Archive for the ‘Movies & Entertainment’ Category.

Life Imitates Portlandia

For those who enjoy the series Portlandia, doesn't this remind you of the first episode when diners insisted on going out to the farm to meet the chickens they were going to eat?

Private Justice and the New Vigilantism of the Left

In the 1970's, Hollywood produced a number of movies that drew from a frustration that the criminal justice system was broken.   Specifically, a surprisingly large number of people felt that due process protections of accused criminals had gone too far, and were causing police and prosecutors to lose the war on crime.  In the Dirty Harry movies, Clint Eastwood is constantly fighting against what are portrayed as soft-hearted Liberal protections of criminals.  In the Death Wish movies, Charles Bronson's character goes further, acting as a private vigilante meeting out well-deserved justice on criminals the system can't seem to catch.

There are always folks who do not understand and accept the design of our criminal justice system.  Every system that makes judgments has type I and type II errors.  In the justice system, type I errors are those that decide an innocent person is guilty and type II errors are those that decide a guilty person is not guilty.  While there are reforms that reduce both types of errors, at the margin improvements that reduce type I errors tend to increase type II errors and vice versa.

Given this tradeoff, a system designer has to choose which type of error he or she is willing to live with.  And in criminal justice the rule has always been to reduce type I errors (conviction of the innocent) even if this increases type II errors (letting the guilty go free).

And this leads to the historic friction -- people see the type II errors, the guilty going free, and want to do something about it.  But they forget, or perhaps don't care, that for each change that puts more of the guilty in jail, more innocent people will go to jail too.  Movies cheat on this, by showing you the criminal committing the crimes, so you know without a doubt they are guilty.  But in the real world, no one has this certainty.  Even with supposed witnesses.  A lot of men, most of them black, in the south have been put to death with witness testimony and then later exonerated when it was too late.

This 1970's style desire for private justice to substitute for a justice system that was seen as too soft on crime was mainly a feature of the Right.  Today, however, calls for private justice seem to most often come from the Left.

It is amazing how much women's groups and the Left today remind me of the Dirty Harry Right of the 1970's.  They fear an epidemic of crime against women, egged on by a few prominent folks who exaggerate crime statistics to instill fear for political purposes.  In this environment of fear, they see the criminal justice system as failing women, doing little to bring rapist men to justice or change their behavior  (though today the supposed reason for this injustice is Right-wing patriarchy rather than Left-wing bleeding heartism).

Observe the controversies around prosecution of campus sexual assaults and the bruhaha around the video of Ray Rice hitting a woman in an elevator.  In both cases, these crimes are typically the purview of the criminal justice system.  However, it is clear that the Left has given up on the criminal justice system with all its "protections" of the accused.  Look at the Ray Rice case -- when outrage flared for not having a strong enough punishment, it was all aimed at the NFL.  There was a New Jersey state prosecutor that had allowed Rice into a pre-trial diversion program based on his lack of a criminal record, but no one on the Left even bothered with him.  They knew the prosecutor had to follow the law.   When it comes to campus sexual assault, no one on the Left seems to be calling for more police action.  They are demanding that college administrators with no background in criminal investigation or law create shadow judiciary systems instead.

The goal is to get out of the legally constrained criminal justice system and into a more lawless private environment. This allows:

  • A complete rewrite in the rules of evidence and of guilt and innocence.  At the behest of Women's groups, the Department of Justice and the state of California have re-written criminal procedure and required preponderance of the evidence (rather than beyond a reasonable doubt) conviction standards for sexual assault on campus.   Defendants in sexual assault cases on campus are stripped of their traditional legal rights to a lawyer, to see all evidence in advance, to face their accuser, to cross-examine witnesses, etc. etc.  It is the exact same kind of rules of criminal procedure that Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey would have applauded.  Unacknowledged is the inevitable growth of Type I errors (punishing the innocent) that are sure to result.  Do the proponents not understand this tradeoff?  Or, just like the archetypal southern sheriff believed vis a vis blacks, do women's groups assume that the convicted male "must be guilty of something".
  • Much harsher punishments.   As a first offender, even without pre-trial diversion, Ray Rice was unlikely to get much more than some probation and perhaps a few months of jail time.  But the NFL, as his employer (and a monopoly to boot) has a far higher ability to punish him.  By banning Ray Rice from the league, effectively for life, they have put a harsh life sentence on the man (and ironically on the victim, his wife).  They have imposed a fine on him of tens of millions of dollars.

Postscript:  For those who are younger and may not have experienced these movies, here is the IMDB summary of Death Wish

Open-minded architect Paul Kersey returns to New York City from vacationing with his wife, feeling on top of the world. At the office, his cynical coworker gives him the welcome-back with a warning on the rising crime rate. But Paul, a bleeding-heart liberal, thinks of crime as being caused by poverty. However his coworker's ranting proves to be more than true when Paul's wife is killed and his daughter is raped in his own apartment. The police have no reliable leads and his overly sensitive son-in-law only exacerbates Paul's feeling of hopelessness. He is now facing the reality that the police can't be everywhere at once. Out of sympathy his boss gives him an assignment in sunny Arizona where Paul gets a taste of the Old West ideals. He returns to New York with a compromised view on muggers...

I guess I was premature in portraying these movies as mainly a product of the 1970s, since this movie just came out.

Inevitably necessary note on private property rights:  The NFL and private colleges have every right to hire and fire and eject students for any reasons they want as long as those rules and conditions were clear when players and students joined those organizations.  Of course, they are subject to mockery if we think the rules or their execution deserve it.  Public colleges are a different matter, and mandates by Federal and State governments even more so.  Government institutions are supposed to follow the Constitution and the law, offering equal protection and due process.

Memory of Robin Williams

When I was in college, I went to see Robin Williams in concert, and he was hilarious (and just as obscene as Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy, though he did not really have that reputation publicly).

That is not the story.  The story is in the fact I went to see him a second night in a row.  This seems a dumb thing to do, to go to the same show twice in two nights, but I was chasing after this girl and she wanted to go.  At the time, for the right girl, I would probably have gone to a 3-hour Uruguayan poetry reading.

Anyway, the amazing part was... it was not the same show.  Yes, the basic structure was there, but huge masses were different.  That is when I realized that he was just making it the hell up as he went along, and he was hilarious doing it.   I had known intellectually that he had a reputation for improvising way off his scripts, but to actually see it in real time was amazing.

The Guy Who Made the "Guardians of the Galaxy" Trailer Should Be Fired

After seeing the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer a while back, I thought the movie would suck.  The movie just looked stupid.  I had not intention of going to see it, until my son pointed out the high Rotten Tomatoes review scores.  I still hesitated, figuring the only people who had seen it and were reviewing it well were a select group of Comicon attendees or something similar.

But my son talked me into it and it was thoroughly enjoyable.  Sure, its still a comic book movie so its not winning any Oscars and there are a few plot holes (if everyone is looking for the movie's MacGuffin so hard, why was it so easy for the protagonist to find?).   And plenty of it is derivative (Rocket and Groot are Han and Chewy repackaged).  Some of the characters seemed to be tossed in out of nowhere (e.g. the Collector), but I never read the comic book and presume, since this is clearly the first in a series, that they are setting up future regular characters. But the visuals were good and the dialog had some wit and charm to it.   I loved how they worked the 70's music sound track into the story.  I had wondered if Chris Pratt could carry off the leading man role but I thought he did OK.   A very solid summer movie.

Postscript:  My four word review:  Zoe's Green This Time.

Amazingly Fast Technology Transformation

If one considers the penetration of digital film-making to be the inverse of this chart, I can't remember any technological transformation that occurred this fast.  From the WSJ

P1-BQ856_FILM_G_20140729173906 (1)

 

Incredibly, this likely understates the speed at which traditional film has been replaced, since some of these Kodak numbers likely include a bump from the exit of their rival Fuji from the film manufacturing business.

I will confess that I was among those who feared this transition, worrying that digital recordings would lose some of the special visual qualities of film.  What I failed to understand, and most people fail to understand in such technical transitions, was that whatever was lost (and it was less than I feared) is more than made up for in new capabilities in the new medium.

The Lego Movie and Transformers Movies Have Something In Common -- And It's Not Toy Tie-ins

I watched the Lego Movie last night, and I found it had something very much in common with the recent Transformers franchise movies -- and its not the fact that they both began as marketing platforms for toys.

I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that the Lego movie has all kinds of frankly absurd, sometimes nonsensical, plot lines and dialog (though it is surprisingly entertaining at times none-the-less).  What you find out when the camera pulls back midway through the movie is that the first part of the movie is actually pouring from a little boy's imagination as he plays with his Lego blocks.  We are watching a kid playing alone in the basement, making up stories with his toys.

The Lego Movie is the perfect way to understand the most recent Transformers movies.  The Transformers movies don't make a lot of sense in terms of plot and dialog.   But they make perfect sense if you think of them as Michael Bay playing with his digital toys.  The Transformers movies are a little boy running around his room with a couple of action figures yelling "pew pew" and "kaboom", perhaps in front of the Megan Fox poster on the wall, with Michael Bay as the little boy.  The $150 million in digital effects and some irrelevant live actors barely change this fact at all.  (By the way, I have great respect for Bay being able to have fun with his toys and make a billion dollars in the process).

Thank God For The Internet

Reading about the Golden Dawn fascist party in Greece, I thought, "wasn't that the made-up terrorist group mentioned in Die Hard?"  It turns out I was wrong, it was Asian Dawn, but others have made this same mistake, and someone on the Internet was nice enough to write a whole article clearing this up.  Alan Rickman's eurotrash terrorist Hans Gruber is still one of my favorite movie bad guys.

Did Anyone See the Movie Interstate 60? Because This Story Reminds Me of That Movie

No, it's never going to win an award for art direction or acting, but one of my favorite movies is Interstate 60.  In part because almost no one has heard of it and it is fun to be part of the cult in a cult classic.  But at its heart it is really a pretty good movie on the various meanings of freedom -- or more accurately, on the varous ways in which people can enslave themselves.

The movie is essentially a series of vignettes -- short little stories -- connected by a guy on the road on a quest.  One of those involved Kurt Russell as the sheriff in a small town.  For those who saw the movie (and if you have not, go find it on Netflix), doesn't this remind you a lot of the Kurt Russell town Banton?

At nine o'clock in the morning in a garden shed behind a house in Amsterdam, a handful of alcoholics are getting ready to clean the surrounding streets, beer and cigarette in hand.

For a day's work, the men receive 10 euros (around $13), a half-packet of rolling tobacco and, most importantly, five cans of beer: two to start the day, two at lunch and one for after work.

Great Book for Movie Fans

Save the Cat.  It is actually a book on screenwriting, but you don't need to be a writer to enjoy it.  I zipped through it in a few hours.  I just downloaded the sequel, which is perhaps more targeted at movie buffs in that it takes his framework from the first book and shows how 30 famous movies follow it.

The reason it is compelling is that it lays out the script formula -- down to the minute -- followed by a LOT of modern movies.  I have seen the structure discussed in this book repeated in enough other books to be convinced that it is indeed the formula used by most writers, taught to most amateurs, and eschewed only by the most confident.

My wife's first reaction was: how limiting, to turn movies into repetitious formulas.  There is in fact a substantial school of thought that Save the Cat has singled-handedly killed movie-making creativity.    I understand and sympathize with that response, but remember that symphonies and sonnets and Shakespeare plays and Greek tragedies all have a defined "standard" formula as well.   Here, for example, is the typical structure of a Sonata (many or even most first movements of symphonies are in this format) (source)

sonataform

 

Even when artists violated these forms, they were familiar with the forms and knew they were violating them and were doing so for a reason.  When you take Music 101, a lot of the time is learning these forms.  So why shouldn't one do something similar in trying to appreciate film?

Save the Cat presents the movie version of this.  Other books like this book provide a separate take.  But what is amazing is not that they are different -- they use different terminology -- but how absolutely similar they are when you cut through the jargon, down to the script page numbers for each event.

PS-  This may be one of those if you can't do, teach things.  His book on writing screenplays is a bestseller, though he only had two movies produced from his work (he died fairly young) and one of these won a Razzie for worst screenplay of the year.  To some extent, it all depends on how you define "success".  He sold a couple of dozen spec scripts, which is the very definition of "not easy".

Now I Get It

By the time I was really aware of the world, Liz Taylor was old and overweight.  I never really understand the obsession.  This helps.

Two DVD Reviews of Poorly Rated Movies That Had Some Redeeming Characteristics

I had pretty good experiences this week with not one but two movies rated 6 and under (which is pretty low) on IMDB

Atlas Shrugged, Part II:  A mixed bag, but generally better than the first.  The first episode had incredibly lush, beautiful settings, particularly for a low budget indie movie.  But the acting was stilted and sub-par.  Or perhaps the directing was sub par, with poor timing in the editing and dialog.  Whatever.  It was not always easy to watch.

The second movie is not as visually interesting, but it tossed out most of the actors from the first movie (a nearly unprecedented step for a sequel) and started over.  As a result, the actors were much better.  Though I perhaps could wish Dagny was younger and a bit hotter, she and the actor who played Rearden really did a much better job (though there is very little romantic spark between them).  And, as a first in any Ayn Rand movie I have ever seen, there were actually protagonists I might hang out with in a bar.

The one failure of both movies is that, perhaps in my own unique interpretation of Atlas Shrugged, I have always viewed the world at large, and its pain and downfall, as the real protagonist of the book.  We won't get into the well-discussed flatness of Rand's characters, but what she does really well -- in fact the whole point of the book to me -- is tracing socialism to its logical ends.  For me, the climactic moment of the book is Jeff Allen's story of the fate of 20th Century Motors.  Little of this world-wilting-under-creeping-socialism really comes out well in the movie -- its more about Hank and Dagny being harassed personally.  Also, the movie makes the mistake of trying to touch many bases in the book but ends up giving them short shrift - e.g. Jeff Allen's story, D'Anconia's great money speech, Reardon's trial, etc.

I would rate this as worth seeing for the Ayn Rand fan - it falls short but certainly does not induce any cringes  (if only one could say that about the Star Wars prequels).

Lockout:  This is a remake of "Escape from New York", with a space prison substituting for Manhattan and the President's daughter standing in for the President.  The movie lacks the basic awesomeness of converting Manhattan to a prison.  In fact, only one thing in the whole movie works, and that is the protagonist played by Guy Pierce (who also starred in two of my favorite movies, LA Confidential and Memento).

The movie is a total loss when he is not on screen.  The basic plot is stupid, the supporting characters are predictable and irritating, the physics are absurd, and the special effects are weak.  The movie is full of action movie cliche's -- the hero throwing out humorous quips (ala Die Hard or any Governator movie), the unlikely buddy angle, the reluctant romantic plot.  But Pierce is very funny, and is thoroughly entertaining when onscreen.  I think he does the best  job at playing the wisecracking, cynical hero that I have seen in years.

Movie Critique

If I see another movie where it turns out the bad buy secretly wants to be captured by the good guys as part of a more elaborate infiltration plan (e.g. Avengers, the new Star Trek, the recent Die Hard, Skyfall) I think I am going to scream.

On The Creativity of Hollywood

Twilight Struggle

Over Christmas break, my son (home from college) and I have played a half dozen or more games of Twilight Struggle, the #1 rated game on Boardgame Geek that refights to US-USSR cold war from the 1950's to the 1980's.   There is a good reason for that ranking - it is a very enjoyable game to which he and I have become addicted.

I mentioned it before Christmas, and after playing it once made a couple of comments that I want to revise.  I had said I remembered it to be "complex."  Actually, for a wargame, the rules are quite simple (no zone of control rules, line of sight, tracing supply, movement costs over terrain, etc etc.).  Basically, each turn you play a card from your hand.  You may either take the effects of the event on the card, or you may take one of four actions using the operations points on the card (sometimes, if the event benefits your opponent, you have to take the event and the operations points).  Your goal is to gain influence over countries and regions, which in turn translates into victory points.

The cards are divided into early, mid, and late-game cards that are staged into the game.  This helps avoid anachronisms like Solidarity union forming in Poland in 1950.  It also creates a setting where the Russian has early advantages, while the US has late advantages.  This really befuddled me for a number of games as I played as Russian against my son, and lost more than I won despite the general sense in the playing community that the game (until recently revised) is a bit unbalanced in favor of the Russian.  The problem is that my play style in wargames tends to be methodical and defensive, and to win at Russia you have to open with an RTS-like rush and gain the largest possible lead before the Americans come back in the end game.  I finally routed the Americans in the last game when I finally got more aggressive.

The game's complexity comes not from a lot of rules but from three sources:

1) dealing with complexity of scoring possibilities, as while there are only a few types of actions one can take, there are a hundred locations on the map where one can take those actions.  The scoring dynamics causes focus of both players to shift around the world, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in Latin America, sometimes in Africa, etc.  The cards ensure that no region is ever "safe" (for example the combination of John Paul II's election and Solidarity can turn a strong Soviet position in Poland into a total mess.

2) getting rid of or minimizing the impact of events that benefit your opponent.  The latter adds a lot of the flavor of the game.  On average, half the event cards in your hand help you, and half help your opponent.  If a card helps you, you can take either the op points or the event, but not both.  This is sometimes a tough choice in and of itself, made more complicated by the fact that unused events get recycled and can come back later, when they might be more or less useful.  But if the card has an opponent event on it, you generally (with a few exceptions) have to take the op points AND trigger an event favorable to your opponent.  Managing the latter consumes a lot of the mental effort of the game, and really helps give the game its Cold War flavor of jumping from crisis to crisis.

3) the interaction of the cards.  Like most card-driven games, there are a near infinite number of card interactions.  This means that there are almost always certain card pairings where the resulting net effect is unclear.  We had to keep our iPad nearby locked into a web site of the game maker that includes rulings on each card.  Since the game is now 6+ years old, we never encountered a situation where a clear ruling was not available.

Anyway, we think the game absolutely deserves its #1 rating.  Highly recommended.

 

My New Favorite Store, and I Haven't Even Been There. Plus, Christmas Game Recommendations

In my high school days, I used to play a lot of wargames from Avalon Hill and SPI.  I once spent an entire summer playing one game of War in Europe, which had a 42-square-foot map of Europe and 3500 or so pieces.     Each turn was one week, so it was literally a full time job getting through it in a couple of months.

All that is to say I spent a lot of time hanging out at game stores, particularly Nan's in Houston (a great game and comic store that still exists and I still visit every time I am in Houston).  I play fewer wargames now, but I still like strategy games that are a bit more complicated than Monopoly or Risk.  But it is hard to find a game store with a good selection (if there is one here in Phoenix, I have not found it).

But I definitely want to try this place -- the Complete Strategist in New York City.  Click through for some good game pr0n.

His list of games is good, though I have never played Gloom and I have never been a huge fan of Carcassonne.  Ticket to Ride is an awesome game and is perhaps the most accessible for kids and noobs of either his or my list.  If you recognize none of these games, it is a great place to start (there is also a great iPad app).   To his list of games I would add:

All of these games tend to present simple choices with extraordinarily complex scoring implications.  In most cases, one must build infrastructure early to score later, but the trade-off of when to switch from infrastructure building to scoring is the trick.  Five years ago Settlers of Catan would have been on any such list, but it is interesting it is on neither his nor mine.

Once you catch the bug, there are hundreds of other games out there.  My son and I last summer got caught up in a very complex Game of Thrones expandable card game.  Recommended only for those who love incredible complexity and are familiar with the books.  There are also a couple of games I have liked but only played once so far.  My son and I last summer played a fabulous though stupidly complex game of Twilight Struggle (about the Cold War, not hot vampire teens).  This is considered by many to be one of the greatest war / strategy games ever.  We also tried Eclipse (space game, again not the teen vampires) which we liked.  I have played Le Havre and Puerto Rico as iPad apps.  They were OK,  but I think the fun in them is social and the of course does not come through in the iPad app.  In the same vein, tried to play Agricola with my kids and they were bored stiff.

Update:  When in doubt, research it on Board Game Geek.  Their game ranking by user voting is here.

Now That The Election Is Over, We Can Take On Serious Topics Again

Welcoming Princess Leia to the Disney Princess club

Just in Time for Star Wars 7....

...awesome Star Wars apparel.

PS1:  For some reason they STILL are not talking about doing the movie I think would be a layup to make awesome - Han and Chewie, the early years.  Meeting each other, smuggling, adventures, winning a starship from the only black man in the universe.

PS2:  The Star Wars prequel trilogy are really beautiful to watch, but horrendous as movies in large part because the dialog is so freaking awful.  I think someone should try to dub them with better dialog.

Looper Was Pretty Good

I am generally skeptical of movies released in late September - after all, if the studio really had much hope for them, they would have released them in summer or waited for Christmas.  But I took my daughter because she is a Joseph Gordon Levitt fan, and it turned out to be solid.  Nitpickers need to put away the inevitable time-paradox-mistake criticisms, but we both enjoyed it.

New Google Feature

THIS is why the Internet was invented.  Google has a new search feature so you can quickly find out how many degrees of separation any actor has from Kevin Bacon

It is hard to push the number much higher, for any reasonable value of "actor."  For God sakes, Charlie Chaplin is a 2.  I got a three with Humphrey Bogart and Butterfly McQueen.  Not even sure how to get a four.

A New Way To Film An Event

Wither the camera operator?  I thought this was interesting - super-high-resolution cameras in fixed positions that cover the whole field, with broadcast shot selected as a zoom/clipping window withing the larger picture.

When Video Works as an Education Tool

Generally, I get turned off by education video because I find the information bandwidth is often way too low.  I can read it faster, and get 99% of the benefit.

But this is a case where video explains in 60 seconds more than one could in a whole lecture.

Kubrick // One-Point Perspective from kogonada on Vimeo.

Link via Hit and Run

Things I Never Knew

This guy in Road Warrior and this guy in Commando are the same actor.  Never would have suspected until I saw the actor signing autographs at local Comic Con.  Certainly a formidable acting portfolio.

Commando is one of my favorite of its genre.  All the elements are there - classic Arnold walk-away lines, bad acting, infinitely large ammo magazines, worse-than-stormtrooper bad-guy shooting, more bad acting, and unrepentant machismo.

Update:  Apparently Rae Dawn Chong is still making movies.  Who knew?  But I am a bigger fan of the woman in Road Warrior

YouTube Mysteries

Via my daughter.  It's a suckers game to try to analyze what is popular on YouTube, but the view count for this video is just staggering.  It apparently also has about a thousand imitators.  If I am going to watch a cover video, why wouldn't I rather one with LA cheerleaders?  But I have to credit Harvard as a trendsetter.  Who knew there could be a whole new genre of videos about lip syncing pop tunes in a moving passenger van?

Very Frustrating

It is bad enough that great series like Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey whiz by in just 10 episodes or so, making us wait another year for more.  But Sherlock has to be the ultimate tease, giving us just three (admittedly epic) episodes each season.  I mean, every three episodes there is a season-ending cliffhanger.

Fox Pulls Avengers From Theaters After Just 4 Days

OK, not really.  But it is Joss Whedon.   Being a Firefly fan-boy and one of apparently only 12 people who "got" Dollhouse and liked it, I am happy to see Whedon's success with the Avengers.  I'll be at Comicon this summer (yes, I am that big of a geek and besides my family will be in San Diego anyway on vacation) and I am thinking Whedon is virtually a lock to make an appearance.