What I'm Watching: Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski

A Netflix documentary on a largely-forgotten sculptor and artist from the early 20th C. I've seen a few of his pieces in underground comics and books, and had heard his Yeti conspiracy in SubGenius tracts but hadn't connected them previously. This film takes as primary source his bragging which exaggerates his influence, which in reality largely ended in WWII.

George DiCaprio, Leonardo's father, knew him, and both do narration and interviews and are making this film public on Netflix. So, take a vanity project for what it is.

His temper tantrums at museums and galleries are part of why he is "lost", but his really noxious antisemitism and Polish nationalism are the "we don't want you here" part. Like many European and English writers and artists of the time, even those who were in different countries and didn't like Hitler, he still loved fascism and inciting murder of Jews. He wasn't just obscure because he lost his Polish studio, but because he made himself untouchable. The film keeps touching on that and then startling away, and making apologies for him.

His later derangement and conspiracy theories of a deluge and Yeti-people are… well, charming by comparison, but claiming that many people right among us are subhuman corrupters isn't any better, and leads to the same atrocities if you get enough crazy people, and we're full up on crazy people these days. While the film spends some time on it, reading about his views online shows they really soft-pedalled it in the film.

At first I felt this was a bit of an American Movie clone, Stas' focused but low-class craziness and the long downward slide. But no, it turns out he's a very different kind of monster turned failure.

★★★½☆

What I'm Watching: Poseidon (2006)

This Kurt Russell sinking boat show was more awful than you can really imagine. Fake-dark orange/cyan lighting constantly, everyone overacts and has the most cliché lines, which set up character that's never explored after the start. Captain's completely passive and useless; Captain Stubing would've saved more lives. Hispanics all die, and the Captain's the only black person on the boat AFAICT, but the richer and whiter you are (for fuck's sake, Richard Dreyfuss?) the more likely you are to live. Women do nothing but scream until a man can save them.

The disaster scenes are pretty nice, though. The casino flipping, and big rooms flooding, are violent and electricity and shrapnel go everywhere. That's what we pay for.

Oh, screenwriter's Mark Protosevich, the same piece of shit who wrote the Wil Smith "I Am Legend" that utterly missed the point of the book even more than the last 3 adaptations, and the ripoff "Oldboy" that discarded everything good about Chan-wook Park's amazing Oldboy (2003). I actually liked The Cell (2000), but I attribute that more to Jennifer Lopez, who looks good in a bodysuit.

I'm rooting for the ocean and the ship to eat them all, but sadly some have obvious plot immunity, especially the dumb kid and screaming useless single mom. Kurt Russell as a firefighter who became Mayor of New York is a slightly funny callback to Escape From New York and Backdraft, but the bosses would never let someone like him be elected, and he's phoned this one in.

A good terrible end to a terrible year.

★★☆☆☆

End of 2018

Let's watch Poseidon — Only available on Netflix until tomorrow! Normally I watch Strange Days, but I feel an upside-down sinking ship is a more accurate metaphor for the year than failed love and revolution and pretty Angela Bassett. Maybe for Chinese New Year (Feb 5), Gabriel Dropout's New Year/armageddon episodes.

I don't go super intimate online, but it's been a rough year. I've lost a friend and two of my last few relatives to cancer, my dad's had some close calls, and his dog died. Doing any kind of work under the stress load is… not great. And I'm not a good friend or coworker in this state. My new puppy is a terror, both looks and behavior like a jackal puppy, but the one really good thing.

State of software I touched on yesterday. This is the year a new Perilar rises from the ashes, and Learn2JS is moving along nicely, I think that's going to be a big deal, it's a sweet environment.

I goofed off yesterday and started writing tbasic, a Tiny BASIC interpreter in C, because that's a useful thing to do! I've done this before, but made a messy parser. The new one is a tiny single file and much cleaner. Might be published tomorrow morning sometime. While nobody needs BASIC, it's good C programming exercise, and I can link in SDL2 and give it cross-platform graphics and sound, which is actually kinda neat.

"It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration."
—Edsger W. Dijkstra, EWD 498: How do we tell truths that might hurt?
[mdh: In case you can't read the paper and get the joke, he's joking. Sort of.]

I got a little writing in on Delvers in Darkness, I'm thinking about more adventures for it, solo gamebooks and Refereed.

Poseidon is really terrible already. Everyone's a ridiculous caricature. Oh, this is gonna be a good shipwreck.

What I'm Watching: Travelers S3

This is hard to talk about without spoilers, but I'll be vague enough to be useless without watching. Go watch it first, if you liked S1-2.

Every ep is resolving something from S1-2, there's almost no "new missions" as such. Everything has gone very wrong with the Faction taking over people, but that's more or less cleaned up, all the bystanders get mind-wiped and mostly don't recover their memories initially… But there's now Traveler conspiracy/support groups meeting. The boy from S1E3 returns, and I don't think a day of hanging out with a cop is gonna make a sociopath not 'path. Amanda Tapping as 001 returns, briefly, but then she's someone else again.

An AI that's been utterly useless so far gets upgraded, and the messengers aren't as safe as previously thought. Philip and the historians get a showcase episode, which mostly involves interrogating a dead man. The Trevor episode is somewhat annoying: If consciousness transfer works the way it has been described, the problem described can't happen, he'd be in a nice fresh brain every time.

In the only actual two-episode plot of the season, nuclear terrorism and data archives in the silliest possible storage medium, and a Wrath of Khan type ending for someone.

Protocol Omega somewhat contradicts previous explanations of how the Traveler program works, but some of the pieces from the season are assembled to get a hard reset.

I dunno if they're going to do a season 4. They sort of pushed parts together for it, and the last scene with Marcy & David suggests someone made changes already. But I could see them dropping it now and it's at some kind of a stopping point. I don't want another season like this, I want more of S1-S2 when it had plots.

★★★½☆

What I'm Watching: Humanity Bureau

Nic Cage, always competent, sometimes fun. Here a bureaucrat for a sinister post-apocalyptic dictatorship tells people they have to relocate to New Eden, nobody wants to go because obvious plot. Then he decides to run off to Canada with his next "clients", a woman and a kid.

There's some personal drama that's not bad, but it's thin. The bureaucrat seems awfully good with a firearm, and his buddy/superior goes hunting him with goons who literally can't hit the broad side of a station wagon with machine guns.

I'm a little surprised by the ending; normally you either have a heroic ending, or a total shitshow ending, but this is terrible and also somewhat optimistic.

But it's more or less Logan's Run without the sex or fun or pretty laser show, I can't recommend watching it.

★★☆☆☆

Hell no boy

I love the Hellboy and BPRD comics, the novels, and somewhat the two Del Toro movies; the second one is much closer to the comics than the first. So this drops:

No Del Toro or Ron Perlman.

The makeup on David Harbour (drunk loser sheriff from Stranger Things) prevents him from using his face, which he can't anyway, or speaking clearly. They should hire Ron Perlman to dub in his voice, like James Earl Jones did over David Prowse. Harbour's mouth full of oatmeal sound is unacceptable.

Billy Idol's fun, but is completely inappropriate in tone for Hellboy, which is Brothers Grimm seen through a Lovecraftian lens. Maybe go Celtic and have Faith & the Muse, or Nightwish. This is bullshit.

I've seen a couple of Neil Marshall's movies: The Descent and Dog Soldiers. Both are good B-grade horror, on cheaper than nothing budgets, mostly single shaky-cam following about 4 amateur actors through a dark wilderness; his other two movies are more of the same, though I haven't seen them. I have zero confidence that he can run a big-budget thing with characters and try to get acting from them.

Lots of big action scenes, which rather misses the point of Hellboy; there's usually one or two fights in an entire Hellboy comic story, mostly quiet investigation and character interaction.

Yeah, no. Waiting for streaming on this steamer.

What I'm Watching and Criticizing: The Good Place

So, up front: This is a trashy show in a lot of ways, that's trying to be much, much higher and mostly failing. It exists so someone who wasted their college tuition reading philosophers can pick up a paycheck name-dropping Kant in each script; Kudos to that guy for finding a way to make philosophy pay. (disclosure: I also read philosophers in college and since, mostly on my own time, and never tried to extract money for it.) But it is not written as a philosophy treatise, though it occasionally tries; mostly it's just a dumb sitcom.

The main cast are a trashy girl-next-door mean chick, a hot chick with an English accent I hate, a philosophy nerd (irony/shitty writing: black guy, entirely teaching from texts written by old white guys, all but the latest of whom kept slaves; not a single non-honky philosophy is ever discussed), and a moron, trying to survive an afterlife where they don't quite seem to belong, run by well-past-sell-date Ted Danson and a slightly frumpy robot girl (who says she's neither), in standard sitcom cycles (literally: There's mental reboots that happen so episodes can restart at the beginning), though it does change up the formula eventually. I do like the hot chick and the mean chick; they have character. Maybe the robot girl, even limited by her role. Sadly, the nerd is one-note, the moron is barely able to breathe in and out without electric shocks, the ancient stick-figure of Ted Danson is stiff and overacts when he does break being stiff.

The key premise of the show is that you earn "points" by your actions in life, which sorts you into "The Good Place" or "The Bad Place". There's, uh, roughly everything wrong with this.

Obviously first, there's no magical afterlife. It makes no sense: There's no evolutionary advantage to an afterlife, and Humans being the only animals who can rationalize and make up stories to deal with our fear of death is infinitely more likely than that a magic sky fairy suddenly gifted Homo sapiens with an invisible remote backup system. When you die, your brain patterns rot and the program that was you ceases to be recoverable in about 5-10 minutes. There's probably nothing like an Omega Point or Roko's Basilisk for the same reason; that information won't survive from the current hot period of the Universe to the long cold efficient computational period, so no AI can reconstruct you. I'm as sad and angry about this as anyone, but I don't delude myself.

Second, even if we say "YER A WIZARD HARRY" and you have a magical afterlife, it's populated by immortal beings (IB), somehow. Where do they come from? How does that evolve? How do they get magical powers? If Humans can get a half-measure of sanity and wisdom by 40, 60, 80 years, every IB should be perfectly enlightened and know every trick and skill possible by 1000, 100000, 13.5 billion years old. The IBs shown are as stupid and easily-tricked as Humans, when you get to The Actual Plot of this show. To pick the exact opposite of this show, Hellraiser had an internally consistent magical afterlife: "Hell" is an alien universe inhabited by Cenobites with a wide range of power, whose experiences are so powerful that they would seem like torture to a Human; they collect Humans who seek that experience with magical devices, not to reward or punish meaningless behaviors on Earth; good or evil means nothing in Hellraiser.

Every IB in this show is insultingly stupid, repetitive physical tortures by frat boy demons, inferior to Torquemada's work here on Earth; farting evil robot girls; a neutral Judge too silly to be on a daytime TV show who only wants to eat her burrito. Low, low, lowest-fucking-brow comedy quite often.

Third, and most damning (heh), any system of morality with a scoring system then becomes solely about that scoring system. If "God and/or Santa are Watching" as Christians claim, you must act good according to the dictates of the Bible to score high enough to enter Heaven; it doesn't matter what's logically right and wrong, only the specific rules of an eternal sex-obsessed Middle-Eastern tyrant. Everyone who ate shellfish or wore mixed fibers or got a tattoo, forbidden by Leviticus, or failed to commit genocide & slavery when ordered by a prophet of God, as throughout the entire Old Testament, or masturbated to anyone but their lawfully wedded spouse, as forbidden by Jesus in Matthew 5:28, is gonna have a real bad eternity in Hell.

The scoring system for The Good/Bad Place makes it impossible to commit a "selfless" act unless you're a total moron (so, possibly the moron character, but he's unthinkingly rotten as often as nice). They treat this as a feature, as if you can only do good deeds when you can't see the score.

In philosophy without gods, you can choose to do good (try to define "good" in less than 10,000 pages…) instead of evil (same) because your personal or societal reward system is rigged that way (laws, in general), or because you selfishly want to look altruistic (maybe virtue-signalling to attract a mate), or because universalizing your behavior means you should selfishly do right to raise the level for everyone including yourself ("think global, act local"), or purely at random, and you have still done good deeds. While the ancient Stoics (especially my favorite, Marcus Aurelius ) respected piety to the immortalized Emperors and gods of the Pantheon, they didn't ask the gods for rules, they found a way to live based on reason, a modicum of compassion, and facing the harsh world that exists.

But once the authorities put in an objective score system in with infinite reward/punishment, you must act to maximize your score; there's no moral debate possible, you would just find the highest reward you can achieve each day and grind on it. Those born with the most wealth and privilege will be much more capable of raising their score instead of attending to life's necessities, so the rich get rewarded, the poor get punished.

This show seems to think Jiminy Cricket sits in your head as a quiet voice without any training, and you just have to listen to it to know good and evil. There's a discussion about Les Miserables re stealing bread (worth exactly -17 points), that's only used for mockery, but in real life that ambiguity is impossibly hard to make rules for.

I liked Eleanor and Tahani, and sometimes Michael, playing off each other enough to keep watching this through S2, but every time Chidi speaks I roll my eyes and wish that just once he'd reference someone not on the Dead Honkys shelf; especially not Prussian Immanuel Kant who wrote some of the earliest texts on "scientific racism", including such gems as "The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling" (1764, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime). Fuck that guy.

★½☆☆☆

Finishing Happy!

Done. Parts of this worked out well, as a violent fairy tale for Christmas.

The mob boss's sister's reality TV show, bruja grandmother(?), and the sort of return of her son was both annoying as hell (fake-ass social media & TV people, ugh), and sometimes the only good parts of an episode; but the actual supernatural shit going on around this later is jarring. Imaginary friends can be seen by someone else, great premise. They can touch things, uh, this is weird… But the demonic stuff I'm not so sanguine about (the sanguinary sauce scene is great, though!)

The bad guys' constant running the kids around to different places, no clear explanation of who's coming for them, the Big Bad's weird-ass bug suit cult, Bad Santa's, uh, friends… Not tied up neatly at all. Reminds me a bit of Shadowrun's Universal Brotherhood which are really insect spirits. Grant Morrison's had insectile villains, doing radical body and brain surgery with very similar results in The Invisibles, too.

The characters remain cartoonish and hard to take seriously. And there's a homophobic vibe to some of it, two villains are gay and weird about it, there's no positive portrayals (not that anyone's positive in this show, but still). I dunno if this is intentional; Chris Meloni's pro-gay rights, has done all but gay porn in Oz, so he's probably not meaning it to be taken this way. Grant's a cross-dresser, and is weird about it, but not like this. I still went "Oh, that's not OK" a couple times.

As is often the case, even on a short series, there's a lot that could've been cut. About 2-3 episodes worth are just "Nick goes to a new location, gets in a fight, gets a clue or has to flee to the next location". The fights are good, often funny slapstick; there's axes, and a chainsaw, and a kung fu gang in Chinatown. Blood but still not a lot of visceral damage.

There's a parody of a Tarantino film scene that made me laugh out loud for over a minute, and freaked out my dog. The show keeps dragging down to boring, and then up pops a good gag and it carries me forward to the next.

If we were making a checklist:

  • Bad Santa
  • Smoothie
  • Blue
  • Nick being an asshole all the time.
  • Big Bad

So, still ★★★★☆, but I'm creeped out by some portrayals, and probably other people will be, too.

What I'm Watching: Happy!

So, this is adapted from a Grant Morrison comic. Grant's a crazy person; one of my favorites, but I think adapting his work is a memetic hazard, immanentizing the eschaton.

Take Chris Meloni from Law & Order: SVU, and make him a washed-up drunk ex-cop Nick Sax. Add a CGI blue flying unicorn, imaginary friend of a little girl. … Sure. And a bad Santa who's kidnapped that little girl. Nick soon convinces himself he's not hallucinating, but he's such an asshole he may not care.

This is bizarre. It veers between parody of SVU, itself so earnestly grimdark it wrapped around to comedy, and Roger Rabbit comic antics.

You never feel bad seeing Meloni get beaten, tortured, or hit by a car; he's very punchable and seems like a bad dude even when playing good, and Nick's shit. There's a lot of blood and screaming, it's as violent as a Friday the 13th film; not quite Eli Roth but not cartoony. There's a flashback scene explaining how Nick got that way, and it would be traumatic to watch if not so far past plausible.

Almost all the characters are ridiculous caricatures; and then the mother of the girl isn't. She walked in from some totally different show and everything being insane around her doesn't faze her, she just wants her kid back.

Happy the unicorn is obnoxious in the way children's cartoons are, but watching him cope with Nick's horrible life is amusing.

I don't know if this is good in any rational sense. Like, if you sat down a normal, well-adjusted person with minimal traumas and made them watch this, they'd hate it and then vomit profusely. I find it kinda charming, a new holiday special up there with Lethal Weapon and Island of Misfit Toys.

★★★★☆

What I'm Watching: Get Shorty

I love Elmore Leonard's books, "Get Shorty" especially. The Barry Sonnenfeld/Travolta/DeVito film is silly, but a good take on it.

So this series made me wary. For good or ill, they've changed everything except the one-sentence summary: "Hoodlum makes a movie with stolen money". And it's full of "actors", visibly playing characters, rather than character actors; just like the prior movie.

They've replaced cool shylock & legbreaker Chili Palmer (Travolta's a stiff "actor" but was perfect for the role; he bleeds desperation and confusion) with inexplicably Irish scummy bagman & hitter Miles Daly (Chris O'Dowd), and piece-of-shit producer Harry Zinn with piece-of-shit producer Rick Moreweather (Ray Romano).

Miles is OK. Pathetic, chasing a separated wife and kid, but clearly more cunning than his job needs him to be and more optimistic than Chili. The mick accent renders his attempts at both menace and persuasion comical.

Ray Romano is loathsome, a humorless whiny Sienfeld-wannabe; but that's actually working here, Rick is not funny, he's sad and cowardly, the shittiest kind of Hollywood hack. And so Ray Romano suddenly fits. You can believe he's a man with no principles, with a rotten onion for a heart. His voice is still awful, and his Just For Men dyed beard and hair are preposterous.

They moved the mob's base from Miami and Vegas to a shithole casino outside Vegas. The mob boss Amara is interesting, but entirely too much time is spent on her pathetic crew, and Yago the "nemesis" our legbreaker isn't really needed. April Quinn (Megan Stevenson) is cute as the executive, and how they get her to do the job is good and dirty. Sidekick Louis (Sean Bridgers) is a Coen Bros type: Withdrawn & goofy one second, charming the next, instant murderous psychopath the next.

And: Peter Stormare as Hafdis the, uh, wise hobo when we first meet him. Stormare is more familiar to Elder Scrolls Online players as Jorunn the Skald King. I'm eager to do some draugr-slaying quests for ya, King.

As of S1E04, this is fun. I'd rather have another proper Elmore Leonard show, it's been too long since Justified ended. But as dark comedy loosely based on Elmore's themes, it's good.

★★★★☆