- The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner - Set in a dystopian early 21st century America where the government has turned into an oligarchy that oppresses its people through computer networks. Nicky Halfinger has escaped from Tarnover, a quasi-corporate government program intended to find and indoctrinate gifted children to help keep the computer networks running, and so on. He's a fugitive, but he's able to use his knowledge of the networks to evade capture by continually changing identities. Soon he discovers he's not alone, and sets about working against the oppressive government system. Published in 1975, this is a pretty precursor to what would later be known as "Cyberpunk" and hugely influential in the nascent computer hacker scene. Indeed, if you ever read any early histories of computer hacking (see: Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier for an example I recently read which unexpectedly contained references to Shockwave Rider), you'll see the people breaking into systems and releasing worms/viruses often reference The Shockwave Rider as an inspirational text. The book itself is a bit tame by modern standards and has some odd narrative tics. A good portion of the novel is told in flashback, which when combined with our protagonist's tendency to constantly swap identities can be a bit disorienting at times. This sort of narrative complexity sorta disguises that the plot itself is rather straightforward, though not without its requisite twists and turns. At this point it feels more interesting as a book that contextualizes later works (like stuff from Gibson, Sterling, Rucker, etc...) than as a story in itself. This is mostly just because I've already consumed a lot of what this influenced, so it doesn't feel as fresh as it obviously did to nerds of its day. Enjoyable enough for sure, and it didn't trigger a lot of my usual complaints about dystopia, but it's seemingly fallen into the trap of being so influential that I've already internalized most of its lessons, so while it's still interesting to see where it comes from, it also doesn't add a ton to my understanding.
- Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee - The ostensible conclusion to Lee's Machineries of Empire series, this novel has been nominated for this year's Hugo Awards. Shuos Jedao wakes up in a befuddled state. His memories tell him that he's a 17 year old cadet, but he's in the body of an older man. He's been resurrected by Hexarch Nirai Kujen, who hopes to use Jedao's military genius to reconquer a fractured empire... but Jedao's ailing memories make that a bit of difficult. Making things more difficult is Jedao's opponent, one Kel Cheris, who knows more about Jedao than he does about himself. So I guess I could get more into the plot here, but this series is dense stuff and thus it sorta defies short summaries. For the most part, I've enjoyed the series. There's plenty of handwaving about the whole "Calendar" system, but Lee at least seems able to set consistent boundaries and rules around it, such that it never really spirals too far out of the reader's goodwill. I do find Jedao to be a fascinating character, but on the other hand, it's hard to pin him down. Part of the issue is that we never really get a good feel for the character. He's been uploaded, chopped up, and spun around so much during the course of the series (indeed, before the books even begin) that you always see Jedao through some sort of intermediary. In the previous books, he shared a brain/body with Kel Cheris (thanks to a sneaky calendrical attack in the first book, she retains his memories, but not his consciousness). In this book we follow both Cheris and a reincarnated Jedao (a sorta backup with incomplete memories). Both characters struggle with Jedao's past, which includes a traitorous massacre (this could be interpreted in other ways, I think?), but since neither character is actually the one who committed those actions, how responsible should they feel? This is a meaty conundrum for sure, but I don't know that there's ever going to be a satisfying answer. A part of me wishes we got a more simplistic, straightforward Space Opera set before this series that could then be recontextualized, but that's unfair (oh, and we already got something like that, albeit a short one). The other characters and overarching narrative suffer a bit from the focus on Jedao, or at least, don't hold interest as much. Some aspects of the worldbuilding remain unexplored (it's sometimes intimated that the grand majority of the Hexarchate live pretty decent lives, but all we see is the beaurocratic nightmare of the military and political classes and the horror of calendrical attacks), but what we get is interesting and reasonably well done. I've long enjoyed Yoon Ha Lee's work, so I'm curious to see what he tackles next. In terms of Hugo voting, I have not yet read the other nominees, but this one suffers a bit from being so heavily integrated in a series... but then, it's still very good. I expect a middle of the pack showing, but only time will tell.
- Arkad's World, by James L. Cambias - I greatly enjoyed Cambias's debut novel, A Darkling Sea. His follow up, Corsair, was perhaps not quite as great, but still really enjoyable. I liked some of his short fiction as well, so I was looking forward to tackling his latest novel. Alas, this one doesn't quite live up to the standards that Cambias previously set. The story follows the titular Arkad, a young man who happens to be the only human being on an alien world. He makes his way through the planet in street urchin fashion, barely scraping by on the lawless streets. The arrival of three humans searching for a priceless artifact that could help free earth from the grips of an alien invasion offers a promise of escape for Arkad, who knows a little something about what is being sought. The group must make their way across the planet, traversing dangerous landscapes, negotiating passage with litigious aliens, fending off various bandits and monsters, amongst other hijinks. I'm finding that this sort of episodic storytelling often rubs me the wrong way, and this book is not an exception. There's a lot going on and there's some ambitious worldbuilding, but none of it is as clever as Cambias' previous efforts. Some of the alien interactions contain the kernal of an interesting idea, but it's rarely explored in depth. Some choices could be interesting, such as the oddly literal language tics employed by some of the aliens, but even those get played out by the end. Plus, since we're covering so much ground, no one episode is able to impart the kind of depth Cambias was able to achieve in previous books. It's certainly not bad, but it's a distinct step down from the past couple of books.
- The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi - The sequel to Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire, this book picks up right where that one left off and progresses things well enough from there. The Flow, a transportation network that allows access to all the human planets/colonies/habitats, is collapsing. The first connection has already been blocked off, and one of our protagonist scientists has worked through the math well enough to predict future collapses (and even potential reopenings, etc...). Emperox Grayland II is doing her best to help the scientists out while fending off looming civil war from unruly governing houses. Will her political enemies gain the upper hand? Hijinks ensue. Scalzi's delivered another page-turner that is quite entertaining in its execution, complete with his usual snappy dialogue and clever twists. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding is starting to show some strain. They call the network of planets ruled by the Emperox the "Interdpendency", a reference to the fact that each Human colony is desperately dependent on the other colonies to survive. This was mentioned in the previous book, but this book drives home how dumb an idea that is. Ok, sure, no one expects the transportation network to collapse... but then, we find out that this sort of thing is not entirely uncommon, and indeed, we even see an example of an isolated human colony that's only barely managed to survive being temporarily cut off from the network. There are some other twists and turns that could mitigate some of these concerns, and to be sure, the story and plot progress well enough, even if some aspects of the worldbuilding can't withstand scrutiny. In fact, I rather enjoyed the novel, perhaps more than any other in this post. Scalzi is good at plotting and dialog, which keeps the pages turning, and he manages a decent enough climax, which is always a big challenge in the second book in a series. Despite any qualms I might have with the worldbuilding, I'm very much looking forward to the next book.
- Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad - Bored medieval monks in the process of copying manuscripts by hand would doodle in the margins as a way to escape the tedium. These drawings were generally goofy, and one of the things they engaged in... was evil bunny rabbits. It's a humorous juxtaposition that has influenced more modern takes on sinister rabbits (like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or perhaps even, most recently, Us).
- Hooking Up and Using the John: Why Do We Use So Many Euphemisms? - This exploration of euphemisms contains this gem about bears:
...what makes us uncomfortable changes with time. Our ancient ancestors were so worried about bears, they didn't even want to name them because they feared [the bears] might overhear and come after them. So they came up with this word — this is up in Northern Europe — bruin, meaning "the brown one" as a euphemism, and then bruin segued into bear. We know the euphemism, but we don't know what word it replaced, so bear is the oldest-known euphemism.Bears were the first Voldemort.
- Criterion's Kindergarten Cop - April Fools' Day jokes are mostly awful and unfunny, but a few years ago, the Criterion Collection hit the perfect note. On the other hand, I'd totally buy this if it was real.
- The search for the saddest punt in the world - Ever want to spend an hour watching a statistical analysis of punting? Surprisingly interesting...
- Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, and the Quest to Kill eBay - Steve Yegge's story of how what started as Amazon Auctions evolved and morphed into something more useful over time. Glad to see Yegge writing stuff like this again, even if it's still pretty rare these days...
- Buran, the Soviet Space Shuttle - Convinced that the U.S. Space Shuttle couldn't possibly be as poorly designed as it was, the Soviets assumed that there was some secret use-case that would totally redeem the program... so they build an exact replica of the Space Shuttle.
- billy corgan rides a rollercoaster - Genius.
- Best Novel has a reasonably balanced mixture of elements. 4 of 6 are part of a series... but two of those are the first in a series (which can often operate in a standalone way, though far too many do not), one of them seems to be a standalone novel set in the same universe, and one is the third in a series (and decidedly not standalone). 4 of the 6 are also pretty squarely Science Fiction, which is about par for the course of late (and generally reflects my preferance). 4 of the 6 authors have nominations for Best Novel before, and all 6 have nominations in shorter fiction categories in recent years too. This could probably be better, but the Hugos have a long history of this sort of thing and it's somewhat unavoidable given the popularity contest aspects of the way Hugos are administered.
- The only Best Novel finalist I've read is Yoon Ha Lee's Revenant Gun, the third in his Machineries of Empire series (the previous two entries in the series were also nominated, but did not win). I quite liked it, but did not nominate due to it's place in the series. I have not read Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers or Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik, but based on previous experience with both authors, I'm anticipating that I'll enjoy both. Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse has an interesting premise that I'm sure I can sink my teeth into, despite my moderate ambivalence to her Hugo-winning short story of last year (I ranked it middle-of-the-pack). It's also always nice to see a new name on the Novel ballot, which tends to fill up with the same names year after year (as mentioned above, most of the authors have been nominated for best novel before...). The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal seems to be based on a previously nominated novelette, which I thought was good, even if it didn't really scratch my sense of wonder itch and fell to the middle of my ballot that year. Finally, there's Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente. The concept sounds interesting enough I guess, but everything I've read about this indicates that it'll be an uphill battle for me. I'm not much into musicals or character sketches, and this seems filled with both. I will dutifully give it a shot though...
- Best Novella has a couple of stories I'm interested in, namely another of Martha Wells' Murderbot stories (which I read and enjoyed greatly) and The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, which was on my reading queue, I just didn't get to it in time. A couple of the nominees are completely new to me, and a couple others are from authors that I've had mixed reactions to in the past. Also of note is that 5 of the 6 finalists are from Tor. Granted, they've made a concerted push for Novellas in recent years, and it's nice to see the Novella enjoying a general resurgence, as it's long enough to provide depth, but not so long as to always be a slog... I feel like a lot of Novels these days are far too long (ditto for a lot of long-form storytelling in TV shows). I can't tell if that's just because I'm getting older and more impatient, or if there's something more broad going on. On the one hand, I generally feel like every Netflix season I've watched is about 5 episodes too long and a lot of novels over 500 pages don't warrant the extra length, on the other hand, I love Neal Stephenson's unwieldy tomes.
- Short Stories and Novelettes feature a bevy of familiar names, which is again, par for the course when it comes to the Hugos. Still a few new names here and there though, which is nice.
- Best Series continues to vex. Aside from logistical concerns (if any of the series are new to you, how on earth are you supposed to read all the qualifying material or even enough to get a good feel for the series?), it does seem a bit weird that fully half of the series finalists have the actual latest installment also nominated by itself in the other fiction categories. I thought part of the impetus for this award was to give recognition to series where none of the individual installments was nominated, but the series as a whole is still beloved. This made a lot of sense a few years ago when The Wheel of Time got nominated in the Best Novel category (certainly a stretch, even if technically not against the rules), but so far, the award hasn't exactly served its purpose. I mean, I love Lois McMaster Bujold as an author, but it's not like the Vorkosigan Saga or Five Gods universes got no recognition before... (while several of the other nominees fit the mold well enough, I guess, though again, who has the time to read through all of it if you haven't already...) This again speaks to the popularity contest aspects of the Hugos, I think.
- Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is about what you'd expect, though it's nice to see smaller indie-esque fare like Annihilation and Sorry to Bother You make the cut. Still, there's no stopping the Marvel juggernaut. A little surprised to see A Quiet Place make the grade. It's got horror/suspense chops, but as SF it's pretty dumb stuff. Pour one out for actual indie flicks that were deserving: Upgrade and The Endless, both well worth your time.
- The 1944 Retro Hugos have some interesting stuff in there. No Heinlein, owing to his work during WWII and thus not publishing anything in 1943, which clears the field a bit for some of the folks Campbell turned to in his absence, like the Henry Kuttner & C.L. Moore duo, Fritz Leiber, and A.E. van Vogt. Asimov somehow squirmed his way onto the ballot, but then, popular names always do, even when the story is by all accounts minor. H.P. Lovecraft also makes an appearance, which is interesting because I don't normally peg him as a Hugo favorite. More interesting to see are multiple noms for Leigh Brackett, and some stories from the likes of Hal Clement and Eric Frank Russell... Some of this stuff interests me more than present-year nominees in shorter fiction categories. Maybe I'll focus more on the Retros this year. It's always an awkward set of nominees though, as most people aren't especially familiar with all the 1943 works (only 217 nominating ballots for the Retros, three of which were on paper), and thus you end up with the really common names. But then, you end up with that in present-day too, so it's not too surprising.
- The Retro Dramatic Presentation categories are interesting too. It seems that the 75 minute features favored by Val Lewton and Universal get categorized as "Short Form", and it's great to see Lewton's work in particular get recognized. Great to see Heaven Can Wait on the list, which to my mind is the clear favorite. The Batman serials, on the other hand, are hot garbage and presumably only made the list due to the general recognizability of a popular superhero. I wasn't particularly impressed by The Ape Man, though Bela Lugosi is always entertaining. Would have rather seen something like The Leopard Man (arguably not SFF, but it makes feints that direction) or even Son of Dracula (look, I get it, Lon Chaney Jr. makes for a terrible Dracula, but the movie itself is decent; certainly better than The Ape Man). There's a few nominees that I don't recognize, but I should be able to catch up with them easily enough...
- While I did manage to squeeze in at least one film of each of the 5 decades from 1900-1949, I didn't quite realize how heavily I leaned on 1940s.
On the other hand, it isn't really that surprising, as there were more movies made in the 40s than the 10s, etc... (despite a slight dip, presumably due to WWII).
- In terms of genre, I managed to spread things out reasonably well, with unsurprising concentrations on Horror and Comedy and the catchall Drama. More surprising given my normal taste is the amount of Romance I tackled. Also worth noting that "Silent" isn't technically a genre, but I included it on this list (since it's possible that a movie can have multiple genres, I figure it works fine).
Genres I didn't get to at all are Animation, Documentary, History, and TV Movie (the only real surprise there is animation, but I was trying to focus on movies I hadn't seen before and so the classic Disney movies were mostly out, even if I probably should revisit some of them). Obviously genre is a fuzzy categorization, but here I'm just using Letterboxd's filters, so any complaints should be directed to them.
- When it comes to Countries of Origin, I'm not especially great, with the grand majority falling on the good ol' USA. Only 7 foreign films on the list, for 6 countries total (including the US). I didn't do a resolution this year, but if I ever do one again, it may be something to the effect of 50 from 50 (i.e. 50 different foreign countries).
- In terms of Actors and Stars, the field was led primarily by Boris Karloff (a whopping 9 films) and Veronica Lake (a respectable 6 films). Lots of other stars snuck multiple films throughout the list (notably John Wayne), but there was a decent spread.
- For Directors, Alfred Hitchcock led the way with 4 films on the list (no surprise there), with Ernst Lubitsch pulling a respectable 3 films. But the big surprise is... Nick Grinde? He found his way onto the list more due to his involvement with 3 Boris Karloff vehicles than anything else, but it's nice to see an unfamiliar name on a list like this.
- In the grand scheme of things, 50 movies is... not that many, but it's a start, and I found it to be a very valuable exercise. While I did catch up with a few classics, a lot of the films were sorta middling programmers, which made for an interesting mix. Even flawed entries contained lots of surprises and clear lines of influence leading up to modern day films.
- Having this resolution did sorta distort my movie selection process though, and the movies that suffered the most were from the 1950s... i.e. old, but not qualifying for the resolution, so I mostly skipped those in favor of something earlier. I toyed with doing a 1950-2000 resolution this year to make up for that, as it's also worth noting that there are tons of movies from the latter half of last century that I never saw, but totally should... Alas, I'm lazy and it's almost April. Nevertheless, I might end up watching 50 movies from that corridor anyway...
- The Internet Archive is an invaluable resource in general, but it was a huge help in sourcing a lot of the movies I watched. Some movies were out of print or only available on expensive secondary prices, others weren't really available at all. But the Internet Archive had a whole bunch of them. Mostly just SD 480p (i.e. DVD quality), but certainly good enough (and a lot of these don't exactly have HD transfers yet anyway)...
- Netflix and Hulu are garbage for older films, but Amazon Prime has a surprisingly deep catalog and was also invaluable in sourcing a lot of the movies I wanted to see. As an added bonus, once you start watching these older flicks, you can Medusa Touch the Algorithm, making discovery a bit easier (i.e. it's not an accident that I saw 9 Boris Karloff flicks last year). Quality varies dramatically, but it's usually decent enough.
- Free Classic Movies was also a pretty good resource, if a bit spotty.
- Kanopy is another free streaming service (though you need to be a member of a library that subscribes - PA residents can use the Library of Philadelphia and get 4 free movies a month through Kanopy) that has lots of older films and classics, mostly at high quality. This includes a pretty decent selection of Criterion films, amongst other art-house classics.
In the wilds of Texas, grown men gather to hunt the rarest game of all: Clowns. Once plentiful and common now one must pay a heft some to hunt clowns, and for some reason it’s become annual tradition. However this season the appearance of Albino Willie, a rare albino clown, poses a special prize and danger.Look, this doesn't get good ratings and it's not really available (unless you want to shell out $45 for a DVD), but it sounds absolutely amazing. Granted, I'm sure the 72 minute long film doesn't live up to its premise, but it's also worth noting that this film was written and directed by Barry Tubb, most famous for his role as Wolfman in Top Gun (he's one of the pilots that doesn't get much play - 'I said to Hollywood, "Where'd he go?" Hollywood says, "Where'd who go?"'). I don't know, I just find it funny that this guy was probably carrying around the script for forever and was finally able to make his little passion project.
- Toaster Posessed by the Devil - Watch the whole thing (it's short), the kicker is truly brilliant...
- The Plane Highway in the Sky - Interesting look at the airway paths from the US to Europe... I always assumed some details of this, but did not anticipate others...
- How to make a good sci-fi space helmet - Interviewing the filmmakers of sci-fi film Prospect - David Chen (and some filmmakers) tackle one of my pet peeves of SF movies...
- I have drawn the world’s worst pun - More like the world's best pun, but then, that's the same thing, amiright?
- Sneaky Thanos - Ah, the time honored tradition of photoshopping stuff into backgrounds of famous shots (remember Bert is Evil?) continues with this Sneaky Thanos contest, which indeed has some inspired entries.
- Peter Jackson Says He 'Winged It' on THE HOBBIT - Yeah, no kidding. I mean, not entirely his fault due to the realities of the production and whatnot, but it does explain how the LotR movies are so great while The Hobbit is... not.
- This Spider Has Been Dead For 110 Million Years, But Its Eyes Still Shine in The Dark - THIS IS NOT OMINOUS AT ALL.
- Forget chocolate, how about a cockroach for Valentine's? - I'm a little late to this one, but this isn't what you think. It's actually a scheme wherein "A zoo in Texas is offering singles the chance to name a cockroach after their ex and see it fed to a meerkat live on camera on Valentine's Day," which is *chef's kiss*
- dropgangs, or the future of darknet markets - A good overview of the past and future of black markets on the internet. Dropgangs appear to be automated messaging platforms combined with dead drops for delivery...
- Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells (Capsule Review)
- The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts
When it comes to novels, I read several eligible and even enjoyed most of them, but almost all are part of a series, and none really blew me away to the point where I'd consider nominating. The closest I've come is Yoon Ha Lee's Revenant Gun (third of a trilogy) and John Scalzi's The Consuming Fire (second in the series), both of which I think are really good, though I don't know that they're the best of their respective series or good enough to make my ballot this year (the preceding entries for each were nominated last year, so there's a fair chance they'll still make it on the ballot).
As per usual, I'll continue to avoid the most mainstream choices for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form (i.e. Star Wars and Marvel don't need my help here and will most likely make the ballot, but these movies are definitely worthy of consideration... alright, technically one of these involves Marvel, but not in an MCU way): Black Panther is going to win this award and it probably won't even be close. I like that movie and all, but I suspect many voters will not have seen most of my above nominees, and that's a shame.
This year we're also going to have a Retro Hugos for 1944 (i.e. works produced in 1943). Looking at what I've read from this period, I've only found one short story that I'm going to nominate:
- “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett (aka Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore)
In terms of Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, the pickings are a little slim, mostly fantasy or horror, but here are my current picks:
Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome!
The show itself is clunky and weird sometimes. But the work that the academy does, in terms of archiving alone, I don’t care what kind of show they’ve gotta put on to make the money to pay for that stuff. The academy library is one of the most amazing resources in the United States. As a filmmaker, understanding what they’re doing for cinema culture, I’m very sympathetic to their problem, and part of me doesn’t get that worked up about it because I’m like, Look, they’ve gotta put on this show. It pays for all this great stuff. All of my stuff, all the prints, negatives, it’s all there, for nothing. I used to have that shit in a climate-controlled vault in Hollywood. It wasn’t cheap.I have to admit that I didn't realize this, and it honestly completely turns my opinion on the ceremony. Yeah it's an overlong, narcissistic ceremony where self-satisfied Hollywood elites hand themselves awards, but apparently it all goes to pay for some important stuff, and as Soderbergh notes, the archival services alone are probably worth it. In general, my approach this year will be the same as ever: I will drink some beers and snark it up on Twitter (@mciocco if you're somehow reading this and don't already follow me there), or more accurately, I will be retweeting people who are funnier than I am. Back in day, we used to use our stone knives and bearskins to do this thing called liveblogging, but social media makes it all easier these days. I'll put the predictions below, of course, but any further updates will be on Twitter. If, for some ungodly reason, you want to read a decade plus' worth of previous predictions and commentary on the Oscars, check them out here:  | [2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]
- Best Picture: Roma. This category is way more open than you'd expect. The big argument against Roma winning is that Hollywood is terrified of Netflix and won't want to legitimate anything associated with them. But the academy loves their black-and-white arthouse auteurs, and Roma does have some momentum from other awards season wins. Green Book is the sort of bland that critics hate, but which the academy might love, and it's proven pretty resilient to all the criticism hurled its way (including criticism of some dumb comments made by Viggo Mortensen in an interview). It's also garnered some awards season wins, making it a solid contender. Similarly, Bohemian Rhapsody seems to have weathered the controversy surrounding its director (and the blandening of some story elements), but people love Queen and Freddie Mercury and apparently the musician bio-pic isn't played out to some people (it's one of my least favorite sub-genres to start with, but it's been a popular Oscar sub-genre, so...) I'm betting it won't win here because it'll get love in the Best Actor category. A Star Is Born was an early contender, but seems to have flagged considerably during awards season. I kinda considered it as the sorta "safe" choice: no real controversy surrounding it, it doesn't reward Netflix, it's got an actor turned director (something the Academy tends to love), and oh yeah, the story itself is a remake of movies the Oscars have recognized on multiple occasions before (though I don't think it's won best picture). Alas, the aforementioned nominees seem to be weathering their respective storms remarkably well, so A Star is Born will have to settle for recognition elsewhere (which I think there's a fair chance it will get). I don't think any of the other nominees have a particularly good chance. It's possible that the academy will want to recognize Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman (thus righting the wrong of Driving Miss Daisy beating Do the Right Thing way back when), but I'm doubting that (and ironically there's a pretty good chance that Green Book will win, thus forcing Lee to relive the loss). Vice seems far too divisive to actually win. The Favourite is too odd to really win this and should just be glad to be nominated. And there's no way the academy will ever actually recognize a super hero movie here, not even Black Panther (it's pretty remarkable that it's made it here in the first place). It's a weird category this year, and the whole "preferential ballot" voting thing could cause some quirks, so who knows. Of note: I've only seen half the nominees, which is a pretty poor showing for me (update, so I saw one more, making it 5 out of 8).
- Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma. Thanks to the whole preferential ballot voting in Best Picture, it's no longer a guarantee that the best picture also has the best director. That being said, it could happen this year. And if it doesn't, it'll probably be because Roma doesn't win best picture. Cuarón has been doing well during awards season and has momentum. However, it's quite possible that Spike Lee will take it (perhaps more as an apology for the aforementioned loss way back when, or perhaps as a silver lining when Green Book wins best picture?) The other nominees are of the "just be glad you got nominated" sort. This category is much less open...
- Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite. Strong contender in Glenn Close, mostly because it's a sorta lifetime achievement award for her and she's got some momentum with wins in awards season, but so does Colman, so there's that too. I'm doubting any of the other nominees could stand up to those two though.
- Best Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody. He's been on a tear during awards season, and again, the film has weathered its controversies well. Also of note, this award has gone to an actor starring in a biopic for 11 of the last 16 years. That's pretty friggin nuts. I suppose it could go to Christian Bale for Vice, but that movie, again, feels to divisive to win a major award like this one. Potential dark horse with Bradley Cooper, who may win because he was kinda/sorta snubbed for best director. That still feels unlikely though. Willem Dafoe might take a sorta lifetime achievement award here, I guess, but I'm doubting it (though I guess it's a biopic, so there's that). And Viggo Mortensen seems out of the running.
- Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk. She's done well in awards season, and Beale Street didn't get much other love, so this seems to work. However, Rachel Weisz could very well take it, and she won at least one of other other awards, so she's got that going for her. However, her costar Emma Stone is also nominated and might only serve to split the vote, so I'm going to stick with King...
- Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book. He's got a lot of momentum and has apparently been very charismatic during awards season. On the other hand, he's won this before, and Richard E. Grant has had some buzz around him as well. Still, I think Ali will take it (if we assume Green Book won't win best picture, this could be an acceptable way to recognize that movie without pissing people off). At some point, there was buzz around Sam Elliott, but I'm guessing that never materialized...
- Best Original Screenplay: The Favourite. It's quite possible that Green Book will win this one too, but I seem to be betting against that movie so I might as well stick with it. Also possible that the academy will go with Paul Schrader for First Reformed, though that's a bit of a dark horse. There hasn't been much consistency with this category during awards season, so this is pretty open.
- Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman. I'm guessing Spike Lee won't win Director or Picture, but this could be the place where the academy gets him an easy win. The movie has won a bunch of other awards, but not the WGA award, so it's possible for Can You Ever Forgive Me? or A Star is Born to sneak in here. The latter might even be a good bet, as again, this category is often seen as a consolation prize.
- Best Film Editing: Vice. I haven't seen this, but the Academy tends to go with the most visibly edited movies, and I hear this one is exactly that. Bohemian Rhapsody could take it, despite not being particularly accomplished in Editing (that one scene when they first meet the producer or whatever is ruff), because the film had a troubled production in which director and accused rapist Bryan Singer was fired from the film, and most people credit editor John Ottman with salvaging the footage and wrangling it into something coherent (that people love). But who even knows anymore? I could totally bomb this entire ballot.
- Best Cinematography: Roma. Hard to bet against the popular arthouse black-and-white flick, though I suppose Cold War could also take it here, though it seems like the lesser choice.
- Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War. Duh. I mean, I suppose First Man has an off chance here, but the whole point of that movie was that you focused on inside the capsule, rather than the grand shots of rockets and whatnot. Yeah, there's that one shot (you know the one), but it doesn't feel like enough for this award.
- Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
- Best Costume Design: The Favourite
- Best Production Design: The Favourite
- Best Original Score: BlacKkKlansman
- Best Song: Shallow, A Star Is Born
- Best Animated Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
- Best Documentary: RBG
- Best Foreign Language Film: Roma
One of the obnoxious things about modern streaming services is how difficult they make discovery. To be fair, it's not an easy problem to solve. If you have many thousands of options on your platform, there's only so many ways to traverse the landscape, and it's an easy decision to just fall back on "popularity" as the final arbiter. Novelty junkies and film obsessives really only make up a tiny proportion of a given service's audience, so that often works well enough. On the other hand, the notion of idly spinning through options for a half hour is a common enough occurrence that maybe some optimization is in need.
Each service has their own idiosyncrasies, I guess. Netflix has a huge catalog that could roughly be divided into: Disney properties that people love to watch (i.e. MCU, Star Wars, Pixar, other animated flicks, etc...), Friends (and other TV shows that they didn't shell out 100 million dollars for), direct-to-video cheapies, and an increasingly bizarre and divergent list of Netflix Originals that are promoted for a week and then disappear forever. In terms of older movies, Netflix is abysmal. Only 16 movies made before 1950 are available, and more than half are WWII propaganda films that are only there because of the (actually pretty good) Netflix Original documentary series Five Came Back. Up the date to 1970 and you get a whopping 42 options. Of course, this is their strategy: popular, new, preferably owned by Netflix themselves to minimize licensing fees. Also of note: Netflix has the auto-play feature that everyone hates, but which you can get around by constantly scrolling through the choices (always moving, like a shark). Netflix is data driven enough that I have to believe they have some sort of data that supports the whole auto-play function (i.e. this might be one of those "pay attention to what they do, not what they say" situations.) Regardless, this drives behavior that does not help discovery.
Hulu mainly focuses on TV and, as far as I can tell, has had the same featured "popular" movies for, like, 9 months (this despite having exclusive rights for critical darlings like Minding the Gap and Support the Girls). Even so, browsing TV shows isn't really optimized for discovery. You're basically pushed what's popular, which again, is a hard strategy to argue with, but doesn't make for finding something new and interesting.
Shudder is actually pretty great, but that's only because they're so small and have a very well curated catalog (if you're a horror fan and aren't subscribed, you should consider doing so!) It helps that horror fanatics (i.e. their subscribers) have seen all the basic classics and are generally hungry for stuff that's obscure, old, foreign, or any combination of such. My guess is that licensing for these is also relatively cheap, so they've got a sorta virtuous circle brewing here.
I'm not trying to completely devolve into a full-blown whinging session on streaming services (mission: already failed!), but I do need to to talk a little about Amazon's service. It has its flaws, for sure. The interface isn't as slick, some practices are dubious, and some of the transfers are atrocious. But! There's a treasure trove of older material on Amazon Prime that you won't find anywhere else (even, sometimes, on DVD). They are literally multiple orders of magnitude better than Netflix when it comes to older films. Once again, discovery of these hidden gems isn't particularly easy, but one thing that Amazon does is the "Because you liked X" recommendation slot, which, if you substitute the right movie for "X", will unlock some sort of algorithmic gremlin that will provide you with dozens of obscure, non-obvious recommendations that actually sound pretty interesting. Netflix has this too, but the depth of Amazon's catalog makes it far more effective.
All of which is to say that I recently watched an passable British thriller called The Medusa Touch on Amazon Prime, and was pleasantly surprised to find a whole section of strange (mostly British) thrillers I'd never heard of being recommended to me a couple of weeks later. So I watched a bunch of them. Now, for the most part, there's a good reason these are obscure films, but I've actually had a pretty good time with them, and many have elements that are fantastic (even if the film overall is not particularly great). There has GOT to be a better name for this than "Medusa Touching the Algorithm" (maybe something simpler like "unlocking the algorithm?"), but that's what I've got for now. Let's take a look at some of these:
- The Medusa Touch - A writer (Richard Burton) in London is found near death under mysterious circumstances, and the French detective (apparently working under some sort of exchange program) working the murder pieces together the writer's strange life. He discovers the victim's psychologist (Lee Remick), who spins a strange, bordering on silly tale of a man convinced that he has the psychic power to cause disasters, big and small. "I have a gift for disaster," he says, and we see a number of examples throughout his life, all told in flashback. Strangely, while his body is near death, his brain's activity is only increasing, and strange occurrences are happening around town. What a strange little slice of late 70s paranoia! Burton is fantastic, turning a rather daft script into something almost (almost!) believable all on his own. JustWatch New list, but not sure about that), but I'm glad I did, since it unlocked the recommendations for the below! ***
- Madame Sin - Robert Wagner plays a CIA agent kidnapped by an evil mastermind (the titular Madame Sin) played by Bette Davis. She wants to use him to steal a Polaris submarine, and she'll use her sonic, brain-scrambling death ray to destroy anyone in her way. Obvious sub-Bond knock-off that can't even really compete with the worst of that series. Instead of globe trotting, we get a few minutes of a helicopter taking off (a couple of times), which the filmmakers apparently regarded as mind-blowing at the time. Still, the whole affair is worth it for Bette Davis hamming it up and delivering some doozies, like this one: "How many times and in how many ways do I have to prove to you, there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, only winners and losers and I'M A WINNER..." And then the ending in the car, when she spies Windsor Castle and wants to know when the lease is up so she can buy it. Classic. Wagner is pretty stiff, but functional, and it's always nice to see Denholm Elliot show up (this time as Madame Sin's henchman, the guy who explains that the Royal Family have lived in Windsor Castle for centuries and that the Queen has grown somewhat attached to it). The film could have perhaps leaned into the more humorous bits, but it opted to play things mostly straight, which is a shame, because this could have been a lot better if played with a wink. The tagline for the movie was "Even Doctor No would say 'yes' to Madame Sin!", which is funny, but I suspect not particularly accurate. There are far better Bond pastiches out there, but this one has its moments. **
- The Jigsaw Man - A Michael Caine led spy caper about the head of the British Secret Service defecting to Russia, then getting sent back to London to retrieve some documents that were left behind. To facilitate this, he needs extensive plastic surgery, and he'll have to use all his wits and knowledge to navigate the dangers of being caught between MI6 and the KGB. So there's a skeleton of a good movie here, and Caine is always fun, but this falls down severely in execution. Nevertheless, the idea of a longtime spy playing MI6 and the KGB off of each other with ever more elaborate ruses is an interesting one, and the implication that he's always planning ahead and fitting his moves into a puzzle-like structure is a neat one. It's just a shame that the ruses are not very well conceived or executed or portrayed. Not a snooze-fest or anything, but not exactly great either. **
- Killjoy (aka Who Murdered Joy Morgan?) - This TV movie features a very early Kim Basinger performance, and decent stable of supporting talent, ranging from "that guys" like Robert Culp and Stephen Macht to more obscure performers. Basically Basinger and her doctor boyfriend Macht are planning on getting married, but a jealous colleague invents a fictional woman named Joy Morgan who Macht is supposedly having an affair with. Then Culp shows up wondering about Morgan himself, though we don't really know who he is or what he's after. It starts a little slow, but then some schemes get revealed, red herrings are proffered, and the twists start coming fast later in the movie, until the third act when it's all laid out leading to the final twist. It's a pretty decent little hospital-based thriller, lots of twists and turns that are mostly successful (they might not all entirely fit, but the attempt is appreciated), and a visual style that is pretty good for the era (i.e. this is long before prestige TV, so it doesn't look particularly cinematic, but it's not bad either). Again, not high cinema, but entertaining enough. **1/2
- Nothing But the Night - Three trustees of the Van Traylen Trust have died during the last few months in deaths looking like suicides. However, after a suspicious bus crash involving three more trustees and thirty orphan kids, the police, aided by doctors, start to investigate. One young girl shows particularly strange symptoms, and a doctor sets about using hypnosis to uncover hidden memories. Meanwhile, the young girl's mother, upset that the child was taken away, seeks to expose the Van Traylen Trust... or something like that. This takes its time to get moving, but it eventually emerges as a sorta mashup between The Wicker Man and Get Out.
- The Initiation of Sarah - This is basically Carrie goes to college and joins a sorority. Yes two sisters, one of whom has latent psychic powers, go to college. The more normal, popular one joins up with the leading sorority (led by the ultra-snobby Morgan Fairchild playing a character named, I shit you not, Jennifer Lawrence), while the psychic one joins the nerdy sorority that doesn't even bother recruiting anymore. It turns out that the house mother of the nerdy sorority (played by Shelly Winters) is a witch who wants to use our protagonist's psychic powers to exact revenge on a rival sorority. It's a pretty tame TV movie elevated by an unhinged Shelly Winters, a super bitchy Morgan Fairchild, and a surprisingly sympathetic performance from Kay Lenz as the Carrie-esque Sarah. Also of note: Robert Hays, of Airplane fame shows up as a hunky frat dude; I think this is the only thing other than Airplane that I've seen this guy in... Catnip for fans of derivative 70s schlock, it's one of the more interesting movies from this list (incidentally, this may not have been a direct recommendation from The Medusa Touch, but it was on my watchlist next to a bunch, so I'm including it.) **
- Loophole - Martin Sheen is an architect who just lost his job and needs some quick cash to pay off some debts. He falls in with some bank robbers, led by Albert Finney, and while initially hesitant to participate, eventually agrees to go along, using his architecture skillz to plan and execute the heist. This is by the numbers heist stuff, elevated only by the talent involved, even if they sometimes just feel like they're going through the motions themselves. That being said, it's entertaining enough for what it is, and heist fanatics will probably enjoy it well enough. The ending is kinda bizarre. After successfully tunneling into the safe from the sewers below (spoilers, I guess, but come on), it starts to rain and the sewers start to fill with water, which could effectively trap them in the safe. The thieves all leave, but Sheen stays in the vault, claiming its safer there. Ultimately, its just an excuse for a misleading shot of Sheen in a dirty bath (making you think that he drowned in the safe or something?), but it turns out that he made it out just fine? Again, some entertaining stuff here, but it's all a bit hackneyed. **
- Paper Man - A few poor students use their computer hacking skillz to create a fictitious person so they can get a credit card. It starts as a prank, but it takes on a life of its own when people start dying, seemingly at the hands of the room-sized-computer, which is obviously pissed off about having been used in the scam. Lots of amusing early 70s computer jargon like: "I'm just identifying myself to the computer. It's called logging in." Some of the death sequences are pretty creepy, especially the one woman who is attempting to teach the computer voice recognition. She normally says a word a bunch of times using different intonations, etc... and eventually the computer figures out what she's saying and repeats the word back. Only this time, she says "Breath" and the computer responds "Death". It's a made for TV movie, so when she gets sliced in half by an elevator, it's not really graphic, but it's pretty disturbing nonetheless. Pretty sure the transfer is from a VHS (or maybe, just maybe, Beta!), so it doesn't exactly look great, but its actually a pretty good slice of 70s technophobia, and it's actually mildly clever on that front too. Probably most notable for being an early showcase for Dean Stockwell, it's actually pretty well done for a TV movie. **1/2
- The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken - Meet Belisarius, a genetically engineered human that was part of a failed experiment to help humans better understand quantum physics. In theory, Belisarius should be able to enter a trance-like state to channel all his brainpower into understanding various quantum phenomena, amongst other things. In practice, these trances are quite dangerous to Belisarius, and as a result, he's redirected all his talents into various cons and nefarious schemes (least his overactive brain would drive him crazy, or somesuch). This book tells the story of one such con, an attempt to smuggle a fleet of warships through a wormhole. To accomplish the task, Belisarius assembles a crew of friends and former business associates, then sets about executing an ambitious plan. There's a layer of straightforward heist story here that is quite nice, not quite the fizzy Ocean's 11 style, but close enough. It's got all the requisite tropes: assembling a crew, devising a plan, improvising escapes when the opponent successfully anticipates a move, etc... Künsken attempts to add some depth with his explorations of genetic engineering. Belisarius is the primary target of this, and we get a repetitive deep dive into his motivations and the ways in which he copes with his intense instinct to do things that his body simply can't handle. The Puppets, a whole race of genetically engineered slaves that have evolved into something even weirder, are also well covered. Unfortunately, the fizzy heist set amidst dystopian elements, while an interesting mix, didn't quite hit home for me. The heist elements work, but often feel interrupted by the more serious themes, which ultimately doesn't serve either element well. The SFnal elements, while well done, are also somewhat derivative (take, for instance, the trance-like state that Belisarius enters, a clear nod to the Emergent's "Focus" from Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky). Perhaps I'm being too hard on this book; I enjoyed it well enough for what it was, but I don't think I'll be nominating for a Hugo.
- The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts - The Eriophora is a relativistic ship built inside an asteroid and controlled by an AI known as The Chimp. Sunday is part of a crew that is only awakened for very short intervals in order to help the ship build wormhole gates. The crew has been at it for 65 million years (though obviously they've been asleep for the grand majority of that time), and they're starting to get a little antsy... to the point where mutiny is on the table. But how do you execute a mutiny when you're only awake for a few days every thousand years or so? So Watts generally doesn't craft the most friendly of settings, but makes up for that with great ideas and good storytelling. This story is obviously reminiscent of other runaway relativistic stories like Tau Zero, but Watts puts enough spins on it that it still reads fresh. The ending isn't exactly a happy one, but it is oddly satisfying. Definitely one of the most interesting things I've read from 2018, and will probably be on my Hugo novella ballot.
- Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells - Ah, the continuing adventures of Murderbot, the security android who just wants to binge-watch TV shows, but always gets entangled with humans who have no security sense whatsoever. The first novella, All Systems Red, won the Hugo last year, and I judge a fair chance that Exit Strategy will this year (I'll be nominating it). The four novellas released so far are episodic in nature, but there is a throughline that gets resolved in Exit Strategy. Along the way, we're treated to well plotted action and adventure in a pretty standard space opera setting. It's all very entertaining, and I was happy to see Murderbot reunited with Dr. Mensah and crew. Apparently Wells is working on a Murderbot novel, and if these four novellas are any indication, I'm sure it will be great.
- Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn - Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the more enduring creations in the Star Wars expanded universe (even if it has been deprecated), but he wasn't always a Grand Admiral. This newish novel tells the story of how Thrawn came to the Imperial Navy and quickly rose through the ranks. Along the way, we're treated to some Imperial Academy sequences, early battles, and a final showdown with an insurgent uprising. At the outset, Thrawn befriends an obscure Ensign, Eli Vanto, and becomes his mentor, teaching him everything from combat tactics and leadership to his trademark usage of art to see what animates the enemy. As a normal, competent but uninspired officer, Vanto provides us with perspective on Thrawn, and it's entertaining to see Thrawn win Vanto over. Eventually Vanto starts to demonstrate abilities of his own. It's all great fun, and Thrawn's tactical prowess and observational abilities are well portrayed here (the use of Vanto's vantage helps - writing a genius character has to be somewhat difficult, but writing about him from a more mundane perspective makes it easier). It's a bit episodic and while the ending does have an element of closure to it, it doesn't really feel like a major climax. Still, it was a very entertaining book. Zahn has always been a Kaedrin favorite, and this one is well worth checking out if you're a Star Wars fan (assuming you've already read Zahn's original Thrawn trilogy).
- Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn - Alas, this sequel to Thrawn isn't as great. Both a prequel and a sequel, it tells the story of Thrawn's initial meeting with Anakin Skywalker in the past (implied but not detailed in the previous book), cross cut with Thrawn's collaboration with Darth Vader in the present/future/whatever. Weird as it may be to say, Skywalker/Vader's presence here just doesn't work for me at all. The Clone Wars era never particularly interested me and Anakin's whiny nature is a turnoff. Vader isn't quite as imposing in this story either, though I can't quite pinpoint why. He's more petty and shortsighted than I'd normally peg him as. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not quite at the level of the first book. Also, I miss Eli Vanto here. He was a good window into the events of the story, but that sort of thing is sorely missing here. Still curious to see where else Zahn takes this Thrawn series, even if this one was a bit of a misfire for me...