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Your chicken, your egg, your problem



 



November Film Roundup

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 02:37:03 GMT

A few movies seen in a miserable month. Really high success rate though! Plus, this is the first month since the beginning of Film Roundup where every feature I saw is a new release. Maybe that counts for something in this messed-up world. Naw, who am I kidding?
  • I saw a long series of Kieslowski shorts and the standout was Hospital (1977), a slice-of-life documentary shot in a Warsaw trauma center where everything is super Communist and falling apart. Even the hammers don't work properly! Unglamorous gore and unsexy nudity abound. For half these people it's the worst day of their lives; for the other half it's just a normal day of improvising.
  • The Age of Shadows (2016): Man, Korean movies, huh? This was much more violent than the corresponding American R movie would have been. You think you're out for a classy espionage movie and it's just people getting murdered from the first scene to the last. In between the murders there were some cool fights, some good espionage, lots of nice looking period sets and costumes. I do not recommend overall because the amount of gore takes it past Robocop territory, but Sumana liked it.

    There's a suspenseful scene where you don't know whodunit, but the real question is, whocares? There are maybe six characters here, we're near the end of their movie, and I'm not so attached to any one of them that I'm going to be shocked by a revelation that this one is the Cylon. And... I was right not to get attached to any of these characters. Whew.

  • Arrival (2016): (image) Sometimes I'll tear up during a movie and I resent it. It feels cheap, like I'm just having a physiological reaction to the soundtrack. This happens a lot during trailers. Sometimes it's a good movie and the content legitimately makes me tear up. This happens pretty reliably when someone's spouse or kid dies and you have to see the effect of that death on the surviving spouse or parent. (Parent death, not so much, maybe because that's actually happened to me.) Three Colors: Blue and Waiting both did this to me.

    Because of its narrative structure, Arrival made me not just 'tear up' but full-on cry in the theater. There are things about this adaptation that I am iffy on, but the one thing at the core of "Story of Your Life" is done incredibly well, it perfectly hits my pain points, and kablooie.

    I think this is not most peoples' reaction to Arrival, so here's a review for normal people. I'd have cut some stuff at the beginning but it's a good movie overall. It does a good job showing big-idea space opera on a small budget.

    Pictured to right: the Heptapod B sentence I wrote by accident while baking Thanksgiving cheesecake.

  • Moana (2016): In Albany for Thanksgiving, the family divided into two warring camps: the camp that was seeing Doctor Strange and the camp that was seeing Moana. I was in the Moana camp and even though the theater was filled with noisy children, I don't regret it. Great movie. Good songs, silly and heartwarming in the right ways. Tons of sea life, no central villain... could this be the Star Trek IV of Disney animation? There was a moment during one of the songs where I thought "Cool, they're combining animation with live action like in Mary Poppins WAIT A MINUTE THIS IS ALL ANIMATION."

    Sumana braved the 2.5-hour running time of Doctor Strange and came back with a tale of... distracted driving? Doesn't sound very 'strange' to me. I thought these Marvel movies were supposed to have Iron Man punching things. Anyway, later that week Sumana saw Moana and also loved it. I'm not wild in general about Disney animated features but I must admit they've been on a roll lately.




October "Film" Roundup

Thu, 03 Nov 2016 02:41:20 GMT

October was a Krzysztof Kieslowski month at the museum, so we saw a lot of his stuff with a few other things mixed in. Kieslowski is Sumana's favorite director, whereas I had seen one of his films. Tons of new stuff, many new favorites, some duds... it's all in a Film Roundup's work! Film (1965): Or as Wikipedia calls it, "Film (film)". I make the decision on a case-by-case basis whether to review shorts, so don't look for consistency. Instead, look for post-Sunset Boulevard Buster Keaton doing Samuel Beckett's version of a Buster Keaton movie. Like Dali/the Marx Brothers, it's a conceptually satisfying matchup (the great surrealists! the great existentialists!) but one that's spoiled by a lack of mutual admiration. Groucho didn't like Dali's screenplay for Giraffes on Horseback Salad, and he was correct--it sounds like a disaster. Beckett had tried to get Keaton as Lucky for the American production of Waiting for Godot (and it's even possible Waiting for Godot was inspired by a Keaton short) but Keaton turned down the part because he didn't 'get it'. Film isn't a disaster and it even has some really good gags, but if you don't 'get' Waiting for Godot you certainly won't 'get' this movie, even if you're the star. The Double Life of Veronique (1991): I saw Blind Chance (1987) a couple years ago, and it was pretty decent, so although this movie disappointed me I didn't write off Kieslowski's entire oeuvre because of it. It starts off pretty good, and then the romance subplot kicks in and both Sumana and I lost interest. On the plus side, I believe this is the first film I've seen that shows a Minitel terminal. (It doesn't get used.) Safety Not Guaranteed (2012): A fun date movie. Good laughs, good chemistry between the weirdo characters, is okay with leaving a couple things unexplained. Recommended. The Scar (1976) and Short Working Day (1981): Although I'm not impressed by Kieslowski's storytelling when it comes to romantic love, when it comes to talking about work, I think he's right up there with Billy Wilder. These are awesome socialist-noir films about the impossible job of being a middle manager in a planned economy. Their protagonists are forever squeezed between the Workers and the Party, unable to make anyone happy. Maybe it's all a metaphor for filmmaking or something slight like that, but the sheer number of films Kieslowski made about work makes me think he finds it really interesting. I'm gonna give Short Working Day the nod, because it's shorter and has more action. But they're both good. Shin Godzilla (2016): First, I gotta say I did not like this Godzilla design. Did not like how dinosaur-like it was. I say: classic Godzilla all the way, 90s Godzilla an acceptable substitute. Also mystified by this movie's attempt to retcon "Godzilla" as an English word. But whatever. Like all the Godzilla films that aren't completely silly, this one's about the humans, not the monster, and it's solid. A long time ago I suggested that the The West Wing should do an annual Halloween episode: a noncanonical story about an alien invasion or zombie attack. Well, here it is! This is a Godzilla movie done as an episode of Veep. Lots of walk-and-talk, lots of government incompetence on display. It was kind of corny but definitely closer to the original Godzilla than to the silly stuff in its emotional resonance. I saw this subtitled, and although I prefer subtitles in general, I gotta say a dub might be better here. There are a gazillion charaters in this movie and each is introduced with a caption giving their name, organization, and position within the organization. Some of these people are only in the movie for one shot! The same thing happens for every military unit we see, each distinct piece of hardware fruitlessly deployed against Godzilla, etc. So you have to read all that, and keep it separate from the dialogue subtitles that are on screen at the same time. Dekalog (1989): This is a famous series of ten made-for-TV movies, roughly modelled after the (Catholic version of the) Ten Co[...]



Reviews Of Old Science Fiction Anthologies: 1972

Fri, 07 Oct 2016 01:51:31 GMT

(image) Just finished Donald A. Wollheim Presents The 1972 Annual World's Best SF, an old SF anthology with one of those funky 1970s Yves Tanguy-esque cover paintings, obtained, I believe, through Jed Hartman. While it's fresh in my mind I wanted to take note of my favorite stories from the book. If nothing else, it's sometimes useful for me to go back and remember stories that I really liked.

As you'd expect from a year's-best anthology all the stories in this book are pretty good by 1972 standards. I'd say the champion is probably "Real-Time World" by Christopher Priest, which is weird in a way I found really interesting. Has a PKD-like plot but written in a different style. Honorable mention to Joanna Russ's "Gleepsite", which is weird in almost the same way, and a lot shorter. R. A. Lafferty's "All Pieces of A River Shore" was my favorite story in the book all the way up to the last paragraph, which enraged me to the point that I've bumped it down to third place.

Runners-up: Paul Anderson's "A Little Knowledge" was slight but really fun to read. Larry Niven's "The Fourth Profession" (Hugo nominee!) combined the superb inventiveness characteristic of the very best SF with a very 1972 conception of the range of acceptable human behavior. The introduction to "The Fourth Profession" mentioned it was originally published in a Samuel Delany anthology series called Quark, which looks like it's got a lot of good stuff.

Now that I've started writing all this down, I'll conclude by mentioning that I recently read the September/October 2011 F&SF and my favorite story was "Aisle 1047", Jon Armstrong's goofy story of brand warfare.




September Film Roundup

Sun, 02 Oct 2016 02:19:41 GMT

Ah, September, the month of cinematic disappointment. Wake me up when September ends. What's that you say? Well, just gimme like five more minutes. The Seven Samurai (1954): Okay, I've learned my lesson. No more Kurosawa films that take place prior to the Meiji Restoration. I think I've now seen all the big ones and although this one is clearly the best of the lot, it couldn't hold my attention for three hours. Some good scenes, but way too slow for me, and minus points for the blah romance subplot. Mikey and Nicky (1976): If you're like me, nothing I can say will talk you out of seeing an Elaine May crime drama starring Peter Falk, but a used DVD of this movie goes for a hundred fifty bucks, and what do you get? A pretty normal 1970s dramedy. I saw Mikey and Nicky at Metrograph for $15, a significant savings, and I don't regret spending the money, but it's the least good Elaine May movie I've seen. Is it funny? Kind of. Is it awkward? Definitely. Does everything go wrong? Absolutely. It's interesting to see a woman's take on the 1970s small-time crooks immortalized by male directors like Sidney Lumet. But this isn't even May's best "Person A is person B's friend but also trying to kill them" movie. (That's A New Leaf.) It's the kind of movie that other people like more than I do. There's only one Elaine May movie that I haven't seen (The Heartbreak Kid, DVD also $150 used) so I'll only have one more chance to say this in Film Roundup: The fact that May is still in movie jail over Ishtar is one of the great injustices of the film industry, especially because Ishtar is a really good, really funny movie. I saw a number of old Vitaphone shorts at Film Forum, but they were nothing to write blog about. However, there was also a really interesting talk from Alejandra Espasande, an archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, with a (kind of too long) clip show afterwards. One of our New York traditions is a variety/clip show called "Kevin Geeks Out". We don't go very often because it starts at 9PM on Thursday in Brooklyn, but host Kevin Maher makes it a fun time with guests, games, etc. As you might imagine, "Kevin Geeks Out" has a certain attitude towards the unlicensed projection of short motion picture clips in an intimate but definitely commercial setting, and the attitude of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is... at the other end of the spectrum. However, the two clip shows were very similar in tone. Where Kevin Maher might have told the story of the infiltration of vaudeville performers into Hollywood via appropriate clips taken from... various sources, Alejandra Espasande told the story through ephemera from the collection she manages: PSAs, newsreels, and especially movie trailers. The Academy has a collection of about 65,000 film trailers, most of which came from a single dealer's collection. The most interesting bit of the evening was Espasande's remark that this dealer did a lot of business with people who were making documentaries, because it was easy to get movie footage via the movie's trailer, and almost impossible to get it from the movie itself! She didn't go into detail on this, and there was no Q&A, so I have only speculation to go on. But I could see this making sense in the pre-1972 era, when copyright had to be registered and film collectors were underground. The studio wouldn't bother to copyright trailers, so they (and the footage within) would be public domain. However, this authoratative-seeming web page says: A scene from a movie that also appears in a coming-attraction trailer can be regarded as enjoying the copyright protection of the movie, in cases where (as is common) the movie was copyrighted but the coming-attraction trailer was not. And yet, this equally authoratative-seeming page says: Many of these trailers also contained material that appeared to be from the movie but was actually shot directly for the trailer. That material, since it did not contain a copyright no[...]



August Film Roundup

Fri, 02 Sep 2016 03:45:58 GMT

August was a month with a lot of writing and relatively little film-watching, but I've got a number of good selections for you. Three Days of the Condor (1975): Really solid Watergate-era thriller that holds up very well except for a certain Watergate-era naivete at the end; and the horrible, squicky, unrealistic romance subplot, which nearly ruins it. It's awful! A lot of 1970s films have squicky romance subplots, and you know I don't do this for everything, but I'm going to blame it on the proverbial male gaze. Like, compare this movie to A New Leaf (1971), a hilarious romcom about a man's attempt to romance/murder an innocent bystander. It's squicky and it works fine, it's funny and it serves the purposes of the movie, because the creepy dude isn't the hero. My point is a) there are movies that age well in this respect, even in the 1970s and b) I don't think it's a coincidence that A New Leaf is directed by a woman. Anyway, this film has that one big problem but if that's not a deal-breaker for you, it's pretty exciting. The Last Arcade (2016): Documentary about a video arcade in Manhattan started out interesting like a normal documentary about something with a lot of history. Then the arcade shut down, the documentary started skipping forward in time to show what happens to the space and the people, and it got really interesting. There's a moment where the film sets up an easy villain, but the truth is more complicated than that framing will allow. Good stuff. The Wild Bunch (1969): This movie was a long watch for me since I think it makes its point in the first (awesome, disturbing, non-ASPCA-compliant) scene. There are some good bits afterwards but it never made it back to that level for me. Is it possible to get a full theatrical release for a fifteen-minute film? Asking for a friend. In & Out (1997): Sumana watched this movie in her youth and wanted me to see it. It's... all right? There were some good jokes. The fourth-wall-breaking motivational tape was a classic. We had an interesting discussion afterwards about how stereotypes have changed since 1997, and whether Tom Selleck's character really could have travelled from LA to the middle of Indiana in eight hours. It's an open question! Does he bring a camera crew, or does he hire local stringers? Does he have to finish the Oscars telecast before he can leave, or is he just there for the red carpet preshow? Sorry to spoil the ending, but this film ends with the same trick used in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Misleading cinematography implies that you are watching two dudes about to get married, but no, that could never happen, it's just a pleasant/disturbing dream. Waiting (2015): What a sad movie. Pressed all my buttons. Variety would call it a "weepie". Then I couldn't call Sumana afterwards because she was asleep in a different time zone. Don't be like me! Watch Waiting responsibly, with someone you love. I think this was the first Indian movie I've seen with serious curse words. Lots of swearing in this one. And waiting. Big Trouble in Little China (1986): If I was a movie director... I'd make lousy movies because I never went to film school. But my life had gone differently and I was now known as a good director, I'd like to be compared to John Carpenter. His films are full of love of genre, over-the-top action, and goofy practical effects. He's not as sophisticated as, say, Edgar Wright, but I'm not known for my sophistication either. In my hypothetical life I'd like to be remembered for a They Live or The Thing but I'd settle for a Big Trouble in Little China. Mashing up American-style and Chinese-style action movies is a great idea, and although this movie doesn't rise to the comedy-horror level of a Ghostbusters or a Gremlins, it's a really fun experience. I didn't even have to use my 1980s racism cringe. I gotta say it was a good movie. IMDB trivia confirms my suspicion that the first scene of this movie was added due to st[...]



July Film Roundup

Tue, 02 Aug 2016 23:07:36 GMT

Rising global temperatures, political documentary series, and blockbusters in franchises I care about ensure that I spend a lot of time in air-conditioned theaters this summer. The result is a Film Roundup for the ages! Specifically, ages 13 and up. (Sorry—COPPA demands it!) Armageddon (1998): The film so bad it got its own Film Roundup Special. Blood Simple (1984): Looking back this movie feels like a dry run for Fargo, but on its own terms it's really good, sort of a twisted version of "Gift of the Magi". Saw it with Sarah and we both enjoyed it a lot. Keeps the tension going to the penultimate shot! Then you get one shot of resolution and leave the theater a broken mess. Kung Fu Hustle (2004): Fun action film that keeps the violence cartoonish to the point of showing people with Road Runner-type rotating legs. It sure beats The Mermaid, although no one thing was as funny as the police station scene in The Mermaid. That said, I'm not really clear on who hustled whom or what the hustle was. Perhaps I, the audience member, have been hustled? The Sound of a Flower (2015): Inspiring Korean drama of a woman pansori performer who just wants to portray a Ghostbuster on stage, but the rules of nineteenth-century Korean opera require that Ghostbuster roles (plus all other roles) go to men. Will her high-pitched singing break the glass [ceiling]? It's basically a sports movie, so yes. This was the consensus Asian Film Festival choice between me, Sumana, and one of her friends; and as often happens with consensus picks we were all kind of let down. Pansori is a genre that's not that interesting to me, and although I'm not qualified to judge, according to the programmer of the film festival, star Suzy Bae's pansori singing isn't great. Antigone (2016): We made an unprecedented third excursion to a live theater event. This was a local theater production and it wasn't great. I'm interested in seeing other things in the same space, because it's relatively convenient and incredibly cheap compared to other theater options in New York. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (2016): I liked this documentary a lot because I came into the movie knowing absolutely nothing about Norman Lear, and learning about him from a short documentary was a lot more entertaining than learning the same facts from Wikipedia. Like, just as an example, Norman Lear wasn't just a successful TV guy. At one point he was the producer of five of the top ten network shows. He plowed his millions right back into television, producing a special called "I Love Freedom" to push back against the religious right, a special which featured Robin Williams playing the American flag. He bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence and sent it on a road trip in an attempt to inoculate people against anti-American authoritarianism. And in the interviews he really opens up and talks candidly about the darkest parts of himself. Compare someone like Mel Brooks, who shows up in this movie and spends most of his scene telling one really long joke. Really interesting show. Bob Roberts (1992): Tim Robbins film suffers from all the problems you'd imagine from a political mockumentary made by a stereotypical Hollywood liberal who writes, directs, stars and performs the folk song parodies. Seriously, watch Tanner '88 (below) instead. Giancarlo Esposito does a good job with what he's given. Sumana and I agree there there are several minutes of footage after what really should be the last, creepy shot of the movie. Ghostbusters (2016): Really solid. I prefer the worldbuilding in the original, but I find 2016's escalating gags funnier than 1984's more situational humor. No reason you can't have both. In fact, have them all! Unlike a lot of modern action movies (see Star Trek: Beyond: below), I could follow the action scenes even when they got complicated. And looking forward, the end of this film gives me confidence the sequel wil[...]



Film roundup Special #2

Sun, 10 Jul 2016 12:50:00 GMT

Armageddon (1998): The first hate-watch in Film Roundup history! I saw this movie when it came out, in a "friend has an extra ticket" scenario, and like the other movies I saw for free while in college (Very Bad Things, Mars Attacks!, The Phantom Menace), it's awful. But unlike those other movies, people didn't seem to notice that Armageddon was bad! It was the top-grossing film of 1998! It's in the Criterion Collection! (Albeit more as a "representative sample" pick than a "good movie" pick.) Where I saw a uniquely awful film, others saw only a cheesy summer blockbuster. At the time, my hatred for Armageddon focused mainly on the many, many plot holes and scientific errors in the film. But that's a pretty superficial way to look at a movie. Silent Running has huge plot holes and it's a great sci-fi movie. When I saw Armageddon was showing at the museum, I knew I had to watch it again, eighteen years later, with more mature eyes, to try and see deep into the horror. Well, it's still bad, and the plot holes and scientific errors are still at the core of its badness. The fundamental problem—pointed out by Ben Affleck during the filming of the movie—is that it would be easier to train astronauts to operate a drill than to train oil rig workers to operate in microgravity. This movie is two and a half hours long, and a lot of that time is devoted to making excuses for why, no, it makes more sense to bring in the oil rig workers. A big part of this work is establishing that there will be normal Earth gravity throughout this movie. This is because it's 1998 and they can't shoot the whole film on a wire like Gravity, and the sets are too large to pull an Apollo 13. But this technological limitation also makes the plot semi-possible, because Earth gravity negates most of the skill differential between a trained astronaut and a trained oil rig operator. The one good twist in this movie makes all this unsavory exposition pay off. It's about two hours in and, after seeing one space scene after another clearly shot in Earth gravity, you've forgotten that these people are supposed to be on an asteroid and not on a cheap sound stage. Then a character remembers that, despite appearances, the story has them in a low-gravity environment, and they can exploit this fact to get out of a tight spot. Eureka! Another big part of the necessary work is introducing four more characters to a cast that's already got way too many characters, because not even Michael Bay can convince an audience that experience on an oil rig translates to skill in piloting space shuttles. So they have to bring in some astronauts after all. It's okay, though, these are the pilots, so they're Air Force jocks, not loathsome NASA nerds. 'Cause this movie hates nerds. Our heroes are nice people, by blockbuster standards, but they're all jocks, except for Rockhound, the creepy Steve Buscemi nerd, and Truman, who was a jock before a tragic accident left him settling for nerddom. I'm sure there's a good movie somewhere that hates nerds, but a) filmmaking is a technically sophisticated activity that demands precision, so on some level all directors are nerds, and b) it's a circle-squaring operation to celebrate a twentieth-century space program while hating on the nerds who build the hardware and keep everything running. In the far future when spacecraft are toys, like muscle cars, you can do it, but not in 1998. I mean, we tried it! NASA was on board and everything. A ton of money was poured into the concept. And we ended up with Armageddon. I see Interstellar (2015) as an attempt to fix this problem, but it swings too far in the other direction and veers into uncritical nerd worship. The action scenes in Armageddon are illegible. There's a lot of hardware on screen but the effects haven't aged well. The cuts are too fast and there are too many characters. (For much of the movie the character[...]



June Film Roundup

Mon, 04 Jul 2016 13:34:31 GMT

This month's movies are all over the place. I also wrote a huge essay about a movie I saw on July 1, so there might be a supplemental post as well. Rise of the Legend (2014): Fun, generic popcorn martial arts movie with a generic name. Best thing about this one was a small heist subplot—it's a full-fledged heist but it's just one part of a larger plan—and a character named "North Evil". Putney Swope (1969): Anarchic Groucho Marx-style comedy meets the 1960s counterculture in a film that's got a good number of laugh-out-loud moments and a pretty impressive Molotov cocktail effect (possibly achieved with a real cocktail, I dunno) but is ultimately a huge mess. It was an extremely offensive movie in 1969, and it's still pretty offensive, but mostly for different reasons, which is its own kind of accomplishment. The worst part for me was the pretty common low-budget movie conceit where someone is a terrible boss and bad at running a business, but is rewarded with huge success because... it's a satire? The director is extrapolating their experience in the film industry to the business world as a whole? I've never figured it out. I'm glad I saw this, but it's not great. If you want a bitingly satirical Mad Men-era film about advertising that's based on an understanding of the business, check out the 1960 short Your Name Here. If you just want more commercial parodies, watch the first few minutes of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). Time Table (1956): The first scene of this movie is best-of noir material, and there's a twist at the start of act two that's handled really well, but really the first ten minutes is all you need. It's public domain, so see for yourself. The great theme of a plan that's perfect but brittle, undone by the slightest error, isn't done justice. Monkey Business (1952): Definitely inferior to the Marx Brothers Monkey Business, this lesser Howard Hawks feature focuses on Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers acting like teenagers. Cary Grant gets a haircut which, in retrospect, yes, is the haircut that teenage boys had in 1952 but adult men did not. It took me a while to catch on because of all those movies from the same period in which 25-year-old actors with that haircut are playing high school students. Not a great watch, but it was really refreshing to see a romantic comedy where the couple starts off married and in love, and stays that way for the entire movie. Synechdoche, New York (2008): Distressing and effective. reminds me of a Buster Keaton film in the creative ways it keeps twisting and escalating its premise rather than letting the one joke ride. Recommended. Heaven Can Wait (1943): This film puts on the big screen the unspoken American worldview that mixes Christianity and Epicureanism, and shows how it creates an arbitrage opportunity between heaven and hell. The story's okay, but all the characters are cartoony stereotypes. Specifically it reminded me of a Tex Avery cartoon, the way the film was scored, the orchestra constantly quoting from old-timey songs. Sometimes the techniques used by Code-era directors to sneak filth past the censors come off as humorous and sophisticated (Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson? again), but in this movie it just seems sleazy. Despite valiant efforts, only a couple of scenes really connected with me on an emotional level. Approaching the Elephant (2014): A pretty amazing documentary about a free school, with a lot to say about fundamental questions of political science. I found it really interesting because I think a free school would have been a much better environment for me when I was a kid than public school. Not really an option for me, though. Also, Lucy, the girl who's one of the focal points of the documentary, is the same age as and acts a lot like my niece Maggie. This film is really effective at showing that unstructured spaces attract a[...]



Paris Pictures: Versailles

Sun, 19 Jun 2016 20:39:59 GMT

I'm back with another Paris trip photoessay! This time we venture to Château Versailles, a short train trip from Paris. Versailles is a small commuter city whose major attraction is the residence (and occasional prison) of kings; sort of if New Rochelle used to be the capital of the United States. There are four parts to the Versailles experience and it all depends on how much you want to pay and how far you're willing to walk. We paid full price and walked all day, we saw it all, and I'm here to tell you that the best thing is right at the end. I would not have chosen to go to Versailles, but I'm glad Sumana suggested it as our day trip. Let's start at the Château proper. This was... a big palace with a lot of history. You get in a big line, which goes through a metal detector and then shuffles as a single unit through one extravagant room after another. It's not what the original architects had in mind but it does instill the intended sense of being dutiful and oppressed. I took lots of pictures of this stage, but afterwards I realized 5000 other people had taken the same photos that day, so I won't show most of them. I will show the big Hall of Mirrors, which was really intimidating back when mirrors were an advanced technology, but which now kind of feels like a tinpot dictator showing you his Hall of Integrated Circuits. "Yeah, it's all on one chip, no big deal." There was a big gallery of paintings of French military victories, from which I took this dyptich I call "Leonard's Two Moods": In a sop to the non-bloodthirsty, the gallery of military prowess was balanced by a hall of statues honoring humanists and statesmen who "spread the glory of French civilization without drawing the sword." They were able to get some big names, like Descartes (left). In the many Versailles gift shops we learned that Frédéric Lenormand wrote a series of mystery novels staring Voltaire, including Le diable s'habille en Voltaire (The Devil Wears Voltaire), which according to the back-cover copy is the book that finally delivers the long-promised Voltaire-Satan grudge match! I don't read French well enough to read a historical-fiction novel, but I'd love to see some translations of these. There's a restaurant (a branch of Angelina, a famous Paris hot-chocolate joint) in the main Château. Their croque monsieur was the only bad food I ate between the time I got off the plane at De Gaulle and the time I got back on the plane a week later. Generally museum restaurants are not great, so not too surprising. However the hot chocolate was excellent! And it's hard to beat the ambience; it called to mind a Ken MacLeod quote about how "our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers." Speaking of which, let's move on to part two of the Versailles Journey, the gardens! This is a park about twice the size of Central Park, all done in the perfect shaved-trees geometric format that seems kinda creepy to me but it's just the way the French do parks. We took some establishing shots for Sumana's mom just so she could see we made it. This part of Versailles is free, so if you're a cheapskate and just want to have a day in the park, this is for you. It's also the part of Versailles with the most replay value. Lots of kids running around eating ice-cream. You can rent a bike or a boat. Near the entrance you see this fountain full of statues of frogs, and statues of people being turned into frogs. There's an implied threat that the king might himself turn you into a frog. (He had the legal right to do this, though it was rarely exercised.) A lot of the gardens operate on the hedge-maze principle. You leave the beaten path, wander around in the trees and eventually stumble into a fountain or statue grouping. Unfortunately, although you're fre[...]



Mad May Beyond Film Roundup

Wed, 01 Jun 2016 11:02:31 GMT

It is with great pride that I announce Film Roundup Roundup, a page that collects my recommended films in one convenient table, without any of the bad movies or nuance-adding reviews that clutter these monthly blog posts. Of all the films I've written about on NYCB over the years, there are about 125 that I'm willing to go on record and say that you, random person on the Internet, should check out. I'll update the list... at least once a year, how about that? And now, the latest candidates for addition to that big list, though I set up the toolchain before I wrote these reviews, so none of 'em are on there: A Beautiful Planet (2016): A 3D IMAX film shot on the International Space Station. It was edutainment aimed at the casual viewer (someone sitting in the theater hadn't known there was an International Space Station, and I hope they came out of the theater feeling better about humanity), but I didn't come to be edutained, I came to recapture the thrill I got from Gravity (2013)! And... it's fine as long as you don't compare it to a fictional experience like Gravity. It's a cinema verite documentary about life on a space station. There's a cool Blair Witch-esque scene filmed during a spacewalk, and lots of microgravity shots. The astronauts are competent and nothing goes wrong. This was in and out of theaters like a flash, and I do think it benefits greatly from the IMAX treatment, but to simulate the experience at home, check out Sunita Williams's 2014 tour of the ISS. Oh, according to the website if you're in Columbus, Ohio it's still showing until June 10. Rien a Declarer (2010): Seen with Sumana at her recommendation. A mismatched-cop comedy about the collapse of nationalism in the face of the European Union. It was pretty fun, had some Hot Fuzz moments, but it's no Hot Fuzz. There seemed to be jokes surrounding the fact that Benoît Poelvoorde's character is extremely racist, but I couldn't make them out; maybe the joke is that no Belgian could be that racist? But it seems quite possible! His extreme nationalism is comical, but why shouldn't it be paired with racism? Mad Max (1979) This isn't Mad Max, it's.... no, hold on. This is Mad Max, but it's not what I want from the series. It's a kinda generic exploitation flick with cool car stunts. According to IMDB trivia, the canonical explanation for why this movie isn't like the others, is that there was a nuclear war two weeks after the events of Mad Max. The real reason is "no money", a problem I'm sympathetic to. But if you're allowed to say "two weeks later there was a nuclear war", a whole lotta movies could be the prequel to The Road Warrior. For instance, what if The Jerk (1979) was secretly the first Mad Max movie? All you'd need to do is change the footage at the beginning of The Road Warrior to show Navin Johnson being shot at in a gas station. Much more satisfying. Speaking of which, Memorial Day weekend was Mad Max weekend at the museum, so I also saw... Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981): This is more like it. Cool worldbuilding, clever eyeball kicks, exciting chase scenes. I was not a big fan of the feckless community of refinery operators, but I did like how even though Max is central to the movie he's only a supporting character in their overall story. It creates a western-style loneliness that is used to excellent effect in Fury Road, and of course in... Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): This one I'd seen before, a long time ago, and I thought it was really stupid. And... it is stupid, but it's also very fun. This is the one where the series comes into its own as an anthology that shows different approaches to post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. Probably the most realistic entry in the series, not that we're going for realism. Thunderdome also gets points from me for not having a "villain" per se. Aunt[...]



Paris Pictures: Musée des Arts et Métiers

Wed, 18 May 2016 01:45:50 GMT

Hey, how's it going? I've got a ton of important stuff to do, but that just means I can procrastinate by putting up pictures from our Paris trip. Today I'd like to introduce you to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a museum not found in either of our guidebooks but recommended by every French person we talked to. You know how The Da Vinci Code starts in the Louvre? Well, Foucault's Pendulum isn't having any of that mainstream nonsense--it starts off in Arts et Métiers, a museum of Science and Invention with none of that postmodern self-reflection seen in museums whose exhibits were updated after, say, 1995. That's probably why it's not in the guidebooks; it's kind of old-fashioned and disjointed. You'll walk through a bunch of exhibits that don't seem to have changed since the 1960s, and then suddenly jump forward in museum time to the electronics age (mid-1990s I'd say). You check out some cool old computers and awkard "interactive" exhibits, then you walk through a doorway or around a corner, and you're back in the 1960s with things behind glass in wooden cases. Nonetheless, if you're reading this weblog, this is a must-see museum when you're in Paris, because the amount and type of incredible stuff they have is off the charts. Here's just a sample to whet your appetite: I figured out who buys all that Statue of Liberty kitsch in New York —it's tourists visiting from Paris! Parisians love the Statue of Liberty. There's a 1/4 scale model on the banks of the Siene, there's this thing (I think a 1/16) in front of the museum, another one outside the Musée d'Orsay. Look, you gave it away, it's ours now... don't make this weird, France. This is the sort of thing you come to the museum for: Léon Foucault's 1862 apparatus for measuring the speed of light with a rapidly rotating mirror. To see how it works you can either watch a very slow video or promise yourself you'll read the Wikipedia page later and then never get around to it. Or how about this wicked bastard? This is a steampunk oscilloscope, made by Rudolph Koenig in the 19th century. On the left is a big stack of Hemholz resonators, each designed to pick up one specific frequency and dampen all other frequencies. Each resonator is attached to a little gaslight. You set all the gaslights blasting away, and when a resonator vibrates it makes the flame of the attached gaslight wobble. Then you turn the crank on the right to rotate the mirror (everything had a rotating mirror back then), and the resonant frequencies of whatever sound you're playing show up visually as wavy lines across the mirror, versus the undisturbed lines of all the frequencies not present. There's almost no signage on this thing and I had to sit through a slow five-minute audioguide explanation to figure out what's going on here but it was worth it! Perhaps the plastic arts are more your speed. Here's a show-offy piece by Colville from the 1855 Universal Exposition, which demonstrates all the colors the manufacturer is capable of slapping onto a piece of porcelain. It really reminded me of the DOS color palette the way there are adjacent dark and light versions of the same color. Or maybe you're too pure, too abstract for such material concerns. Maybe you'd like to take this sample case door-to-door, selling geometric solids to the public? This was briefly a popular business model among the Willie Loman types of nineteenth-century France, who eventually gave up and used the shapes to study geometry. These two pieces are by Louis Dupin (1846) and Baradelle (1805). You know that the French Revolution gave birth to the metric system and had its own calendar, but did you know they also used decimal time? Tragically, counterrevolutionary clocks, like this two-faced example, made it easy[...]



April Film Roundup

Sun, 01 May 2016 22:10:52 GMT

Man, this took forever to put together. I can't believe how many movies I saw in April, given that we spent a week in France, where everyone knows they don't have movies. Enjoy: Dracula (1931): Introduced by Guy Maddin! The projectionist accidentally (?) started showing us the original, and then had to start over with the version with the Phillip Glass soundtrack, and you really can tell the difference. It made a slow-paced movie seem action-packed. I haven't read the book and didn't really know anything about the plot apart from "vampire bites a buncha people", and I thought Renfield was great. I liked his abrupt turn from snob to craven Torgo-esque servant. If anything, it was a little disappointing how the best plot element in the movie happened right at the beginning. I also liked how Van Helsing doesn't pussyfoot around like a lot of movie scientists. He's like "these bite marks indicate it's a vampire, therefore vampires are real, deal with it." Also enjoyable whenever Mina would glare really hard at her Zeppo-esque fiance trying to work vampire magic on him. The ending was super disappointing! Dracula gets staked offscreen and you don't get to see what could be a great Bela Lugosi death scene. Since Jeanne Thornton is a big Guy Maddin fan I decided it would be cool if I could get him to autograph my Dracula ticket to her, so after the show I looked around for him, but he had disappeared... like a vampire! Or like a guy with something to do other than watch the movie he introduced. (If the tone of this review seems different from usual it's because I basically copy-and-pasted it from an email thread with Jeanne.) Buck and the Preacher (1972): Seen as part of a Sidney Poitier retrospective at the museum. Overall these films gave me an appreciation for Poitier's skill in psychologically intense action roles. The only movie I'd seen him in previously was Sneakers (1992), where he scowls a lot but doesn't do much action. In The Heat of the Night (1967) is on my list but we haven't seen it yet. Anyway, around 1989 I remember a movie about black cowboys came out (I don't remember the name and can't find it) and it was... not controversial, but it was remarked upon as unusual. But having discovered old movies after starting Film Roundup, I've learned that that movie would have been right at home in Hollywood fifteen years earlier. The 1970s saw tons of action movies and thrillers that have been stuffed into the "blaxploitation" box, plus a good number of westerns and comedies by and for African-Americans. Something happened in the 1980s, maybe due to the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster, and now we mainly remember Blazing Saddles (1974), a movie directed by a white guy that plays the "black cowboy" idea for laughs. Blazing Saddles is a really funny movie, but it came out in the context of movies like this which took the same topic seriously. So it's like we're yukking it up at Spaceballs, but all we remember is Buck Rogers and we've all forgotten about Star Wars. You don't need a "reason" to put black characters in a period genre piece, but this movie has a very good reason and it gives the plot, which is basically cribbed from Wagon Master, some real heft. It helps that the ending isn't a big disappointment like Wagon Master's was. A really solid movie overall. I could have used a little more of Harry Belafonte's con-man preacher. There's a great scene where he's sweet-talking himself into Sunday dinner and you can see the pioneer ladies thinking "He's obviously a con man, but it's not like we have a real preacher..." But probably the best scene is one where Buck and the Preacher rob a telegraph office, but they can't get at the money, and rather than let it become a Dog Day Afternoon situation they just cross[...]



Paris Graffiti

Wed, 27 Apr 2016 10:56:01 GMT

There's a lot of boring graffiti in the world, but sometimes it's cute or interesting, and I think the Francophone cartooning tradition means there's more interesting stuff in Europe. Here are the greatest acts of vandalism I saw on our trip to Paris:

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Man, that second one's like a Paul Klee graffito. The snail and the "Nos amores digitales" were on the same wall!




I'm Stuffed With Pastries And Drunk With Power

Sun, 24 Apr 2016 21:40:09 GMT

Sumana and I just returned from an anniversary trip to Paris, courtesy of Sumana's mom. We had a great time, and as time permits I'll be putting up mini-travelogues of the major sights we saw. I'll start things off with a catalog of our lesser adventures and discoveries. As always, I travelled exclusively by private bus. We had to make some minor livery changes to make my usual ride street-legal in France. We skipped the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, Paris's two biggest tourist traps. However we did take a boat cruise of the Seine the first day, so there is proof that I was near the Eiffel Tower at some point. We were more enthusiastic about Montmartre, home of the perspective-tastic steps seen in Celine And Julie Go Boating. I loved the Jardin du Luxembourg. For some reason people were always taking selfies next to this statue. Also in the garden but a bit harder to find was this awesome metastatue! The Luxembourg also features a functional Beaux-Arts latrine (not pictured). The most touristy thing we did was a walk down the Champs Élysées, which was the Paris equivalent of walking through Times Square on Broadway, then crossing the street and walking back. It was cool at the start (Arc de Triomphe), and again later on once it turned into a park, but I'm gonna let this picture sum up the middle: We ate a lot of great food! I won't be sharing pictures of the food because I don't take good pictures of food, but I'll say that raw milk cheese is fabulous, and pastries and bread were routinely as good as the best you can get in New York. High-quality carbs and cheese: the culinary highlights of my trip. We went on a food tour with two other tourists and since three of us were from New York, when we went into the cheese shop the tour guide said "Look, you can get most of these at Murray's, so we're just gonna focus on the raw milk." Much appreciated. We didn't eat at La Grenoille but I thought it was cute and it can stand in for a lot of Paris restaurants. I tried escargot, as well as the mysterious Futurist dessert known as the floating island, and my verdict for both is "meh". We also didn't eat at this restaurant, because it was closed, and because the passive-aggressive note taped to the window ensures that no one will ever eat there again. (My translation: "We will reopen upon completion of the work to stop the recurrent floods of fecal water from the WC installed in the basement. We are waiting on the leaseholder to act.") But I'm sure you're asking: what do the French think of America in today's Je Suis Charlie world? Well, here's the answer, in sidewalk menu form. Bad luck, rest of the country! According to France, New York City is coextant with the United States, and Toronto stands in for all of Canada. It could be worse; in the airport I saw a French guidebook for "New York + Brooklyn". I mean, I get it, we didn't really leave Paris, but I know there are different regions in France. This tote bag we saw in a €1.20 store (i.e. a dollar store, but more expensive) managed to achieve greater overall accuracy by avoiding pesky details. Not sure where that subway map comes from though. Okay, that's it for now, but tune in soon for scientific instruments, Duchamp's obviously fake readymades, and the Tetsuo Milk-approved netherworld of Versailles. Just to whet your appetite, here's the sort of thing you see in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a really cool museum that wasn't mentioned by either of the guidebooks we used, but was mentioned by every French person we asked. An early steno keyboard! Awesome. See you next time. [...]



March Film Roundup

Sun, 03 Apr 2016 02:10:26 GMT

Roundin' up the films, roundin' up the films... oh, hi. I didn't see you there. Because I'm looking at my computer monitor, typing this paragraph. Hey, you want to hear about some movies? Deadpool (2016): Saw this with Sarah (now my official "Sumana doesn't want to see this movie" buddy) and liked it a lot more than I thought I would. There was a ton of violence but only one scene made me squirm in my seat. Not in a good way like The King of Comedy. Just awful, that scene. Anyway, everything else was good! The R rating really gave Deadpool room to stretch out and depict a healthy attitude towards perverted sex. A big part of my distaste for superhero movies is their PG-13 treatment of material that really needs either a G or a hard R. Good job dodging that bullet (but not any other bullet), Deadpool. However, I'm still holding out for Zack Snyder's big-budget treatment of Ambush Bug, and the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Netflix original. Why get my hopes up only to have them pre-dashed? Take a look at this handy chart and you'll see why Ambush Bug is the best: Metafictionally awareNot metafictionally aware Has metafictional superpowersAmbush BugSquirrel Girl No metafictional superpowersDeadpool, She-HulkSuperman or whatever Dragon Blade (2015): It happened again! A Chinese movie started out really fun and lighthearted, then took a horrifying turn, and then had a sappy tacked-on ending, without ever acknowledging the abrupt shifts in tone. The first part of this movie is really great, friendly and big-hearted, with Jackie Chan and John Cusak together-at-lasting to their (and your) hearts' content. But then... it's not great, let's leave it at that. I would put this movie alongside The Invention of Lying (2009) where the first half of the movie is incredibly fun and creative, and then, eh, turn it off and do something else. Or watch the first halves of both! Make it a double half-feature! As is only appropriate for a movie about Roman soldiers, the inaccuracies in this movie are... legion. It makes me question the history I've learned from other Asian martial-arts films. Did a CGI whale really swallow the Korean royal seal in 14xx, as The Pirates claimed? Did that guy in The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom really have to deliver those snacks? Whom can I trust? The Barker (1928): From Film Forum's "It Girls" series. I would not describe this film as good, but it has some fun carnival bits. You know that I don't automatically think a newer film automatically supercedes an older film on the same topic, but Nightmare Alley (1947) is just better in every way, a much better "seedy side of the carnival" film, despite having to deal with the Hays Code. I'm not even sure this film is supposed to be seedy at all. It does have the traditional flapper floozy, but there's a twist—you'll never guess which group 11 transition metal is the primary constituent of her heart! Oh, you guessed. I suppose I could have clued you in more gradually. The thing I found most interesting was how they did this film as a hybrid talkie. The lively carnival scenes have sound and the scenes in the carnival wagon have title cards. Did sound break upon the scene when this movie was halfway done? Were they experimenting to see how much talkie audiences could take? I don't know, and don't care enough to try to find out. It (1927): Now this is more like it. In fact, this is exactly like It. At first glance this movie may seem like an outdated slog. A movie based on an essay in Cosmopolitan written by a woman named Elinor Glyn? What vision does the name "Elinor Glyn" conjure up for you? Personally, I thought "Margaret Dumont as a Cardassian". When the movie started with[...]