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October 18, 2015

The Martian

My wife and I just saw The Martian. Loved it. It was as good a movie as could possibly be made out of a book that’s about sciencing the shit out of problems.

The book was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. So I was ready to be disappointed by the movie. Nope.

Compared to say, Gravity? Gravity‘s choreography was awesome, and the very ending of it worked for me. (No spoilers here!) But, it had irksome moment and themes, especially Sandra Bullock’s backstory. (No spoilers!)

The Martian was much less pretentious, IMO. It’s about science as problem-solving. Eng Fi, if you will. But the theme that emerges from this is:

Also, Let’s go the fuck to Mars!

(I still think Interstellar is a better movie, although it’s nowhere near as much fun. But I’m not entirely reasonable about Interstellar.)

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February 12, 2015

“Whiplash” better in memory

[NON-SPOILER ALERT: There are no spoilers in this that you wouldn’t get from the most general discussion of what the movie is about. Less, probably.] I saw the movie Whiplash on a plane yesterday. I thought it had some bright-colored acting and fantastic music, but was predictable. Every ten years or so there’s another movie about an inspiring teacher,. Sometimes the teacher is kooky or lovable. Sometimes the teacher is crusty or tough or very tough, but it’s all for the kids. Whiplash is a spin on that overall genre.

The acting was pleasantly hammy, as is the mode these days. And I’m longtime fan of J.K. Simmons. (Let’s not forget Cave Johnson.) But I ended the movie a bit disappointed. Elements of it were terrific. Overall: Saw it coming like a bridge after the second verse.

But today I’m remembering it more fondly. I’m going to suggest to my wife that she see it, and I’ll watch it again with her. Mainly because the music is fantastic: great performances, and great presentation of those performances. If you think you don’t like jazz, you should watch Whiplash just to make sure.

Just be prepared for some predictable cheese.

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January 20, 2015

Fargo: an open outliner

Dave Winer loves outlines. I do, too, but Dave loves them More. We know this because Dave’s created the Fargo outliner, and, in the way of software that makes us freer, he’s made it available to us to use for free, without ads or spyware, and supporting the standards and protocols that make our ideas interoperable.

Fargo is simple and straightfoward. You enter text. You indent lines to create structure. You can reorganize and rearrange as you would like. Type CMD-? or CTL-? for help.

Fargo is a deep product. It is backed by a CMS so you can use it as your primary tool for composing and publishing blog posts. (Dave knows a bit about blogging, after all.) It has workgroup tools. You can execute JavaScript code from it. It understands Markdown. You can use it to do presentations. You can create and edit attributes. You can include other files, so your outlines scale. You can includes feeds, so your outlines remain fresh.

Fargo is generative. It supports open standards, and it’s designed to make it easy to let what you’ve written become part of the open Web. It’s written in HTML5 and runs in all modern browsers. Your outlines have URLs so other pages can link to them. Fargo files are saved in the OPML standard so other apps can open them. The files are stored in your Dropbox folder , which puts them in the Cloud but also on your personal device; look in Dropbox/Apps/smallpicture/. You can choose to encrypt your files to protect them from spies. The Concord engine that powers Fargo is Open Source.

Out of the box, Fargo is a heads-down outliner for people who think about what they write in terms of its structure. (I do.) It thus is light on the presentation side: You can’t easily muck about with the styles it uses to present various levels, and there isn’t an embedded way to display graphics, although you can include files that are displayed when the outline is rendered. But because it is a simple product with great depth, you can always go further with it.

And now matter how far you go, you’ll never be locked in.

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December 25, 2014

Instant review: The Interview

I watched The Interview tonight in part because for $6.00 I wanted to see it, and in part because I want to encourage this mode of distribution — no, not by the intervention of terrorists but over the Web.

Given the build up, I was surprised that it’s not a political satire at all. It’s a media satire. The butt of the jokes are the media, with Kim Jong Un there merely as a convenient villain.

The first two thirds were pretty funny. The last third is more predictable and pointlessly violent. Sort of like Pineapple Express. I don’t get why that sort of violence is supposed to be funny. It’s like the Three Stooges with hatchets.

Anyway, I liked it more than I expected to.


October 2, 2014

What does Men, Women & Children think it’s about?

I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]

I liked Reitman’s Up in the Air, detested his Juno, and had mixed feelings about his writing on Thank You for Smoking. I wanted to like Men, Women & Children. But it is one of the most intensely unlikeable films ever. Some of that is on purpose. Most of it is not.

The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.

So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.

It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.

But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?

In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?

Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.

Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.

Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.

Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.

There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.

Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.

You’re welcome.

So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.

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July 17, 2014

Julius Caesar in Lenox

We saw Shakespeare & Co.‘s Julius Caesar last night. What a rich production! And certainly not because of its production values: the performance was in the tiny Bernstein Theatre with a cast of just seven and an almost bare stage.

The acting was up to the company’s high standard. New to me was James Udom as Marc Antony. He gave the famous address — which stands out for its devious plainness amidst the torrent of language in which it is embedded — brilliantly. Eric Tucker made the noblest Roman, Brutus, human. I could listen to Jason Asprey all day long. (I embarrassed myself after the performance when he came out to the lobby.) Kristin Wold switched characters on stage instantaneously and before our eyes, nevertheless bringing us along.

It is a hard play. It never lets you settle. And it has perhaps the most despairing final words of any Shakespeare play. We may not be 100% sure that Caesar was so ambitious that he needed to be killed for Rome’s sake, but he at least had the good sense to mask his ambitions. When Octavius stands amidst the carnage and celebrates the “glories of this happy day,” we see what naked ambition truly looks like. It was a devastating moment last night.

The small audience consisted almost entirely of people over 60. Such a shame.


June 26, 2014

“Oradell at Sea”

To begin with, I love the title of this novel. I’ve never heard the name “Oradell”, and the “at sea” is appropriately ambiguous.

What I actually should begin with is that Oradell at Sea is a novel by my sister-in-law, Meredith Sue Willis, an accomplished and recognized writer with a long list of publications.

Oradell is an elderly widow who, after a life that’s hard in the way many lives are, is living out her days on cruise ships. The confined space of a boat at sea throws her into social contact with other passengers and the crew, an intimacy she relishes and controls. The onboard narrative is intersected by scenes from the life that led her from a mining town in West Virginia through three husbands. The contrast between the spatial and temporal confinement of the boat story and the openness of the life story is aesthetically pleasing. Thematic unities emerge that I will not spoil.

This is a small novel in the sense that it quite deliberately limits its pallette. But it’s quietly about the big theme of what stays with us as we get to what we become. Very lovely.

Until July 31, you can get the e-version of Oradell for free. (It’s $2.99 at Smashwords without the secret code in the previous link.)

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January 3, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street: a review

I saw it on New Year’s Eve and liked it a lot. But, I think it’s best taken as a series of brilliant set pieces. String them together and you have a fairly predictable narrative arc, and a thematic point ( [SPOILER] Greed is bad) that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But the set pieces are incredibly well done because Scorcese. And Leo Dicaprio is just great in it.

Some people are upset because the movie doesn’t condemn the behavior it depicts. Yikes. Scorcese is obviously showing us behavior he finds so extraordinarily bad that he was motivated to make a movie about it. To tack on some moralizing elements would only lessen the impact, because that would imply that we need to be told that the behavior depicted is bad.

Mike Ryan at HuffPo writes about this question and, citing Chuck Klosterman, compares Leo’s character to Archie Bunker. But there’s very little to understand about Archie. He’s a bigot and ignorant. Haha. Wolf of Wall Strett instead shows us a sub-culture that is twisted and extreme, but is coherent within its own little world. There’s something to understand there, which is why Leo is able to give an Oscar-worthy performance. In that it’s much like The Godfather or The Sopranos, not to mention Good Fellas. It is also more like American Psycho than like Wall Street. (And speaking of Oliver Stone, one of my very least favorite directors, if you want to be hit repeatedly with a gigantic Morality Hammer, watch Platoon, if you can get through it.)

Good Fellas is a better movie than Wolf (in my opinion, natch) because it is less predictable, the main character is more morally nuanced, there are more unforgettable characters, etc. But I thought Wolf was very good, very entertaining, and treated us like moral grownups.

Not that all of us are.

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June 17, 2013

My new Pebble e-watch reviewed

My Pebble watch arrived a week ago. It’s a programmable wristwatch that talks to your Android phone or iPhone. When it arrived, I was a little disappointed. I’m happier with it now.

I didn’t make it into the Kickstarter in time, but I was in the first wave of buyers after that. Pebble has done an outstanding job of blogging about the process by which it has gone from concept to shipping product, and I’ve generally liked the choices they’ve made. Ever since my Casio AE-20, I’ve wanted a digital representation of analog hands. Plus I very much like the idea of being able to download watch faces that are open source and designed by, well, anyone. Plus, there can be and will be apps.

But I was disappointed because it’s ugly. It’s too big on my wrist. Not exactly sleek. Plus, I hate the band it ships with: resin (or some other type of plastic), plain, and irritating to my skin. (Of course this is a personal reaction. It’s a blog, people!) But I replaced the band with a blue leather band — I got the black version of the watch — and I think it looks much better, In fact, now I like the way it looks.

Also, I began by downloading a set of fake analog faces, and I like them ok, but I’ve started using a default face that spells out the time in words. It’s a little harder to parse than a set of hands, and it doesn’t have the date on it, but if Project Runway has taught me anything, it is that one must make sacrifices for fashion. (PLus now I found a variant with the date on it.)

There are not a lot of apps yet, an I haven’t even found a stopwatch/countdown timer that I like. But I will. Also, I was surprised that after I’d downloaded about six watch faces, it told me that it was out of memory. (To delete a face, you use the Pebble app on your smart phone.)

So, I haven’t gotten to the basics yet. It’s got a readable display that’s more like e-paper than the usual LCD; it’s fine in bright light and the night light works well. A charged battery is supposed to last a week, and mine has so far. You need a special cable to charge it; it plugs into any normal USB charger on the wall side, but the watch side holds itself to the watch via the magic of magnetism. I know Pebble considered using a normal USB socket, but then it wouldn’t be waterproof, so it seems like a reasonable trade-off, although I’m pretty sure I’ve already lost the cable. I hope they sell them by the dozen.

The watch sync’ed incredibly easily via Bluetooth with my Android phone. By default it sends the text of emails and SMS texts to your watch. Since it buzzes every time, and since I get maybe 150 emails a day, I turned off the email syncing. But since I get very few texts, and they’re almost always from my family, I’ve left that notification on. It buzzes your wrist, and you can use the watch buttons to scroll through the message. You can’t compose text on your watch.

It also comes ready to pause or skip forward or backward your phone’s music. I’ve found this useful while listening to podcasts; a click of a watch button and I can hear the bus driver telling me us to duck. (The ol’ 66 is a pretty tough bus route.)

This is definitely a 1.0 release. It’s fully functional, and with a new band it looks pretty snappy. If I were you, I’d wait for the next release, by which time it may have some strong competition. It’s also a little expensive at $150. Still, I like the watch, I like the integration with Android, and I like the company’s transparency. It’s bringing me pleasure.


May 25, 2013

Upstream Colors

[SPOILERS COMING] A few paragraphs down I’m going to talk explicitly about the theme. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop there; I’ve marked it with a spoiler alert. Until then, there are no spoilers. But, this is a movie you should see with no expectations other than that it isn’t your ordinary film. So, my advice is to stop here.




I watched Upstream Colors last night, the second movie by Shane Carruth, who gave us Primer in 2004, a time-travel movie that has spawned analyses that make Memento look like Babar’s Vacation.

Upstream Colors is mysterious and difficult to fathom, but not because it is as intricately plotted as Primer. With Primer, you have to notice that a character’s middle button is undone in one scene but is buttoned in another. (I haven’t seen Primer in a while, so I’ve made up that example.) With Upstream Colors you can let yourself relax a bit more. The salient details are flagged, generally. But how they go together, especially after the first third (i.e., after the pigs are introduced), will keep you focused.

The theme is as difficult as the plot. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone recognizing what the theme is — what the movie is actually about — while watching it. Still, you watch it enthralled. And that makes this a truly masterful movie. It is so beautifully constructed in images, sounds, and music (Carruth wrote the awesome score) that it carries you along. You are given enough narrative clues to keep you interested in what’s coming next, and you care about the characters. But Carruth has invented his own rhetoric for this movie, a correspondence of gestures and sounds that conveys shared meanings.

I had to read some analyses on the Web before the penny dropped. And even then there’s plenty left to ponder.

There are, in fact, at least two pennies. One concerns the narrative thread, along the lines of “What’s up with the pigs?” About this I shall say no more, but will instead recommend Daniel D’Addario’s article in Salon, which I liked up until the last couple of paragraphs…precisely where he goes from narrative to theme.

The second penny isexpressed eloquently by Carruth himself in a terrific interview by Charlie Jane Anders. And a second interview by her about the ending is equally important. In it, Carruth explains why the ending is subversive of narratives, but it’s also clear that the theme itself is even more deeply subversive.


This movie is about people who think they are controlling their lives but in fact are being controlled by forces outside of themselves, at least according to Carruth. But control is expressed in the movie as being the author of one’s own narrative. These characters are certainly not in charge of the meta narrative about what’s shaping their story. The fact that it’s pigs ‘n’ worms (and, yes, orchids) is just one more splash of cold water: the narrative the characters tell themselves when they take back control couldn’t be less ennobling. Further, one can read the ending as showing the characters becoming the next set of enablers of the cycle.

I’m not at all sure that that’s what Carruth has in mind. His interview suggests that he instead sees the pigs and worms simply as part of nature, and nature doesn’t care about what we find pleasant or gross. The transcendence at the end is not about taking back control of one’s narrative but about accepting that the stories we tell ourselves are not stories that we give ourselves. That’s far better expressed through pigs in shit than bunnies in clover.

And yet this is a movie with a highly stylized and artificial language of image, sound, and music. It is a story we have been given by a creator who, like The Sampler (the guy recording sounds), is invisible to the characters but who is shaping so much of what they experience —the shepherd of the forces controlling the characters’ experience. I can’t avoid assuming that Carruth knows that he himself is The Sampler and we are his protagonists. During the movie and then afterwards, we — like his characters — are going to think we’re taking back control of the story, piecing together what happened. We assume there must be a story, and even that it has to be about us, but suppose it’s not. Suppose there’s nothing but pigs and worms. Suppose the story is nothing but the beautiful rhetoric of an author we cannot see — an author himself embedded in a cycle he did not create.

By the way, this is a great movie — although it does bother me that I had to read about it to see why.


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