Mr. Jim McAllister’s Politically Significant, Ethically Questionable, Anti-History – Repeating-Iitself Spring Term Movie Quiz

After a (not quite) four year hiatus, Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another trademark movie quiz, which are always a lot of fun to answer. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert FarnsworthDavid HuxleyProfessor FateProfessor Russell JohnsonDr. SmithProfessor PeabodyProfessor Severus SnapeProfessor Ed AveryDr. Anton PhibesSister ClodaghProfessor Arthur ChippingMiss Jean BrodieProfessor Larry GopnickProfessor Dewey FinnMs. Elizabeth HalseyProfessor Abraham SetrakianMr. DadierProfessor AbronsiusProfessor MoriartyProfessor BirdmanDr. Jonathan HemlockDean Vernon Wormer, and Dr. Henryk Savaard are also available.

The Movie Quiz

1) Movie that best reflects, describes or embodies the tenor of our times

For perhaps obvious reasons, my brain immediately jumped to the paranoid 70s thriller for this (and perhaps its forbearers in the 1960s). There are many options among that coterie, but in looking through them, my response mutated a bit and turned into Taxi Driver. I actually have not seen it in a while, but if my records are correct, the 4K should be arriving on my doorstep in just a couple of days (long live physical media!)

Taxi Driver

In any case, the character of Travis Bickle seems as relevant as ever. Lonely, overwhelmed by modernity, confused, but desperately wanting to do something important with his life, make a difference, even if it’s just to save one young woman. He cycles through apathy, abortive romance, political engagement, and finally tragic heroism (at least, in his head).

2) Favorite Don Siegel movie not starring Clint Eastwood

It’s the obvious choice, but it’s clearly Invasion of the Body Snatchers for me. Charley Varrick is a solid runner-up, and of course I do love his Eastwood collaborations as well.

3) Your favorite movie theater, now or then

A tough question because, as much as I love the movie theater experience, I never really had a go-to theater that wasn’t part of a massive chain like AMC or Regal. At any given time, my favorite theaters were probably the newest theater in my area because they were generally cleaner and nicer than what was around before. Innovations like stadium seating and eventually recliners also helped. In the early/mid 90s it was probably AMC Marple, Granite Run, or Painters Crossing. This is where my more formative movie experiences happened and I have fond nostalgic memories of those theaters, even if they didn’t have the aforementioned innovations. More recently, the better theaters around me tend to be Regal Cinemas (and I have a Regal Unlimited subscription, which is nice) and there is the King of Prussia IMAX theater (one of the few full-size IMAX theaters in the country), but I would be incredibly grateful if an Alamo Drafthouse would open up here. Simple things like proper projection, masking, and the focus on proper crowd etiquette (i.e. no disruptive behavior like cell phone usage, etc…) are great, not to mention that the food and beer selections are actually good (unlike the local dine-in options, which are much worse). Alas, I’ve only been to those Alamo theaters in Austin a few times, and now that they got bought out, who knows how much of this will hold up over time…

4) You’re booking this Friday and Saturday night at that theater—What are the double features for each night?

This is an impossible choice, but at least two nights allows for two different strategies. Strategy the first: favorite movies I’ve never seen on the big screen: The Godfather and The Terminator. Strategy the second: two thematically similar movies. This one is even more impossible, but here’s what I’m going with: Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I’ve actually never seen Fail Safe before, but I’ve been on a Lumet kick of late, and I figure at least one of the four movies should be something I’ve never seen before…

5) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr?

I don’t have strong feelings for either, but for now it would be Wendy Hiller, as I’ve seen significantly more movies with her in it. That being said, when I go through my inevitable Powell/Pressburger phase, Kerr might take the cake.

6) Last movie seen in a theater/on physical media/by streaming

In a theater: Bad Boys: Ride or Die (not a huge fan of the series, but always appreciate the chemistry between Smith/Lawrence and there’s some solid action beats). On streaming: The Anderson Tapes (speaking of Lumet, and this is one of his Sean Connery collaborations, a snappy caper that prefigures those paranoid 70s thrillers I mentioned earlier). On physical media: The Crow 4K (looks better than ever, and the movie mostly holds up.)

7) Name a young actor in modern films who, either physically or by personality, reminds you of an actor from the age of classic movies

Not sure if this qualifies as “the age of classic movies” but Andrew Garfield could do a pretty good Anthony Perkins impersonation, no?

8) Favorite film of 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel was my number one back in 2014 and I don’t really see any reason to override that with anything else (my overall Top 10 seems to be holding up reasonably well)

9) Second-favorite Louis Malle film

And so we come to the first embarrassing mulligan of the quiz, as I’ve only seen one Louis Malle film.

10) The Ladykillers (2004 Coen Bros. version)—yes or no?

I never know how to interpret the “yes or no” questions on these quizzes so I usually end up answering yes, but the Coen version of The Ladykillers is one of the more confounding movies I’ve seen. On paper, it should be near perfect, but in practice it’s just flat and dull. I love the Coens, I love Tom Hanks, and indeed, the whole cast is great. I don’t understand how this went off the rails so badly, but then, I’ve also never seen the original, so it’s hard to pinpoint anything. Anyway, it’s one of my least favorite Coen brothers movies, but I don’t, like, object to its existence or anything. So I’m answering “yes” anyway, because I don’t think I’ll ever answer “no” to one of these questions.

11) Andy Robinson (Scorpio) or Richard Widmark (Tommy Udo)?

Andy Robinson’s Scorpio takes this one for me, as he’s much more of a formative psycho in my movie watching career than Widmark’s Udo (in a movie I only caught up with recently – can totally recognize the Joker smile/laugh influence and importance there, but Scorpio will always creep me the hell out).

12) Best horror movie from the past ten years

The choices are plentiful and difficult to narrow down: The Witch, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Green Room, Get Out, Us, The Endless, One Cut of the Dead, the list goes on, but If I had to narrow down to one, let’s just go with The Witch.

13) Upcoming movie release you have the highest hopes for in 2024

Nosferatu was the first thing that jumped out at me. There are several other things coming that I really want to be good, but am skeptical, notably Coppola’s Megalopolis and Kevin Costner’s Horizon movies. I’m always skeptical of sequels/reboots, but I’m curious about Gladiator 2 and a few other things. But Nosferatu seems like the thing I’m most excited for in 2024…

14) Movie you’re looking forward to this year that would surprise people or make them consider that you might have finally cracked up.

I’m having a difficult time with this one, and the only thing I can come up with is Venom: The Last Dance. It’s a sequel, which I usually don’t look forward to, and it’s not like I loved the first two movies… but I do kinda enjoy seeing Tom Hardy bicker with Venom. There’s some weird alchemy going on there that makes these movies worthwhile, even when they’re bad.

15) Favorite AIP one-sheet

I’m no expert, but I took a quick spin through the AIP catalog and picked out some posters that stood out:

I actually haven’t seen any of these movies, but maybe I should do a “judge movies by their cover” thing and seek them out.

16) Catherine Spaak or Daniela Giordano?

I’ve actually seen Daniela Giordano in several things (including the best titled Giallo ever, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key), but I must admit that I did not immediately recognize the name (she’s perhaps overshadowed by Edwige Fenech in two of them). Still, I have not seen Catherine Spaak in anything, though I am tentatively planning for a Dario Argento week in this year’s upcoming Six Weeks of Halloween marathon, which will include The Cat o’ Nine Tails

17)  Favorite film of 1994

A great year for film with way too many choices to narrow down to just one, but immediate, gut reaction includes: Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, and To Live.

18) Second-favorite Wim Wenders film

Now we come to my second mulligan, as I’ve only seen one Wim Wenders film (Wings of Desire).

19) Best performance by an athlete in a non-sports-oriented movie

With apologies to Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Terry Crews, Vinnie Jones, and the like, the clear answer is Kurt Thomas in Gymkata. Duh.

20) The cinema’s Best Appearance by A Piece of Fruit

The first thing that comes to mind is Denethor just wrecking those cherry tomatoes in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Part of the reason I like this answer is that I also want to argue about tomatoes being fruit. Some people and even the US government like to say they’re vegetables, but they’re clearly fruit! (Yes there’s a whole backstory involving government bureaucracy and taxes and whatnot, but it still doesn’t make tomatoes not fruit.)

21) Favorite film of 1974

As per usual, difficult to narrow down, but first thought was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There are certainly other, more popular choices (The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, etc…), but the others I was gravitating towards included Black Christmas, Blazing Saddles, and Gone in 60 Seconds (oh, and how could I forget: Killdozer.)

22) Most would probably agree we are not currently living in a golden age of film criticism. Given that, who, among currently active writers, do you think best carries the torch for the form?

It’s funny, I don’t find myself checking traditional reviews nearly as often as I used to… I tend to listen to podcasts and check Letterboxd. Of course, a large proportion of folks I follow on Letterboxd are critics themselves, so I guess I’m still getting a fair amount of traditional criticism exposure. The critic who I first thought of was Matt Singer, the editor and critic for ScreenCrush. He always has good reviews that walk the line between being fun and snooty, and some good editorials as well. I also enjoy Sonny Bunch of The Bulwark, who I tend to read because he comes from a different perspective than most other critics (as you can probably tell by the publication he works for). Bunch also has a couple of great podcasts, including Across the Movie Aisle and The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood. I don’t think anyone will get as ubiquitous as Roger Ebert was ever again, but who knows?

23) Favorite movie theater snack(s)

Who am I kidding, it’s popcorn. I also really enjoy some form of soft pretzels, but they’re not always great (and it’s not like they’re scratch made pretzels or anything – they’re just Superpretzel-brand-quality frozen pretzels.) Again, if there were an Alamo Drafthouse near me, maybe I would have something else (ohhh, does beer count as a snack?) Back in the day, there was this weird kids combo box sorta thing at AMC that had a very small amount of popcorn, a small soda, and an Airhead that I used to get a lot. But ultimately, popcorn is the classic movie snack (even at home).

24) Marion Lorne or Patricia Collinge?

I love both of the Hitchcock movies that prompted this question, but I’ll give it to Marion Lorne for her doty but creepy turn in Strangers on a Train.

25) Recent release you wish you’d seen on a big screen

The most obvious choice would have to be the Richard Linklater directed Glen Powell vehicle Hit Man, which apparently did have a short run in a tiny independent theater near me, but I didn’t realize this until it was too late (thanks for nothing, Netflix). A less obvious choice would be The Promised Land, a sorta Danish western starring Mads Mikkelsen that had a limited release earlier this year.

26) Favorite supporting performance in a Sam Peckinpah film

I’m going to go with the most obscure option I can think of: Craig T. Nelson’s mustache (not the actor, just his mustache) in The Osterman Weekend. I mean, damn, look at that thing:

Craig T. Nelson's mustache from The Osterman Weekend

27) Strother Martin or L.Q. Jones?

This sounded familiar and lo, it was part of Professor Peabody’s quiz from 15 years ago. My answer remains the same: L.Q. Jones, not so much for his role in The Wild Bunch, but because of Lone Wolf McQuade – a movie I have an inexplicable affection for, at least partly because L.Q. Jones steals every scene he’s in…

LQ Jones in Lone Wolf McQuade

28) Current actor whose star status you find partially or completely mystifying

I like some of Miles Teller’s movies and I guess he’s a decent enough actor, but I mostly just don’t get it.

29) Reese Witherspoon – Election or Freeway?

I suppose Election is the better film, technically speaking, but I just love the batshit insanity of Freeway, so it gets my vote.

30) Second-favorite Michael Ritchie film

This is probably The Bad News Bears or Wildcats (but I haven’t seen either of those in, like. 30 years or so, I imagine I’d have a different perspective on them these days).

31) Favorite theatrical moviegoing experience of the last three years (2021-2024)

Post-pandemic pickins are slim, but seeing Dune in a jam-packed IMAX theater in King of Prussia (one of the few full-sized IMAX theaters in the country) on the last night before it switched to a different movie (don’t even remember which one) was quite memorable. Plus, it’s one of those movies that really benefits from the the whole IMAX treatment.

32) Favorite Southern-fried movie sheriff

This is not exactly a topic I’m an expert in, but I’ll go with Ned Beatty playing the evil sheriff J.C. Connors in White Lightning.

Ned Beatty from White Lightning

33) Favorite film of 1954

According to my records, I’ve only seen 11 films from 1954, so this should, in theory, be an easy choice. The problem is that, like, 7 of them are stone cold classics. Rear Window is probably the answer. Godzilla is certainly worth considering though (it’s easy to forget how good this is given the excess and downright silliness of much of what followed).

34) A 90-foot wall of water or the world tallest building on fire?

I’m not a huge fan of disaster flicks, but it’s hard to argue that The Towering Inferno isn’t the crest of the wave (even though it’s fifty years old and they’re still making disaster movies these days)…

35) Second-favorite Agnes Varda movie

Faces Places by default, but damn, I didn’t realize just how many directing credits Varda actually has – I should probably watch more of them.

36) Favorite WWII movie made between 1950 and 1975

Pretty hard to top Patton for this one, though I did finally catch up with The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was pretty great… but still not as good at Patton.


37) After the disappointing (against predictions) box-office weekend for The Fall Guy, writer Matt Singer, perplexed by the relative indifference from ticket-buyers toward a film most expected to be a big hit, asked in his piece for Screengrab “What the hell do people want from movies?” To focus the question slightly more narrowly, what the hell do you want out of movies?

I’m a novelty junkie, so as a general statement, I want more originality and less in the way of sequels and reboots. Mid-tier budget movies that can take some chances or display some sort of distinction. I watched Midnight Run recently and found myself lamenting the loss of this sort of mid-tier movie (that is nonetheless a low-key classic). Hard to argue with people who are gunshy due to pricing and theatrical experience these days though.

38) Ned Sparks or Guy Kibbee?

Guy Kibbee! I don’t know why I used an exclamation point there, I don’t entirely know who he is… but I’ve seen movies he’s in, so that’s a step up on Ned Sparks. Take that Ned Sparks!

39) Favorite opening line in a movie

I’ve already used up my quota of Godfather answers today, so let’s just go with the other classic mafia flick, Goodfellas: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

40) Best movie involving radio or a radio broadcast

My first thought was Vanishing Point, where a blind black DJ named “Super Soul” encourages the car chase that comprises the bulk of the movie. But then I thought of the DJ from The Warriors, which is a better movie and a more memorable DJ too.

The DJ from The Warriors

41) Buddy Buddy—yes or no?

I mean, yes. I always answer yes, but despite this film’s middling reputation, who says no to a movie directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau?

42) Favorite film of 1934

So here the options are pretty limited by what I’ve actually seen, and The Thin Man is clearly the best of those.

43) Kay Francis or Miriam Hopkins?

This is, what, the third embarrassing mulligan I need to take today?

44) What’s the oddest thing a movie theater employee has ever said to you?

Nothing is coming to mind, but here’s a weird situation worth noting. I went to see The Good Son in the theater with my brother and some of our friends. After getting our seats, I head out to grab some popcorn and soda, but the theater employee wouldn’t let me back in because I was only 15 and the movie was rated R (my brother was 19, which I guess is how I got in the first time). I had to watch Cool Runnings instead. To this day, I still haven’t seen The Good Son, maybe out of spite, but also no one seemed to like it that much.

45) Is there such a thing as an ideal running time for a movie?

It’s certainly possible that a movie can be too long (or even too short), but there’s no strict rule for the length of a movie (though I think going longer than, say, 5 hours, is probably a bad idea). That being said, 90-120 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. If you go longer than that, you probably need to justify the length somehow (and I tend to be pretty easy to please in that respect, though I have been getting less patient as I grow older, so maybe it’s harder than I’m making out).

46) Favorite Roger Corman movie(s)

A Bucket of Blood is probably my favorite (speaking of sub-90 minute movies, this one is perfect at 66 minutes), assuming we limit to Corman-directed movies. I do like his Poe cycle though, and I never did get to The Masque of the Red Death (which seems to be Corman’s best reviewed movie).

I forgot how much fun these Movie Quizzes are, already looking forward to the next one (hopefully in less than 4 years)…

SF Book Review – Part 41: The Road to Roswell and moar!

I have been woefully neglectful of keeping up with reviews for recent reading, science fiction or not, but there’s only one way to rectify that situation, so here are some reviews of recent reads, including The Road to Roswell, A Half-Built Garden, and Summer’s End.

The Road to Roswell, by Connie Willis – Francie arrives in Roswell, New Mexico as the maid of honor in her college roommate’s UFO themed wedding (the groom is the true-believer, and Francie thinks there’s a fair chance the ceremony will implode). Frustrated by the crowds of gullible conspiracy nuts chasing potential alien sightings, Francie is surprised to find herself abducted by an alien. It looks like a tumbleweed, but it’s got quick and almost infinitely elastic tentacles, and it needs her to drive a car. Where? That’s what Francie needs to figure out. Along the way, they accumulate a rag-tag group of additional inadvertent abductees, and they all try to figure out how to communicate with the alien, which they’ve nicknamed Indy (after Indiana Jones and his whip).

The Road to Rosewell

This is old fashioned stuff, almost to a fault (and probably would be to a lot of the modern SF crowd), but I found it almost refreshing in that way. It’s got a nice blend of genres ranging from alien first contact/abduction/conspiracy, to romance, to a road-trip adventure, to comedy, and more. The UFO nut crowd is in for a healthy dose of merciless mockery, but given the light-hearted tone, it all works reasonably well. Willis relies perhaps a bit too heavily on dialogue, much of it centered on trying to figure out how to communicate with Indy, find out where he’s going, and why. This might bog things down for some folks, but the story’s got a lot of heart, and the logistics of how they learn to work with Indy are clever and well-thought out. He’s an interesting creation, and not something we’ve seen before, which is always a nice touch in a first contact story. It’s not super-deep or earth-shattering, but it’s a fun little caper with some clever SF embedded and worth a look for fans of Willis working in a more light-hearted mode.

A Half-Built Garden, by Ruthanna Emrys – Judy is awakened to a warning of unknown pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay. Assuming it’s a false alarm, she investigates only to find the first alien visitors to Earth. They’ve crossed the galaxy to save humanity from itself. As a technological society, they say we can’t help but destroy our planetary ecosystem, so it’s better for us to live among the stars, where we can control all the variables and establish a more sustainable community. But earth has found a hard-fought balance with nature, thanks to a revolution that sidelined corporations and set about healing the planet. Will the aliens recognize these actions for what they are, or will they save us… by force!? More importantly, why didn’t the aliens use the pronoun badges that Judy’s wife thoughtfully laid out upon their first meeting?

A Half-Built Garden

Alright that last bit is a dig on this story’s ham-fisted attempts to incorporate gender fluidity into a first contact story, but it’s well deserved. I honestly don’t know what this book is really going for though. The first contact dilemma (leave the planet or stay and potentially be forced to leave by the aliens) is bizarrely established as an all-or-nothing choice and the obvious solution, which every reader will develop within like 5 seconds of hearing the dilemma on page 20 (or whatever), is treated like a revelation at the end of the novel. It’s incredibly frustrating that everyone seemingly accepts the framing as an all-or-nothing decision (maybe I’m being too harsh, as there is some debate about whether or not to take the aliens up on their offer – the corporations are totally into it, for instance – but the aliens don’t seem to be very flexible on the matter, which seems weird).

There’s some notion of how the climate revolution has changed the relationship between corporations, nation states, and watershed communities (the new ecologically sound communities that are healing the earth), but it’s all very hand-wavey – there was something called the Dandelion revolution which apparently set us on the right ecological track for reversing the damage of global warming, but there is nothing about how that is actually accomplished other than bland platitudes.

Decision-making is also a big deal in this world and they describe some revolutionary networked technology that is supposed to facilitate these decisions, but this generally feels like every decision becomes a reddit thread that only experts are allowed to contribute to or something. This is a little silly, but it’s at least in good company – this sort of thing has been peppered into tons of science fiction for several decades (even going back to Ender’s Game and A Fire Upon the Deep, where the solution looked more like usenet than Reddit, but still.) It would be nice if the novel published in 2022 progressed things a little more than this does, but it’s not a deep fault or anything.

The real purpose of the novel, and the bulk of its prose, seems to be an exploration of gender ideology and sexual fluidity. There are several different systems at play, and a lot of time is spent… well, not exactly exploring these differences. Everyone is super defensive about their gender and sexual identities, to the point where they often refuse to explain in more detail, even to aliens who are clearly confused by what they’re seeing. Tons of lecturing and scolding about how this or that question is rude and offensive and so on and so forth. It’s so weird that this is the approach.

Speaking of the aliens, they’re actually multiple species, some plant-based, others more, er, spidery, and so on. But they speak perfect English from day one, and while their society seems to prioritize mothers more than ours, they are basically small variations on humans, with no real “alien” characteristics other than their bodies. Maybe if Judy’s wife put out xenogender pronoun badges, things would have gone better.

The book blurb calls Ruthanna Emrys a literary descendent of Ursula K. Le Guin, and boy does that comparison not do her any favors. There’s plenty of room for explorations of gender and identity in SF, and Le Guin was pretty great at it (there’s a reason The Left Hand of Darkness is often cited in this conversation) and lots of other SF authors have found ways to do it that are simultaneously less preachy and yet more informative (even when it comes to pronouns). Clearly this wasn’t a book for me, and it seems to be a bit divisive in that respect, but even if I were really into gender ideology, I don’t think I’d like this very much.

Summer’s End, by John Van Stry – A freshly minted spaceship engineer is forced to take the first berth off of Earth he can find because his stepfather is a politician who wants to have him killed. He ends up on a small freighter plying trade routes throughout the solar system, dodging assassins, pirates, and criminals along the way.

This starts off promisingly enough, if a bit derivative, but it quickly bogs down into some rather severe problems. One is that everything that happens is seemingly coincidental, and our hero just happens to be perfectly suited towards the situations he’s faced with. Alright, fine, that’s not always a major problem, and some degree of that is expected if you’re trying to tell an exciting story worth telling. But when it keeps happening, over and over again, it gets cloying. Another major issue is the way Van Stry treats his female characters. Most of the characters in the novel are underdeveloped, but the women are especially so – and often just objects of sexual fantasy (in particular, after the pirate attack, our protagonist shacks up with a character that is almost comically fantastical). The relationships our protagonist develops are just excruciating. It’s not so much that the overarching theme is wrong, it’s just so bluntly presented and awkward that I cringed whenever the subject came up (which was frustratingly often).

Finally, Van Stry isn’t exactly a stylist, and the prose is functional at best. I’m often quite forgiving of this sort of thing in science fiction because functional prose actually works when you’re exploring interesting ideas and trying to evoke the fabled sense of wonder that powers the best science fiction. But there are…no real interesting ideas here. All the science fictional aspects of the story are mere window dressing, and the politics are incredibly ham-fisted. This was actually nominated for the Prometheus Award last year, and you can see why, but like the aforementioned A Half-Built Garden, the political lectures are not very effective. The ending picks up a bit, but by that point, I was totally out of it. There’s nothing new here and no matter what you think of its politics, it’s not a very good representation of them.

I ended up writing more than expected here, so I’ll just finish off by saying that The Road to Roswell is the only book in this post that I’d actually recommend. I have a few more books I still need to catch up with, not to mention some of those Salty Sea-Dog reviews, but I’ll leave it at this for now…

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…


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).


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.


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).


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.