of martial arts movies, abject racists pissed about the criticism of the show’s white hero, and those (like me) who have been fans of the character since they were kids and were hoping things would turn around–are going to put a second season at the top of their watch list.

And while Netflix doesn’t publish ratings, they did say that Iron Fist S1 was one of their more popular offerings. But they sure cancelled S2 very quickly after it dropped. I’m guessing the numbers are dismal.

There are a lot of theories online about the reasons Luke Cage is gone: They’re going to combine Luke and Danny in a Heroes for Hire series; Disney wants to start it up again on their own service, maybe with the same actors; Netflix and Disney are involved in a feud over Disney’s new service; etc. But I suspect Luke Cage is going away for the same reason Iron Fist is. The show is expensive to make and the first season wasn’t compelling enough to draw in a lot of viewers for season two.

Not that season one of Luke Cage was as bad as Iron Fist’s. It had a great deal of buzz, thanks to Cage’s appearance in Jessica Jones and the general excitement for a black superhero story. Purportedly it crashed Netflix when it first dropped.

But that first season had its problems, too. Cornell Stokes was an excellent villain, but he got written out halfway through. I’ve seen the show runner talk about Diamondback as a sort of “horror movie villain”, the guy people talk about in hushed tones until he shows up all scary and dangerous.

Except, despite the actor’s charisma (and great voice), Diamondback is written as a bible-spouting psycho gangster who also by coincidence is Cage’s brother. It comes out of left field, it doesn’t feel natural, and it replaces a complex, interesting villain with a grinning evil guy with a gun. Would the first season of Luke Cage have a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes if reviewers had seen the whole season instead of just a six-ep preview with all those Cornell episodes?

How many people have said they still haven’t watched season two of Luke Cage, or Iron Fist, or even Jessica Jones? (Season one of the latter was full of great performances and had a truly great villain, but it pissed away a lot of the tension toward the end.) The Netflix model has long been engagement over quality. They’re happy enough with a 13-hour B minus or C plus show that could have been a solid A with a few cuts. But there’s a big difference between staying engaged with a bingeable season of shows and returning to a new season two years after sorta liking the first one.

Here’s a short list of shows I’ve abandoned after one season for no reason other than lack of enthusiasm: iZombie, The Magicians, Midnight Diner, Travelers, Shooter, Dark Matter, Gotham. It’s not that they’re bad shows. They’re fine. I just didn’t feel like I had a compelling reason to keep watching.

As Lawrence Block said, the first chapter sells the book the reader is holding. The last chapter sells the next book.

And season two of Luke Cage, despite the wonderful performances and amazing music, had no through-line. Characters would talk about problems that seemed to come from nowhere, because the show hadn’t bothered to *show* them. In one scene, Luke Cage is performing feats of super strength on a field surrounded by adoring fans while a Nike rep is trying to put a million dollars in his pocket. Soon after, he’s complaining that people are afraid of him because he’s a black man with powers, and he’s so angry about it that he’s punching holes in the walls.

Now, yeah, that’s an entirely reasonable thing for a character like Luke Cage to be angry about, but the show doesn’t bother to dramatize it. In scene after scene, he’s famous and beloved, taking selfies with little kids and getting The Look from every woman on the street. It’s not enough to say “It would be logical if…” and then have the characters talk about it. It’s a show. A long-ass show. Dramatize it or drop it.

Anyway, early reports are that Netflix wanted a shorter season (a smart decision but I doubt they’re making it for creative reasons) which suggests that viewership was way down. Supposedly, they were unhappy with the early scripts. How much does the show cost? How many people are still watching? And did they cancel Luke Cage on Daredevil S3 Day because they wanted their subscribers to thing Shit, I should watch these shows if I want more of them?

What remains to be seen is whether Netflix will go for a fourth season of Daredevil (even after that excellent third) and if they’ll continue with Jessica Jones (the last season for show runner Melissa Rosenberg) and The Punisher after their new seasons drop. If Netflix cancels them all, wiping the slate of Marvel shows, I think we can be confident that competition with Disney is behind it, no matter what they type into their press releases. If they don’t, we can blame the ratings.

But even if Netflix shuts them all down, I can’t say I’ll be unhappy. Most of their shows were flawed but enjoyable. We’ll have to see what comes next (and whether I drop Netflix once it drops its superhero stuff.)

Long Live Physical Media

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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.

The New Iron Fist Trailer is Fine When It Needs to be Great.

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Here’s the first trailer for S2 of Iron Fist, and if I’m being honest, I don’t love it.

It’s not terrible, not like the trailers for S1 (“Where did he learn martial arts?”) but S1 was so terrible that I wanted this to blow me out of the water.

It doesn’t. It’s a competently staged fight with an interesting viewpoint trick, it’s clear that the filmmakers know how to show Finn Jones fighting, but the visuals aren’t interesting. The location isn’t unusual. The enemies are, what, a few muggers?

That’s not going to wash away the bad feelings from S1.

I’ve heard that the fight footage they showed at SDCC was exceptional, and that everyone who saw it is really hopeful about this new season. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/holy-crap-iron-first-season-two-actually-looks-really-1827712069

It’d be nice if that extra footage was online right now.

Yeah, I know Iron Fist is problematic, but he was pretty new when I first got into comics at that impressionable age, so he was all over the comics. I have a soft spot for the character, and I want to see him done well. With luck, that extra footage will make its way online and we can all be impressed.

“I don’t want to be what they made me.” A Review of Jessica Jones S2

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When I finished watching the second season of Jessica Jones (the first time through) I tweeted this:

Now that I’ve seen it all the way through three times does my opinion still hold up?

Yep!

Spoilers! Continue reading

Randomness for 1/23

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1) Things restaurant workers wish you knew about being a patron in a restaurant.

2) The Beautiful Science of Cream Hitting Coffee.

3) The 50 Best Good/Bad Movies.

4) The New Republic on JRR Tolkien, circa 1956.

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6) Police give out thumb drives infected with malware as cybersecurity prizes.

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Randomness for the Holidays

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1. Interesting etymology of holiday terms. Video.

1a. The classic holiday story “The Little Match Girl” which I’d never read.

2. Feeding the Poop Log: A Catalan Christmas Tradition.

3. The Tiny Desk Holiday Special.

3a. More Music: Christmas carols performed by goats.

4. Nine Holiday-themed D&D enemies to throw at your players.

4a. Holiday beers.

5. Are poinsettias really poisonous, and other Christmas questions, answered by Science.

6. I judge adaptations of A Christmas Carol by the way they depict the ghosts, and this right here is the perennial winner:

7. Last (and you knew this was coming), if you need a last-minute gift, ebooks like my new Twenty Palaces novella, The Twisted Path, are cheap and easy to deliver.