Archive for the ‘Movies & Entertainment’ Category.

I Nominate This For Worst Idea Ever for a Movie Based on a Game

My New Speaker Project

Long-timer readers will know that one of my hobbies is building my own speakers.  I built three big ones to go behind my home theater projection screen, and various pairs for music around the house.  The first time I built speakers, I worked exactly from plans.  The second time I customized a design.   The third time I designed from scratch, but they were small simple bookshelf speakers.

This new project is something else.   I started almost completely from scratch, beginning only from this academic article on curved line arrays.  From space and wife-acceptance-factor reasons, I couldn't build a floor to ceiling traditional line array, so I thought I would try this approach.  The height of the speakers was capped by some geography issues in the room they are going in.

So here is what the boxes look like so far.  The rectangular openings are for PT2C-8 planar tweeters, and the round ones are for the ND90-8 mid/bass.  Despite the small size of the bass drivers, the ones chosen actually go pretty deep and the speaker box models (there are lots of free programs out there) with pretty good bass, though I will have it crossed over to a subwoofer as well.  The speaker actually curves upwards more than it looks like in the photo -- the angle of the photo distorts it some.  The curve is actually between 25 and 30 degrees.


It turns out that things I thought would be really hard were actually easy.  For example, getting the nice curve on the face was easy once I changed my plan to layering several 1/4 inch sheets rather than trying to bend a 1/2 inch or 3/4 inch sheet of mdf.  The rectangular holes are not that straight but the drivers have wide flanges that will cover that up.  The round holes were made WAY easier with this type of hole saw (which rather than teeth has three or four little carbide router bits that do the cutting).

What was hard was the paint.  It was all done with rattle cans, I don't have any professional spray equipment.   I have no idea when I decided to try to get a piano black gloss finish on this, but I will tell you now that life is too short to try to get this finish on mdf.  If you look really closely you can see a few spots where I should have sanded yet again and re-coated, but I finally called it done.  The worse problem was that I accidentally started with a Rustoleum lacquer.  It covers beautifully but dries really, really slowly.  Any other paint type will make a mess if sprayed over lacquer, so I was stuck with it unless I wanted to strip it off and start over (which in retrospect would have been a good decision).   Painting this has been going on for months, with frequent long breaks to let things fully dry.  I am still not sure the finish is really as hard as it should be and am paranoid about bumping it into anything.  It looks good, though, almost startling when people see it for the first time.

Anyway, the next step is installing the drivers.  Part of the academic paper discussed tapering the volume on the various drivers.  This requires some simple resistor networks (L-pads) to attenuate each driver by a certain amount.  Here are the drivers once all the resistors are soldered (on the back, so largely invisible here), shown while I am testing the network.  The laptop is setting the parameters in the digital crossover, which uses a kit I built from miniDSP.  The MiniDSP board also has parametric equalizers so when the speakers are finished, I can fine-tune the frequency response.


You can actually see the first driver installed on the lower right.


Here is where we get to the world-class screw-up on my part.  The #1 thing I learned in speaker design is to brace the hell out of them.  You don't want anything flexing.  Unfortunately, I was stupid enough to put the braces in early.  This is fine for the rectangular ribbon tweeters, they install from the front.  But the round mid-basses install from the back, and  this is what that looks like -- the unpainted panels with the holes in it are the braces, and then you can see the actual driver hole in the front of the speaker behind it:



I had this thing up on my bathroom counter so I could see the driver positioning in the mirror.  I then had to reach hands through these braces while using a screwdriver with a 12 inch extension.  A total contortion act, but I got the hardest one done so I am confident I can do the rest.

New Star Wars Trailer

This looks encouraging.

AT-ATs are back!

Before There Was Green Screen

People act as if it is something new and different when actors shoot scenes and 95% of the space on the screen is later filled in by CGI.  This has actually been going on for decades with matte paintings on glass.  Movie scenes were either filmed directly through the glass (there are some great examples in the linked article with Disney artists painting sailing ships on a bay for filming) or reshot later by projecting the original film and reshooting it with the matte art.

Here is a an example before and after the painted matt.  Just like CGI, only CGI can add movement and dynamic elements

Sword-window view

I had thought all this stuff was done in post production but apparently Disney at least shot a lot of scenes straight through a matte.  I love this guy, sitting on the beach painting ships on glass so they would be sitting on the bay in the scene.  You can almost imagine the actors tapping their feet waiting for him to be finished.


Much of the beauty of the original Star Wars movie was in its great matte paintings, not only of planets but of the large Death Star interior scenes.

JJ Abrams is World's Greatest Producer of Fan Fic

[no spoilers]  I don't mean the title negatively -- I liked the reboots of both Star Trek and Star Wars that he wrote and directed.  Given the long absence of each franchise, there is no problem in my mind restarting the series with an homage to the old series and characters.  In particular, Abrams is great at peppering the movie with little shout-outs and inside jokes for the fan base.  And both are reasonably good adventure movies with beautiful action scenes.

The problems comes with the second movie, and moving the series into new territory.  The second Star Trek movie (Into the Darkness) couldn't seem to extricate itself from fan fic mode, retelling the Kahn story for the third time, with cute little reverses like Kirk dying and Spock screaming "Kahn.....", the opposite from The Wrath of Khan.

I understand the pressure.  The fan base of both franchises was ready to strangle Abrams at the first hint of heresy to the original material.  But for God sakes the Star Wars loyalists, of which I consider myself one, endured Jar Jar.  The new Star Wars movie has some flaws, but it is a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable reboot.  Now it's time to take some risks with it.

Postscript:  Is there a handbook of Star Wars Imperial architecture?  Is it driven entirely by creating movie aesthetics or have directors started to work a running gag here?  In the new movie -- I promise this is not really a spoiler -- there is a scene with one of those classic Imperial rooms with the infinitely deep hole in it, featuring tiny narrow walkways without handrails  (I consider this not a spoiler since at least one such room has probably been featured in every Star Wars movie).  Anyway, one of the characters finds themselves clinging to the walls of said infinite drop some 12 or 15 fee below the nearest walkway.  And what do you know, there is some sort of switch lever there.  There are wall switches in my house that I think are located inconveniently, but wtf?  Who designs these places?

By the way, the movie Galaxy Quest, which I still love, had a great parody of this sort of sci fi architecture.  John Scalzi's Redshirts also touches on this territory as well.

Disney's Amazing Star Wars Deal, Which Might Help Fill In Disney's Amazing ESPN Profit Hole

How did Disney buy Star Wars for only $4 billion?  I first saw this question asked by Kevin Drum, though I can't find the link (and I am not going to feel guilty about it after Mother Jones banned me for some still-opaque reason).  But Disney is going to release a new movie every year, and if it is anything like the Marvel franchise, they are going to milk it for a lot of money.  Plus TV tie-ins.  Plus merchandising.  Plus they are rebuilding much of their Hollywood Studios park at DisneyWorld in a Star Wars theme.

The answer is that this is the kind of deal that makes trading in a free market a win-win rather than zero-sum.  Lucas, I think, was played out and had no ability, or no desire, to do what it would take to make the franchise worth $4 billion.  On the flip side Disney is freaking good a milking a franchise for all its worth (there is none better at this) and so $4 billion is starting to appear cheap from their point of view.

By the way, Disney is going to need the profits from Star Wars to fill in the hole ESPN is about to create.  A huge percentage of the rents in the cable business have historically flowed to ESPN, which is able to command per-subscriber fees from cable companies that dwarf any other network. Times are a-changin' though, as pressure increases from consumers to unbundle.  If cable companies won't unbundle, then consumers will do it themselves, cutting the cable and creating their own bundles from streaming offerings.

ESPN is already seeing falling subscriber numbers, and everyone thinks this is just going to accelerate.  ESPN is in a particularly bad position when revenues fall, because most of its costs are locked up under long-term contracts for the acquisition of sports broadcasting rights. It can't easily cut costs to keep up with falling revenues.  It is like a bank that has lent long and borrowed short, and suddenly starts seeing depositors leave.   And this is even before discussing competition, which has exploded -- every major pro sports league has its own network, major college athletic conferences have their own network, and competitors such as Fox and NBC seem to keep adding more channels.

To Start Getting You In the Mood...

New Star Wars Trailer

I didn't see any gratuitous lens flairs until about 1:42 so I am not sure this is really JJ Abrams.  But I must admit that despite the total crapitude of Episodes 1-3, I am excited.

The Fatal Allure of the Sexy Business

The tech site Engadget directed me to this article on Visual FX and CGI as a "must-read".  What I found was one of the odder economics and business hypotheses I have encountered lately.

The article begins by relating that VFX and digital effects specialty houses all lose money, even when they are providing effects for wildly profitable movies (e.g. Avengers) and purports to explain why this should be.  The author believes that this is a result of Hollywood purposely criticizing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep returns in the VFX companies down (and thus increase the returns of film producers).

As the debate surrounding what visual effects are worth rages on, it is clear that the studios themselves have an interest in perpetuating the myth that VFX are the product of clinical assembly lines and the results are equally lifeless and mechanical. Blaming computers for the dumbing down of movies has become a journalistic trope that is bandied about to squeeze the one part of the Hollywood machine that has no union or organizational skill to push back. The right hand asserts they are something not worth paying top dollar for, while the left lines up an interminable roster of VFX-based box office juggernauts for the foreseeable future.

The author goes so far as to say that Avatar was denied the best picture Oscar specifically to support the anti-VFX sentiment and keep returns of VFX companies down (emphasis added).

In 2010, James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time just 41 days after its release, raking in an incredible $2.7 billion by the end of its run. Weta Digital, the VFX studio that created the majority of the visual effects, along with Lightstorm Entertainment, invested years in developing the tools and talent necessary to create Cameron’s almost entirely computer generated vision, with the cost of making the film rumored to be upwards of $500 million. Cameron had promised to show the world what visual effects could do and he succeeded. The results were universally lauded as visually stunning and unparalleled.

Yet, rather famously, the film and Cameron were snubbed that year at the Academy Awards, both for Best Picture and Best Director. The blame was laid at the feet of the critical success of The Hurt Locker. However, awarding Avatar the Academy’s highest honor would have been acknowledging visual effects as not only lucrative, but high art as well, worthy of its astronomical price tag. And that was a bargaining chip Hollywood was unwilling to concede to an industry it continues to hold hostage with threats of outsourcing to unskilled laborers around the globe.

This hypothesis seems outlandish, and in fact the author never really provides any evidence whatsoever for her hypothesis.   At least equally likely is that Hollywood insiders are snobbish and conservative and reject new approaches to film-making in a way that the public does not.  Or it could be that Avatar wasn't a very good movie (go try to watch it again today, you will be surprised what a yawner it is).  So why are VFX companies really losing money on profitable films?   Let's take a step back, because there is a useful business lesson buried in here somewhere.  I think.

This discussion is a sub-set of an age-old business problem -- how do rents in a supply chain get divided up?   Think of the billion plus dollars the new Avengers movie will make.  Everyone in the supply chain for making that movie, from the actors to the caterers to the VFX houses to the distribution companies believe their contribution has immense value, and that they should be getting a solid cut of the profits.  But profits in a supply chain are not divided up based on some third party assessing value, they are divided up by negotiation.  And the results of that negotiation depend on a lot of factors -- the number of competitors, the uniqueness of the service, regulatory rules, etc.  The most visible example of this sort of negotiation we see frequently in the news is in sports, where players and team owners are explicitly negotiating the division of the end revenue pie between themselves.

If we return to the article, the author actually gives us a hint of the true dynamic that is likely bringing down VFX profits.

The international subsidies-driven business model under which VFX companies operate has been well documented. In pursuit of tax rebates offered by various governments to produce films in their jurisdiction, studios insist that VFX companies open branches in these locations or reduce their bids by the amount of the subsidy in question. Even as studios, directors, and audiences demand the latest in cutting edge technology, VFX houses must underbid one another to get the work and many have been shuttered due to operational losses in the wake of explosive blockbuster budgets. The cost of research and development, shrinking schedules, and the unlimited changes that are the building blocks of every tentpole film, are shouldered entirely by VFX houses.

This is the best clue we get to the real problem.  Here is what I infer from this paragraph:

  1. This is a high fixed cost industry.  There are enormous up-front investments in research into new techniques and large investments in the latest technology, which presumably must be constantly refreshed because it has a short half-life before it is out of date.  The situation is worsened by government policy, which provides incentives for VFX companies to build extra capacity in multiple countries, losing economy of scale benefits from large concentrated production facilities.    One would presume from this that these companies' marginal cost of output, say 15 seconds of finished effects, is way way below their total costs.
  2. There is rivalry among VFX companies that seem to have excess capacity, such that bidding for work is very aggressive.  In such situations (think American railroads in the late 19th century) competitors lower prices down to marginal cost to keep their capacity and their trained people working.  Over time, of course, this leads to numerous bankruptices

I will add a third point which the author fails to cover.  To do so I will return to one of my favorite things I learned at Harvard Business School (HBS).  At HBS, in the first two days of strategy class, we studied two very different business cases.  The first was of a water meter manufacturer, a dead boring predictable unsexy business.  The second was a semiconductor company, which was hip and cool and really sexy.  It turned out that the water meter company coined money.  The semiconductor business was in and out of bankruptcy.

Why?  Well the water meter company had limited investment (made the same meters the same way for decades) and made most of its money off the replacement market, where it had no competitors since users pretty much had to replace with the same meter.  The semiconductor business had numerous shifting competitors and was constantly trying to scrape up enough investment money to keep up with shifting technology.  But there was one more difference.  By being sexy, tons of people wanted to be in the semiconductor business. They got non-monetary benefits from being in it (ie it was cool and interesting).  When there is an industry where lots of people are getting into the business for reasons other than making money, look out!  The profits are probably going to be terrible.   This is why most restaurants fail.  The business-for-sale listings are awash in brew pubs.   The aviation industry was like this for years, and I would argue this also suppresses rents in farming.

I don't know this for a fact, but I would bet that the VFX industry attracts a lot of people because it is sexy.  Yes, like a lot of programming, the actual work is detailed and dull.  But if the coding is detailed and dull, would you rather be doing it for Exxon's new back-office system or to put Ironman on the big screen (and have your name deep into the film credits, seen by the dozen or so people who hang around waiting for the Marvel Easter egg at the end)?

This is why I think a conspiracy theory to believe Hollywood is dissing the artistry of VFX movies as a way to keep VFX company rents down is silly.  It is totally unnecessary to explain the bad rents.  Had you told me it was a high investment business with huge fixed costs and much lower marginal costs and alot of rivalry driven by participants who piled into the business because it was sexy, I would have told you to stop right there and I could have immediately predicted poor returns and bankruptcies.

So what can VFX companies do?  I have no idea.  The first idea I would offer them is branding.  If you are buried deep in the supply chain and want to increase your bargaining power, one way to do it is to develop a brand with the end consumer.   If consumers suddenly latch on to, say, the CoyoteFX brand as being innovative or better in some way, such that they might be more likely to go to a movie with CoyoteFX sequences, then CoyoteFX now has a LOT more power in negotiations with producers.  Dolby Sound is a great example -- you probably don't even know what it is but movies used to advertise they had it.  Certain camera technologies like Panavision are another, where movies actually sold themselves in part on the features of one member of their supply chain.  As a digital house, Pixar effectively did this -- so well in fact its brand actually was bigger than Disney's (its distributor) for a while, and Disney was forced to buy them.  This does not happen just in movies.  I just bought a car that advertised it had a premium Bose sound system.  The car maker doesn't advertise who made, say, the fuel tanks, so my guess is that Bose, via branding, gets a better cut of the supply chain than does the fuel tank maker.

The Past Cultural Trend That is Perhaps The Hardest To Explain to My Kids

Trucker movies and the CB radio culture are virtually impossible to explain to my kids.  Perhaps they will have the same experience explaining the Kardashians to their kids.

New Star Wars Teaser

Yes, hints from the first teaser are confirmed -- there does appear to be a second black guy in the Star Wars universe (third if you count the now decades deceased Mace Windu). Bonus points for the first media outlet that calls this man who lived "a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" an African-American. I always get a laugh when the media refers to a black man in Jamaica or Britain as South Africa as "African American".

Kidding aside, I presume the thing that will have geek nation atwitter is the use of the present rather than past tense when talking about Darth Vader.  Not to mention the fact that wookies apparently age much better than humans.

Wow, I Should Be A TV Executive

When I first offered my novel BMOC to readers, a lot of them assumed it was some libertarianish fantasy.  Actually, its not a particularly serious book, just your normal everyday mystery for reading at the beach.  The unique part of the book is the introduction of a number of oddball business models (I used to make these up as my occupation to share with people at cocktail parties when I got bored).

I am in the midst of a light edit of the book for a re-release  (like my last story, we will have a limited time free-on-Kindle promotion, so watch for that).  Anyway, I had forgotten this idea I had included for a reality TV show.  I think it holds up pretty well.

Gladstone knew that most of Cupcake’s best-known work was in a reality TV show called “Seven Deadly Sins.”  In that particular show, eight priests were brought together, tempted each week by one of the seven deadly sins. The viewing audience got to vote each week as to which priest succumbed the most and got kicked off the show. Cupcake was featured prominently in several of the weekly contests, including her now famous take-down of Father Stanley Vincenzo (who had up to that point been considered the shoe-in favorite to emerge victorious) in the “lust” episode.

It is amazing no sharp TV executive has yet snapped this idea up.  You are all welcome to it, go and make your fortune.

Have Critics of American Sniper Even Seen the Movie?

I finally saw the movie American Sniper, and I am amazed anyone could think this movie glorified war or America's involvement in Iraq.  As a pacifist, I am extremely sensitive to movies that seem too rah-rah about war, but this was not one of them.  The protagonist may come off as heroic, or at least enduring, but war looks pretty sucky, full of hideous moral choices, and led/governed by jerks.  Which shouldn't be surprising because I would have described Eastwood's other recent war movies in roughly the same way.

On Income Inequality

Most folks who lament income inequality have the following model in their head:  Wealth comes at a fixed rate from a fountain in the desert, and the rich are the piggy ones who hog all the output of the fountain and won't let anyone else in close to drink.  The more anyone takes from the fountain, the less that is available for everyone else.  And this was probably a pretty good model for considering pre-capitalist societies.  The actual robber barons, before the term was abused to describe successful industrialists of the 19th century, were petty nobles (ie the government of the time) who did absolutely nothing useful except prey on those around them and on those who passed by conducting rudimentary commerce, taking from them by force.  That is not how most people become wealthy today, with the exception of a few beneficiaries of cronyism (e.g. Terry McAuliffe).

These issues are dealt with quite clearly from a surprising source -- this review by an economist of the movie "Elysium".   I don't really get the schtick at the end with the Adam Smith cameo, but the rest is quite good

Postscript:  A while back I was reading the Devil's Candy (terrific book) and thinking about movie-making.  Perhaps it is not surprising that wealthy movie stars think in zero-sum terms.  I suppose much of their success can be thought of as zero-sum.  If I get the part, someone else does not.  If I get an extra point of the gross, that is less for everyone else.  If this movie does well, that probably means less revenue for another movie that came out the same weekend.   Particularly for actors trying to make it or on the rise, movies have a fixed sum of value and they are trying to grab a larger share of that value.

It is interesting that in their own sphere of influence, I never hear about such folks seeking any sort of income redistribution.  Perhaps I have missed it, but I never hear Matt Damon say "hey, take one of my gross points and split it up among all the craft folks on the movie, or share it out with the 20 guys who didn't land my part."

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)



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.