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Wednesday, March 04, 2015

SF Short Story Review, Part 1
I was pretty disappointed by last year's Hugo slate of short stories, so I wanted to make sure I read enough stories this year to nominate worthwhile stuff. Of course, the short fiction categories are infamously fickle and don't enjoy quite as much in the way of convergence as the novels do (meaning that a very wide array of stories are nominated with little chance of any individual story standing out from the crowd - this is why there often isn't a full ballot nominated, as many of the contenders never reach the 5% threshold needed to make the Hugo ballot). The good news here, though, is that I enjoyed almost all of the stories in this post a lot more than almost any of the stories nominated in short fiction categories last year. Go figure. That being said, I will probably only nominate a couple of these because there's only so many slots...
  • Whaliens (aka How to Win a Hugo Award) by Lavie Tidhar (Short Story, ~4900 words) - This is a goofy little story about whale-like aliens (i.e. Whaliens) that visit Earth and demand to convert to Judaism. As the alternate title might indicate, it also involves a dismissive sub-plot about science fiction writers that feels rather petty and dismissive. It's a fun, short read and worth checking out, but it's not going to be on my ballot.
  • Toad Words by Ursula Vernon (Short Story, ~800 words) - This year's "If You Were a Dinosaur My Love", it is marginally more fantastical, but still pretty emphatically not my thing.
  • Tuesdays With Molakesh the Destroyer by Megan Grey (Short Story, ~4000 words) - Every once in a while, you hear about how someone infamous and/or super evil spends their spare time doing mundane things like watching Seinfeld or something, and that kinda tickles me. So this story about a fire demon ironically condemned to live out his retirement in exile in Minnesota (i.e. a very cold, snowy place) really clicked with me. Molakesh enjoys hot chocolate and chatting with his teenaged neighbor. There's a moment when I was worried that this story would go off the rails, but it sticks the ending, and I found this the most enjoyable of the stories in this post. Will almost certainly make my ballot.
  • Passage of Earth by Michael Swanwick (Short Story, ~7400 words) - Interesting story about an autopsy performed on an alien that takes a hard turn about halfway through. It descends a bit into literary angst for a while, but it's not undone by it and reasons its way to a natural conclusion. Strong contender for my ballot.
  • The Innocence of a Place by Margaret Ronald (Short Story, ~4100 words) - Haunting tale of a historian's attempt to understand the disappearance of students from the Braxton Academy for Young Girls. There's a beautifully ominous tone to the story and it is very effective... as horror. As the obvious explanations are thrown out, what is left is speculation on the fantastical, so I don't know that this is quite as non-SF as, say, last year's Wakulla Springs, but it's borderline. I don't think I'd nominate it, but I would not get worked up about it if it got nominated...
  • Brute by Rich Larson (Short story, ~4800 words) - Entirely predictable tale of two scavengers who run across a piece of technology that bonds to one of them and gives him super powers or something like that. It's the sort of thing you've seen a million times, but it is a reasonably well executed version of the story. That being said, it's not exactly award-worthy material.
  • Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta, by Helen Marshall - Seems like it would hit on that mundane life of infamous personages thing that I like so much, but this one is distinctly less effective to my mind. Well executed for what it is, but not really my thing.
  • Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss (Short Story, ~6800 words) - A bunch of anthropology students invent a country from scratch and are then surprised to learn that the country they made up actually exists. They go to visit and find that many of the small details they have invented for the culture have unintended consequences. This becomes particularly important when one of the anthropologists marries the princess. A dense, Borges-like story (Borges is explicitly referenced in the story, so this is an obvious referent) that I found appealing and interesting. A potential nominee...
  • The Bonedrake's Penance by Yoon Ha Lee (Novelette, ~9800 words) - Notable for its elaborate but not overwhelming worldbuilding, this follows the story of a human girl raced by an alien war machine that had given up war. Perhaps more concerned with that central relationship than the detailed setting, it works better than I'd expect. Would love to read more from Yoon Ha Lee... Would be a contender for my ballot if I hadn't actually done so:
  • The Knight of Chains, the Deuce of Stars by Yoon Ha Lee (Short Story, ~5700 words) - So I did seek out more Yoon Ha Lee, and this one is even better than the last one. Interestingly, there are a lot of similarities. Both have an archive of sorts (games, in this one), a guardian (a warden, in this one), and both feature disgraced warriors of some kind. This one is about the warden of a collection of games and a warrior who intends to bargain for a game that will help her keep a promise. They play a game with high stakes and the byzantine worldbuilding implied by the games is quite impressive.
I may sneak in a few more stories before the deadline, but I'm planning on posting my updated ballot on Sunday, so stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on March 04, 2015 at 06:21 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, March 01, 2015

SF Book Review, Part 19
As we near the Hugo nomination deadline, I have been surprisinly lax in my reading. That being said, I have made pretty good progress in terms of reading books I thought might be worthwhile, even if I won't end up nominating most of them. I'm going to make a last minute push for a couple books and/or stories though, so we'll see (nomination deadline is March 10). Here's some stuff I've read recently:
  • The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold - The third book in Bujold's Chalion series, this one seems almost completely disconnected from the previous two entries. As such, it takes a bit to get going, and unfortunately it never quite reaches the heights of Bujold's other work. Still, there are some fine sequences and decent ideas explored here. The book opens with Lady Ijada defending herself against a half-mad prince. Lord Ingrey is dispatched to investigate and transport the body to its final resting place. He is also tasked with escorting the accused killer to judgement. With the price dead and the King on his deathbed, the Crown is in play, and their journey is beset on all sides by intrigue and danger. The book perhaps bides too much time on this journey. The series has been pretty talky so far, but nothing compared to this book, which is extremely dialogue heavy and filled with esoteric lore that was only hinted at in previous entries. It's certainly not a bad novel or anything like that, but it was a little disappointing when compared to Bojold's other work...
  • Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer - The first in a trilogy, this covers an expedition to the myserious Area X. Cut off from the rest of the continent by unknown means, no one knows what the deal is with Area X. Numerous expeditions have been dispatched to explore the area. Some were uneventful, some resulted in mass suicide, some ended in violence, and some of the expeditions just disappeared. This book contains the 12th expedition as it makes its way through Area X. Things almost immediately start to deteriorate. The general tenor of this book makes it feel a lot like Lost - a mysterious and isolated locale, previous visitors with unknown motivations, strange artifacts, and so on. Like Lost, I'm not entirely sure how much of this will work out in the end, but I'm comforted by the fact that the author completed all three volumes and published them in short order, which makes me think he may actually have a plan. The story is told in first person, as if we're reading one of the expedition member's journals, and VanderMeer has a very ornate style. This is a short book, but it's dense and introspective. Which is not to say that it isn't exciting or compelling. The central mysteries are well drawn and intriguing, and there are some revelations later in the book that are eye opening. This will almost certainly be nominated for a Hugo (It's already garnered a Nebula nom), though I'm a little more mixed on it. Definitely one of the better novels I've read from 2014 though, and I do plan on reading the next volume in the series (which I think says a lot).
  • Undercity by Catherine Asaro - Set in Asaro's well-established Skolian Empire universe, this is the start of a new series of books covering Major Bhaajan, formerly military, now a P.I. The initial segment of this book is fantastic. Bhaajan is hired by royalty to locate a missing prince, and Bhaajan has to return to her former home in the Undercity (a series of caves and slums under the Empire's capital city) to investigate. This section moves surprisingly quick, then the story transitions to a slower pace, dealing more with the politics and sociology of the Undercity. It almost makes me wonder if the first section was published separately (Update: apparently, it was!) The middle act, dealing with maneuverings of drug cartels in the Undercity, is a bit too slow and repetitive, but things come together well enough in the final act, as the cartels plan to go to war and other revelations about the population of the Undercity come to pass. I enjoyed this and am curious to check out more of Asaro's work, though I don't know how likely I am to read the next Bhaajan book (which, again, says something I guess). Not something I plan on nominating, but I'm glad I read it...
  • Riding the Red Horse - I took a flier on this collection of short stories and essays mostly because it features Eric Raymond's first published fiction. I did not realize at the time that one of the editors was the dreaded Vox Day, but his commentary before each story (he shares this duty with Tom Kratman) gives him away (and generally, this commentary was unnecessary and needlessly dismissive of other perspectives). That being said, folks familiar with military history will recognize some of the names, like Bill Lind or Jim Dunnigan, who mostly provide the non-fiction portions of the book. Some of these could be eye opening, but only if you've never heard of Lind's conception of 4th Generation warfare, etc... Some highlights from the book:
    • Sucker Punch by Eric S. Raymond - This was the reason I bought the book, and it comports itself well. I don't think it will be making my ballot, but it is a short, interesting, and fun little military story about naval warfare (and how certain weapons might change the game). Worth reading!
    • The Hot Equations: Thermodynamics and Military SF by Ken Burnside - Those familiar with the Atomic Rockets website will be right at home with this essay. The pragmatic considerations of space travel, in particular the problems posed by Thermodynamics, are applied to typical military SF tropes, and the results aren't pretty. The unimaginative would probably find this to be a killjoy, but the notion of working within our understanding of science when writing SF is one of the things that makes SF so great. This is one of the Sad Puppy nominees (under Best Related Work), and for once, I agree with them.
    • The General's Guard by Brad R. Torgersen - Interesting story of a General who attempts to unite various factions of his empire by forcing them to work together. From each tribe, he selects the strongest... and weakest member. It seems reminiscent of the other Torgersen stories that I've read; he seems every concerns with finding ways to interact productively with people from different backgrounds (whether they be aliens and humans, folks from different tribes, or two people with vastly different skillsets).
    • Turncoat by Steve Rzasa - This tale of an AI that inhabits a ship might be my favorite story in the collection, and the idea gets explored well enough despite the large amount of previous material with similar subject matter (i.e. The Ship Who Sang, Ancillary Justice, etc...) and it hints at some troubling things about potentially "uploaded" humans that might be weird in the longrun. Will probably make my ballot, though I'm not sure if this is a short story or a novelette...
    If you're a fan of military fiction (and non-fiction), you'll probably enjoy this collection. There were only a couple of stories that I didn't enjoy, and a lot of them were decent. I even enjoyed Vox Day's story (not award worthy, but definitely a sight better than that thing that was nominated last year).
And there you have it. I'm going to try and read some more short stories, novelettes, and maybe a novella or two before the Hugo nominations deadline. I will post my final ballot sometime next week...
Posted by Mark on March 01, 2015 at 12:58 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Link Dump
Extra delicious, yummy links for your enjoyment. Sorry, some of these have to do with food, so yeah, it's on my mind. Crunchy!
  • The Katering Show - Hysterically funny show about a foodie attempting to cook food for her food intolerant friend. I'm... not making this sound as funny as it is. My favorite is episode 4, where they use a Thermomix to make risotto (aka hot wet rice).
    So "what is a Thermomix?" I hear anyone under the age of 33 ask. It's a blender, a microwave, an ice bucket, and a set of kitchen scales. It's a gangb@ng* of kitchen appliances that's created a futuristic robot saucepan.
    Go watch now.
  • Chef David Chang on the Best Seat in Every Restaurant - Hint: it's at the bar, a notion that is fully Kaedrin endorsed. Also, why are you still reading? Didn't you watch the Katering show? What's wrong with you!? Um, anyway, eating at the bar rules:
    When everyone's so close, it changes the dining experience. Out on the floor, you're a dickhead if you overhear a conversation and chime in. Not at the bar. You connect, trade stories, then trade bites. I've never shared as much food with strangers as I have at the bar. You meet great people that way-you're part of this band of outsiders within the restaurant. And for me, that's the best possible dining experience of all.
    Perfect for socially awkward introverts like myself!
  • A Story With Zombies - Pretty neatly encapsulates my problem with zombie movies.
  • Why this man created a Comic Sans typewriter - Because he's the devil?
  • The Rookie - This whole Instagram account seems to be Avengers action figures doing goofy stuff. It's fun!
That's all for now...

* What the hell Movable Type? The word "gangb@ng" (where the @ is an a) seems to throw a 403 error when I try to use it here. Just that one word. Or if I make it two words. "Gang B@ng". Stupid blogging software. First commenting doesn't work, now this bullshit.
Posted by Mark on February 25, 2015 at 11:21 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Oscars
The funny thing about the Academy Awards is that your opinion about them is pretty boring. You think the Oscars are just a cynical circle jerk of self-satisfied Hollywood elites? Boring! You're outraged at [insert snub here]? Super fucking boring! You're genuinely excited about seeing films receive the recognition they deserve? You are both naive and boring! But the one thing that unites us all is the abject hatred of the short films categories. I think we can all agree on that.

In all seriousness, I have fun watching the Oscars. Probably more because I see it as an opportunity to mock celebrities and drink a bunch of alcohol, but still. Oh, and predictions! Back in the day, I used to do this thing called "liveblogging". For you young whipper snappers out there, back in the dark days before Twitter, people would just update their blog every 2 minutes during an event like the Oscars. A few years ago, I finally got with the times and took it all to Twitter. And to be honest, I'm not that funny, so I usually end up just retweeting a bunch of people who are funnier and more incisive than I am. But hey, if you want to chat, I'll be on Twitter @mciocco saying dumb crap. If, for some ungodly reason, you want to see a decade's worth of previous predictions and commentary on the Oscars, check them out here: [2014 | 2013 |2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004]

Alrighty then, enough preamble, let's look at predictions.
  • Best Picture: Birdman. Hard to believe, because Boyhood took 12 years to make (he said, sarcastically) and was the early odds-on favorite, but Birdman has been coming on strong of late. Personally, I'd vote for The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was legitimately one of my favorite movies of the year. Alas, it has no chance of winning. The Imitation Game makes for an interesting dark horse nominee, if only because of the Weinstein brothers' infamous ability to campaign for awards. A real long shot would be Selma, if people feel guilty enough about not nominating Ava DuVernay or David Oyelowo, but I'm not expecting that. The other contenders should just be happy they were nominated and like it. Or something. (I have seen 6 of the 8 nominated movies, which is about on par for me). Should have been nominated: Gone Girl and totally John Wick (heh).
  • Best Director: Richard Linklater for Boyhood. It took 12 years to make! Again, Alejandro G. Iñárritu of Birdman is a real contender here, as that movie is pretty damn showy and visually impressive (I'm betting on it taking Cinematography on that count though). Not being a fan of Boyhood I would certainly go with Iñárritu or the much less likely Wes Anderson for this award. Bennett Miller and Morten Tyldum are in "Why didn't you nominate Ava DuVernay?" jail and should be happy for their nominations. Should have been nominated: Ava DuVernay for Selma
  • Best Actress: Julianne Moore for Still Alice. I have not seen the movie, but people love her and this might be one of those lifetime achievement sort of awards (she's been nominated a bunch of times, but never won). I get the impression that the slate is somewhat weak, but I've only seen one of the movies here, so who knows? Should have been nominated: Scarlett Johansson for Under the Skin.
  • Best Actor: Michael Keaton for Birdman. Another potential lifetime achievement award type of thing for an actor folks love, but it's also a legitimately great performance. I don't see anyone else really challenging that, though I've only seen 3 of the nominees... Should have been nominated: David Oyelowo for Selma
  • Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Looks like I'm going long on Boyhood tonight, so I'm almost hoping I'm wrong on all these because I don't particularly care for that movie. Still, Arquette has all the buzz. Maybe Laura Dern, but that's a long shot. Should have been nominated: Emily Blunt for Edge of Tomorrow
  • Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons for Whiplash. Have not seen it, but by all accounts, he's what makes the movie. I suppose Edward Norton could challenge from his Birdman performance (which is also fantastic), but I'll stick with Simmons on this one. Should have been nominated: Tyler Perry in Gone Girl
  • Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Pretty tight race here between Budapest, Boyhood, and Birdman. My guess is that this will be one of those consolation prize type things, because Budapest is wonderful. I wouldn't be surprised if any of them win (but I'd hate it if Boyhood won). Should have been nominated: The Lego Movie.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Whiplash. Pretty much a complete toss up. The only one I'm sure about is Paul Thomas Anderson not winning for Inherent Vice (people seem to find the movie super confounding, but I tend to enjoy that sort of thing...) I kinda just chose this randomly. Should have been nominated: Gone Girl
  • Editing: Boyhood. I'm pretty dismissive of this movie overall, but the 12 years of filming probably does represent an interesting editing challenge that was reasonably well done. But who knows? Whiplash and American Sniper are buzzing on this one too. Should have been nominated: Edge of Tomorrow
  • Cinematography: Birdman. Duh.
  • Visual Effects: Interstellar. For a movie with its share of faults, visual effects is not one of them. Potential spoiler from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Should have been nominated:Godzilla
  • Makeup: The Grand Budapest Hotel. I dunno, it seems to have some buzz in this category, but I kinda think it should go to Guardians of the Galaxy. Wouldn't be surprised no matter what wins.
  • Costumes: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Same as above.
  • Musical Score: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Why not? This seems to be the favorite for a lot of minor technical awards. Should have been nominated: Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Best Song: "Glory" from Selma. This movie was only nominated for Song and Best Picture, and I think the Academy will want to reward it somehow (because they're totes not racist or anything), so here we are. On the other hand, "Everything is Awesome" has a chance because The Lego Movie was also snubbed.
  • Best Animated Film: How to Train Your Dragon 2. I guess? I mean, once The Lego Movie wasn't nominated, this category suddenly became boring as crap. Should have been nominated: The Lego Movie!
  • Best Documentary: Citizenfour. Pretty much a lock, I really wish I got to see this one...
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Ida. Has been the favorite for a while, but it looks like Leviathan is mounting a challenge. Also, since Ida is pretty fucking dour and it sounds like Leviathan isn't much better, there's a fair chance that Wild Tales may be a spoiler here, as it's apparently more of a crowd pleaser. In general, I find this award impossible to pick.
Well there you have it. Follow me on Twitter @mciocco to see what I'm saying during the show itself. I used to put a little widget thing here that would embed my tweets but come on, I think you can click on a link, can't you?
Posted by Mark on February 22, 2015 at 12:27 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered Dr. Seuss's self-described debaculous fiasco. This time, we've got The Peanut Butter Solution:
So this kid has a "fright" and loses all of his hair, but some friendly hobo ghosts give him a recipe to regrow it. The secret ingredient: Peanut Butter! But if you use too much, things get hairy... Ostensibly a heart-warming children's movie, it seems to have inadvertently scarred an entire generation of kids. I get the impression that adults would just find it silly, but it apparently taps into a lot of fears for kids. Alas it was never made available on DVD (with the speculation being that the soundtrack includes two Celine Dion songs, her first English-language release, and that the rights to clear those songs would never be recouped by sales for such an obscure movie). Oh well, I guess we can always hope for a streaming solution someday...
Posted by Mark on February 18, 2015 at 11:33 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Favorite Films of 2014
Welcome to the annual, arbitrary exercise of summing up a year in movies! 2014 was a fantastic year for movies, but on the other hand, every year is pretty good. You just have to be willing to dig deep through the catalog of obscure releases. I did, and managed to cobble together a pretty interesting list. For reference, previous top 10s: [2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006]

There are a few really interesting things about the year in movies. First is that, to put it bluntly, Hollywood really pulled their shit together. They often manage to sneak one or two great blockbusters into the mix, but this year, even trite-sounding cash-ins like, say, The Lego Movie turned out to be among the best of the year. Second (related to the first), is that this is the year I finally fell for Marvel studios movies. Sure, I'd always enjoyed them, but not a one has ever made it onto a top 10 list (indeed, looking back, only two comic book movies have ever made it onto my top 10s - The Dark Knight and Kick-Ass). Well that changes this year. The third interesting thing about the year is how top heavy it was. Normally the back end of the year is where all the great movies are, but this year spread things out a bit.

Thematically, things are a bit more muddled. There's definitely a trend towards fictionalized non-fiction that has inspired a lot of debate. Films like Selma, The Imitation Game, American Sniper, and The Theory of Everything all purport to tell a "true" story, but due to the nature of film, must rely on simplifications and fictionalized devices to make the narrative work. Ironically, I think the most successful of these, Selma, has come under the most fire for its historical inaccuracies (which are tiny in comparison to the other films listed). However, any time I watch one of these movies, I can't help but wonder why a documentary focusing on the same subject wouldn't be much, much better.

As of this writing, I have seen 83 movies that could be considered a 2014 release. This is a strong rebound from the past few years, where I've struggled to hit 70 movies. Then again, while I've watched a lot more than your typical moviegoer, I'm also way behind your typical film critic. Speaking of which, my vision for a top 10 list has been evolving over the years, moving away from critical consensus on "best" to a more personal reflection on "favorite". I tend to value entertainment and story more than your typical critic, and am less likely to enjoy "important" movies these days. There are certainly some movies on my list (and more in the Honorable Mentions) that are critical darlings, but there are also more than a few that aren't really showing up on anyone's lists. And that's great, because how boring would my list be if they were all the same movies as everyone else? I suppose this represents a disclaimer of sorts, but again, the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same things for the same reasons. So without further ado:

Top 10 Movies of 2014
* In roughly reverse order
  • John Wick - In a strong year for action movies, this one ranks near the top. But while the intricate gun-based action is fantastic, what makes this movie special is that it's a puppy revenge movie. Yes, Keanu Reeves takes on a bunch of gangsters because they killed his puppy. Park Chan-wook would be proud. Along the way, we visit the coolest hotel ever and are treated to the best gunplay action sequences of the year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
    John Wick and his avenged puppy
  • Edge of Tomorrow - Of the long list of movies that ape the Groundhog Day schtick, this may be the most fun (though none comes close to the original). Tom Cruise relives a disastrous alien invasion over and over again, and with the help of the awesomely badass Emily Blunt, they find a way to win. The big achievement here is one of editing, which this movie absolutely nails. It's a lot of fun too.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
    Badass Emily Blunt
  • Guardians of the Galaxy - You know that Marvel's firing on all cylinders when they can introduce these obscure characters, including a talking raccoon and tree, and make it work. I think much of this is due to James Gunn, whose goofy sensibility comes through strong. Like all the Marvel movies, the best bits are the little interpersonal touches, and this story of how five misfits come together and connect with one another makes for great fun.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Full Review]
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Another great action movie here, Marvel switching gears again, channeling paranoid 70s thrillers (and even casting Robert Redford to underline that point) and throwing a giant monkey wrench into the works. What strikes me about the action set pieces is how varied they are, but the highlight is the elevator sequence, a claustrophobic but clearly shot and exciting fight. Again, the interpersonal touches, particularly Black Widow's relationship with Captain America, are what really seal the deal with this one though.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
    The Cap and Black Widow, just chillin
  • The Raid 2 - Did I mention this was a good year for action movies? John Wick might have the title for best gun-based action, but this movie is hands down, the best martial arts movie since... the first Raid! The story is a little hard to follow and hits some cliched undercover cop tropes pretty hard, but that's not why you watch a movie like this. You watch a movie like this for the breathtaking action set pieces, such as a mud-filled prison fight or the final boss fights in the restaurant.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Coherence - This micro-budget film about strange happenings at a dinner party is the best Science Fiction film of the year. Few SF films manage to capture the sense of conceptual breakthrough and sense of wonder that is so common in SF literature, but this film does so consistently (especially in the second half). This might be the most obscure film on my list, but it is highly recommended (and the less you know going in, the better).
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • The One I Love - Another low-budget, quasi-SF film, this time channeling a more Twilight Zone feel. Again, the less you know about this going in the better, but I will say that this did not seem like my kind of movie at the outset, but as the film progresses and starts to put its premise through its paces (and it goes further than I'd have thought), I fell in love with it.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
    The ones I love
  • The Lego Movie - Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have made a career out of making movies out of seemingly stupid premises, and this movie may be their crowning achievement. This sounded so much like a cynical cash-grab by Hollywood, but I found myself immediately charmed by the film's fast paced humor and wit. Great visuals, voice acting, and even some weird third act twists that work really well. One of the things I really love about this movie is that it doesn't fall into the typical anti-conformity trap. It acknowledges the importance of creativity, to be sure, but it also manages a subtle balance in the bland hero of Emmit, whose conformity is key to the group's success. In addition, this is the best Batman movie since The Dark Knight. So much fun!
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • Tim's Vermeer - Utterly fascinating account of one man's attempt to recreate Johannes Vermeer's distinctive, photo-realistic method of painting. Directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame, the guy who doesn't talk), this film is mostly portraying inventor Tim Jenison as he attempts to suss out how Vermeer accomplished his paintings with the use of various optics and mirrors, then his painstaking attempt to recreate one painting by hand (the overall process took years, the painting itself took months). This is exactly my kind of documentary, a deep dive into a subject I didn't even know needed that sort of treatment. Highly recommended.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • Gone Girl - The talent involved in this film is impressive: David Fincher, Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, an incredible supporting cast... but it's Gillian Flynn's script that sets this apart. The best thriller of the year, complete with unexpected twists and turns. Great dissection of media representation and bias, but all in service of the greater narrative, which is gripping and tense.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson's particular brand of weaponized quirk is deployed to perfection here, his best film since Fantastic Mr. Fox and probably amongst his top 2 or 3 movies. A complex narrative structure (and matching visual strategy) all anchored by Ralph Fiennes' brilliant, funny, and utterly charming performance at the center of the film. Perhaps not your typical comedy, but I find myself thinking it's the funniest movie of the year. Not that there are not other, deeper thematic aspects to the film, but the playful, adventurous filmmaking at its core is what makes this so great.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
    Ralph Fiennes in Grand Budapest Hotel
Honorable Mention
* In alphabetical order
  • 22 Jump Street - Writer/Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do it again. Everyone thought it was a bad idea to revive 21 Jump Street, but Lord and Miller made that work well enough that a sequel was greenlit. Then everyone thought it was a bad idea to do the sequel, and Lord and Miller shut them up too. Perhaps not quite as seemless as The Lego Movie, this still has much to recommend it for. At the very least, the ending title sequence is the funnies thing I've seen all year.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • Birdman - One of the most impressive achievements of the year, if my list was more "best" than "favorite", it would certainly be high on the list. Alas, while I found this quite entertaining, it also seemed a bit muddled in what it was trying to say and was a little on the acerbic side of things. Exceptional performances all around, and the cinematography is spectacular - it's filmed to appear as one long, continuous take, and that is truly spectacular to behold.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • Blue Ruin - An interesting, small scale take on revenge that mostly focuses on the aftermath. I mean, nothing as eye-opening as the puppy revenge in John Wick, but this is less of an action film, more of a slow burning character piece. Well worth checking out.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Chef - An agreeable tale of the fall and rise of a chef who has no idea how Twitter works. It's funny, everything I've heard about this movie is from people who found it disappointing and claimed that they didn't get why everyone was so high on the movie. I apparently don't follow any of those people because I felt like this was a really fun little movie. That being said, it's pretty textbook Honorable Mention material. It's perfectly cromulent and worth checking out.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Cold in July - Based on a Joe R. Lansdale novel, this is a solid little Texas thriller (at which, Lansdale excels). The source material is what makes this work, but the execution is on point as well, with solid direction from Jim Mickle and lead performances by Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and yes, Don Johnson. Nothing plays out quite like you expect from the beginning, and this is certainly worth a look for fans of this sort of thing.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - I genuinely disliked the first of the Apes reboot films and had no idea why it had garnered so much positive response, even from picky critics. However, this sequel represents a dramatic improvement on all fronts. It boasts the best villain of the year, some great visual flourishes (that tank shot!), and like its predecessor, perfectly executed CGI motion captured apes. This very nearly made the top 10 and now that I'm writing this, I'm wondering why I didn't find a way to make that happen. Lists are hard.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Movie Award Winner]
  • The Guest - Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's follow up to the most excellent and fun You're Next (a top 10 choice last year). Alas, while this is quite fun and takes some unexpected turns, it doesn't quite live up to its predecessor. That being said, it's well worth a watch and seems like the sort of thing that would grow on me with repeated viewings.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • The Imitation Game - I have an affinity for the subject matter here, and I suppose the film comports itself well enough on that front. It's all well executed, but perhaps a few too many liberties were taken with the true story aspect of it. I mean, I get that things need to be changed in order to fit everything into a 2 hour narrative, and many of the changes work just fine. But there are several changes that just go a bit too far (notably the idea that the one dude's brother was on a boat about to be sunk, etc...) Still, it's nice to see Turing and cryptography on screen (even if I'd rather folks read Cryptonomicon instead!)
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Inherent Vice - I loved Thomas Pynchon's novel, so I was really excited that someone of Paul Thomas Anderson's caliber was adapting it for the screen. And yes, the film works really well for me, though I feel like Anderson gave short shrift to the plotting and emphasized a bunch of other aspects of the story instead. Which is an interesting approach, to be sure, but it never really garnered the energy of the text (or, honestly, of the trailer). Still a really good film, and honestly a contender for the top 10, but just enough was holding it back for me.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Interstellar - Christopher Nolan's latest has a lot going for it, but it never quite congealed into something as cohesive as most of his previous efforts. Certainly gets points for ambition, but the film is a little clunky in its execution. It all fits together, and there are great ideas and emotional moments at its core, but perhaps could use some smoothing over some of the rougher edges (of which there are, sadly, many). Definitely a worthy effort, but not quite as great as it could have been...
    More Info: [IMDB]
  • Jodorowsky's Dune - This documentary tells the tale of Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed but profoundly influential production (er, pre-production) of an adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune. It's a fascinating story, if only for the sheer amount of talent Jodorowsky managed to assemble before the production fell apart. The documentary gets a little repetitive in that respect, and there are no voices of dissent (as curious as I am about Jodorowsky's take on Dune, I'd also be surprised if it was a really great movie...), but it's all very fascinating charting how the demise of this movie lead to the success of others (notably Star Wars and Alien, amongst dozens of others). Definitely worth checking out.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
  • Moebius - One of the most profoundly weird movies I've ever seen, I find it very difficult to write about this because of its subject matter. Infidelity, castration, rape, auto-erotic self mutilation, and incest. That doesn't really sound like my thing, but the thing that works about this movie is that all that weird shit is conveyed in a purely visual manner. There is no dialogue in this film, yet you have a pretty clear idea of what is going on, despite the batshit insanity of all that stuff. And it's kinda funny in that respect too. It's one of those movies that will leave you confused about what you think. I almost actually put this on my top 10 because it is so well done despite all its baggage. That being said, I find it hard to recommend to all but the most adventurous of moviegoers.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Kaedrin Arbitrary Award Winner]
  • Nightcrawler - This very much feels like a 70s movie. It's got that dark, cynical tone down pat and Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is fantastically terrifying. Unfortunately, the whole media critique aspect of the film also feels like it belongs in the 70s (it would be one thing if it was a period piece, but it is set in present day LA). Local news isn't exactly a booming business these days and we don't immediately recognize the sort of stuff this movie goes over (in the way that, for example, Gone Girl was immediately recognizable). That being said, this is a much better done movie than I was expecting, and was pleasantly surprised by how well it works.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Selma - Very strong biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., focusing on one particular battleground for civil rights. It's a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes machinations that King and compatriots employed in their fight, and how change can happen. Director Ava DuVernay does an excellent job balancing the story. Alas, like a lot of stories based on historical fact, I often find myself wishing for a really good documentary. Still, among the large quantity of such films this year, Selma was the best.
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon]
  • Stage Fright - I'm not a big musical guy, but when you combine musical with old-school slasher film? I'm totally on board. The film is not perfect, but it hits several high points and this deserves more recognition than it generally gets...
    More Info: [IMDB] [Amazon] [Capsule Review]
Just Missed the Cut:
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order: Conspicuously Absent:
Critical consensus has anointed these movies among the best of the year. For the most part, I get why, I just don't happen to agree.
  • Boyhood - Look, I get it, it took 12 years to make, and that passage of time as played out on screen is pretty interesting. Unfortunately, that's about it. Everything else about the film is trite, boring, or totally cliched, making it a bit of a slog to get through. I admire that this film exists and thought it was fine, I guess, but the sheer amount of critical praise this is getting baffles me.
  • Snowpiercer - Man, this movie is stupid. You know how I said that Coherence really gets at the sense of conceptual breakthrough and sense of wonder that is so great in SF literature? Yeah, Snowpiercer does not. There are some interesting tidbits (Tilda Swinton's shoe speech being pretty great on its own) here and there, and it's a pretty movie, but I really kinda hated watching it. Most people acknowledge this movies faults, it's just a matter of how much a given critic is willing to forgive. I come down on the unforgiving side, while most critics seem to love it.
  • Only Lovers Left Alive - Sounds great on paper, two vampires played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston hang out and do vampire stuff. Alas, it's one of those movies that sorta wallows in depression and misery, which is pretty emphatically not my thing. Great soundtrack though.
  • Under the Skin - Of the movies on this list, I like this one the best. I think. I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one, and I think I ultimately come down on liking it rather much. It's gorgeous and Scarlett Johansson is great in it, and it goes to some interesting thematic places, but it is too long, repetitive, and slow by far. Probably deserves to be an Honorable Mention, and I think it's telling that of the films on this Conspicuously Absent list, this is the one I'm most likely to revisit.
Should Have Seen:
Despite having seen 83 of this year's movies (and listing out 30+ of my favorites in this post), there are a few that got away. Or never made themselves available here. Regardless, there are several movies here that I really want to catch up with: Phew! That's a pretty good year in movies right there. Stay tuned for more 2014 ponderings next week for the annual Oscars live blogging/tweeting (predictions should be up in the morning and my Twitter feed will suddenly have more than just links to the blog!)
Posted by Mark on February 15, 2015 at 12:41 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Link Dump
General nerdery from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books - I gave up on Infinite Jest at some point, but David Foster Wallace remains intriguing. This Syllabus is for a literature class where Wallace made students read Mary Higgins Clark, Jackie Collins, James Ellroy, Stephen King, and other such popular authors. I love it when great artists slum it with trashy texts, because it's all in the approach:
    Don't let any potential lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking that this will be a blow-off-type class. These "popular" texts will end up being harder than more conventionally "literary" works to unpack and read critically. You’ll end up doing more work in here than in other sections of 102, probably.
    Probably? I want to take this course, probably. Some good thoughts on the art of the syllabus here as well. RIP DFW.
  • How to lose weight in 4 easy steps - Man, step 1 is very true, but also my kryptonite (because this). Also, Step 3 seems oddly specific.
  • LEGO’s letter to parents, and how not to tell a fake when you don’t see one - A few months ago, this lego letter to parents was passed around, and because this is the internets, people assumed it was fake because everyone knows that legos are totes sexist. But no, it's real, and this post goes through it in exhaustive detail.
  • Watch Agent 47 Kill Children You Don’t Recognize In A HITMAN Viral Video - I can't believe that they're making another Hitman movie. If you'll recall, the first Hitman came out back in 2007, and it was on my "Movies I Want to See Even Though I Know They'll Suck" list. It did not disappoint. This new one looks slightly more upscale, but will most likely be on a similar list this year. Also, the viral video is pretty funny, but as Devin notes: "Agent 47, the guy from the Hitman: Agent 47 reboot...kills a bunch of YouTube and Vine stars, but since I don't recognize any of them it just looks like he's slaughtering children." Heh?
  • Venture Brothers Sheet Set - Wow.
  • Reset Button: Do it Again, Stupid - Shamus rips into GTA V, mostly nailing several things I don't like about the game.
And that's all for now. Toodles.
Posted by Mark on February 11, 2015 at 11:19 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Hugo Awards: Puppies Unleashed
As Hugo Awards nomination season hits full swing, the Sad Puppy slates have finally be unleashed. For the uninitiated, the Sad Puppies are a semi-organized response to the notion that recent Hugo slates have trended away from traditional SF, with it's emphasis on sense of wonder and storytelling (the name emerges out of the notion that recent Hugo slates were so depressing that they were making cute puppies sad, or something along those lines). There is an ideological component to the movement as well, and it seems the Right/Libertarian are on the Puppies' side, while Left/SJW are opposed. Or something. In reality, I don't really buy that dichotomy, and that's one of the reasons I can't seem to get on board with the typical responses to the Sad Puppies (for it or against it). To me, it's just another input into the process, which is pretty much how it's supposed to work.

For the record, Brad Torgersen has posted the official Sad Puppy slate over at his blog. Vox Day has posted a variant, which he calls (perhaps unsurprisingly, given his usual tone) Rabid Puppies. There's a pretty large overlap, though enough differences to be annoying. Assorted thoughts and ramblings are below:
  • The first thing that jumps out at me with these slates is how huge they are (both are basically a full nominating ballot - somewhere on the order of 50-75 overall between the two lists). I think part of the reason Sad Puppies 2 enjoyed success last year was that the list was relatively small (12 choices in various categories), so the impact was concentrated on those works. Remember, the people who nominate for the hugo are actually people! They will not have read this entire slate and chances are, there are plenty of things on the slate that they did read, but would not nominate. Anecdotal evidence indicates this was the case last year, and even the hard numbers show that there was significant variance in the amount of nominating votes for each work. I expect people's votes will be spread out across the entire slate, and since there are so many options, that may spread things too thin.
  • Comparing the two lists is interesting, as is the tone in which they're presented. Torgersen is very careful to indicate that his list "is a recommendation. Not an absolute." He has repeatedly mentioned that it's not about politics, but about story and fun. He also acknowledges the idea that you might not like works on the slate (though "we suspect you might"). Torgersen also, much to his credit, made sure that his own works would not appear on his slate. Day, on the other hand, is extremely combative about the whole situation and appears to be much more ideologically motivated (he explicitly mentions the "science fiction Right"). He encourages folks who trust his opinion on the subject to "nominate them precisely as they are". He also nominated himself in multiple categories (though in the editing categories, not the fiction categories). On the other hand, he nominated Coherence on the Dramatic Presentation Long Form category, which is a personal favorite that I'd love to see get nominated (even though it probably wouldn't). This is why I can never get on board with Sad Puppies, nor can I really get too worked up about it either. Just because a work appears there doesn't mean it is or is not worthy of a nomination.
  • In terms of The Martian, it looks like fears of its eligibility (or lack thereof) means that it was not included in either slate. I actually emailed the Sasquan administrators, but their (perfectly reasonable) response was: "the standard Hugo committee policy for many years has been to not make suggestions on nominations or rule on eligibility of nominated items until nominations close". Apparently, when eligibility of a specific work was announced in the past, other nominees felt it represented an endorsement, so the policy is to maintain impartiality. This makes perfect sense. Interestingly, Vox Day actually quotes me on the matter, though as usual, his tone is way more combative and makes my post seem equally so, even though I'm not. My example of a self-published work that was later published and then nominated was John Scalzi's Old Man's War. Day hates Scalzi, and uses my example as evidence that the Hugos are corrupt or something. This was not my intention at all, and it's weird to see my words deployed in such a fashion. Indeed, I've always thought that the Sad Puppy attitude towards Scalzi has been rather weird. Yes, Scalzi is outspoken on his blog about certain leftist issues, but for the most part, his fiction is fantastic and entertaining stuff. You could make an argument that something like Redshirts was only nominated because he's popular with a certain segment of fandom, but that's the kind of thing that happens with populist awards. More to the point, Scalzi's work tends to be that more old-school science fiction. Redshirts has it's flaws, but it's a very fun book, exactly the sort of thing I'd expect to see on the Sad Puppy slate (except that, obviously, it enjoys wide popularity across most of fandom). That never made sense to me. On the other hand, "Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue" is, in fact, a pretty lame nomination.
  • Eric S. Raymond appears on both slates as a nominee for the Campbell Award (for the most promising new writer in SF), which, as he himself notes, is a little strange:
    I will stipulate that I think my one published work of SF, the short story Sucker Punch, isn’t bad. If it were someone else’s and I was wearing my reviewer hat, I’d probably say something encouraging about it being a solid, craftsmanlike first effort that delivers what its opening promises and suggests the author might be able to deliver quality work in the future.

    But, Campbell Award material? A brilliant comet in the SF firmament I am not. I don’t really feel like I belong on that shortlist - and if I’m wrong and I actually do, I fear for the health of the field.

    What bothers me more is the suspicion that my name has been put forward for what amount to political reasons.
    I've read Sucker Punch and think it's a perfectly cromulent short story, but if I were to nominate it for something, it'd be for the short story category (which, I suspect will not happen, since it will probably be a crowded category for me by the time nominations close). As a Campbell nominee, I would want some sense that he, you know, intends to write a lot more fiction. I have no doubt that he could write more fiction (even great fiction), I just don't see him taking that on. He's been pretty clear that his focus is on hacking and Open Source advocacy (at which, he is very good and very successful) and that he did this mostly on a lark. Which makes this nomination kinda confusing. (Update: he basically confirms this in the comments)
  • Speaking of Eric Raymond, he has some keen insights into the whole culture war of sorts that's happening in SF right now (of which Sad Puppies is a symptom) that pretty well match up with where I'm coming from. His key insight is that this is not a political issue, but rather a matter of "Literary Status Envy":
    Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

    People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
    His post on the deep norms of SF is also worth checking out. I find myself mostly agreeing with this analysis (and honestly, he gives a much better primer for the factions involved and general situation than I do above). All those things that literary fiction hates are what I love about science fiction. And I tend to dislike the angst that permeates literary fiction (that this often manifests as wallowing in identity politics and misery is incidental). This focus on literary fiction is why stuff like Wakulla Springs gets nominated for a Hugo, despite not even being slightly SF or even Fantasy. It's a very well written story, to be sure, but it's so far outside the boundaries of any type of genre fiction (let along SF) that I can see why the Sad Puppy campaign is happening.
So there you have it. I do not particularly hate or love Sad Puppies. Call that feckless if you want. I just know what I like. Sometimes that happens to coincide with the Sad Puppies, sometimes not. Go figure.
Posted by Mark on February 08, 2015 at 08:15 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts



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