Weird Movie of the Week: You Never Can Tell

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we got the greatest action movie never made. This time, we’ve got a touching tale of a reincarnated dog trying to solve his own murder called You Never Can Tell:

You Never Can Tell movie poster

An ex-army dog inherits a fortune from his eccentric millionaire owner, and which is poisoned, asks the leader in the heaven for animals to send him back to Earth, as a human private investigator, to solve his own murder.

And if that’s not enough for you, the humanimal PI also apparently falls in love with his former caretaker, the eccentric millionaire’s secretary. To allay any, er, qualms you may have with this, they reveal that her father was a reincarnated Scottish Terrier, so she’s part humanimal as well (humanimals, humanimals everywhere!)

I first learned of this when it showed up on the Criterion Channel and someone recommended it before it fell off the service. I didn’t see it in time, and it’s not available anywhere else, so I filed it away as a potential WMotW, pending actually watching it (I don’t always watch the WMotW, but it’s nice when I can and this seemed like the sort of thing I should watch). However, I did manage to track down a copy on the Internet Archive (It appears to be a VHS rip of a double feature from TNT – You Never Can Tell doesn’t start until minute 34 or so.)

Look, I’m not going to claim it’s classic cinema, but it’s a kooky premise and there’s some goofy jokes (the detective side-eying fire hydrants, his partner, a former Kentucky Racehorse, being able to run really fast, that sort of thing…) and it’s a brisk 78 minutes. Plus, doggies! It’s probably Dean Koontz’s favorite movie.

The Thomas Crown Conundrum

I’ve been following along with the Blank Check podcast’s John McTiernan series and in the Thomas Crown Affair remake episode, they ask an interesting question: Does Crown actually get away with it? Spoilers ahoy! If you haven’t seen it, it’s great, and I think one of the rare instances where the remake is better than the original.

Thomas Crown

In the movie, bored finance CEO Thomas Crown (played by Pierce Brosnan) steals a Monet painting worth millions (in a nifty, well-crafted heist sequence). Crown then offers the museum a replacement painting to display in place of the Monet. Insurance investigator Catherine Banning (played by Rene Russo) arrives and quickly realizes that Crown was behind the heist, but can’t prove it. After a false start involving a counterfeit Monet and Dogs Playing Poker, she begins to fall for Crown, but they obviously can’t be together unless he returns the painting. Yadda yadda yadda, it turns out that the replacement painting is actually the Monet with some disguising watercolors painted on top, and is revealed in another nifty heist sequence.

So the question is: Even though the Monet was returned under Crown’s replacement painting, doesn’t that still implicate him? Won’t the police still be justified in arresting him? They discuss this on the podcast, and basically come down on the “Don’t overthink it, it’s just a movie” side of things, which is probably right, but I had a thought (an overthink, if you will) that I figured I’d share.

I have to make some (reasonable!) assumptions to make this work. First, I’m assuming there are records indicating that Crown purchased the replacement painting (preferably after the initial Monet heist – perhaps he purchases it because of the heist.) This kinda has to be the case in order for Crown to get away with his plan, because if he has no record of purchase, then the police will know he had the Monet and orchestrated the counterfeiting once everything is revealed in the end.

Second, he has his counterfeiter/surrogate daughter paint the replacement painting on top of the Monet in watercolors. That way he’s “returned” the painting without anyone knowing.

Third, he actually purchased the replacement painting (this sorta follows from the first assumption above). But what has happened to the actual replacement painting that Crown presumably made a show of purchasing in order to replace the Monet for the museum? In the film, Crown and Banning take a trip to Martinique, and Crown keeps asking her if he can show her a painting in an unmarked crate (the implication being that it’s the Monet and that he’s taunting her). At a certain point, she grabs the crate and throws it on the fire.

So here’s my theory: The “real” replacement painting was what was in the crate that got burned. That way, Crown can pretend that the replacement was a counterfeit painted on top of the Monet (i.e. that he was duped, not the, er… duper?), with no legal implications to him. Alright, minimal legal implications.

Ok, it’s still quite a stretch, this is just a movie and I’m overthinking it and really, so are you, because who cares, Crown definitely pulled off the more important Heist: he stole Rene Russo’s heart.

Link Dump

Just the usual link dump of interesting stuffs for the depths of ye olde internets:

  • NASA’s Voyager 1 Resumes Sending Engineering Updates to Earth – Voyager 1 stopped sending usable data back to earth last November, and NASA has been trying to figure out why. In March, they figured out that a specific chip had failed, refactored the code, and sent the update out 15 billion miles. Voyager 1 has now resumed sending useful data about interstellar space back to Earth. A pretty astounding feat of engineering.
  • Project Lyra is a feasibility study for a mission that would send a space probe out, bounce it off Jupiter, sending it back towards the sun, which will throw it out of our solar system so fast that it can catch up to Oumuamua (the mysterious space rock that passed through our solar system, changing course in a way that was difficult to explain, and thus leading to much speculation that it was an alien spacecraft or somesuch.) This animation gives a much better view of how the Oberth maneuvers at Jupiter and the Sun would work (and it’s set to Free Bird as a bonus):

  • The Man Who Killed Google Search – Speaking of astounding feats of engineering… let’s look at the opposite of that. It’s become something of a truism that Google Search has degraded significantly over the last several years, and it turns out that the reason is rather obvious. All you need to do is prioritize short term economic growth over experience (hiring the guy who killed Yahoo search to do this for you is almost too on the nose, and yet…). Their previous market dominance and simple inertia have kept things going, but man, this story is wild. I suspect AI will eat Google’s lunch (especially since their AI was such a spectacular failure). This story of the enshittification of Google is pretty solid:

These emails are a stark example of the monstrous growth-at-all-costs mindset that dominates the tech ecosystem, and if you take one thing away from this newsletter, I want it to be the name Prabhakar Raghavan, and an understanding that there are people responsible for the current state of technology.

… Do you want to know what Prabhakar Raghavan’s old job was? What Prabhakar Raghavan, the new head of Google Search, the guy that has run Google Search into the ground, the guy who is currently destroying search, did before his job at Google?

He was the head of search for Yahoo from 2005 through 2012 — a tumultuous period that cemented its terminal decline, and effectively saw the company bow out of the search market altogether. His responsibilities? Research and development for Yahoo’s search and ads products.

  • Google Cloud accidentally deletes UniSuper’s online account due to ‘unprecedented misconfiguration’ – Not to completely rag on Google here, I’ve worked on enough of this sort of thing to see pretty surprising lapses like this happen, but it appears the enshittification of Google is not limited to search. Somewhere, there’s a gruff, difficult engineer who pissed off management by insisting they maintain redundant backups, and he’s feeling vindicated at this moment. This whole story reminded me of Taleb’s The Black Swan and his notion of resilience (which is why Google’s growth-at-all-costs short term view is damaging their company).
  • No One Buys Books – During an antitrust trial, all the publishing houses had to disclose a bunch of info about the book business and the information is somewhat eye opening. In brief: Almost all book sales are driven by celebrities (i.e. Britney Spears, etc…), franchise authors (i.e. James Patterson, etc…), and repeat bestsellers from the backlist (i.e. the Bible). Basically, what we think of when we think of books are a gigantic vanity project, with most books making no money at all and typically selling less than 1,000 copies. Seems kinda screwy, but at least that vanity project seems to be persisting (at least, until the publishing industry’s Prabhakar Raghavan arrives).

That’s all for now…

Nostromo

The first book I read as part of my salty-sea dog era was Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard, by Joseph Conrad. Published in 1904, it did not receive much in the way of critical or commercial success, and to this day, it is far from Conrad’s most read or famous work (which I guess would be Heart of Darkness). In the fullness of time, its reputation has only grown and its themes surrounding imperialism, revolution, and the corruption of greed remain relevant to this day.

Nostromo book cover (Penguin Classics)

Set in a fictional South American country, this novel tells the story of a silver mine that gets thrust into disarray during one of the periodic revolutions that plague the country. The infamous difficulty of the novel is not so much due to the plot, but the setting and background. The majority of the novel is comprised of flashbacks and detailed histories of the fictional country, it’s geography, the various periods of rule ranging from colonial exploitation to post-colonial misrule and various rebellions and revolutions. The backstory and motivations of the numerous characters are also related through lengthy flashbacks.

As a result of this extreme reliance on flashback, the pacing of the novel, especially in the early goings, is choppy and sometimes jarring. That being said, this was a conscious choice, and there are stylistic benefits of the approach as well. The insistence and influence of the past upon the present is well established by this approach, and the ambitious, multi-faceted view of an entire society in the grip of revolution would not be possible without the diverse origins of each component of the conflict. The plot actually resembles a simplistic adventure story, but this is given weight by the thematic depth of its tragedy.

“… We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it – and neither can we, I guess.”

Nostromo, Page 63

At this point, I must admit that there are elements of pessimism, fatalism, and near-nihilism in this novel that would, in most cases, cause me to roll my eyes. However, there are some mitigating factors that propel this book beyond my usual complaints. One is Conrad’s humanism, which is on ample display in Nostromo. This is the sort of novel that seems to provoke criticism from all ideological corners. It does not paint a pretty picture of imperialism, colonialism, religion, capitalism, or Marxism (nor probably several other ideologies or dogmatic enterprises that I’m missing), but it does affirm the power of love, the sanctity of family, the importance of the individual, and the need for empathy, sympathy, and understanding. He puts individual relationships above politics, which has the potential to annoy those of all political stripes. And since everyone has some inherent political stripe… you get the picture. Of course, I am not above the fray on this (witness my aforementioned eye-rolling!), but I can appreciate the level of detail and thought that have gone into this and which deserves a corresponding amount of consideration in response.

The other major mitigating factor, and the thing that endears me the most to this novel, is that I couldn’t help myself from thing about how similar this novel is to… The Lord of the Rings. Early on in reading one of the flashbacks in Nostromo, I couldn’t help but chuckle as I thought of similar digressions in Tolkien’s infamous high-fantasy. I realize that, in some ways, this is a deeply silly comparison, but that’s precisely why I find it so endearing. Sure, Nostromo is an intensely political novel with keen insights into the nature of mankind, but setting it in a fictional country means that Conrad spends a huge amount of time fleshing it out with history and culture, especially as seen through a handful of characters (each with their own similarly detailed backstory)*.

Sometimes it felt like reading a realistic, non-fantasy version of The Simarillion. Plus, you get numerous characters who have several different names (take the titular Nostromo, who also goes by Giovanni Battista Fidanza, Capataz de Cargadores, etc…), just like the LotR characters (i.e. Strider, Aragorn, Elessar, etc…) And the treasure from the silver mine? Everyone greedily seeks it out, and it corrupts even those described as incorruptible. Sound familiar? No? I’m just a huge nerd? Yeah, that checks out.

Tolkien was famously dismissive of “allegory” and denied any topical meaning or “messages” in his work. This has not stopped people from speculating, which is the point, but there’s a similar humanism in Tolkien’s work that can thwart many political interpretations. Conrad is obviously more bluntly addressing politics in his book (in a way that I’m not sure Tolkien would particularly approve of), but I do think there’s a similar perspective underlying both authors’ work.

If the name “Nostromo” sounds familiar to you at all, it’s probably because it was the name of the mining ship from Ridley Scott’s Alien (similarly, the name of the Colonial Marines’ ship in Aliens is Sulaco, which is the name of the town in Nostromo.) There’s also some thematic similarities, though obviously Alien is more fanciful in its presentation (not to mention that it implies its background setting, rather than explicitly establishing a comprehensive setting the way Nostromo does).

I will leave you now with a selection of quotes from the novel that I found interesting. They will give you the flavor of Conrad’s prose, which is not exactly free from hooptedoodle, but which is stylistic and expressive.

Charles Gould did not open his heart to her in any set speeches. He simply went on acting and thinking in her sight. This is the true method of sincerity.

Nostromo, Page 49

Gould is the owner of the silver mine, and this is a reference to his relationship with his wife, which is a humanizing one that, like a lot of individual characters, offsets some of the cynicism inherent in the novel. It’s also the sort of thing that would give people of a certain political persuasion the hives.

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. Only in the conduct of our actions can we find the sense of mastery over the Fates.

Nostromo, Page 54

A nice turn of phrase that might help explain some of our political issues of the day.

In all these households she could hear stories of political outrage; friends, relatives, ruined, imprisoned, killed in the battles of senseless civil wars, barbarously executed in ferocious proscriptions, as though the government of the country had been a struggle of lust between bands of absurd devils let loose upon the land with sabres and uniforms and grandiloquent phrases. And on all the lips she found a weary desire for peace, the dread of officialdom with its nightmarish parody of administration without law, without security, and without justice.

Nostromo, Page 71

Conrad again emphasizing the way individuals are caught up in official events, ground up and spit out of political machinery, and so on… Once again, something that is easy to relate to and apply to our current circumstances.

“I think he can be drawn into it, like all idealists, when he once sees a sentimental basis for his action. But I wouldn’t talk to him. Mere clear facts won’t appeal to his sentiment. It is much better for him to convince himself in his own way. “

Nostromo, page 171

Its easy to think that facts and reason will prevail (and to be fair, they probably should), but that often does not matter to idealists or ideologues, something that will be good to keep in mind during an election year.

It was part of what Decoud would have called his sane materialism that he did not believe in the possibility of friendship existing between a man and a woman.

Nostromo, Page 176

Imagine the takes, the hot takes on this in 1904! One of the many beneficial things about reading older books is that you can see that many topics that concern us today are not new, and indeed, have been hot button issues for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.

There was between them an intimacy of antagonism as close in its way as the intimacy of accord and affection.

Nostromo, Page 200

Maybe not quite directly relevant to LotR, but the notion of conflict being the basis for a relationship that can be strong is one that crops up often (in fiction and in life).

The mere presence of a coward, however passive, brings an element of treachery into a dangerous situation.

Nostromo, Page 216

Not much to say about this one other than that it’s a nice turn of phrase, so I Googled “Lord of the Rings coward” and the results are just a never-ending succession of “Is [x character] a coward?” followed by “No, [x character] is clearly not a coward because of y and z.” Except for Denethor. The way he eats those tomatoes, man.

A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.

Nostromo, Page 298

A concise description of something that seems to happen a lot, especially in our current social media environment.

“There is no peace and rest in the development of material interests. They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency, and is inhuman; it is without rectitude, without continuity and the force that can be found only in a moral principle.”

Nostromo, Page 403-404

Way to finish on an optimistic note, amiright?

* – I should note that parts of this post, particularly the comparison with LotR, are adapted from and originated in a Tasting Notes post from last year.

The Book Queue: Salty Sea-Dog Edition

Since I’ve basically depleted the last Book Queue, it’s time to embark upon my Salty Sea-Dog Era of reading. You might notice a certain bias towards science fiction (and certain realms of non-fiction covering subjects like film or technology) in previous book queues, so I figure it’s worth exploring some other areas. For various reasons, a few different books kept cropping up as “Hmm, I should go out and read that.” and they all happened to take place at sea. I’m going to include one that I’ve already read, but this’ll perhaps motivate me to pick it up again and do a full review here. So here goes:

  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad – This is the one I’ve already read and am planning to review in full soon. It’s long been on the larger book queue and I did finally pull the trigger last year. Lots of complicated thoughts about this highly respected literary novel, but that’ll have to wait for the review. True, much of the story takes place in a mining town, but it’s a coastal town, the titular Nostromo is basically the head longshoreman, and enough of the novel takes place on the sea that its subtitle is literally “A Tale of the Seaboard.” More to come.
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – I suppose no introduction needed here, one of the most famous Great American Novels ever written. At one point a few years ago, I read the first chapter or so on a whim and found it surprisingly engaging, but never got around to reading the full thing. I plan to rectify that this summer.
Moby Dick illustration from the 1902 edition
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – When I was growing up, my parents had a bookshelf filled with some sort of series of hardback books of classic novels. One was Moby-Dick, daunting due to it’s size, but another was Treasure Island, an evocative title that always thrilled me. I was perhaps too young when I first picked it up, but never circled back to it, even once I got the reading bug. (Funny to note, the title of the first chapter literally has “sea-dog” in it, though it doesn’t say “salty”, even if I’m sure said sea-dog is actually quite salty.)
  • Beat to Quarters (aka The Happy Return) by C. S. Forester – The first novel (going by publication) in Forester’s popular Horatio Hornblower series. I’ve read enough novels influenced by this series, particularly ones billed as “Horatio Hornblower in Spaaaace”, that I figure I should probably take a gander and see what all the fuss is about.
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian – The first novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series, one that most would be familiar with because of the underseen film adaptation. I remember quite enjoying the film, though I have not seen it in quite some time. Might be good to revisit in book form.

So there you have it, lots of salty sea-dog fun. Obviously not a ton of novels on this list, but there are two starts to famously long-running series that could provide ample further reading.

Hugo Awards Season 2024

The 2024 Hugo Awards finalists were announced a few weeks ago, so I figured it was time to catch up with the Hugos to see what’s been going on. For the uninitiated, it’s been a rocky year for the awards. Let’s take a look at last year’s winners and briefly examine the requisite controversy around the awards (there’s always something, but last year’s faults were somewhat more glaring). Then we’ll take a quick spin through the 2024 finalists to see if it’s worth participating again (spoiler alert: I most likely won’t be participating this year.)

Hugo Awards 2023: Results

I didn’t participate last year, mostly because I didn’t have anything to nominate (it helps to have something worth championing) but also because the last few years have demonstrated that I’m almost completely out of step with the current voting body. This is not to mention that the Worldcon was being held in China, which complicated matters with fears that turned out to be well founded. The controversy primarily surrounded censorship and exclusion of works for political reasons, and the whole thing is a mess. There are tons of overviews of the controversy, so I won’t cover it in detail, but it’s a bit of a mess. You could sorta tell something was off last year just due to the lack of visibility in the process and the numerous delays.

As for the winners, it seemed like a pretty straightforward year (despite the censorship) that’s right in line with previous years (and pretty much what I expected in my Initial Thoughts).

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher ne Usula Vernon won for best novel. I didn’t read the book, but I’ve read some of Vernon’s work before, and I’ve always enjoyed it well enough (not so much that I would seek out more, but her stories were usually some of the better ones in the short fiction categories). The short fiction categories have some familiar names (another win for Seanan McGuire), but a few new ones too, including a Chinese winner for Best Novelette (not entirely unexpected given the host country – and to be clear, no real controversy here, it’s natural to see participation rise in the host country).

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Best Series went to the Children of Time Series, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, which… is actually a great choice. Tchaikovsky is an author who has never had a novel nominated (I have not checked the short fiction categories, but I don’t remember seeing his name there either) and writes lots of series, which is exactly the sort of thing this awards should go for. Previous awards have often gone to folks who already have a Hugo for a Novel in the series in question (some get nominated in both Novel and Series in the same year). As usual, I still find the logistical overhead for this award a bit daunting (if you haven’t read a given series, how are you supposed to read all of it within the allotted voting period?), but I’ve read enough Tchaikovsky to know that he’s quite good and it’s nice to see him get some recognition.

Everything Everywhere All at Once takes home the rocket for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, as expected. It’s a solid win for a usually baffling category. The 2023 ballot was actually pretty solid, but as usual, pour one out for the likes of Three Thousand Years of LongingApollo 10½: A Space Age ChildhoodCrimes of the FutureThe NorthmanMad God and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Despite not being billion dollar Disney productions, they’re all worth your time.

Hugo Awards 2024: Initial Thoughts

It appears that this year’s awards have returned to the traditional timeline for the nominations, with the finalists being announced on Easter weekend. Let’s take a quick spin through the Novel finalists:

  • The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty (ne S.A. Chakraborty) – Looks to be a fantasy on the high seas sorta adventure and sounds pretty fun. Chakraborty has garnered lots of plaudits and nominations in other awards, but not the Hugos, and it’s always nice to see new names. I’m currently planning my “salty sea dog era” of reading, so maybe I’ll pick this up at some point.
  • The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera – One thing I have to give the Hugo voters credit for is seeking out fantasy novels that aren’t just warmed-over European history, but with wizards and shit. If I was a big fantasy reader, this one might be interesting. It’s a debut novel, so we’ve got yet another new name too.
  • Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh – Looks to be a pretty straightforward Space Opera with queer themes, a pretty standard Hugo choice.
  • Starter Villain by John Scalzi – The one nominee that I’ve actually already read… and I really enjoyed it! It’s significantly better than last year’s The Kaiju Preservation Society, though it still seems rather slight to be the best SF/F of the year. Certainly worth a look if you like Scalzi or spy-adjacent comedies.
  • Translation State by Ann Leckie – Leckie returns to the Hugos with another book from the Imperial Radch series, though I believe it looks like a standalone novel set in the Radch universe. Still, I’ve read enough of these that I know I don’t want to read more…
  • Witch King by Martha Wells – As a big fan of Wells’ Murderbot stories (which have been nominated several times and won multiple awards in Novella and Novel categories), I might actually be tempted to check out one of her fantasy stories, and this seems like a decent enough place to start…

So we’ve got 3 familiar names and former Best Novel winners and 3 new names (and one debut). Genre-wise, there’s 4 fantasy and 2 science fiction, which is not my preferred mix, but it could be worse.

Short fiction categories have some familiar names, but it appears that there’s more Chinese nominees here than even last year, which makes a certain sort of sense (membership in one year allows you to nominate in the following year, so it’s not a big surprise to see this).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form has… zero billion-dollar Disney productions! Of course, there is a Spider-Man movie (er, half of a Spider-Man movie, womp-womp), but it’s still a pretty decent ballot, with oddball fare like Poor Things mixed in with underseen stuff like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and Nimona. The only real surprise is The Wandering Earth II, another result of increased Chinese participation. All that said, I still kinda expect Barbie to win (though it’s not as much of a lock as EEAAO was last year).

Barbie

As per usual, I can’t let the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category go without suggesting more underseen alternatives. The most glaring absence: Godzilla Minus One (seems like it would be right up the Hugo voters’ alley). Other worthy movies include The Artifice Girl, Lola, No One Will Save You, Command Z, Knock at the Cabin, and Infinity Pool. There are some eligibility questions for some of those (a bunch of premieres at film fests in 2022 with release in 2023, etc…), but they’re all worth your time. (Some of those are horror adjacent, which generally don’t do well at the Hugos, but I’m not including several other more straightforward horror flicks that are worthy of recognition, like Sick, Brooklyn 45, Talk to Me, and more…)

So yeah, I’m likely not participating again this year, but I might pick up a book or two from the list and will follow along. Definitely curious to see how some of the categories turn out…

50 From 50: Closing Remarks

Last year, I made a film-based resolution to watch 50 movies from from 50 different countries (lots of caveats and rules for what qualifies, as enumerated in that introductory post). This is not the first time I’ve done a project like this (see also: The 1978 Project and 50 Under 50), and it’s become tradition to do a sorta post-mortem closing remarks of the project at the end. Of course, I finished this particular resolution in December, but with all the year-ending shenanigans, Movie Awards, and whatnot, I’m only now circling back to 50 From 50 to close it out with a quick recap and general thoughts on the experience.

For the record, I’ve been doing brief reviews of all movies throughout the year, and you can see them here: [Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | 6WH Week 2.5 | 6WH Joko Anwar | 6WH Speed Round | Success!] and you can see the full list of films on Letterboxd. Anywho, let’s dive into the numbers and see if anything interesting pops out.

Genres

In terms of genre, there was perhaps more concentration than normal, especially around Action and Horror/Thrillers. Of course, the catch-all “Drama” category comes in at the top of the list, but that’s also because there’s significant overlap (i.e. a lot of those Action or Horror movies are also classified as Dramas). This does make a certain sorta sense, as foreign films that are easily accessible in the US tend to target more specific markets to garner a wider audience. It’s not entirely surprising that Comedy didn’t do quite as well, perhaps in part because Comedy doesn’t travel as well as Action or Horror. And, of course, it’s worth noting that I’m going off of Letterboxd’s preset genres, which has its own bias. Is “Crime” its own genre, or does it get lumped in with Action or Thriller? And so on.

Of course, I have my own biases, and it’s not an accident that Action and Horror are often well represented in my media diet in general. Indeed, for year-long projects like this, I’m sure the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon exerts a healthy influence (and 50 From 50 was no exception).

All that said, there is a wide array of genres represented in the 50 movies I watched. The only genres I didn’t hit were Animation, TV Movie, and Western. None of these are especially surprising, even if I could have easily hit at least two of those genres (if I had watched a Spaghetti Western or an Anime movie, for example), but by the time I thought of it, I had already progressed beyond the most obvious countries for those genres (more on this in a bit).

By Decade

While I did manage to squeeze in movies from 8 different decades, there is an obvious and pronounced recency bias in what I watched. This is at least partly due to a recency bias in what is widely available to watch in the US, especially on streaming. I did make a concerted effort to seek out certain movies though, and at least 3 movies on the list are not available on (legal) streaming in any form. Some of these are available on physical media (for example, Vinegar Syndrome put out a great release of Thriller that does not seem to have been picked up by any streaming service, even for rentals), but some are simply unavailable in any way except through… less reputable methods (i.e. Nokas). We’ll talk more about availability below, so I won’t belabor the point here, but despite the recency of most of the movies, there was still a fair sampling of older films…

The Map & Included Countries

This is perhaps the most filled map I’ve ever had for a single year, which is not especially surprising given the whole point of this project. The biggest surprise, though was that I didn’t end up seeing any movies from Ireland or New Zealand. Of course, both of those were excluded from 50 From 50 due to their presence in the Anglosphere, so maybe not entirely surprising, but it’s telling that I’ve already seen multiple movies from both of those countries here in 2024. The only country that I wanted to get to that I didn’t manage was Romania, which has a rich arthouse tradition, but I had trouble with availability (more on this below) and just ran out of time. While there were lots of the usual suspects (i.e. France, Japan, Italy, etc…) represented, I watched plenty of movies from unlikely sources that I probably would not have gotten to otherwise (i.e. Saudi Arabia, Senegal, etc…)

Miscellaneous Thoughts

As always, this sort of movie resolution was eye-opening, though certain issues kept cropping up.

  • One thing I think I underestimated at the start of this was the relative difficulty of finding qualifying movies. This is partly due to my own restrictions. Forbidding co-productions with Anglosphere countries really eliminates a wide swath of movies off the bat. In general, I tried to avoid movies with multiple origin countries, which restricts things further. You’d be surprised at just how many movies, even from countries with a strong film tradition, have multiple origin countries. I was not entirely successful in avoiding this completely, and in one case, I accidentally included a film that was a USA co-production (I maintain that when I watched it, it didn’t list this on Letterboxd, but that it changed later…)
  • Another thing that wound up frustrating me was that this resolution forced a wide range of countries, but didn’t particularly allow for deeper exploration of a particular country’s cinema. It was kinda weird to choose one movie to represent the country, and, like, I watched a bunch of shlocky movies that are probably not representative of a given country’s cinema as a whole. Of course, none of this meant I couldn’t continue to explore a given country’s movies further, but the focus on tackling a new country every week did cut down on that a bit. There were definitely some things I had planned for a specific country that got pre-empted by something else. For example, The Last Drive In showed a movie called Tigers Are Not Afraid, which ended up taking the Mexico slot that I had originally planned for the films of Carlos Enrique Taboada during the Six Weeks of Halloween.
  • I had originally made a rule that I would watch 20 movies from one qualifying country. This was meant to counteract what I just mentioned, but I would up not committing to one country and never got to 20 movies. That being said, I did get to 15 films from Italy and 12 films from Hong Kong (in both cases, I’m being a little more lenient and including movies with multiple countries of origin). Both were conscious efforts to increase foreign film watching, so I think that basically makes up for missing the 20 film mark.
  • Streaming availability was a primary driver of the mix of films described above. By far, the most useful streaming service for this exercise was… Tubi. A free, advertising supported service, it’s got a very wide selection, especially when it comes to genre fare. Surprisingly, Netflix was also a pretty good resource here. They actually have a pretty great selection of foreign films that you might not be aware of because the algorithm rarely puts it in front of you (except in some very specific circumstances). Amazon Prime was also a key resource, but it almost always is for something like this. Shudder also does a good job of curating obscure foreign horror films (yet another factor in the genre mix described above). Max actually has a pretty good portion of the Criterion catalog on their service, which was also very useful here.
  • Speaking of Criterion, it’s probably not an accident that a large proportion of the older films included on the list were Criterion releases. Of course, they also have a streaming service of their own, but it’s interesting that physical media purveyors like Criterion, Vinegar Syndrom, and Arrow are invaluable in making foreign movies more accessible to US audiences.

I found this whole exercise interesting and edifying, but I do think that perhaps it would be more valuable to do a deep dive into one country’s films rather than a shallow dive into many countries, as I have done here. I don’t have any current plans to start a new resolution, but if I wanted to do a foreign film based resolution, I would almost certainly narrow the focus to one country (and maybe even further by genre – Spaghetti Westers, Giallos, Anime, etc…).

Update: By popular demand, quick lists!

Best Movies

Best Obscure Discoveries

Ultimately, I probably didn’t need to split the list into two categories. It works as a top 10 (in no particular order). Also, I don’t usually like to spend time on “worst” movies from an exercise like this, but it’s pretty clearly Altered Skin. So there you have it. Onwards and upwards.

Cameron 4K Controversy

At Beyond Fest last September, James Cameron screened a new transfer of the Abyss and confirmed that the 4K home video release was imminent. Soon after, it was announced that True Lies and Aliens were also getting the 4K treatment. Then it was revealed that the remastering process heavily leveraged AI digital noise reduction techniques, and the digital streaming releases lead to some rather unflattering screenshots, particularly for True Lies. The internet, being a model of restraint and understatement, had a real normal one with this news.

To be fair, I also tend to prefer a more unvarnished approach to 4K scans. These movies were shot on photochemical film and a true transfer to digital will include things like film grain. Some of the boutique physical media peddlers, like Vinegar Syndrome or Arrow, are pretty good at doing a simple transfer based off of poorly preserved film (given their metier of cinematic schlock, that is most certainly the case for the movies they’re rescuing from obscurity). Sure the film grain is noticeable and sometimes you even get a nick or scratch or even a cigarette burn showing up, but that’s not a terrible thing in my book and I’d rather that than something that looks like it was filmed on digital last week. The process used on these Cameron 4Ks does create new data that was not there on the original print. There’s something to be said for preserving the film, warts and all (I’m looking at you, George Lucas).

On the other hand, the controversy and hate surrounding these three releases has gotten out of hand. In the case of The Abyss and True Lies, the last official US release was on DVD, and no matter how you slice it, the 4K looks much, much better than the DVD. It’s also worth noting that the process of doing a 4K scan is more complicated than I’m making it out to be, especially once you start throwing in things like color grading/timing and HDR. Folks who know what they’re talking about have technical complaints about these releases that are notable, but on the other hand, most (nearly all?) viewers won’t be able to notice the difference while actually watching the film in motion. It’s easy to look at a screenshot comparison and say it looks bad, but that’s not how you actually watch a movie.

One last bit of apologia, the 4K digital streaming release is different than the 4K physical disc release. There are some exceptions here, but as a general rule, the file size and bitrate of a 4K stream are going to be significantly smaller than the disc. A lot of the times, when you are streaming 4K, you’re not even really getting a blu-ray quality picture. Those unflattering screenshots I mentioned earlier? It’s not an accident that they came out when the 4K scans were released on streaming. The discs are not perfect, to be sure, but they’re better than the streams.

This sort of technical analysis is worth doing and has value, but I can’t help but agree with Jeff Rauseo: some people are taking this all way too seriously. I’ll give specific thoughts on each release below, but my overall feeling is that these movies look pretty good and are worth buying if you, like me, love these movies and want the best possible experience of watching them at home. There are some imperfections and I’d prefer the more natural film look to the digitally processed look, but that’s not a deal breaker, and two of these releases (The Abyss and True Lies) are massive improvements over their respective DVD releases. For crying out loud, the last The Abyss DVD release wasn’t even anamorphic widescreen!

True Lies

Conventional wisdom is that this is the worst of the three releases and I agree with this. That being said, it’s not worth getting too worked up about (like, seriously, I know social media makes it easy to issue death threats from the comfort of your toilet, but that doesn’t mean you should do so). Um, anyway, skin textures sometimes appear waxy, especially in closeups (Tom Arnold, in particular, was done no favors here), and you get some obviously artificial smoothing effects throughout. The color grading sometimes feels unnatural as well. That being said? This is mostly not a distraction in watching the movie. I’m calling this out because I was specifically looking for defects in the appearance, and even then, I generally found myself caught up in the story and forgetting about any of the issues with the picture.

New Artwork for True Lies 4K

I forgot how much I enjoyed this movie, which I probably still consider to be one of Cameron’s more… for lack of a better term, “conventional” looking movies. It’s a super fun action movie and I love it, but it’s not quite the visual spectacle Cameron was known for, even at the time (not saying that Cameron doesn’t know how to frame or block a shot – the craft here is great, it’s just not as visually stunning as most of his other work.) Perhaps this is why I’m more forgiving of the 4K’s flaws, which do sometimes stick out, but are mostly (if not fully) offset by the incredible improvement over the previously available DVD. Supposedly there’s a Spanish Blu-Ray scan floating around out there, and I’ve seen conflicting reports of this. Some of the screenshot comparisons make the blu-ray look great, others do not. After having watched the 4K, I don’t think it really matters that much. The 4K looks good enough.

This Twin Flicks review of the disc goes into some of the background of why this movie appears the worst out of the three recent releases, including comments from people who actually worked on the disc. It has to do with the film stock and lenses used to shoot the film in the first place (some of the weirdness mentioned is due to this, not the AI processing), plus there was damage to the negatives that happened in storage. So this was apparently a “lesser of two evils” choice, not a deliberate or experimental choice (nor was it due to incompetence or laziness).

Yes, it looks a little processed, but the image is clearer and sharper than the previously available releases and it’s absolutely the best home video release of the film available. Even the packaging doesn’t look too bad (previous releases might be slightly better, but this is nothing egregious).

Aliens

Generally looks better than True Lies, though you do still get the occasional distraction of a waxy face, especially in closeups, but that’s rare, and the improvements you get everywhere else, particularly when it comes to the blacks and shadows and detail in the Alien nest or the Alien queen scene. The level of detail is pretty astounding, and the colors tend to pop better too. Film grain has not completely disappeared, but it’s barely noticeable.

New Artwork for Aliens 4K

Aliens is the only one of these releases that had previously been available on blu-ray, so it’s probably the least important to upgrade, but it’s also one of my favorites and the upgrade is noticeable. The packaging artwork is a bit of a downgrade from previous releases, but that’s not the worst thing in the world (Update: in looking at the various posters for Aliens, this is clearly bottom tier and there have been tons of previous releases with much better artwork.)

The Abyss

This is probably the best looking of the three discs, and honestly, I didn’t really notice much in the way of flaws here at all. I mean, there’s very little film grain and it looks like the movie was shot on digital last week, but that’s not something that will be distracting or even noticeable to most folks. If you are really searching for something to dislike, you might be able to find some artificial smoothness or waxy complexions, but honestly, the only time I really noticed someone waxy was when a character had just drowned and their face looked a little waxy (trying not to spoil, but you know the scene if you’ve seen it), but, like, it’s kinda supposed to look that way. And you get so much improvement in everything else, especially in the underwater scenes or anything dealing with darkness or shadow. It’s more detailed, the colors more vibrant, everything looks significantly better.

As mentioned above, this is probably the biggest upgrade as well. The previous DVD release was non-anamorphic widescreen, which is almost unwatchable on a modern setup. If you like this movie, this disc upgrade is a no-brainer. The biggest flaw with this movie is the artwork on the packaging, which goes for that lazy floating heads photoshopped thing that just looks awful, especially when the original poster is so memorable (I tried using WordPress’ image compare block here, not sure I love it, but you can slide back and forth to see more of each poster).

(As an aside, I don’t always love the updated artwork that the boutique physical media shops use either, but they almost always have reversible artwork such that you can switch to the original movie poster artwork if you want, which is awesome.)


Ultimately, the only real disappointment here is the lack of film grain, something most viewers won’t even notice and which I got used to very quickly. If you’re a fan of Cameron, these are all definitely worth the upgrade.

Polostan

A little over ten years ago, Neal Stephenson teased a new series of historical fiction in an interview with the BBC:

Stephenson says he has returned to the past to tap a “similar vein” to that covered in his globe-spanning Baroque Cycle.

“They’re historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history,” he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period.

“It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

“One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps – something like that.”

Not long after, listings for something called Polostan and BombLight started showing up in various places that dorks scour to find new books, but the descriptions associated with those listings seemed to indicate that they were just working titles for Seveneves, which would be released in 2015 (the BombLight listing on Goodreads still has that old Seveneves plot description…)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. would come out in 2017 and featured some time travelly historical fiction and appeared to be first in a series (his co-author did continue the series, and I’d definitely be up for a third, but I digress…) I thought maybe the historical novels he mentioned were either sidelined permanently, or perhaps they had morphed into the D.O.D.O. books.

Polostan book cover

However! A couple months ago, some of those placeholder Polostan pages started to be updated with actual details, and now there’s even an official Harper Collins page, complete with a new plot description:

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Termination Shock and Cryptonomicon, the first installment in a monumental new trilogy—an expansive historical epic of intrigue and international espionage, presaging the dawn of the Atomic Age.

The first installment in Neal Stephenson’s Bomb Light cycle, Polostan follows the early life of the enigmatic Dawn Rae Bjornberg. Born in the American West to a clan of cowboy anarchists, Dawn is raised in Leningrad after the Russian Revolution by her Russian father, a party line Leninist who re-christens her Aurora. She spends her early years in Russia but then grows up as a teenager in Montana, before being drawn into gunrunning and revolution in the streets of Washington, D.C., during the depths of the Great Depression. When a surprising revelation about her past puts her in the crosshairs of U.S. authorities, Dawn returns to Russia, where she is groomed as a spy by the organization that later becomes the KGB.

Set against the turbulent decades of the early twentieth century, Polostan is an inventive, richly detailed, and deeply entertaining historical epic, and the start of a captivating new series from Neal Stephenson.

Well that’s certainly interesting… Funnily enough, the plot doesn’t mention any particular scientific or technological themes (I guess “dawn of the Atomic Age” is something), so it’s quite possible this is just a new historical fiction series, but who knows? Also: who cares? I guess goobers like me, but whatever the case, we’re getting some new Stephenson soon. The Russia angle feels relevant without being too on the nose, and I’m guessing this will be more of a spy thriller type of historical fiction, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Current release date is October 15, 2024, which is right in line with Stephenson’s normal cadence of new books every 3-4 years. No book cover yet, and who knows, maybe they’ll further complicate matters by changing the title. (Hat tip to Kaedrin friend and fellow Stephenson fan ARNE for the pointer…)

Update: Book cover has been revealed, so I added it above.

The Oscars 2024

The Oscars, like most of us, have had a strange few years, but things seemed to settle in 2023 and I’m guessing 2024 will continue the slow march back towards normalcy. The pandemic had a big impact on the industry as a whole, which naturally trickled down to the Oscars, who tried some experiments, but have basically returned to a pre-pandemic format. The biggest innovation this year: starting an hour early, finally recognizing that the 3+ hour ceremony would actually be that long. Otherwise, we’ve got a reasonably successful host, movies normal people actually watched are nominated, and they didn’t try any other weird ideas (i.e. not presenting important categories, or adding a new category for popular movies or whatever that thing was, etc…)

So it’s also time for the annual reminder that the Oscars broadcast is the biggest source of income for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is actually a very useful organization. As Steven Soderbergh noted a few years ago, what the Academy does for film archiving and preservation alone should be praised, and it’s all paid for by the broadcast. People love to complain about the Oscars, but that’s kinda fun in itself, and it’s not like any mainstream awards program wouldn’t court controversy or criticism in some way. Actually putting on the show is difficult and it does have a lot of benefits for the industry and cinema as a whole. Anyway, let’s look at the categories and make some predictions:

2024 Oscars Predictions

Oppenheimer
  • Best Picture: Oppenheimer. This appears to be, more or less, a lock. Strangely, I think it’s probably the one that “should” win as well, which is a pretty rare occurrence for me. Biggest competition seems to be coming from The Zone of Interest (maybe a more typical Oscar type film, but it’s also somewhat divisive and I doubt it could overcome Oppy) and Poor Things (I would say that this is far too weird for the Academy voters, but then, they gave last year’s oscar to Everything Everywhere All at Once, so who knows anymore.) I dunno, maybe Barbie because Greta Gerwig didn’t get the director nom, but that seems quite unlikely (if there’s a true desire to reward Barbie, there are some other category options as well).
  • Best Director: Christopher Nolan for Oppenheimer. Also something of a lock. Also probably “should” win. I suppose there’s an off chance that Yorgos Lanthimos (Poor Things) or Jonathan Glazer (The Zone of Interest) could win, but I wouldn’t take those odds. Martin Scorsese and Justine Triet certainly deserve to be nominated, but there’s almost no chance that either would win.
  • Best Actress: Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. Seems to have the buzz, but not quite as strong as Oppy/Nolan. Genuine possibility that Emma Stone win for Poor Things, but I think that’s unlikely. It would be an upset, but not a shocking one.
  • Best Actor: Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. Again, plenty of buzz, and may benefit from the general Oppy momentum, but there’s an off chance that Paul Giamatti (The Holdovers) could win… I think I’m going long on Oppy this year though, probably a winning strategy.
  • Best Supporting Actress: DaVine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers. I know I just said I’m going long on Oppy this year, and Emily Blunt is nominated here so I guess it’s possible she could take this, but Randolph has the buzz (and probably the better performance, if that matters).
  • Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer. This is another seeming lock for Oppy and Downey Jr. certainly deserves recognition. I think the funniest/worst potential outcome would be Ryan Gosling winning for Barbie (with a potential additional knife twist by not awarding Barbie anything else, even in the technical categories). To be clear, Gosling is great (and Barbie deserves some awardage), but I don’t expect him to win (nor do I expect Barbie to be shut out).
  • Best Original Screenplay: The Holdovers. This is a tough category, and I do think there’s a good chance that Anatomy of a Fall… it might even be the favorite (I would vote for it from this list of nominees), but I’m going with The Holdovers as the winner.
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Oppenheimer. Again, I’m betting it’ll be an Oppy kinda night, but this category seems like one that could easily go to Barbie or American Fiction or honestly, any of the nominees. This category feels wide open…
  • Best Cinematography: Oppenheimer. Seems like a lock, but off chance that Poor Things could upset.
  • Best Film Editing: Oppenheimer.
  • Best Visual Effects: Godzilla Minus One. This category also seems wide open. The Creator has a solid chance here too. Both are relatively low budget movies with an impressive look that’s probably fueled by overworking some poor VFX company.
  • Best Production Design: Barbie though it could easily go to Poor Things. Honestly don’t know which, but I think Barbie needs to win something, and I’m betting it’ll be here. Poor Poor Things, I’m betting they’ll be runner up in many categories… though this is the one I think they could actually win (unlike many of the times above when I predicted they’d be runner up).
  • Best Costume Design: Barbie though again Poor Things could easily win. This would be the most stereotypical win for Barbie. The hot takes will be unbearable if it’s the only win (or if it gets shut out).
  • Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Poor Things. I have no idea, maybe Maestro.
  • Best Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
  • Best Documentary: 20 Days in Mariupol. Russia is bad, and Hollywood wants you to know they think that (this was my reasoning last year, and I think it will work again this year).
  • Best International Feature: The Zone of Interest. Pretty much a lock, I think.
  • Best Original Song: Barbie “I’m Just Ken”. Very possible that “What Was I Made For?” will take this.
  • Best Original Score: Ludwig Goransson for Oppenheimer.

And those are the categories I pick every year. Why don’t I pick the others? It’s a mystery! Anywho, if you’re a weirdo and want to plumb the depths of the Kaedrin archives for old Oscars commentary (if you go far back enough, you can even read what used to be called “liveblogging” of the event, which is what we did before Twitter), all my previous entries are here: [2023 | 2022 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004] (I took a couple of years off there for various reasons). If you are watching and on Twitter, I’m @mciocco (and when the musical performances start, I’ll be posting alcohol @kaedrinbeer). I don’t usually post much, but I’ll be around and obsessively reading Film twitter’s commentary/jokes. I may post a dumb “who should host the Oscars” poll, like I did last year…