The Nice Guys

(Grade: Ineligible for grade)

Well… I have never actually walked out of a cinema before. The dialogue thinks itself clever: it’s flat. The acting thinks itself arch, it’s insipid. The shooting thinks itself knowing, it’s literal. The scenario thinks itself adult, it’s “adult” instead. Is this a comedy? Then why isn’t it funny? Damn it. If it is a drama, why is nothing happening?

It’s like Quentin Tarantino without the vulgarity of affect. (And Q.T. without vulgarity is, what exactly?)

There are bits and pieces that sort-of work (the towel gag is stupid, but legitimately funny) but they’re like sequins floating on a drum of oil. It’s not that the parts that don’t work are actively bad it’s just that when you have enough zeroes the average trends to so nearly zero as to not matter. The whole has no more purchase than air itself.

One would not truly watch this movie; at best, one might ‘note’ it. The breaking point was the interminably over-long scene at the burnt out house that ended with a non-sequitur 12 year old offering to show a bunch of middle aged men his member for $20. (It is, he claims, sizable.) This is not funny. It is brazen. Brazen is not the same thing as daring; and everything that is brazen is not necessarily funny.

It’s the sort of thing one is forced to laugh at but this is because the alternative is to feel very icky. I suppose that the “joke” could just possibly have been gotten away with if it was one-and-done; but the writers dragged it out and out and out and then had the characters continue to discuss it in the next scene! (The #1 Cinema Sin: characters talking about things that have just happened*.)

As it stands, you can just see the writer at his typewriter, having pounded out those lines, rubbing his hands and cackling “haha, aren’t I clever?” — No, Shane. You’re not.

By my calculations, this scene cannot be more than 45 minutes into the film, but it felt like two hours. A couple of scenes followed that were just padding and then randomly the characters are off to a party to look for a MacGuffin. Then yet another car ride-and-talk** and, suddenly, a little voice in my head barged in—as operators once did on pay phones to tell you to deposit another quarter. Only this little voice said: ‘Why are you still watching this?’ So Nice Guys became only the fifth movie (and the second starring Ryan Gosling!) that I intentionally stopped watching and, most importantly, the first (and I hope, only) that I left a cinema showing of.

Here’s the updated, chronological list: 1. Being John Malkovich 2. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 3. Only God Forgives (Hi, Ryan! Sorry you keep turning up in shitty movies ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.) 4. Interstellar and now, 5. The Nice Guys.

I’ve always made every effort to finish movies, even if I hate them. I respect the art and craft, even when its artisans and crafters can’t hack it. I struggled to the disspiriting ends of Antichrist (the most favorable thing I can find to say is that the possibility cannot be completely excluded that the film is a hoax perpetrated by the filmmaker on the independent cinema establishment to expose them all as picayune, artless frauds) and The Revenant (154 minutes too much for Oscar Bait.) But then, I was with someone each time and leaving would’ve violated certain social norms.

I did also finish Inglorious Basterds, which is nearly as bad and can’t even spell, on my own.

There seem to be some issues with contemporary filmmaking. The last movie which I saw, which I would rate A+ was made in 1994. The last individual episode of TV that I would rate A+ was made in 2014. I grade on a curve, A+ is twice, even thrice as good as A. I guess that it’s not totally horrible that 22 years have passed since a movie deserving the highest possible grade was last made but where are the A and even the B movies? There should be at least one or two a year.

Hell, even a B- isn’t awful, it is OK to make B- movies! There should be dozens of those yearly! (The last B- was Skyfall way back in 2012. Another B- was Argo, earlier the same year.)

Again, comparing to television: there have been many shows of the last half-dozen years which I would give a composite rating of at least B- and two that I would grade individual seasons of as B+.

To be sure, I can’t see everything and some days I feel as if I will never get enough time to see anything at all! But nothing crosses my radar. And when, as here, against my better judgement I see a film based on positive notices… I’m proved right.

(I’m talking about fiction, documentaries are excluded from this discussion. Excellent cinema and TV documentaries continue to be made.)

* Unless the talking leads to new information for the audience.

** Car talk never works. Ever. Not even in True Detective. Especially in True Detective. At least Nice Guy’s car talk is flaccid, not comically pretentious.

Why Britain should not exit the E.U.

If I was British, I would vote to stay. I say this not because the E.U. is good and nice and stuffed with flowers and candies and such. The EU is a hideous abortion, an unaccountable, dysfunctional clusterjerk, an undemocratic Chancellery of weakness doubled upon futility.

But I say this because reform is not impossible, indeed it has never seemed more possible and in the interim, come what may, the U.K. has a permanent opt-out of the worst part of the E.U.: The Euro. The Euro is economically impossible. You simply cannot have a situation in which fiscal and monetary policy are so wildly unrelated.

For example the European Central Bank (ECB) cannot buy EU-member state’s bonds, except in proportion. Yet each member state sets its own fiscal policy (hello, Greece!) This prevents the ECB from effectively monetizing the debt. This defies the entire economic rational of central banking and fiat money. The situation is not altogether dissimilar to the doomed Bretton Woods System and we all know how that ended*.

Because the U.K. (And, also wisely, Sweden and Denmark) have opted out of the Eurozone (despite being eligible) they are insulated from the worst of the effects that could arise in the event of the demise of the E.U. itself and/or the Euro. The U.K. could mobilize rapidly to contain the worst effects.

However, should the U.K. exit the E.U. it would still feel most of these effects anyway, as Europe—vaguely or specifically—is still to be a huge economic reality for the country regardless of what the vote decides. Therefore, it is best for the U.K. to stay in the union because there are certain advantages that legitimately come from membership. The U.K. benefits enormously from membership in the common market, etc.

Moreover, should Britain leave it could provoke the near-term crackup of the union. Britain leaving a union which survives will be disadvantageous to both. But Britain leaving a Union that then explodes a year-down-the-line would be “mutually assured destruction.” Make no mistake, if the decision is ‘exit,’ and margin of victory is not as narrow as a hair, contagion will erupt. Ugly, illiberal nationalism and racism are on the ascendancy there as here. And, for once, Europe may be further down that road to perdition than we are.

* “The Nixon Shock”

Buzzword decoder

Here is your bubble buzzword decoder, 2016 edition:

“The Cloud” → “Some Servers”

“As-a-service” →”Outsourced”

“Gig economy” → “Piecework”

“Responsive” →”A mobile website automatically, and badly, reformatted to fit on non-mobile devices.”

“Disrupt” → “Destroy”

“Creative destruction” → “Pillaging”

“At scale” → “Monopoly pricing”

World on a Wire (Welt Am Draht)

Ok, so this movie has a sort of cult status because it was made for television, shown once, then ‘lost’ for many decades. But once you get that out of the way… it’s a pretty, comma, bad movie. Oh yes, the low-budget photography has its impressive moments and the sets are tinged with the midcentury weird aesthetic also found in the cult T.V. Show ‘The Prisoner’ but the story drags on and on.

The outline is that Stiller, a computer scientist, is promoted to the head of the SIMULACRON project to create a virtual computer world after the mysterious death of the project’s manager. Soon, he discovers alarming information about what the SIMULACRON project is really about and bizarre events occur which suggest the conspiracy may be unimaginably big.

Possible Influences: Kubrick, Phllip K. Dick, The Prisoner, The book Solaris by Stanislaw Lem and the film by Tarkovsky, Walter Benjamin

Possibly Influenced: Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Lathe of Heaven, Inception

The biggest problem is that the film is nearly *FOUR* hours long but the treatment is probably worth about 55-90 minutes tops. There are long, unmotivated digressions that don’t work because they neither motivate the plot nor improve the characterization. I rarely complain that movies are too long.

The film also takes ages to establish fairly ‘one-and-done’ plot points. For example, early in the movie the character of Lauser vanishes into thin air and nobody except the protagonist, Stiller, remembers he ever existed. Stiller spends a considerable amount of time in multiple scenes which drive home the fact that nobody remembers Lauser well after the point that the audience ‘gets it.’

This is also a major plot hole. Once the reason for Lauser’s evaporation is revealed the fact that Stiller can remember his existence makes no sense at all. It’s a bit hard to discuss this movie because there is a major plot twist just before the end of the first half. Unfortunately, most people will probably have tuned out by now.

This plot point is revealed in the worst possible way—dialogue, delivered by the worst actor in the lot—in the worst possible setting—the cafeteria—with the worst-possible dramatic timing—it’s completely arbitrary and feels forced. To make matters worse, it is totally impossible for this character to know the information revealed. Not “hard” not “surprising” but, in the films ontology, completely non-possible. It’s a major plot hole and it’s not one that occurs to you after a while it’s one that is immediately obvious and offensive to the audience’s intelligence.

More plot logic and pacing problems pile up very quickly. To avoid spoilers let’s just say that the ‘bad guys’ are established as being in possession of a plot apparatus that would enable them to instantaneously annihilate Stiller and remove all evidence of his existence in the same way as Louser. It’s also established that they have twice done this to others for reasons of them learning the information in the ‘plot twist.’ They don’t, however, do this for no discernible reason despite events which clearly establish that they do know that he knows the secret because they do stage several attempts on his life with fake accidents and have one of the other characters warn him ‘forget everything you saw.’

A recurring point through the plot is that Lauser’s vanishment was reported in the press and investigated by the police but that the police and reporter also forgot Lauser ever existed and the newspaper story has been ‘vanished’ as well, replaced by an unrelated piece. The final crowning ‘proof’ that the plot-twist ‘secret’ is correct is revealed when a ‘correct’ copy of the paper is discovered by one of the paper’s foreign bureaux. As with Stiller’s unexplained but plot-convenient ability to remember the disappearance, the existence of this unexpurgated newspaper is completely illogical.

The second half is worse than the first half, it spends most of its time meandering pointlessly except…. it starts to get a lot better about halfway through. The visualization is impressive, but empty due to the vapidity of the script. However, the script, acting and directing dramatically improve late in the game and by the time the final twist-within-a-twist is revealed and the credits role it truly becomes memorable and worthwhile, even thrilling! It’s a pity the rest of the film could not be as vigorous.

Rating: D-

Alternative recommendations: Solaris, Tarkovsky A+; Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, B-; The Lathe of Heaven, David Loxton and Fred Barzyk, C+

Cars

Have you noticed how Apple and Google are now making cars?

Apple car will not have seats or climate control but will be very pretty and many of its owners will have weirdly personal, defensive attitudes about the car’s shortcomings. It will be hugely influential and financially successful—despite relatively low market share—because of its built-in vending machine that dispenses six different types of intoxicating liquors. Other car developers will race to add vending machines and copy its styling but with mixed results. MoMA will acquire several models of this car for its permanent collection.

Google car will spy on you constantly while issuing vague reassurances that this is so they can make a better car. You can turn the spying off, however this results in irrelevant types of cars appearing in your driveway. Google does not actually make the car, rather the car is made by a South Korean company which changes the design in arbitrary ways that everyone hates and adds extra switches for each of the features. Google car’s vending machine mostly dispenses free liquors meaning the manufacturer makes very little money on them and the quality leaves much to be desired. The beverages also spy on you. Though launched with great fanfare, Google car will be abruptly discontinued with little warning. Owners will be offered a suitcase that contains lint from the upholstery before it is automatically vaporized from everyone’s driveway.

Microsoft car will get off to a very rocky start several early models being prone to exploding but fifteen years later Microsoft cars work very well despite being a bit ugly and the most popular model achieved over 97% market share. However, the company followed this blockbuster up with a completely different style of car with uncomfortable, neon-colored seats and a vending machine that only sells prune juice. After the failure of this model the company will bolt some of its parts onto the old model then start sneaking into everyone’s driveways and replacing their old cars with the new one against their will. This car does, very occasionally, needs to have the engine re-installed for no obvious reason.

Linux car started out as a project in someone’s garage and has somehow become something that Fortune-500 companies rely on. This car is available in 3, 4 and 5 wheel models. In addition to a burgeoning corporate market, dozens of warring factions battle each other to produce consumer versions but only sell kits that require the user to remove the body, engine and other components from their existing car and bolt new parts onto the chassis. These cars will sometimes refuse to drive on certain roads due to licensing politics. Unfortunately, some of these roads are quite popular. After a while, the owners of these roads will start to produce add-ons that enable some Linux cars to drive on them but they have to be installed separately and occasionally make the car explode. The car has a legion of PR people who keep saying “This is the year of Linux car on the driveway!” But it never comes true.

BSD car is extremely similar to Linux car except for certain minor things which are completely incompatible and cause accessories designed for Linux car to break. BSD car comes in three models that are mutually incompatible. Some of the varieties support a feature called Ztrailer in which arbitrarily large arrays of trailers can be combined to create what appears to be a single gargantuan, fault-tolerant trailer which can instantaneously be returned to any previous state (although, if you only want to get one item from a previous state it could take hours.) Linux cars scoffed at Ztrailer and said it was unnecessary but eventually capitulated and copied most of its features. BSD car has much larger market share than commonly imagined.

OS/2 Car used to be very popular according to its manufacturer, which currently only manufactures trains, though there is little evidence of this. OS/2 Car was originally a joint project with Microsoft Car but the developers got divorced and things got messy. OS/2 Car no longer exists but it had a really weird way of starting up and there is still an option to configure some roads to work that way.

Blackberry Car has fallen on hard times after being the most popular model for many years. Blackberry Car has ten times the airbags of the next safest model however its vending machine is always out of stock and only accepts $50s. The steering wheel of this car is legendary and remains heavily touted by the company. Critics question whether this can truly be considered a self-driving car, in part because of the steering wheel. In desperation, Blackberry did a deal to release a version of Google car that was mostly self-driving, had a much better vending machine and had the Blackberry steering wheel bolted onto a sliding panel so it could be put out of the way when not in use. This ended up pleasing nobody.

Interstellar

Ok, fine. Interstellar becomes the fifth movie in history (and the second this year) that I turned off without finishing.

An hour into the film (of a middling 2 and a half hour running time) we still haven’t actually gotten to act 2. The illusion of being in act 2 is created by relocating to outer space but all of the actual activity is act 1 activity.

I have the patience of Job when it comes to cinema, after all I have put my shingle in for the oeuvre of Andrei Tarkovski. But there is a difference between ‘slow pacing’ and ‘wasting the audience’s attention span.’

(I ‘cheated’ and, after stopping the movie read ahead on the plot and the plot is pedestrian, to be polite about it. With the fact that I didn’t finish the movie properly in mind, this is not a full review just some observations.)

The characters (actually, the writer) commit the unpardonable sin of talking at length about things the audience already knows and Nolan, who never met a camera he didn’t have to move pointlessly, takes a page from the True Detective playbook in having Matthew McConaughey bloodlessly deliver vapid pseudo-philosophical pronouncements while gazing into nowhere.

Act 1 is nothing but dialogue scenes. In fairness to McConaughey, nobody could save those lines and he’s not the only character saddled with unplayable dialogue.

The robots who are clearly modeled poorly on HAL in particular have very “studenty” lines.

I know we are supposed to feel sorry for Murph. The movie demands this of us so unsubtly that it might as well put in an intertitle in all uppercase: “YOU SHOULD BE FEELING SORRY FOR MURPH NOW!!!!” it would be quite as effective and allow the cutting of several “hot air” scenes.

By the time Cooper leaves we hope that she gets run over by a bus so we will be rid of her. This, sadly, does not occur.

It’s possible that, if the movie was much shorter, around 90 minutes I would be more favorably inclined. You have to earn every minute of screen time. Interstellar doesn’t.

Grade: Ineligible for a grade

Opinion journalism

I read today that we are in the “golden age of opinion journalism.” First, there’s no such thing as opinion journalism any more than there is such a thing as dry water. But I don’t think I’ve read a challenging or unexpected opinion piece in at least ten years. The fundamental reason for this is, I think, the entrenchment of certain hermeneutic postures in the media industry. The doctrine that there are only isolated facts and no metanarrative, no big truth, has hopelessly compromised the very thing it sought to exalt: the facts.

iPhone Ads

The new iPhone 6s ads are horrible. Truly execrable. What happened?

Go back and look at the circa 10-years-ago iPod ad with the sillhouettes. It is un-believable. It may be the best ad ever, so cool it was lethal.

The ethos of the 6s ads (“the only thing that’s changed is everything”) is like a vicious, snotty, unfunny parody of an Apple ad. The first time I saw it I checked to make sure it wasn’t the time-slot for SNL.

The one with the guy signing up for the scam* e-mail via Siri is even worse. What on earth were they thinking? How was this approved? What does this say about the current culture within Apple that it was?

Both ads commit the cardinal sin in advertising: they talk down at you like Regina George from Mean Girls. They are smug, sarcastic, self-superior and directly mock the people who appear in the ads and so by extension the consumer.

If I had to describe the campaign in a nutshell it would be “Apple thinks you are a shmuck.” This may of course be true but that is not the point.

* So Apple has spam-filter quality from 1997? Hmm, is that really the best message for a technology company to send in advertising?

Spectre

Spectre instant review:

  1.  The theme song is crap I have no goddamn clue what they are trying to do. The title sequence is also godawful. I have never been a fan of Danny Klinemann’s C.G. heavy MTV aesthetic but this is not good even by his standards. May I suggest Garson Yu or Richard Morrison? Also, I think some of that imagery might play a bit differently in Japan. Even in the U.S. it’s heavily and I think unintentionally fetishistic.
  2.  The photography is super nice, but there are a few scenes where the anamorphic format is distracting or even results in objective flaws. There are two dodgy composite shots at different climactic moments.
  3. Duh, of course it’s Blofield! Nobody was fooled! The new concept for Blofield is excessively reminiscent of the last outing in that his motivation is personal animus against Bond for outcompet ing him for the affections of another. Retconning the previous 3 films into this does not work at all.
  4. The writing is also otherwise very mixed. There’s less of a “third act syndrome” than with Skyfall but it feels like we’re just retreading too much ground already covered. Additionally, while 007 films have never been about plot logic it is strained to the breaking point perhaps one time too many here.
  5. There are a few shots of Craig where he in visage and mien looks so much like Steve McQueen that I think they’re doing it on purpose.
  6. Why the F**** can’t anyone pilot a helicopter in this story? In the final-last-one-for-real climax one wonders why the pilot doesn’t respond to being shot at from a boat by steering AWAY from the river.
  7. Andrew Scott is now 100% typecast. I hope he’s O.K. with that. His character is the parallel-universe alternate of his Moriarty.
  8. Getting Q and Moneypenny out of the office was a good idea. Q in particular is a major strength of the film because he is the only character to have recognizably human motivations. We instantly and uncynically sympathize with him in the health-bar scene.
  9. Retconning Mr White sympathetically is such a baldly audacious idea that I actually admire them for trying. It still doesn’t work.
  10. I don’t really have a 10th point so here is a list of some of the more obvious recyclings.
    • The Thames boat sequence: Die Another Day.
    • The base in the crater: You Only Live Twice.
    • The title-sequence Octopussy. (Or actually probably given how everyone is nekkid in it for no reason, we maybe should say Octop***y.)
    • Goldfinger is the obvious inspiration for the Aston Martin, the Rome chase scene and the Rolls Royce Blofield sends.

All this self-referential nostalgia is potentially lethal. This may seem like a bizarre tangent but recall the attack of bad writing in the 80s during the Colin Baker era of Doctor Who. That was the same problem just with way lower production values and it lead to the show being cancelled twice*.

Final thoughts: this movie is exactly what I feared would happen to Skyfall when I heard Sam Mendes (who never saw a simple idea he couldn’t wreck with layers upon layers of trite psuedophilosophy) was directing. If Skyfall is an A-, which I think is generous probably more B+, Spectre is a wobbly C-.

*It’s complicated…

Trump is a natural product of frustration with the two-party system

So as everyone in power and wealth and media (or some combination thereof) seems to agree that the prominence of Donald Trump is a sign of severe political turpitude the question naturally arises: “What will we masters of the universe do to prevent this from happening again?”

My guess is nothing but then again I’m a cynical gadfly.

One one level, Trump’s rise so-far has been fueled by specific mechanisms in the primary system which reward outlandishness and punish innovative thinking to say nothing of sobriety and discretion.

One example is the prevalence of closed primaries. Because I, for example, am not a registered Republican and I live in New York which has closed primaries, I cannot vote against Trump in the primary. That means that sane voices who happen to have registered no party (like me) or even, let’s face it Democrats cannot act as a lid on kookiness. [Technically, this problem also applies to Democrats, however in practice, it expresses less frequently in that party.]

Even below that we must acknowledge that gerrymandering, the first-past-the-post election system, the Electoral College and even the election of senators instead of their appointment have deeply entrenched the two-party system and moreover have enabled addle-pated, stale thinking and have encouraged non-representative representation.

The perception that politicians are bought-and-sold through campaign finance is damaging. Though I think the left over-rates the importance of Citizens United as a cause, it is certainly a symptom. This frustration with ‘the system’ is real and valid and it is something that Trump is tapping into.

I still believe that the much loathed ‘party establishment’ will pull out all the stops to sink Trump if he looks likely to actually take the nomination but I could be wrong on this.

Trump wagging the dog

In many ways, Donald Trump reminds me of an age-old practice for raising property taxes in jurisdictions where a referendum is required to do this.

Suppose that you want to raise taxes by 5% but know that your electorate will never approve it. First propose something truly outrageous, like a hike of 15%. After the furor dies down—preferably with a staged ‘defeat’ at the ballot box—propose your 5% rise.

The electorate will be fooled into comparing the 5% rise to the 15% rise, instead of the present taxation rate. It will seem palatable. Even the anti-tax diehards, the ones who picked and yelled and threatened to secede or move to Canada will be taken in. “See! We got them to back down!” They’ll gloat. “We won!”

Tail wagging the dog, no offense to dogs.

When Trump implodes

Most conservative and all liberal commentators have for an age now been saying things like “After Trump’s support dissipates” and “When Trump’s candidacy implodes” and so on and so forth.

Well, the debate is over and this moment of which you speak, it has not occurred. Sure: tomorrow the distinguished commentators will all write the usual pieces only the party faithful care about in their respective publications that only the party faithful read saying that “the debate just drives home the fact that Donald Trump has no substance.”

Then why did the entire debate revolve around the candidates attacking him? The entire debate was completely superficial. It doesn’t matter. We are talking about one political party that has lost its f—king mind one political party that’s half-way to omnishambles and an electorate that NO good options.

To be clear: I am not saying Trump’s candidacy will continue its preeminence. Maybe one of the other candidates will pull his head out of his ass and get somewhere but the idea that it’s guaranteed to flop is clearly wrong.