Mysteries with Honest Detectives and Sad Endings: Netflix Codifies Art

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This article pushes all my buttons.

The more I learn about the way Netflix determines their categories, but more convinced I am that they’re doing something really useful that will soon apply to all entertainment media. To summarize the article briefly: not only have they created over 75,000 separate “genres” (called “altgenres” at the company) but they rate and categorize films according to a very complex system of metrics. How gory are they? How romantic? Where are they set? What job does the protagonist hold? How happy is the ending?

Hiding behind those 75+K genres are all sorts of ratings that Netflix pays careful attention to. If you watch a lot of movies in the Action categories but consistently turn off the gory ones before the end, Netflix will stop suggesting action movies with a high gore rating to you. Other kinds, sure, but not that one.

I’d hoped books could get a system like this with Game of Books, but they didn’t deliver. The project was sold or abandoned, and backers’ pledges were returned.

I still interested in a system that could do something similar with books. Bleak mysteries with an honest detective and a sad/tragic ending ought to be easier to find than they are, but the personal recommendations I get through social media haven’t scratched that itch. Those books were one disappointment after another. Would the Game of Books have managed it? Would “Netpages”?

Obviously, a system like this would never be perfect; Netflix’s certainly isn’t. That’s why I miss Netflix’s “Random” category, since my recommendations are now swamped with kung fu movies and British crime shows. (And why not? Love ’em!) Random allowed me to see recs beyond what the algorithm thought I wanted.

For Netflix to survive, it has to connect subscribers with shows they love over the long term, but sometimes its recs are so narrow that we only get to see a thin slice of what they offer. Basically, they hide most of their library. Before she moved in with us, my niece thought she’d seen everything of interest the streaming service offered. Now she’s binging on all sorts of shows. That suggests that Netflix’s algorithms are too restrictive right now. More variety is needed.

As for books, well, variety is not the problem. Covering them all would be the problem. Still, I think it’s inevitable.

I know there are people who will recoil instinctively from the idea of breaking down books into component parts in order to categorize them, but I can’t help but think that, if readers were able to look for “Contemporary Fantasy Crime Fiction with a Sad Ending”, I might still be writing Ray Lilly novels.

Genres are just descriptions for the marketing department, after all. I suspect we’re coming to a time when book classification is going to have to get much more granular.

“Business! Mankind was my business” Annual repost.

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This is my annual repost of my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, animated for TV.

If the embedding doesn’t work, the link is here.

It’s only 25 minutes long, but it’s full of amazing creative choices: Scrooge’s candle on the dark stair, Ignorance and Want, the transitions that Scrooge takes with the Ghost of Christmas Past, the hands, the waves and clouds, and so many other things.

Really beautiful. If you haven’t seen it before, treat yourself.

Randomness for 12/3

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1) Skimp or Spend, an Illustrated Mens’ Style Buying Guide

2) Seven Things I Learned Reading ISIS’s Magazine.

3) She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.

4) Piecaken

5) I dressed like Cookie (from EMPIRE) for a week to get over my Impostor Syndrome.

6) Purple Rain, remade in a language without a word for “purple”.

7) That history of the Mork and Mindy show you didn’t know you wanted.

Divers Matters (aka N things make a post)

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With all the terrible news in the world right now (along with the deeply awful responses) I’m going to write about some personal stuff.

1. One of the regular features of this blog is the recurring Story Seeds posts: when I get a story idea that starts taking over too much of my thinking, I give it away here on my blog for anyone to use. Well, as I mentioned before, a writer ran with one of those ideas and sold his story. And now the anthology is out: Caped: An Anthology of Superhero Tales. His name is Stephen Kotowych. Check it out.

2. Everyone’s buzzing about the latest new awesome video game, so let me mention one I played right before my Portugal trip: it’s called PORTAL. Very fun and funny! I played Portal 2 immediately after, which was also fun and funny, although not as much. The cake is a lie! Right?

My kid has other ideas, and convinced me to preorder Fallout 4 for him. With our terrible internet, it took 2 days to download, but he’s been playing it regularly ever since and he loves it. Do you love post apocalyptic settings? You might like it, too, but if you wait ten years you can probably pick it up cheap and play it on an old computer.

3. For the first time ever, I figured I’d try NaNoWriMo, because I was having trouble getting momentum on the book after a month away. I’m supposed to write 50,000 words during November, and today is the 15th. The halfway mark. How many words have I gotten done? 8,000.

That would be fine if they were all excellent words in great scenes, but there’s at least one pivotal scene that I know I screwed up in a big way.

4. I mentioned this on social media, but I’m almost psyched to watch Jessica Jones on Netflix. I say “almost” because I don’t really have strong expectations, and might be deeply disappointed, but I still plan to start watching at midnight when it airs, just as I did for Daredevil.

This is the way I enjoy big corporate entertainments: I see them as quickly as I can, with little to no enthusiasm. This lack of excitement is why I usually find myself deep in online discussions of movies or shows without feeling even remotely like a “fan.” I think it’s also why online disagreements about a show, which usually feel clinical to me, can be so upsetting to other people, especially now that everyone has decided that casual conversations are “attacks from fans”.

5. The other video game that is taking over my life is Sentinels of the Multiverse, which started as a cooperative card game but was turned into a virtual card game last year. It’s a complex game, and frankly I found all the conditions impossible to keep track of when I had to jot them on pieces of paper. I much prefer to have the software keep track of all that for me, not to mention how much easier it is to read the cards on my screen.

Steam assures me that I’ve played this game for 83 hours this year, which doesn’t cover the many hours I played the version on my wife’s iPad. And while the graphics are colorful and the knock off superhero characters (pseudo-Flash, pseudo-Iron Man, etc) are cute, the different decks interact in interesting ways. Winning games becomes a matter of working out each deck’s strengths.

Anyway, Handelabra has created a free version of the game that you can download. You can play the free version with a tutorial that teaches you the game or you can turn that off. And while the paid version of the game comes with four villains, four environment decks, and ten hero decks, the free one has only a single villain and environment deck, with four heroes to oppose him.

So if you want to see not-Superman, not-Flash, not-Batwoman, and not-Iron Man take on not-Lex Luthor on Dinosaur Island, try out that game for free. There’s no time limit on it and you can play it as many times as you like.

Three Shows I Watch on Netflix That I Won’t Be Recommending Ever

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Somewhere in my list of incomplete blog posts I have a piece I’ve started months ago about forgiving the shows you enjoy. Everyone does it. Everyone has to. A terrific show has a weak episode, or a joke that’s in bad taste, or a special effect that looks fake as hell, and you shrug it off, because the rest is worthwhile.

Well, this post is going to be about TV shows I watch(ed) on Netflix that were in some ways wonderful, but which have flaws that are so egregious that I don’t recommend them to anyone. First up:

FINDER

Premise:
An Iraqi veteran receives a head injury that changes his personality and thought processes so that he can discern connections other people would never notice, making him a savant when it comes to finding lost items and people.

What Works:
Geoff Stultz is fantastic as Walter, the veteran who has been so completely changed that he cares about almost nothing except whatever he’s obsessed with finding at the moment. The late Michael Clarke Duncan is wonderful as the kind-hearted, staunchly ethical friend and business manager. Like a lot of shows, the relationship between the regular characters is what sells it. Walter is brilliant and erratic, but once he starts searching for something, he becomes obsessed and can’t stop. He has also lost much of the social skills he used to have, so the people around him are always trying to protect him, especially from himself.

And yeah, it’s a bit of a Sherlock Holmes thing, but with actual humor and some irrational processes. The lost items Walter is sent to find is usually a person, but not always. The walk-on roles for each episode have complexity to them, and the show benefits from not having the same old same old in every episode. Great idea for a premise, well executed.

Why I Don’t Recommend it:
That would be the vicious racism. Note for creative people of all types: “gypsy” is not synonymous with “gangster” or “career criminal”.

DEATH IN PARADISE

Premise:
A humorless, uptight detective from London finds himself transferred to an island paradise in the Caribbean, and he hates it.

What Works:
Most TV shows sink or sail based on the relationships between the main cast, and this fairly standard episodic whodunnit (complete with a “gather all the suspects to reveal the murderer” climax) leans heavily on the main cast. But it works. DI Richard Poole hates the heat, sun, sand, and relaxed lifestyle of the Caribbean–he even hates the run down (but beachfront! with gorgeous view!) house assigned to him. He insists on clinging to the symbols of his authority–especially the jacket and ties–because he just can’t adapt.

It’s a funny show. Not in a “hilarious belly-laugh” sort of way, but they’ve cast charismatic actors (including the guy who played Cat on Red Dwarf) and everything clicks. They even play fair with the clues. There’s some unfortunate stuff with the lead actress–TV is always trying to cram romantic story lines where they don’t belong–but it didn’t work and they recognized that and backed off.

Plus: gorgeous scenery.

Why I Don’t Recommend It:
The pilot episode starts with the current DI being murdered, and Poole is sent to investigate, then trapped in the assignment. However, as the third season started, the actor playing Poole wanted out (apparently for personal reasons: too much time shooting on the islands away from his family). So, to bring in a new DI, they did the same thing as in the pilot: they murdered the old one.

Some shows kill off characters all the time. Game of Thrones kills characters you love and hate every episode, it seems. But this? Not that kind of show. DI Poole is a comic figure, and we like him, and seeing him murdered, up close, with an ice pick… well, let’s just say the fun was spoiled.

Of course they had to bring in a replacement lead, and he had to not quite fit in without being identical to the previous character’s predicament. While it’s not the actor’s fault, the new character is ridiculous and the rhythm is ruined.

Maybe watch the first two seasons and pretend the rest doesn’t exist? Or not.

THE GOOD GUYS

Premise:
Fussy, rule-abiding Detective Jack Bailey is partnered with old-school rule-breaking Detective Dan Stark because the whole department hates them both, and no one can stand to have them around. They’re given the pettiest, most bullshit crimes to investigate which always leads to a major case.

What Works:
Jack thinks it’s a good idea to correct his superiors’ grammar, and Dan won’t stop talking about the time he and his old partner saved the governor’s son back in the 80’s (and that there was a TV movie of the week made about it). Together they’re an excellent double act (straight man and comic) and the show is pretty funny, even though it doesn’t have as many laughs as it probably should have.

The crimes the leads are given to investigate–smashed vending machine, stolen dry cleaning–are handed out like insults, but somehow the people involved always connect to a huge crime that no one else in the department knows about. The plots are structured like a farce, and each episode wraps up with an extended comic action scene like a shootout or car chase.

The villains are also great characters, from the vegan bank robber to the good old boys who think it’s their patriotic duty to steal cars from British criminals. Really, as fun as the plots can get, and as strong as the two leads are in their roles, it’s the attention to creating interesting, quirky villains in the Elmore Leonard mode that makes the show work.

Why I Don’t Recommend It:
The moment for a show like this has passed, hasn’t it?

It’s one thing to feature a comicly ridiculous rule-breaking cop to make fun of the trope of the renegade cop, but we’ve seen rule-breaking cops in real life, and the effect they have is anything but comic. So, it’s a fun show, but some people will take it with a heavy dose of ick.

Randomness for 9/13

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1) Why Salad Is Overrated.

2) Actually, salad is good.

3) Ice-T will has some startling information for you in these (fake) SVU screencaps.

4) Most Heinous Stories of Role-Playing Games Gone Wrong.

5) Picture Yourself as a Stereotypical Man. “Stereotype threat” and academic achievement, or how to erase any statistical difference between whites and blacks / men and women.

6) I love this book design.

7) Classic book covers turned into gifs.

RIP Jeff Rice, a month late

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It’s strange for me to sit here and type out a short post about Jeff Rice and the effect he had on me. You see, I have never read one of his books.

However, his unpublished novel became one of the best horror TV movies of all time, THE NIGHT STALKER. If the sequel and the TV series never quite reached the heights of that first movie, it still set a precedent that horror TV shows follow today. We wouldn’t have The X-Files without Carl Kolchak, and although Richard Matheson wrote the script, Jeff Rice created the story.

From reports, he had a troubled life, and that successful movie and show never translated into other kinds of success. He died just over a month ago, and few covered it.

Still, he created a character I love.

If you’ve never seen any Kolchak–or you’ve only seen the TV series–get your hands on the original movie. It’s beautifully structured and incredibly effective, considering the constraints it was made under.

Rest in Peace, Jeff Rice. thanks.

Complex, Single-Take Action Scenes (starring women on AoS)

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Blah blah blah Daredevil fight scene at the end of the second episode. Right? When Daredevil came out last April, everyone was talking about it. And why not? It was pretty cool. No hidden edits, no cgi tricks[1], just an actor and his stunt doubles doing some ninjaparkourboxing.

The second time she watched That Fight, my wife confessed that she couldn’t tell the actor from the stunt doubles. She’d been comparing their muscles, specifically their butts. Like she needed an excuse to look at muscular dudes’ butts on TV.

But for all the furor over that long scene, few people seem to have noticed that AGENTS OF SHIELD has been doing similar things (in a smaller way) for Chloe Bennet, the actress who’s playing Skye/Daisy/Quake/whatever they’re calling her. No stunt doubles for her, and the single take action scenes she’s been in haven’t been as long as the six-minute Daredevil bit, but they’ve been complex and really nicely shot.

I tried to link to them before but… did you know ABC doesn’t have a timer on their video player? What the hell are they thinking? Then I turned to YouTube.

First, ep 19, “The Dirty Half-Dozen”
Some solid JOHN WICK-style action there, all in one take.

Second, ep 22, “SOS part 2”
This one is physical martial arts fighting, and it’s a single take for the first 30 seconds or so. I couldn’t find one with better sound.

There may be others in the season, but I didn’t notice them. I should mention, there are plenty of great fight scenes in the show [2] but I was looking for single takes.

These aren’t exactly ground-breaking, exactly, and they aren’t anywhere near as long as the much-lauded Daredevil scene (they’re on a network schedule and it’s an ensemble show) but they’re nicely done and almost entirely overlooked. It’s too bad. Chloe Bennet acquits herself well here.

[1] Hah, fooled you. There was cgi involved. The camera was mounted on a track affixed to the ceiling, and the track was digitally erased in post-production. That’s how the camera work was so smooth over the busted door and collapsed stunt men.

[2]

Ow

Randomness for 6/23

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1) Peanuts comics with Game of Thrones quotes.

2) The Tumblr I Work At A Public Library.

3) One of GRRM’s fans made a (spoiler-free) series of maps showing the history of Westeros before the events of the books.

4) Energy harnessed from humidity can power small devices. Cool.

5) If JK Rowling had written the Harry Potter books from Voldemort’s point of view.

6) Remove cat before takeoff. Video.

7) Six SF/F authors who hated their legacy. Quick note to the universe: I don’t know if I would grow to hate a book of mine that became wildly successful, but I’m willing to risk it.

Randomness for 5/28

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1) Darpa successfully tests the first bullet that can be steered after it was fired.

2) Geologists grill up stakes with lava… and ruin them.

3) Richard Prince Selling Other People‚Äôs Instagram Shots Without Permission for $100K Whenever I feel cynical about publishing, I think about fine arts and give my oil-painter wife a hug. (Of course, if he was skimming other people’s work from reddit, I wouldn’t be surprised…)

4) Feces rained down on outdoor Sweet 16 party. Dumped from a plane, obviously. Stranger than fiction

5) Nothing about this toy makes sense. Video. Don’t watch that without the sound.

6) Law & Order: Daredevil. Video. Also requires sound.

7) A Kickstarter for a horror video game about a blind woman. Cool.