- Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (trailer)
- Jack Chop (short)
- Demons (trailer)
- Night of the Demons - A bunch of kids gather for a Halloweeen party at Hull House, an abandoned funeral home fraught with urban legends. Proto-goth girl Angela attempts a seance and inadvertently releases a demon that had been trapped in the house. Hijinks ensue! It's a premise that isn't exactly original, but it mashes up a number of familiar elements (from the likes of slashers, haunted houses, possessions, maybe a sprinkle of zombies) to form a well well executed version of each horror trope it gloms onto. The urban legend angle is surprisingly effective, if a bit derivative. The production design is well done despite clear low budget limitations. Director Kevin Tenney provides a few visual flourishes that work really well, such as a POV shot as the demon glides through the house, or a shot with characters reflected in a broken mirror. The kids are an unlikely bunch, but each comes off distinct and avoid feeling like total cardboard cutouts. The final girl is dating a guy who at first seems good, but turns out to be a creep. Her ex seems to be a creep at first, but winds up being a stand up guy. Linnea Quigley plays Suzanne, more of a sidekick than the main demon (and her demon makeup is somewhat uninspired), but she gets some interesting things to do beyond the normal T&A, notably the infamous lipstick body horror gag (amazing for such a simple effect) and a nice eye-gouging sequence.
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror III: Dial Z for Zombie
- White Zombies (Key and Peele)
- Night of the Living Dead (trailer)
- The Return of the Living Dead - A pair of bumbling medical supply warehouse workers accidentally release a poison gas into the air that raises the dead from their graves. A group of punk kids partying in the local cemetery get caught up in the action. A full decade before Scream took the piss out of horror conventions, this film was laying the same groundwork. Written and directed by Dan O'Bannon (most famous for having written scripts for Alien and Total Recall), he was clearly angling for the self-referential, deconstructionist charm that animates (pun intended!) more modern takes on horror. For instance, this flick literally references Night of the Living Dead, positing that the movie was based on real events and that the remains of zombie bodies were mistakenly sent to the warehouse by the army. While deconstructing zombie films, O'Bannon also manages to add his own wrinkles to the sub-genre, most famously imbuing the zombies with an insatiable craving for brains, a trope that really struck a chord. He also made "fast-zombies" a thing decades before nerds started arguing the merits of such details on the internets. Indeed, these zombies can move fast, use complex tools, and even speak (a running gag involving a zombie using a radio in an ambulance to get the authorities to send more brains is pretty funny). The makeup and effects work is pretty good too, giving most of the zombies a distinct look that prevents them from being a completely faceless hoard (until they swarm on unsuspecting victims, I guess, but still).
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (trailer)
- American Pickers Texas (Robot Chicken)
- Werewolf Women of the SS (fake trailer)
- Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers - A private eye is hired to find a missing girl and gets mixed up in a series of gruesome murders perpetrated by chainsaw wielding hookers who are providing human sacrifices to their Egyptian god. You know, that old saw. Look, if you can't tell by the title, this is a sleazy B-movie to it's core, and it revels in cheese. There are feints in the direction of respectability. Jay Richardson plays the private eye as a caricature of noir detectives that actually works reasonably well. The Egyptian cult is led by Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is a nice touch. Alright, so maybe "respectability" isn't the right word to use to describe any aspect of this production, but it's still tons of fun. Linnea Quigley is joined by another infamous scream queen, Michelle Bauer, who gets one of the film's greatest moments. In a scene that prefigures American Psycho, she takes one of her tricks back to a hotel room, gets naked, covers her painting of Elvis in plastic (to protect it from blood splatter, which will be copious), puts on a hairnet, and then goes to town with a chainsaw. It's brilliant trash. memorable poster too, and the Blu-Ray I watched has a perfect quote on the cover: "The 4th Greatest B-Movie Of All Time" (from that classic film historian house: Maxim Magazine). Look, fine cinema this is not. But if you want trashy 80s cheese, it's hard to beat something like this. ??? (I mean, come on, how do you rate something like this?)
- Spooky Encounters (aka Encounters of the Spooky Kind)- Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao co-directed this little slice of cuckoo bananas about a pedicab driver (played by Sammo Hung) whose reputation for bravery makes him susceptible to all sorts of dares, leading to several encounters with the undead. It turns out that one of his clients is having an affair with the Hung's wife, and thus hires a supernatural assassin/witchdoctor to kill Hung. It takes a while to get up to speed, at first feeling a bit disjointed as Hung goes from one goofy supernatural situation to another, but eventually the action starts to rev up and the last half hour works really well. The supernatural bits are really quite bizarre, featuring weird twists of things we would normally be familiar with. Zombies, voodoo dolls, hopping vampires (!), Taoist wizards elevating their alters on top of pillars to make their magic more powerful and shooting literal balls of energy and lasers and shit? This movie has it all. Including one of the all time greatest and most bizarre freeze-frame endings ever. I mean, super problematic to modern eyes, I'm sure, but still utterly amazing. The action is also pretty fantastic, and indeed, one of the better examples of Sammo Hung's unlikely prowess and uncanny acrobatic ability.
I particularly enjoyed the fight with the hopping vampire (the technical term for this is Jiangshi, which describes reanimated corpses that we'd probably call Zombies, but which the Chinese call "hopping vampires"), an undead zombie-like creature that moves by hopping around with its arms outstretched, but which naturally has pretty keen kung-fu abilities. The concluding battle between two Taoist wizards, one of whom uses what appears to be a portable hydrolic lift to elevate his alter to the level of his stationary opponent, represents a worthy action finale. This is not exactly fine cinema, but it's entertaining af and well worth checking out for fans of martial arts (and horror comedies). This was supposedly the first modern Jiangshi film (though previous martial arts/horror hybrids existed, they often took inspiration from the west, particularly Dracula), and many others followed, including the below film. **1/2
- Encounters of the Spooky Kind II (trailer)
- Tokyo Zombie (trailer)
- Mr. Vampire (trailer)
- Kung Fu Zombie - Billy Chong plays Pang, a man who inadvertently foiled a criminal that has escaped from prison and vowed revenge. Rather than just fighting Pang, the criminal hires a Taoist monk to animate some zombies to do the job for him. It goes horribly wrong, and the criminal dies in the process, returning as a ghost looking to reincarnate himself in a recently deceased body. Yeah, that old chestnut. There's more to the plot, but you don't really need to know any more about it. This is not as good as Spooky Encounters, but offers many of the same charms. Billy Chong is a suitably talented martial artist, and he even fights some hopping vampires in this one. The story drags a bit at times and some scenes feel like filler, but the action is well choreographed and entertaining, and there's enough of a story to justify the action, even if it all feels a bit perfunctory. Still worth checking out for martial arts aficionados (and to a lesser extent, fans of horror comedies). Chong was nowhere near as prolific or charismatic as Hung (or other contemporaries like Jackie Chan), but he carries the day well enough here. **
Summer is in its final death throes. The temperatures are dropping, cool, bracing winds are blowing, leaves are turning brown and falling, crushed underfoot like the hopes and dreams of foolish mortals. Grocery stores now sport mutilated pumpkins, styrofoam tombstones, and decorative corpses. And of course, the pumpkin spice must flow. These and other nominally ghastly signifiers of the season can mean only one thing: It's Halloweentime! To celebrate, we embark upon a six week long marathon of horror movies and associated media. Why six weeks? Because that's, like, two weeks longer than most celebrations, and we're better than most people.
On this first week of our marathon, we will tackle three movies from The Criterion Collection. I suppose I could just use Filmstruck to watch these movies, but in this age of disappearing digital purchases, I want to harken back to the days of physical media. This will be part of a larger, multi-week theme, but for this week, I want to focus on the OG physical media masters.
For the uninitiated, The Criterion Collection began in 1984 as purveyors of laser-discs, a storage medium that never quite caught on except with major cinephiles with cash to burn. They really came into prominence with the DVD. The movies are always presented in their original aspect ratios and are painstakingly restored, remastered, and/or transferred (a process often overseen by the filmmakers themselves), ensuring a high quality experience. Furthermore, they pioneered the use of extra-features like audio-commentaries, much of which is disappearing again in the age of streaming. Heck, one of the more underrated aspects of the Criterion treatment is the frequent inclusion of a booklet featuring new essays, concept art, and other ephemera. The artwork and packaging is always top notch and warrants prominent display on your storage shelves not just because they indicate that you are a connoisseur of good taste, but because they just look great.
The copyright regime being what it is, Criterion doesn't always have the access to the films fans might be most attracted to (studios want to keep those profits for themselves), so they focused on forgotten but influential older films, foreign movies, or art-house classics that, while important to film history, are often overlooked by modern audiences. Early Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, and so much more; the collection is riddled with classics, often things that would be lost to the annals of history, were it not for their diligence.
As time goes on and streaming increases its stranglehold on the industry, physical media is both dying... and paradoxically flourishing. Since studios can no longer count on the cash cow of DVD/BD sales and have moved on to streaming, they are a little more open to making physical media rights available to niche, specialist outfits like Criterion (and a few others we'll cover later in the marathon), who give these films the love they deserve.
In terms of Horror, the Criterion Collection has a few small corners of the genre sewn up. Some favorites that we won't be covering today including: Sisters, The Blob, House, Rosemary's Baby, Scanners, Night of the Living Dead, The Silence of the Lambs (just recently reissued on BD!), not to mention a bevvy of Hitchcock and other horror adjacent thrillers. Today, we will be covering three moderately obscure entries from the collection, so let's dive in:
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror XIII: The Island of Dr. Hibbert
- Splice (trailer)
- The Island of Dr. Moreau (trailer)
- Island of Lost Souls [Criterion] - An early (indeed, the first non-silent) adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, it might also be the best. Judged against it's contemporaries, it stands out (though I don't think it beats the best of the classic Universal horror pieces). A story with some level of depth, good performances, nice production design, and solid cinematography anchor a very effective production. The story of a mad scientist who attempted to convert animals to humans using perverse, brutally painful medical procedures disgusted audiences at the time and led to various censorship schemes and bannings. To modern eyes, it's a bit more staid (originally banned in the UK, then rated X, it's now rated PG), but even still, some elements distinguish this from its contemporaries. In particular, Charles Laughton's performance as Dr. Moreau is great. He plays the character as a sadistic schemer, convinced of his own god-like superiority and willing to justify all manner of horrors in service of his scientific curiosity. Laughton could have certainly hammed it up in the role and there's a bit of that here, but there's also a sort of chilling restraint, with much of his sadistic intent conveyed through his eyes, winks, smirks, or a slight, almost imperceptible smile. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau). Finally, the founding members of Devo also give an interview about the influence (their first album: "Are we not men?") on their music and videos. It's a handsome little package, and fans of classic horror like myself would be enamored. ***
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV: Bart Simpson's Dracula
- What We Do In The Shadows (trailer)
- Is that a whip? (Robot Chicken)
- Cronos [Criterion] - Guillermo del Toro's first feature length film is a modern-day spin on the vampire that remains distinct to this day. The story begins with the creation of the Cronos device, an intricate mechanical bug created by an alchemist in the 1500s; cut to present day when the alchemist, having lived 500 years, dies in an accident. The Cronos device, hidden in a small statue, winds up in an antique shop where mild-mannered Jesus Gris (and his granddaughter) discover the device. Meanwhile, a dying millionaire has discovered the alchemist's journal and wants the device to extend his own life. I think you can see where this is going, but it'd doesn't quite play out like you might expect. This is a vampire film where the term vampire is never spoken; it mixes hoary old tales of alchemy with vampire myths, and filters them through del Toro's conception of fairy tales, yielding a unique take on classic horror themes. For instance, once our hero inadvertently triggers the device and comes under its spell, he craves blood. But while lesser films would, for example, make him threaten and almost kill his granddaughter out of hunger, this film never goes there.
- The Fly (trailer)
- The Human Centipede (trailer)
- Halloween RARE Deleted Scene 1978 (short)
- Eyes Without a Face [Criterion] - While this week's theme was based around the Criterion Collection, I could very well have called the theme "Mad Scientists", as this is the third film that prominently features such (I suppose the alchemist in Cronos is arguable, but go with me here). An obsessive doctor specializing in transplants attempts a radical plastic surgery to restore his daughter's face (recently disfigured in a car crash). Once again, a schlocky premise with a more artful execution, this story is filled with common tropes. While not specific to a face transplant, there are lots of stories about a grief-stricken scientist sacrificing everything to save or otherwise reconnect with a loved one. In this case, the imagery is what sets this apart from similar tales. The daughter Christiane wears a smooth, hard white mask to conceal her deformity, a clear prelude to other, more famous masks that would later pepper the horror genre.
- The Gig Economy - At first I thought this was a non-fiction commentary on the gig economy, but it quickly becomes clear that this is not the case. It's still a very interesting little piece of internets ephemera, well worth checking out. It actually reminded me of a modern, technology focused version of the opening of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show, in which a postal worker assigned to the dead letters office finds patterns in the lost letters. This story posits anonymous gig contracts online, and it turns out that there are patterns to be discovered in the nonsense. An interesting story and might even make good Hugo award fodder (it's probably better than 99% of recent Hugo short stories).
- Halloween 1978 (The Inside Story) - A Halloween documentary I hadn't seen before? Ok, fine.
- The Web Design Museum - A blast from the past. We've come a long way...
- Survivorship bias - The notion that focusing on survivors of a given tragedy can distort conclusions; the military example is a good one:
During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into his calculations when considering how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. Researchers from the Center for Naval Analyses had conducted a study of the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions, and had recommended that armor be added to the areas that showed the most damage. Wald noted that the study only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions—the bombers that had been shot down were not present for the damage assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Wald proposed that the Navy reinforce areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost. His work is considered seminal in the then-fledgling discipline of operational research.
- Fan Fiction Friday: Hogwarts and a Giant Squid in “First Encounter” - Warning, you probably don't want to read this. More adventurous readers who are not scared of what the internet can throw at them probably don't want to read this either. I didn't particularly want to read it, but someone sent it to me and once I started, I couldn't stop. I used to save all sorts of interesting links on del.icio.us and I had this tag called idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingonhere that I would use to categorize stuff like this. Unfortunately, I kinda do know what's going on here, and it's pretty gross.
- I scored 73 points according to the strange but not quite nonsensical scoring system used for the wager
- This was enough to rank me above all of the "official" entrants from the /Filmcast (Dave Chen pulled out a last minute coup with a score of 67 because The Meg snuck into the top 10 right near the deadline - an event that also helped me considerably).
- I ranked 444 in the Global Leaderboard, which is decent considering there were 3800+ players
- The winner of the Global Leaderboard scored a whopping 96 points, only missing two picks dead on (which, naturally, involved Solo)
- Avengers: Infinity War ($678,781,267, My Rank: #1, 13 points) - Duh. Pretty much everyone had this and it was the clear no-brainer of the season.
- Incredibles 2 ($602,579,381, My Rank: #2, 10 points) - I had this much higher than most people, but that turned out to be a wise choice. I was worried that my love for the original was coloring my ranking here, but it turns out that my assumption that it would be the "kids movie of choice" this summer was right on.
- Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($415,210,470, My Rank: #5, 5 points) - I expected this to fall off (due to the inherent crappiness of the first Jurrasic World), and it did, just not as much as I expected/hoped.
- Deadpool 2 ($318,454,369, My Rank: #3, 7 points) - I was hoping for a bit of a bump up from the first film's popularity, but this would up with a modest decrease. In any case, the margin between #3 and #4 is about $100 million, so it wasn't even really close.
- Ant-Man and the Wasp ($213,977,857, My Rank: #6, 7 points) - A strong showing for this one, about in line with my projections. In fact, if Solo did just a teensy bit better, it would have been dead on. The margin between the two is a mere $275 Thousand(ish).
- Solo: A Star Wars Story ($213,706,487, My Rank: #4, 5 points) - This was definitely a big question mark and yep, I overestimated the power of the Star Wars brand. Many reasons this could have fallen this low on the list, and apparently this was the "single biggest mistake" on my list. I suspect that's not rare for a lot of these. Especially given the razor thin margin between #5 and #6.
- Mission: Impossible - Fallout ($206,661,700, My Rank: #8, 7 points) - I had this a little lower due to its release date (I mean, it's still going reasonably strong, even if the wager is complete - a little more time and it could easily have jumped a few spots, actually), but I should not have worried. A tough one to estimate, but at least I was only one off.
- Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation ($162,844,423, My Rank: Dark Horse, 1 point) - The power of the kids' movie (and I'm guessing a rapping Dracula) gets this one higher than expected. This was the one Dark Horse pick that I kinda regretted not putting on the list, but it's not like it did that well.
- Ocean's 8 ($139,211,301, My Rank: #7, 5 points) - I was a little overzealous about this one; still not much to really comment on here. It was a fun movie and it did correspondingly well.
- The Meg ($123,802,883, My Rank: #10, 13 points) - I was worried about the release date of this, which didn't allow for much time to make the needed money, but damn, I somehow hit this right on. As the summer went on, I was regretting this pick, but it turns out that August being a wasteland and dumping ground for bad movies makes a difference.
- Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ($118,120,770, My Rank: #8, 0 points) - This was the #10 movie right up until, like, the last second, which meant I was not doing so hot. So even though The Meg overtaking this dropped one of my picks outside the top 10, it was a good thing since I hit The Meg right on and thus got the bonus points.
- Christopher Robin - In some ways, I'm a dumb-dumb, because this movie basically had no chance of actually making the top 10. Then again, I didn't actually put it in the top 10 and I did actually get all 10 represented somewhere, so there is that.
- Skyscraper - I was worried about The Rock's scattered track record and the fact that this was the third movie this year. It seems my skepticism was warranted.
- The Glass Key (1942) - It's Yojimbo meets Miller's Crossing, only this came before both. The movie opens with Veronica Lake slapping Alan Ladd, who then asks one of his flunkies to meet with Lake's father. The flunky demurrs, so Ladd throws him through a window. My kinda movie.
- Pitfall (1948) - Dick Powell plays a family man and insurance investigator who sets out to repossess a bunch of fraudulent belongings from a woman. She'd fallen for the wrong guy, who is now serving time. Powell's finding the routines of day to day life are driving him nuts, and he starts to fall for the girl, who represents escape and adventure, of a sort. Unfortunately, Powell had made the mistake of enlisting a PI played by Raymond Burr to help find her in the first place, and Burr's character has not-so-honorable aims of his own. This starts slow and it's not particularly clear where it's going for a while, but once it gets there, things get more interesting. Again, not exactly top tier noir, but perhaps a bit above average. **1/2
- The Most Dangerous Game (1932) - I don't remember when I first read the Richard Connell short story this movie is based on, but it's long been a mainstay of middle/high school English classes, and a pretty great example of narrative structure. As such, there's been tons of official and unofficial adaptations of this story. Even if you haven't read it, you'll probably recognize the premise: a traveler becomes shipwrecked on an island. It turns out that the island is the home of a reclusive and eccentric man who, while initially welcoming, turns out to be a madman who hunts human beings for sport. The rest of the story is a dangerous game of cat and mouse (or cat and also-cat, if you will). There are countless examples of films inspired by or directly adapting this, but this appears to be the first. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian Cooper, the team that would go on to make King Kong a year later (even going so far as to use the same sets and actress Fay Wray), this film is a straightforward, relatively faithful adaptation. Some elements were added (notably a love interest) and the specific traps and action sequences are padded out a bit, but it's otherwise pretty accurate. Joel McCrea is sufficiently heroic, while Leslie Banks chews the scenery as the villainous madman, certainly providing a template for future villainy. Visually the film has a nice foggy atmosphere and the villain's castle again serves as something of a template for evil lairs. The actual action is decent enough for its time, but a little staid to the modern eye. Clocking in at a svelt 63 minutes, it still moves quickly though. Not the "must-watch" classic that King Kong would become, but certainly worth a watch for students of cinema. ***
- Safety Last! (1923) - Harold Lloyd was sorta the forgotten third silent comedy genius (behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton), but this film represents his masterpiece and includes the one set piece we've all seen (and which has, yes, influenced a ton of other films). Lloyd's main character was called Glasses (because he, um, wore glasses), and in this movie he leaves for the big city to start his blue-collar career, promising his sweetheart that he'll call for her once he starts making the big bucks. Naturally, he's stuck working a menial job at a department store that can't exactly live up to his promises. The first half of the film is an unending series of clever physical stunts, pratfalls, and general comedic gags, but the highlight is the final setpiece where Glasses climbs the outside of the department store in a desperate bid for publicity. It's a genius sequence, and features new obstacles at every floor climbed, most infamously the one where he hangs off of the oversized clock on the outside of the building (a gag referenced repeatedly throughout film history).
Silent comedies tend to fare better to modern viewings than more dramatic fare, but humor doesn't always translate across the decades. This is nearly a century old, but the comedy holds up well. Lloyd doesn't have quite the cache of Chaplin or Keaton, but apparently he's only got himself to blame for that one: "Lloyd kept copyright control of most of his films and re-released them infrequently after his retirement" and not so much because of lack of interest. He wouldn't let theaters use piano to accompany the films (preferring an organ) and charged exorbitant amounts for television airings. As a result, Chaplin and Keaton enjoyed a more favorable reputation and name recognition. After his death, there was renewed interest, and more recent restorations have helped Lloyd along. At least, among film dorks, as most people these days wouldn't dream of watching a silent film. Safety First! would be a decent one to start with though. ***
- Scarlet Street (1945) - Edward G. Robinson plays an ordinary man going through a mid-life crisis when he inadvertently rescues a woman from an attack on the street. He befriends her, but she's under the impression that he's a rich artist (haha) and sets about conning him for his fortune. This starts awfully slow and doesn't really pick up until the end of the second act. Then things go completely bananas in the final act. As it turns out, the slow first half is really just a slow ratcheting of tension. Stylistically, the film becomes more adventurous as it goes as well (the beginning is not what you'd expect from a filmmaker with the stature of Fritz Lang), with a wonderfully bonkers, very dark, Edgar-Allen-Poe-like ending (that's more like it). I won't spoil anything, but this is worth hanging in there for fans of melodrama/noir mixtures. ***
- Bicycle Thieves (1948) - This is one of those Criterion Collection/Janus Arthouse films that I've always, well, "dreaded" isn't quite the right word, but it's not the sort of thing that's necessarily a feel-good piece. It tells the story of Antonio, an unemployed man in post-war Italy who finally gets a job. The only catch is that he needs a bicycle to perform the job, so when his bicycle is stolen on his first day at work, he goes into a panic. The rest of the film is a desperate search for the stolen bike, with his son tagging along. It's an astoundingly empathetic film, and one of those situations where even these sorts of small stakes seem massive when contextualized like this (lots of modern blockbusters have planet-destroying stakes, but you don't feel them anywhere near as much as this one man's need to find that damned bike). Stylistically devoid of flourishes or showiness, its restraint perfectly matches the story being told, lending the film a realism not common for its era (it feels much more modern than it actually is). Apparently these weren't even professional actors, but this only enhances the realism, especially with the child actor, who does a phenomenal job (and stays appropriately kid-like throughout). It's heartbreaking, but in the best way possible (this is not something I'm accustomed to saying). ***
- The Stone Sky wins best novel and N.K. Jemisin becomes the first author ever to win three in a row. I have not been a particular fan of the series, but people seem to love these books. Too much misery porn for my liking, which always kept me at an arms length from the characters and story. Forcing myself to read the three books over the past few years (if I'm going to vote, I'm going to read the books; the authors deserve that much) probably doesn't help. I don't see why this series in particular deserved the three-peat, but this third book was actually my favorite of the series, so there is that (in fact, the only real baffling winner in the series was the second book, which suffered from clear middle-book-in-a-trilogy problems. I can definitely see why the first and third books won.) The other funny thing about this is that a few years ago, they created a whole award for "Best Series" that could have potentially cut down on the number of sequels in the Best Novel category, but that clearly isn't happening. Scalzi's Collapsing Empire came in second, and probably would have been my choice (though I certainly get the criticisms of it, it was a lot more fun and pushed my SF buttons more than most of the other nominees). New York 2140 came in last place, which also matches my preference...
- World of the Five Gods (formerly known as the Chalion series after the first book), by Lois McMaster Bujold takes the Best Series Hugo, which is also funny because Bujold won last year for the Vorkosigan Saga (deservedly so, in my opinion, but still). This award still suffers from a big logistical problem, namely that if you haven't already read all the nominees (some of which contain more than 10 novels, etc...), you can't really judge properly. That being said, Bujold is one of my two favorite authors, so this win isn't exactly unwelcome.
- All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells takes home the rocket for Best Novella. Though I have not read any of the other nominees, I had nominated the Wells story, so I'm happy to see that it did well (and this is a good reminder that the sequels are out, so I should get on that!) I've neglected the novellas in recent years, but it's funny, a lot of the most interesting SF these days is coming out in Novella sized bites, so I might have to pay closer attention to the category this/next year.
- “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer takes the Novelette award, but the only Novelette that I read this year was Yoon Ha Lee's excellent “Extracurricular Activities” (which I was rooting for). I'll probably give Palmer's story a shot though, as it seems fun.
- "Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™", by Rebecca Roanhorse wins Best Short Story. I had placed it firmly in the middle of the pack of my ballot, but didn't feel particularly strongly for any of the stories (despite this year's category in general being of higher quality than the last few years).
- Wonder Woman wins Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. I thought that my preferred Get Out might actually pull it out (it did finish second in the voting), but Hugo voters tend to go for bigger, splashier movies, as evidenced by the other nominees. A The Good Place won the Short Form award, which is great.
- All in all, not too shabby! I'm definitely curious to see how next year goes. Will series and sequels continue to dominate the Best Novel category? Should Lois McMaster Bujold release a new Sharing Knife book this year to see if she can three-peat the Best Series category? Will Novellas continue their ascendancy? Only one way to find out.
- I have not read a ton of 2018 SF, and what I have read so far has not struck me as Hugo Worthy (Head On was a lot of fun, but doesn't strike me as needing recognition in this way). Some things I'm looking forward to catching up with though: The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts, The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries sequels), by Martha Wells, and a few others (of note: all of the preceding are novellas).
- Don’t Tell Scotty But Here’s An Oral History Of ‘Scotty Doesn’t Know’ - The story of one of the craziest cameos in cinema history (only a minor exaggeration).
- MoviePass Reminded Us How Much People Love Going to the Movies - Not sure I entirely buy some of the reasoning here. Yes, people liked seeing movies for free, that part makes sense. After that, I don't think there's much to it. Still, MoviePass is one of the wonders of our time. I'm not sure what they were thinking, but watching/participating in its demise is fascinating. I almost enjoy watching the increasingly panicky emails that come every week detailing how much more baroque the service is about to get in an effort to forestall inevitable doom. "Our expenses are way down!" Right, because I can't actually see movies using the service anymore. Oh well, I had a good run. 27 movies for the price of, like, 6 tickets. Who knows where we go from here. AMC Stubbs might stick around, I have no idea how Sinemia will do, and if Regal actually jumps onboard with a similar program, we might be in good shape. Or MoviePass dies, AMC shelves their program, and we're back to $15 tickets to Slender Man.
- “Cocaine, Speed, and Gallons of Jack Daniel’s”: The Last Rock ’n’ Roll Superstars Were … Korn? - This is actually good? I know, I'm confused too.
- The Lions of Kruger - Interesting piece about anti-poaching work in Africa...
- A Review of the ‘Hereditary’ Wikipedia Page, by Someone Who Is Too Afraid to See ‘Hereditary’ - At least he's honest about it. I suspect many reviewers don't even go this far:
... the film is a nightmarish buffet of intrafamilial terror, demonic possession, immolation, and decapitation widely regarded as one of the most sadistically horrifying movies in years. I can tell you this because I have read the Wikipedia plot summary for Hereditary multiple times, which is the only way I will ever personally experience any of that terror and decapitation, because no way am I actually watching that shit.Good for him.
- Best Kick of FIFA 2018 - I have no idea what's up with the soundtrack to this, but the video is amazing (note: not actually a soccer/football thing, just watch it, it's like 10 seconds long.)
- Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion - I'm no expert on Indian cinema, but Netflix appears to be making some attempt to court Indian viewers as they are consistently adding movies like these two Tollywood epics. Set in ancient India, a man with a mysterious past learns of his royal heritage and the heroism of his father. Or something. Look, these two movies combined are 5+ hours of action, romance, and more action. If you're a fan of epic battles of mythological proportions, you will enjoy this and the runtime will not seem overlong. Well worth checking out.
- Bad Genius - This Thai movie about high school students cheating on tests was one of the best heist movies of the past year or two, which is saying a lot. It made my top 10 last year, so I've already sung its praises, but it's still obscure enough to warrant another mention here.
- Everly - Salma Hayek faces down wave after wave of assassins sent to kill her by a mob boss/kidnapper. A bit video-game like in execution, it's still a very entertaining little action flick that people don't seem to talk about very much. Well worth checking out if you want to see Salma Hayek in wall-to-wall action sequences.
- Cold in July - An underrated and underseen Texas Noir tale of a protective father who foils a burglar and as a result, gets wrapped up in an ever escalating series of events. Fans of Country Noir would love it, assuming they knew about it (but this movie didn't get a big release).
- The Way of the Gun - Are you a fan of Christopher McQuarrie's recent Mission: Impossible movies? Well this isn't quite as action packed, but it's McQarrie's highly idiosyncratic directorial debut about a pair of criminals who kidnap a crime boss's pregnant wife for ransom, and then have to deal with the various bag-men sent their way. Fascinating movie with an intricate plot. Well worth checking out.
- Five more recommendations presented without comment because I've either talked them up too much before or perhaps they're better known than the others or maybe I just didn't have much to say about them (even though I didn't say that much about the above, I know, get over it): The Thin Blue Line, Real Genius, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Stardust, and Wind River. You're welcome.
- Eon by Greg Bear - Before I left on vacation last week I posted a poll on twitter asking which SF book I should listen to during the drive (embedded in the vacation was also the annual Operation Cheddar side-mission, which also involves a lot of time in-car). Despite around 400 impressions, only four of you jerks voted, but this Greg Bear book was the winner. As it turns out, it's very good and the audio-book was well produced, but man, it's pretty heady stuff for a trip like this. The story starts in the far flung future of... 2005, when the US and Soviet tensions are strained and nearing a nuclear exchange. Into this volatile political environment comes a massive asteroid, appearing out of a huge energy burst just outside the solar system. It takes up a near-earth orbit, and what appears to initially just be a big-dumb-object turns out to hold secrets within secrets. It soon becomes clear that the "rock" or "potato" (as the Russians call it) is from the future, but maybe not quite our future. The rock once held an advanced civilization, and from studying in their libraries, we see that it was a human civilization made up of the remnants of nuclear war. The history described mostly (but not wholly) matches the history our characters know. Then there is the mysterious seventh chamber, which is larger than the asteroid itself and seems to house a singularity of some sort. This is a big, ambitious hard-SF novel that builds on top of previous big-dumb-object SF in a meaningful way. Sense of wonder abounds, and there are a bunch of startling plot developments throughout the story, which is far-ranging and demands close reading. The SF bits are well done, mixing accessible ideas with more mind-bending concepts. The latter can get a bit dicey or difficult to understand, but there's enough underpinning them to keep the book from feeling bogged down by technobabble (your mileage may vary; it worked well for me). The characters suffer a bit in comparison to the idea content and plot. They're likable enough, and Bear spends plenty of time with them, but they're clearly not the focus of the story, and the book drags a bit when Bear focuses on them. At first, the book does seem hopelessly dated, what with all the Cold War machinations (and a weird Ralph Nader reference), but as we progress through the story and become acquainted with the concept of alternate universes, that complaint shrinks and nearly vanishes (clearly not intentional, as this was written during the Cold War, but still). The finale ties things together reasonably well, though there's still some open ended questions, which I gather are addressed in a sequel to this book. Unlike most of these situations, I can actually see myself following up on that sequel, which I think says something. I don't think Eon is quite as successful as Blood Music, but it's still great, big-scope SF that's well worth checking out.
- Daemon by Daniel Suarez - When computer game magnate Matthew Sobol dies, a computer program awakens and starts executing various schemes. These start out as small scale murders, but quickly escalate into more devious and wide-ranging territory. Detective Peter Sebeck and a handful of others must find a way to counter the Daemon's ambitions. Pretty straightforward techno-thriller type stuff, entertaining for what it is, but not quite grounded enough to really make an impact. In computer terms, a Daemon is a background process that waits for requests (a necessity in a multi-tasking OS). Here, the term is used more generally, as a mixture of sorta background AI that only kicks off processes once certain things happen (for example, the whole story is kicked of when the Daemon monitors the news for Sobol's obituary). It's not quite a full AI, but it's implied that Sobol has thought up a lot of things in advance or something. Interesting enough as it goes, but the story often goes for flashy over subtle explorations. The character work is simple and purely functional, which again focuses on superficial explorations. This makes for an entertaining and quick read (even if it is probably too long and bloated at parts), but not something that really sticks with you. There is a lot of value in entertainment, and I feel like this often gets lost in the shuffle, so on balance, I liked this book. However, despite some loose ends, I probably won't follow up on the sequel. That being said, I'm curious enough to pick up more Suarez at some point.
- We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis Taylor - Bob Johansson just sold his software company and to celebrate, he signs up for a cryogenics program and almost immediately gets into an accident. He wakes up a century later to learn that corpsicles have no rights and that he's now the property of a religious state. His consciousness has been digitized and he's now going to be controlling an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets, which actually aligns pretty well with Bob's personality. However, there are several competing programs out there (notably the Brazilians), and the universe is not necessarily a friendly place. A decent little exploration of Von Neumann probes told in a very entertaining, Scalzi-esque manner. Bob is reasonably likable, and so are the majority of his replicated brethren (each replicant having subtle probabalistic differences that can result in wildly different personalities), and each gets into their own curious adventure. Not as deep or ambitious as Eon, but not simple, trashy surface-level stuff like Daemon, this winds up being an entertaining little book. Clearly the first in a series, this is another one that I will probably revisit at some point.
- Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks - This third novel in Banks' Culture series tells the story of Cheradinine Zakalwe, an ex-special-circumstances agent recruited for one more mission by his former handler Diziet Sma and supported by the Culture AI Skaffen Amiskaw. Told in two alternating narrative streams, one moving forward chronologically, the other in reverse. Neither stream is notably great on its own, but their juxtaposition is what gives this novel its complexity as each alternating chapter informs the others, leading to a final revelation. While it is a genuinely well constructed novel, I also find that the glowing terms in which people describe this perhaps oversold the impact, and thus I wound up finding it a bit disappointing. The final narrative twist is interesting, but I'm not sure it can bear the weight of the rest of the story. In particular, the backwards-moving sections of the story are a little repetitive, disjointed, repetitive, and episodic, leading to lots of wallowing in guilt and misery, which is ultimately the point of Zakalwe (and not something I particularly enjoy). It's still a good book, to be sure, but it's much more of a character sketch than a space opera (though it contains enough window dressing on that front, I suppose). I liked it, but found Player of Games to be a much more effective story and probably my favorite Banks novel so far.
- Millennium by John Varley - A DC-10 and a 747 collide in mid-air, and a team of investigators find a few bits of evidence that don't quite fit. It turns out that teams of people from the future have been time-traveling to the moments before accidents like this and swapping out the passengers with prefabricated smoking bodies. When one such operation goes poorly, more time travelers need to go back to try and fix the problems before they cascade into bigger problems, blah blah, paradox. So this starts off enjoyably enough and the premise is put through its paces, but the ultimate justification and ending left me feeling hollow. I'm not entirely sure it all fits together, and the whole motivation behind the scheme wasn't particularly well established. That said, the in-the-moment bits were pretty well done. It reminds me a bit of a J.J. Abrams mystery-box type story, where all the questions are tantalizing and mysterious, but the solution isn't quite as satisfying as you'd like. So I enjoyed reading it, but it hasn't stuck with me. I'd be down for reading more Varley at some point though...