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Archive for Media

Ready Player One wasn’t unmitigated garbage, but it wasn’t that plausible either

I finally got down to the local cinemaplex to take in a viewing of White Nerd Fantasies: The Future part one.  Based on the general backlash to the book that’s been circulating online, I expected that the movie would continue the weird 80s nostalgia excesses of the book (which I frankly loved, despite acknowledging its problematic aspects). The book and the movie don’t share a lot of similarities in that regard.  The soundtrack seemed to be the primary place that called out the 80s. There were plenty of more modern references and cameos to be seen as well but I think visual references seem a lot less obnoxious than those on the written page.  I expected to find a much more off-putting movie than I did, so I was pleasantly entertained, and indeed, part of me was thrilled.  I’ve had a personal fascination with virtual reality since the 9th grade, when I spent the year writing a research paper on it. I’ve waited my whole life for virtual reality to be taken this seriously, and it took seeing it up there on the big screen to realize just how ridiculous a future including something like the OASIS really seems.

The first barrier you’d have to get over for wide-spread adoption of something like VR as depicted in this film is the “ridiculous” effect.  People participating in VR look absolutely insane to those who don’t have a screen strapped to their face. The movie played up this effect to great impact, intercutting between dramatic action-filled moments in virtual reality with the real world ridiculousness of people in black lycra suits waving around frantically.  Not impossible to overcome, but definitely something that hampers the development of an OASIS.

The second barrier is the idea that anyone would spend that much time playing the same thing for more than a few months. Take a look at the “free to play” games list on Steam sometime.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of games on there, some of which are being played at any given time by sixty people at most.  The diversification of options means getting a large crowd onto the same service or “planet” or whatever you want to call them seems impossible and absurd.   There would be a dozen or more OASISes and most of them would look like ghost towns.  An awful lot of people would be holed up in private creations, probably.  IOI would have just created their own competing simulation platform.

Also,  the film kind of portrays a wide web of people who seem to ignore those closest to them in favor of distant connections.  While this is a life some of us do indeed live, the majority of people use the connectedness of the internet and social media to stay in touch with people that live near them, that are already important in their lives.  Not an awful lot of people seem to use social media to connect to random strangers.  They use it to reinforce the bonds they already have.  So social media, not gaming, makes up a good chunk of internet usage.  We don’t really see that in this future.  Perhaps it’s there off camera?

Virtual reality, as I grow older, seems like the bizarre fantasy of social misfits and shut-ins who want to be isolated, but still have life experiences.  “Wouldn’t it be great if we could climb a mountain without actually leaving our house?” Why would that be great?  I understand the appeal if you are, for instance, disabled, but for the relatively average person, I suspect the experience will always pale to the real thing because as Halliday says in the movie, it’s not real. Realness matters and will continue to matter until they’re plugging our brains directly into a simulation, which I’m not sure will ever truly be possible (but who knows).   It’s like androids. Androids don’t make much sense to me except in a few rare instances.  Why make artificial people who are indistinguishable from people when you have a surplus of… actual people around who could really use something to do?

Don’t get me wrong – I still see utility in virtual reality as a tech innovation, and maybe one day I will actually own my own gear, but I suspect it will mostly be a niche experience.

Finally, my main complaint is that the future in the film projects the apathy of Generation X onto new generations that have as of yet not displayed any of the apathy that seems necessary to give us the RPO future.  Today’s teens seem far more engaged in trying to change the world than the rest of us.  That alone makes RPO’s future seem pretty implausible.  The #NeverAgain kids are pretty unlikely to lose themselves to spending all their time playing games on Planet Doom.  The kids are alright.  I don’t think they’re going to let this happen, and I for one look forward to how they’re going to make visions of the future like this one utterly obsolete.

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Filling in the Cinematic Gaps: Goodfellas (1990)

One of my favorite things in this cruel and uncaring world is to watch a movie in the theater, followed not too far down the list by watching a movie at home after my preschooler has finally gone to $*%#ing sleep. Lately, inspired by my friend Marc’s deep dive into cinema, I’ve been working to fill in the gaps in my cinematic experiences when I can find the time. The latest hole to be patched was Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

I’ve seen plenty of gangster movies and maybe a dozen episodes of the Sopranos, but it’s never been a genre in which I’ve taken a strong interest. Obviously I tend to go for things that are a bit less grounded in reality, and I’m not particularly a big fan of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, who seem to have acted or starred in 95% of all modern gangster movies.

Gangsters in this genre make me uneasy in the same way I suspect sharks make other people nervous. They’re unpredictable, dangerous, and deadly. Their deadliness makes it hard for me to watch stories about them because I spend the whole time waiting for them to come through the screen and whack me and my whole family. You might think this is odd because I like crime and heist movies. In those movies, the characters are less often murderers and more the thieving kind, and I find that less threatening and uncomfortable. Let’s face it: an awful lot of gangster movies end in an orgy of murder and mayhem.

That said, I overcame my discomfort long enough to sit through Goodfellas and generally, I’m glad I did. This is an oddly placed film in time, having come out in 1990, but it feels very much like an 80s or 70s film rather than a 90s one. The film grain, the acting, and the music choices anchor it in an earlier era, and as the film drifts from the 50s into the early 80s, it never quite stopped holding on to its earliest time periods.

One thing that stood out in the early chapters was how Scorsese leans hard on a freeze frame narrative device, in which Ray Liotta’s character can pontificate about his past without the film’s action running ahead of him. It’s an odd technique that I don’t recall him utilizing nearly so often in his other pictures. It had the overall impact of slowing down the picture to start, which may well have been his intent. At 146 minutes, it felt at times more like a solid 180+ minute picture.

A big surprise for me was that Ray Liotta was the real lead of this picture. Everything about this movie that had drifted into my general pop culture knowledge involved Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. Many of the lines of dialogue that were likely strong, memorable moments to original viewing have long since been milked of any vitality by the parodies that have followed (especially Pesci’s infamous scene where he busts Liotta’s balls over a simple compliment to the point where we soon fear violence will break out).  Liotta’s performance as a somewhat dim-witted and at-times decent man contrasted well with his co-stars, and served as a strong narrator who at times faded a little too much in the background against his more colorful co-stars.

The stand-out performance here was Joe Pesci’s, of course. I loathed Pesci’s character from the first minute he was on screen until he finally took a bullet. Pesci’s performance here was great, definitely the kind of thing he specialized in for years–characters that you absolutely loved to hate.  Pesci absolutely earned his Best Supporting Oscar in this picture, and as time goes on, his performance as that unhinged and unpredictable man will linger even as other memories of Goodfellas will fade.

If I had to summarize this movie, I would say: it’s about sharks in suits who spend a lot of time treating women like shit and then come to morally appropriate ends. It’s not a masterpiece of cinema like The Godfather and it’s not probably even as memorable a movie overall as even Casino. Scorsese’s ability to get memorable acting work out of these actors in goodfella wise-guy roles is on display here as usual, but structurally, and from a story-telling standpoint, it doesn’t stand up to the test of time. It ranks in the middle of Scorese’s oeuvre for me, but that’s still better than an awful lot of cinema out there.

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The Sunday Shift : Serving Up Great Chicken With a Side Helping of Ass Kickin’

While getting ready to tackle my day this morning, I came up with a TV show or comic book series pitch. It’s called : SUNDAY SHIFT.  The proper names are mostly placeholders right now, but the general basic concept was too much fun not to share.

JAMES HERO (JIMMY) is your typical disaffected 19 year old dork; he loves playing video games and looking for love, and mostly he’d rather be doing either of those things than working his day job for the pious fast food chain, WWCD (Winner Winner Chicken Dinner). WWCD is known to all for making pretty tasty chicken, but their reputation as a company owned by self-righteous Christians drives Jimmy to lie to his friends about where he works. Still, he’s a hard worker with a mysterious family history, perhaps even a legacy.  His commitment to a job done well catches the eye of his manager, MACE SOLOMON. Mace looks less like a fast food manager and more like a grizzled war veteran, and speaks very cryptically in strange, half-mangled aphorisms.   He’s missing a hand, which everyone says is due to a fryer accident at his last job.

One day after a particularly painful failure of an attempt to ask out the cute girl next door right after learning that he’s at risk of flunking out of college, Jimmy stops by to pick up his next week’s work schedule. To his confusion, he learns he’s been scheduled to work the Sunday shift… only everybody knows WWCD is closed on Sundays.

Mace tells Jimmy to show up at 11:59 PM on Saturday night, and not a minute later, claiming that they take the night to clean the store from top to bottom.

When Jimmy shows up to work his first late shift, he learns that not all is as it appears at WWCD. At the stroke of midnight, a gong sound rings out, and Mace rips off his fast food uniform to reveal tactical body armor. Hidden panels spring open to reveal weapons where there should be condiments. And a horde of demon-possessed zombie people fill the parking lot, screaming for Mace and Jimmy’s blood.

The entire building is weaponized and trapped.  Playground equipment emits jets of flame to roast baddies.  Straw dispensers turn into mini machine guns firing weaponized tubes of plastic at the horde.  Mace tosses Jimmy a shotgun and tells him that his only job now to protect the walk-in freezer with his life.

At one point, Jimmy’s cute girl neighbor nearly rips his head off, before Mace blows her away. “You killed a girl I kind of think I love!” “Don’t worry about it! She’ll get better!” Or patter to that effect.

Together, they fight off the waves of evil until, as the first slivers of dawn sunlight creep over horizon, the horde become normal people again, the dead rising as if never wounded, and they confusedly wander home, wondering what they drank last night.

Mace takes Jimmy for a diner breakfast where he explains the true nature and reason for WWCD. The founders of the company aren’t fundamentalist Christians. They’re actually an ancient order of druids, responsible for protecting the sacred places of power all across the United States and the world.  WWCD is a front that alllows them to buy up property and build defensive structures on these locations to protect them from the attacking forces of evil.

Sunday being the day that the Gods rest throughout many religions, this is the day that evil strikes.  So WWCD are closed on Sunday to the public so that they can do their “real” job which is fighting the evil.  That doesn’t mean that evil rests during the rest of the week… Mace and Jimmy have to keep a careful eye on things, as evil resorts to sneakier ways the rest of the week.

Mace has been there since the beginning, but he’s getting old, and he lost a previous WWCD to evil forces, which is now a Burger Hut (the evil forces operate their own fast food cover chain too).  He’s not got much longer in this game before they finally take him down, so he’s decided to train Jimmy to be his assistant manager.  Together, they will take down the evil across town at the Burger Hut and he will pass the torch to Jimmy.

Jimmy’s going to need help if he’s going to make it as the new assistant manager, so his first job will be to recruit co-workers to help him on the SUNDAY SHIFT.  How will he balance his school life, love life, pretend work life, and defender of the world life?  He’ll be terrible at it, and it will be hilarious to watch.

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Deepfakes Will Destroy Our Society, but Let’s Talk About the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Foundations Instead

Last night, I felt a hankering to watch the original Iron Man movie, and because this is the era of instant gratification, once we’d finished dinner, coaxed the little dude to sleep, and shut down business operations for the night, we settled in for a viewing via Amazon Prime. Okay, so as instant as it gets when you’re parents, but we did eventually watch it and I think the wife only fell asleep a couple of times.

The reason it was on my mind was because I was browsing the deepfakes gifs subreddit and for some reason, someone had taken a bunch of scenes from that movie and mapped Elon Musk’s face onto Robert Downey Jr’s.  It wasn’t a particularly believable deepfake, unlike some of the ones with Nick Cage’s face (I’ll never understand Reddit’s fixation with Cage).  We’re 3-4 years away from being able to recast any movie with any person utilizing neural network-based software and a boatload of photographic reference.   The deepfakes phenomenon started out primarily being used for incredibly creepy porn, but the technology will likely see numerous uses we haven’t predicted, especially given just about anybody can set up and train one with a little effort.  The implications for journalism are particularly worrisome, especially when combined with the level of voice synthesis tech that’s been circulating.  Talk about “fake news”… but that’s a much more depressing post. My dive into deepfakes got me thinking once more about the MCU’s beginnings. Let’s fiddle for a while and ignore all that smoke, shall we? (more…)

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Television Will Eat Your Favorite Books and Regurgitate Xenomorph Goo With Which to Trap You

Exciting news spread like this season’s flu through SF/F Twitter today–Amazon will be adapting Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. It looks like we’re finally going to get a show with giant spaceships named “Just Read the Instructions” and “Of Course I Still Love You.”

Me, I’m not a huge Culture fan, although I respect it. In truth, I’ve only read Player of Games and I found it to be a little lacking. I waited too long to dive into these books and allowed my expectations to build too high, probably. The twists in the plot seemed predictable to me and the descriptions of games didn’t match the richness of my own gaming experiences. I would like to see a take on the same concepts written now in the golden era of board games. The writing was ace, though, and I like the ideas in the world-building quite a bit. I do intend to read more of them soon, and I can’t compare my one book experience to the the opinions of those who have read all of them.

I’ve seen a lot of trepidatious excitement about this adaptation, which while this one isn’t my particular cup of tea, I know that feel, bro. Back in 2002-2005, just out of college, I was awash in a new wave of exciting science fiction, the stuff that made me want to take up writing again. China Miéville blew my mind, and then Richard Morgan shot the still airborne pieces with pinpoint precision. I absolutely loved Altered Carbon when it came out, and I avidly read all the other Takeshi Kovacs books as they were published. I felt that same trepidation as the Culture fans at the news that Altered Carbon was getting the Netflix treatment.

So how do I feel about the series? “Meh” would be rude, so how about “lukewarm.” I mean, it goes without saying that not every book makes a great television show or movie. Putting my finger on why this book didn’t make the leap to the screen successfully has been something i’ve given a lot of thought lately. I am about seven episodes in, and I may revise my opinions once I finish it, but right now, it feels… cramped.

There’s this cramped feeling that comes from taking a large scale show and squeezing it into easily re-used sound stage sets, I suspect. For some reason, the book made me believe in a larger world, but I think I can count the sets of this show in my mind. Oddly, The Expanse doesn’t suffer from the same issue for me (I wonder how the budgets compare?). My issue with The Expanse is that the characters I know and love from the books are so much further along, and I’m impatient to see them develop the relationships that are fresh in my mind from the books.

The other problem with Kovacs is possibly that the lead doesn’t do much for me with his performance. He feels a bit wide-eyed and taciturn and honestly a lot more of an asshole than I remember. Hard to capture the hard-boiled Takeshi’s narration in a television show, I suppose.  Finally, there’s a lot more violence against women than I remembered and while I understand the point of it, I’m not as comfortable with it now as I might have been at the age of 25. My eyes have been opened to a lot of things since then.

It’s got me thinking that some of my favorite books might not be the best candidate for the media hypercash jump. I’m not sure that I would ever want to see Perdido Street Station with actors taking on imitations of my favorite characters. I’d rather not be put in the position of being that snooty-ass bastard who says: “I liked the book better.”

That said, if anybody wants to adapt any of my stories for the screen, you know how to get ahold of me. I still got bills to pay just like most of us, and I don’t blame anybody for taking those stacks of cash.

One last thing that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the flow of all that above: if Netflix decides to make a spin-off about Poe’s adventures as an AI house, I am there.

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