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October 23, 2016

[Speculative Spoiler] WestWorld

Here’s a spoiler based on nothing. Please note that I’m never right.

The Man in Black (Ed Harris) wil be revealed to be a robot. He was created by the the dead co-founder for some reason, like to be the chaos principle that will drive the genetic algorithms, or some other such sciencey sounding thing. (This would invert the Jurassic Park idea in the assumption that we can control nature is disproven. In WestWorld, according to my made-up spoiler, the park would have built in a principle of chaos.)

So, that’s settled.

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October 3, 2016

How Game of Thrones ends [No actual spoiler]

I of course don’t know anything that you don’t about Game of Thrones. In fact, I know considerably less since I can’t keep any of the characters or backstory straight. Also, I have not read the books. And when there’s exposition explaining something like exactly why one of the guys with a scraggly beard is angry at the red-head who likes to take off her top, I check my email, see what’s up at DailyKos, and maybe get myself some Fritos.

Nevertheless, with all of the confidence of an ignorant man, I am quite certain of how it ends:

Blondie-with-Dragons mounts the Pointy Throne, frees the slaves and reforms Obamacare, and then dies, at which point the handsome dwarfy guy is given a boost and becomes the tiny perfect mayor of all of West Oreos.

Come back in a couple of years and be amaaaazed!

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August 31, 2016

Socrates in a Raincoat

In 1974, the prestigious scholarly journal TV Guide published my original research that suggested that the inspector in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was modeled on Socrates. I’m still pretty sure that’s right, and an actual scholarly article came out a few years later making the same case, by people who actually read Russian ‘n’ stuff.

Around the time that I came up with this hypothesis, the creators of the show Columbo had acknowledged that their main character was also modeled on Socrates. I put one and one together and …

Click on the image to go to a scan of that 1974 article.

Socrates in a Raincoat scan

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August 1, 2016

Why can't the Americans learn to pun?

(Prepare for the most first worldly of all problems.)

The New York Times Puns and Anagrams puzzles are a national embarrassment. Pardon my bluntness, but I’m a truth teller.

The clues in the British version provide a definition and a clever, hidden way of constructing the word. The NYT version sometimes does but sometimes just has the cleverness.

For example, in yesterday’s NYT Puns and Anagrams puzzle [SPOILERS AHEAD], the clue for 48 Down is “Fill time on stage again.” The answer is “revamp” because to fill time on stage is to vamp, and to do it again is to add “re” to it. But there’s no definition of “revamp” in the clue. In the British style, it might have been “Do over once again to fill time on stage.”

Another example: 57A “Fire starter” is “bon.” For the Brits it could have been something like “Good French fire starter.”

Adding the definition usually makes the clues harder, and thus more satisfying to solve. Sure, the definition is in them, which should make them easier, but that information becomes noise because with a good clue, you can’t tell which is the definition and which is the hint. When you can tell — e.g., when words in the clue seem oddly chosen, they may be there as an anagram — the clue gets easier, but that’s just fun getting even a little more meta.

And while I have your attention, let’s work to slow global climate change. Or, as the Brits might put it, “Climate activist may ogle sun god.” Answer: ogle + ra = Al Gore. See, wasn’t that fun? No. Ok, good point.

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March 26, 2016

My secret life as a gamer

David Wolinsky‘s Don’t Die is running a long interview with me this week about games, culture, and why I’m embarrassed to be a video game player.

It is a long form interview, and basically unedited: I did a little clean-up for clarity, but it’s still got conversational ambiguities, as well as some thematic inconsistencies because David was asking me questions I haven’t thought about.

In the interview I do talk a bit about why I’m embarrassed about being a gamer. “The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am”The first step is admitting just how much of a gamer I am. I’m pretty much of one, going back all the way to the original Colossal Cave adventure. I’ve tried most genres but seem to get the most enjoyment from various forms of first person shooters. I’m no good at platformers or other forms of twitch games. RPGs are too slow for me because I don’t get invested in the characters. Most online games are too hard for me, so I feel like I’m slowing down my teammates, although I’ve spent a lot of time in Left 4 Dead 2. Some other favorites: The Bioshock series. Portal 2. The original Doom and Wolfenstein. The Luxor games. Some pinball games. I enjoyed Dead Rising 3 and even Max Payne 3. Far Cry 4, too. I guess it takes at least three tries to get games right. Anyway, I’ve never had a systematic memory, so those are just the beans that fall out when I shake the ol’ pod, but they’re probably representative.

Games are literally a pass-time for me: I tend to play them as a break from work. I would count programming as a hobby, not a pastime because it’s got an outcome, like a crossword puzzle that once you’re finished you can use for something. When programming, I feel like I’m doing something, even though mostly what I work on are utilities that cost me hundreds of hours and by the time I die will have saved me minutes. Games simply fill the gaps in my interest.

So, why is it embarrassing to me? For one thing, many games support values that I detest. The most obvious is violence, but I haven’t found that a lifetime of killing screen-based enemies has inured me to real violence or has led me to favor violence over peaceful solutions.

“The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more”The hypermasculinity of action games concerns me more because few people are going to be convinced by games that shooting hordes of aliens is normal, but many will be further confirmed that men are the real heroes of life’s narratives. Although games have become less grossly misogynistic and homophobic (e.g., female action leads are now not uncommon), if you have any doubts that they still trade on harmful stereotypes and assumptions — and why would you? — Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant “Tropes vs. Women” videos will set you straight.

But I’m more embarrassed about playing games than I am about watching action movies about which those same criticisms can be made.

In part it’s because games are associated with children. In the Don’t Die interview, I point to games that are more sophisticated and adult, but many of the games I listed above are no more sophisticated emotionally or narratively than a very bad TV show. So, mainly because I’m interested, here’s what I find appealing about the games I’ve listed:

  • Left 4 Dead is beautifully designed to encourage genuine collaboration among four players.

  • The Bioshock series creates imaginative science fiction worlds that would be better termed “political fiction.”

  • Portal 2 is a great logic game — a few rules and ingenious problems. But it is also an hilarious social commentary with Pixar-quality touches of brilliance. Example: the singing sentry guns.

  • The original Doom was scary as hell.

  • The original Wolfenstein let you explore a maze with surprises.

  • Luxor is an arcade game that is at a good challenge level for me. Also, the balls make a reassuring sound. (I am particularly fond of Luxor Evolved, which is “trippy” and somehow appeals to my lizard-brain-on-acid.)

  • Max Payne 3 was dumb fun in a well-realized setting.

  • Dead Rising 3 mocks its genre while indulging in it. It does not require precise control, of which I am lacking.

When I think about it, almost all of these games share some traits. First, they are easy enough that I can succeed at them. Most games are not. Second, they tend to have pushed the graphic envelope when introduced. I remain in awe of what those computer dohickeys can do these days. Third, “many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde”many of them are meta about their genres, which is often just an excuse for being retrograde in their values. Apparently I fall for that.

I think it comes down to this: If embarrassment is the exposure of something private that doesn’t match one’s public persona, then clearly, the major reason I find gaming embarrassing is because I am publicly a thoughtful person. Or at least I try to be. Or at the least least, I pretend to be. Most of the games I play are not thoughtful. Sure, Portal 2 is. Going Home is. Bioshock is in its way. But Dead Rising is mindless…except for its meta-awareness of its tropes and its own ridiculousness; I completed large chunks of it while dressed in a tutu.

This is not what a semi-academic is supposed to be doing. Or so my embarrassment tells me.

 


 

PS: In the Don’t Die interview, the game I’m trying to remember that has the word “dust” in its title is “Spec Ops.” There is dust in the game, but not in the title.

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September 10, 2015

How to talk like Hannibal

While we’re on the subject, here’s a message from CindyRaymond on the IMDB message board for the Hannibal TV series:

I recently got my boyfriend into the show. We found a standard formula of how to talk like Hannibal.

Make a grandiose statement about something you are doing or something that is brought up in conversation.

“Tell me, Will…”

Dramatic question about how this random thing relates to Will.

For instance, last weekend we went to a potluck and couldn’t stop cracking each other up.

“A potluck is an event in which individuals bring a cherished part of themselves to a communal table. Tell me, Will…what will you bring to the table?”

“A 3-bean salad is a union of parts that are seemingly the same, yet ultimately so different. Tell me, Will…are we the same? Or are we ultimately different?”

Yup.

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April 25, 2015

Our new plummy acting

I have to say that I’m enjoying our new hammy acting style. But hammy isn’t the right word for it, since it implies a lack of craft. So I’ll call it plummy. (The fact that I’m a kosher vegetarian has nothing to do with this.) Our new plummy actors are fully in control of what they’re doing. They’re on purpose pushing it a little further than realness, knowing that we know that they’re doing so.

Leo Dicaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is not hammy or plummy.

Leo in Wolf of Wall Street is plummy.

Had he gone for a Brando-like realism, Wolf would have been as depressing as businesspeople-are-shallow movies like 1959’s What Makes Sammy Run?

Every character in American Horror Story is plummy. Most of the actors on Justified are plummy. Well, the male actors. They get to have way more fun than almost all the women. (The exception: Margo Martindale who played Megs, the Big Bad in 2011. And guess what? She won an Emmy for it.)

Everyone on Fargo, both the TV show and the movie.

Everyone on Veep. which has has gotten ferociously funny this season.

Tony and the Henchmen on The Sopranos. Not so much Carmela or Dr. Melfi, although Nancy Marchand‘s Mom the Destroyer certainly counts.

I’m not sure that Breaking Bad is a great example of this, but Better Call Saul is…again, for the men more than the women, with the exception of Julie Ann Emery‘s Betsy Kettleman.

I’m not saying this is an unprecedented style of acting. In some ways it’s similar to the old days when stars were visible through the roles they played: You could see Cary Grant behind the lines he suavely delivered, and you could see Marilyn Monroe through her bombshell comedienne roles. Or at least you thought you could.

But the current style of acting is different. These actors are as invisible in their roles as Brando’s generation was. But what they’re making of themselves on screen isn’t intended to be mistaken for real life captured by well-placed hidden cameras. They are clearly playing roles. They’re just playing the hell out of them.

So why the men more than the women? As everyone who has watched TV in the past five years has pointed out, the new great series have been dominated by stories of men struggling with their flaws. The women too often are there to “ground” the characters around them. They are often phenomenal actors — Edie Falcon? Get out of town! — but are just not allowed to push beyond the natural. I’m sure it’s all just a coincidence though.

 


Mad Men isn’t on this list because I think the acting aims for naturalism, perhaps because we already see the distance between the roles people play within their world and who they might be if they were less constrained by the 1950s and 1960s social norms.

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September 18, 2014

Et tu, U2?

A few days ago, when Apple pushed the latest from U2 into everyone’s iTunes library, you could hear the Internet pause as it suddenly realized that Apple is its parents’ age.

Now in the ad-promotion succubus occupying the body of what used to be Time Magazine, you can see U2 desperate to do exactly the wrong thing: insisting that it wasn’t a gift at all. You can learn more about this in the hilariously titled cover article of Time: “The veteran rock band faces the future.” This a future in which tracks we don’t like are bundled with tracks we do (the return of the CD format) and people who share with their fans are ruining it for U2, boohoo.

Or, as Bono recently said, “We were paid” for the Apple downloads, adding, “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.” And as everyone knows, sacraments need to be purchased at a fair market value, the results of which Bono, as a deeply spiritual artist, secures in sacred off-shore accounts.

In my head I hear Bono, enraged by the increasingly bad publicity, composing a message that he posts without first running it through his phalanx of PR folks:

Dear fans:

You have recently received a copy of our latest album, Songs of Innocence, in your iTunes library. U2 understands you may be confused or even upset by this. So, let me clarify once and for all the most important point about this — if I may humbly say so — eternal masterpiece. It was not our intention to cause you stress or to wonder if you have the musical sensitivity to full grasp (if I may, humbly say) the greatness of our work. But most important, it is essential above all that you understand that it was not our intention to give you a gift. No freaking way.

We understand your mistake. You are, after all, just fans, and you don’t play in the Jetstream world of global music. As I said to my dear friend Nelson Mandela (friend is too weak a word; I was his mentor) shortly before he passed, music is a sacrament, just like tickets to movies, especially ones with major stars working for scale, or like the bill at a restaurant where you and any two of the Clintons (Chelsea, you are a star! Give yourself that!) are plotting goodness.

To tell you the truth, I’m disappointed in you. No, worse. I’m hurt. Personally hurt. How dare you think this was a gift! After all these years, is that all U2 is worth to you? Nothing? Our music has all the value of a CrackerJacks trinket or a lower-end Rolex in an awards show gift bag? Do you not understand that Apple paid us for every copy they distributed? We were paid for it, sheeple! Massive numbers of dollars were transferred into our bank accounts! More dollars than you could count, you whiny little “Ooh look at me I’m sharing” wankers! We’re U2 dammit! We don’t need you! You need us! MONEY IS LOVE! EXTRA-ORDINARY LOVE!!!!!!

Have a beautiful day.

Meanwhile, as always, Amanda Palmer expresses the open-hearted truth about this issue. It almost makes me regret making fun of Bono. Almost.

>Bono makes it clear U2 was paid for the

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October 13, 2013

A bit of a downer for Gravity

SPOILERS: Not really. I have a thematic quibble that I’ll keep at the level of saying something like “Much Ado about Nothing is a great love story except for an implausible plot mechanism” or “I love the evening palette of Good Night Moon, but, wow, nothing happens.”

So, Gravity is really good and worth seeing on a large screen. (Terrific use of 3D, by the way.) The use of the camera to tell the story is amazing, on a par with Hugo or the Life of Pi (to name two recent films). There’s a scene near the beginning where the camera not only fluidly changes its position, but also changes our point of view: from omniscient view of the universe, to observing the world reflected in Sandra Bullock’s space suit visor, to coming inside the visor and seeing the earth, its reflection, the HUD and Bullock’s face, and then taking the point of view of Bullock herself. The director, Alfonso Cuarón, is amazing in his ability to convey situation, point of view, sensation, and narrative. Awesome!

But…

..the plot is a bit predictable, the way (as my son pointed out) mountain-climbing movies can be. Worse, this space odyssey is wrapped around a sentimental journey that is entirely unnecessary to the film. In fact, I think it would have gone all the way to stunning if they had adhered to the old adage: In space, no one can hear your backstory.

Still, it’s easy for me to carp. It’s overall awesome. And how the heck did they shoot it? Gravity-free stunt doubles?

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September 29, 2013

Fake spoilers to tweet during Breaking Bad

Here’s a sequence of fake spoilers you can tweet during tonight’s Breaking Bad finale.

There are IMPLIED SPOILERS in this if you haven’t seen the series. E.g., if you don’t know what happens to Gus, read no further. Mainly, though, it implies who is alive when the finale begins.

First, just a palette cleanser:

First time viewer! Can someone catch me up? #BreakingBad

Then:

The New Mexico landscape is so beautiful, forbidding. But why is Pisa leaning in the background? Foreshadowing? #BreakingBad
I don’t remember Jesse having a hook for a hand? Did I miss an episode????? #BreakingBad
Surprise! I really did not see that Paula Deen cameo coming! #BreakingBad
Hahahaha. First time Saul ever wins a case and it turns out to be a case of TNT! Boom! #BreakingBad
Don’t eat it, Huell. Don’t eat it. DON’T EAT IT!!!!!!! #BreakingBad
I told you not to eat it :( #BreakingBad
OMG. NPH is great in EVERYTHING #BreakingBad
One thing you have to say about the Neo-Nazis: they sing ABBA beautifully. #BreakingBad
Gus is alive??? I don’t think I’m buying this “bionic face” device #BreakingBad
Todd meet the new sheriff in town: Chuck Freaking Norris! Yeah!! #roundhouse! #BreakingBad
But if Skyler’s outfit is made from cloth from Krypton and is indestructible, how did she sew it? #BreakingBad
I looove Robin Williams, but was this really the right time for zany improv? #BreakingBad
Really? Wouldn’t the constant stream of water from the car wash have put out the Hell Mouth? #BreakingBad
Well, he died as he lived. In his tighty whiteys. #BreakingBad

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