Recent Movies and TV

  • Jolt (2021): Kate Beckinsale has poor impulse control and kills a whole lot of people. Shit, that's all you had to say.

  • Blood Red Sky (2021): This is fantastic. Nobody actually says "I have had it with these motherfucking vampires on this motherfucking plane" but it is completely implied.

  • Hacks (2021): I didn't expect a story about a couple of washed up stand-up comics hating each other to be this funny, but it's pretty good.

  • The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard (2021): Dumb foul-mouthed fun. I have already forgotten everything about it.

  • The Empty Man (2020): A guy tries to figure out what a cult is up to and why they seem to have a weird interest in him. It takes a Lovecraftian turn, but without any tentacles at all.

  • Suicide Squad (2021): This was pretty funny. Not as good as the Harley Quinn movie, but worlds better than the first Suicide Squad.

  • Chompy and The Girls (2021): Trying to explain this would be fruitless, just go watch it.

  • Nightbooks (2021): Or, "Don't Trust the Baba Yaga In Apartment 23". A witch kidnaps a kid and makes him write scary stories. It's fun and the costumes are great.

  • Candyman (2021): I loved this. The way it re-frames the story of the first movie is great. The technical work on every scene that has a mirror in it is amazing -- they do some really subtle scares with those.

  • Black As Night (2021): Teens kill some damn vampires. It's very Buffy, in the best way.

  • Implanted (2021): What if Siri but evil. (Oh wait.) It's kind of the same story as Upgrade but I liked it more. Also kind of a rebuttal to Her.

  • The Night House (2021): A woman discovers that her dead husband was a creep, and is maybe haunting her. Pretty well done.

  • Val (2021): (Not the Val Kilmer movie.) A crook on the run breaks into a call girl's house, except oops, maybe she's the devil. It's pretty funny.

  • Leverage Redemption (2021): I was a fan of the original run of Leverage, and they did a great job of getting the band back together for this one.

  • Foundation (2021): Isaac Asimov was a piece of shit and a terrible writer, and Foundation was an incredibly boring rant about how math is better than sociology or something. Less "unfilmable" than "should not be filmed". But this show is ok, and as others have noted, that's mostly because it ignores just about everything from the books except for the one-sentence summary of the plot, and a bunch of character names.

  • Star Trek Lower Decks (2020): When this show began, I had some unkind words to say about it -- it seemed to me like it was just The Orville, "What if Star Trek, but cynical, barely-competent dimwits". But it got much better, and I kind of love it now. They mostly stopped with those sorts of jokes and showed that these people really are Starfleet. Also, there are some really deep cuts into Trek lore throughout.

  • What If...? (2021): These ranged from amazing to merely excellent. I am really impressed. The old What If comics always had a "kid burning ants with a magnifying glass" feel about them, but mostly these episodes were not so pessimistic, or so enamored with the idea that the mainline MCU is the best of all possible worlds. I did think the finale episode was weak, though. There was no need to try and tie everything together, and I think it would have been better without it.

  • Y The Last Man (2021): This (already-cancelled) show is absolutely terrible, but not for the reasons you'd probably expect. You'd expect them to have really put their foot in it over gender and trans issues, but mostly they seem to have not made a mess of that. No, it's awful because nothing ever happens and all of the characters are just shitty, boring people and I couldn't care less whether any of them survive. It's basically The Walking Dead but even more nonsensical. People go from point A to point B because... the plot demands it. Some major cities are "evacuated" and others are not because... the plot demands it.

  • La Brea (2021): This is literally Lost. In the first episode, a character jokes, "Maybe we're in an episode of Lost". It wasn't funny. Just like Lost, the only way these writers know how to advance a plot is for characters to keep secrets from each other. "We can't tell anyone what we found in the spooky cave, they might panic!" Fuck you all.

  • Star Wars Visions (2021): Watch the first episode, the samurai one, it's amazing. You can skip all the rest.

  • Midnight Mass (2021): There is really a lot of Catholic all over this, which can be kind of off-putting, but the acting is great, the writing is great, and the restraint they showed in not revealing the [REDACTED] until like episode 4 was impressive.

  • Brand New Cherry Flavor (2021): A filmmaker hires a witch to put a curse on the producer who done her wrong; antics ensue. This is fantastic and unpredictable. It takes a few nicely Cronenbergian detours, as well.

  • Chucky (2021): The new Chucky series is everything that I hoped it would be.

  • Malignant (2021): A woman's childhood invisible friend may have come back to do some light murdering. This is incredible and kept me guessing. Also the fight scenes involve some amazing contortion, and I really want to know now much was practical.

  • In Fabric (2021): An evil dress does evil things, kinda? But this is freaky and amazing. The cinematography is incredible. This is a new Suspiria.

  • Dashcam (2021): This is a forensic mystery in the vein of Blow Up or The Conversation, and because of that it worked even though it's kind of a COVID "zoom movie". It's mostly one guy in his apartment going "enhance!" but it is compelling and believable.

  • No One Gets Out Alive (2021): A story about a haunted-ish boarding house and an undocumented woman trying to GTFO. Very moody.

  • Dune (2021): It is very pretty, but it is basically the first two episodes of an 8 episode miniseries. It just kind of... stops. It did make me appreciate how much exposition Lynch managed to pack into his version, though. This one is like, "Mentats? Uh yeah we're just not going to explain what the deal is with those guys at all." I watched it with someone who didn't know the story, and I had to do a lot of explaining for them to be able to follow it.

    Something that neither movie nor the book explained, though: space flight is impossible without spice. So how the hell did they get there in the first place? And why isn't the Spacing Guild like, "Yeah, this is our planet, we will not be taking any questions."

    I re-read the book recently, for the first time since I was a kid. There are some interesting ideas in it, but it's not really very good. It has a real Ender's Game feel, where Paul goes from "fish out of water little boy" to "omniscient psychopathic god" over the course of like, one page. "How will the immortal psychic get out of this next pickle!" is maybe not the greatest device for plotting.


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Recent Movies and TV

Agents of Shield: Absolutely killing it in this, their final season. The writers' room is demonstrating that they are fully out of fucks. The field in which they grow their fucks is barren, and they are just absolutely going for it. It makes me reconsider my Rule About Time Travel. (If you haven't been watching it recently, you need basically no backstory to start S07. Just jump in.)

    Update: The remainder of the season was... less good. But the first half of S07 was gold. Gold!

Zomboat! I pretty much swore off anything zombie-related years ago, but this was very funny. Perhaps zom-com still has some meat on its bones.

Solar Opposites: This is to Rick & Morty what American Dad was to Family Guy. Not that Family Guy was any good (it was not) but somehow American Dad managed to be exactly the same show but worse. This is that.

Space Force: From the first couple episodes, this seemed like it was going to be another Veep: a show comprised entirely of venal idiots being cruel to each other. It's not quite that, but there's far too much of that in it. It gets better about halfway through, though. (Also Lisa Kudrow's character made me think it might be time for a Romy & Michele sequel.)

Hamilton: I'm surprised to find that this was good, actually.

Hanna, S02: I enjoyed this, but it was literally exactly the same story as Treadstone, except Treadstone was better.

Warrior Nun: Has kind of a Buffy vibe. Maybe halfway between Buffy and Impulse as far as the "reluctant hero" trope goes. Very fun. Unacceptable cliffhanger for a "binge" season release. (Watch Impulse!)

The Great: This was hilarious! And we're doomed forever!

We Summon The Darkness: The Craft meets Green Room. Such amazing costume design! The mullets and moustaches, the crimped hair, the Brooke Shields eyebrows. And it's nice to see some serial killers who are just not very bright, and kind of shit at their jobs. As we know, even dimwits can make a real mess of things.

The Turning: Pretty standard Victorian haunted house story, set in the early 90s for some reason. It hits all the usual ghost jump-scare, cruel-caretaker and creepy-kid notes, and there's not a lot to the plot, but it does look really, really good, because it's by Floria Sigismondi.

Guns Akimbo: I did not expect to make it more than 10 minutes into this, but it was kinda funny.

The Old Guard: Charlize Theron is a Highlander? Shit, that's all you had to say. (And it's based on a Greg Rucka comic that I hadn't heard of, somehow...)

Palm Springs: It's Groundhog Day and it's fantastic. It actually brings some new perspectives to the trope.

The Beach House: It starts off slow and fakes you out by pretending to be a "bad boyfriend" story, but once the eldrich body horror kicks in it is absolutely terrifying. I was impressed.

Sea Fever: Another eldrich horror on a boat! There seems to be a sub-genre of "climate change strikes back" horrors where the villain is unthinking and incomprehensible, and I'm here for it.

Aniara: A three week escape-cruise to Mars from a scorched Earth goes off track. So it starts off as Avenue 5 but fully bleak rather than a comedy. Then it takes a detour into some Solaris hallucinations, and then decades-long descent into isolation and Lord of the Flies. It's good, but in hindsight this was maybe not a good movie to watch during quarantine.

Brave New World: I'm only halfway through this but it is... not good. I haven't read the book since I was 13 but I don't remember it being about heterosexual monogomy as a revolutionary act. I think I liked this better when it was called Logan's Run. Though if someone were to offer me one of those bottomless MDMA pez dispensers that they all carry around, I wouldn't say no.


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Recent TV

I imagine all of you are going to be watching a lot more TV in the next few weeks. If you're looking for recommendations, may I direct you to my reviews tag, where I have written a lot of these micro-snark summaries.

Moving on:

I Am Not Ok With This: it's basically "Impulse" as a comedy with 20 minute long episodes. Pretty funny. A fine entry in the burgeoning "unwanted superpowers in a mundane world" genre.

BTW, watch "Impulse" again, it was so, so good.

High Fidelity: This is amazing. I was a huge fan of the Cusack movie, and this is even better. It's nearly Fleabag.

Harley Quinn (movie): This was really fun! It's basically Margot Robbie's Deadpool, down to the backstory: "Actor plays a great character in a shitty movie, becomes possessed by that character, becomes executive producer of their own movie of that character, which completely nails it."

Harley Quinn (cartoon): This is the greatest DC cartoon series ever made. It had not occurred to me that what was missing from these stories was lots and lots of swearing. But it is. It really, really is.

Johnny Mnemonic: I watched this in the theatre recently. I'm pretty sure this was only the second time I've seen this, and the first time was in the theatre for its first run. I hated it at the time: not only was it a poor example of the nascent cyberpunk genre, I found it just a really poor pastiche of Gibson's books, which I loved the shit out of. But watching it again, in 2020 (the movie is set in 2021), it's... better. Today, it's more about a 1995 vision of the future, so it's just retro kitch, more about the past than the future. I was kind of into it for about the first half, and then it goes pretty flat. The acting is poor, even for the genre-standards of the time. Honestly, when your best performances come from Henry Rollins and Ice T, what are you even doing? Nothing against those gentlemen, I enjoy their work, but they're not exactly what you'd consider heavy hitters.

Why would you even watch this when you could be watching Strange Days instead? Strange Days is the only Gibson adaptation we will ever need, even though it wasn't actually an adaptation of his work, except in only the important ways.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist: Woman starts hallucinating elaborate musical numbers. I really wanted to like this... but I could not. It's a fun idea, and it's in the same space as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but first of all, the songs are just... bad. Like, "bachelorette party at karaoke" bad. The choreography is fun but the song choice just so schlocky. Also the office-drama subplot is intolerably poorly written. This seems to have been written not only by someone who has never managed anyone, but possibly someone who has never had an office job, or possibly any job at all.

Briarpatch: Small town noir-ish murder mystery. It's fine so far.

Danzig's Verotika: I was unable to prevent myself from clicking on this car crash. Wowwwwww this is like, what if "Suicide Girls" was a series on Cinemax in 1992.

No subtitle has ever subtitled more accurately.
Devs: This seemed like it was going to be some stupid "Silicon Valley" story, but it's not, it's a very, very simple corporate murder story -- but it has pretensions of depth through its soundtrack of overwrought Kubrickian shrieks. As we pan across a hideous open-plan office done up in a "Trump's Shitter" color scheme, listen to the howling and buzzing from 2001's "Monolith reveal" or "stargate" scenes. What are you even doing. The sound design is cool and all but it's really wallpapering over the fact that there's not a lot here.

Avenue 5: BRB self-isolating with Incompetent Captain Dr. House. This is very, very funny!

October Faction: It's basically Supernatural as a high school drama if their dad hadn't left. So it's "All about fambly". The first half of the season is kind of a test pattern, but once they get around to doing the obvious turn of, "Maybe the real monsters were the friends we made along the way", it gets somewhat better.

Locke and Key: I could almost paste the October Faction review here.

Altered Carbon 2: Snooooore. See my previous review.


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Prima Bionic Eye

Pixium Vision has received the approval to begin in-human trials of a miniature wireless sub-retinal implant.

The PRIMA implant is a photovoltaic chip about 2mm square and only 30 microns thick. That's tiny, but the device has 378 electrodes. The patient uses a device that looks like a conventional pair of glasses but contains an integrated camera that sends data wirelessly to a small pocket-sized image processing computer. This computer then commands the glasses to send data to the implant via invisible infrared light. The chip converts the light to electrical impulses and conducts them to the optic nerve.

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The law expects civilians to remain calm even when police don't

Thank you to my friends and people throughout the country who have reached out to show support in the wake of my potentially tragic encounter with Knoxville Officer Matthew Janish.

I wanted to show him the keys or reach into my bag for the registration and bill of sale. I fought every impulse to do anything that would make him feel threatened. I don't have de-escalation training. I'm the one being held at gunpoint. I'm the one thinking my life could end if he panics. Yet, I'm the one expected to remain calm.

It seems that the legal system is really asking civilians to de-escalate adrenaline-fueled cops. We must remain calm while facing a loaded gun while the trained officers can panic and overreact.

What about our lives? Who protects us from the people who are supposed to protect us?

Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.

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NSA Exorcism

"A massive spiritual data hemorrhage that will release the banal facts of our lives back into the ether."

Drive the demons from the NSA data collection building known as "Titanpointe"! Mass exorcism ritual to purify data, reject false gods... and defend freedom of thought!

In the interests of metaphysically purging the edifice of the data it hoards and invoking a less maniacal version of citizen-government relations, on April 15th at 12 p.m. a cadre of priests, supplicants, and a volunteer choir affiliated with The Quiet American will exorcise the malevolent energy coursing through the so-called 'Long Lines Building' at 33 Thomas Street. This sacred day falls approximately one day before the rising of Christ, and three days before tax day.

Beginning with a prayer for the building's physical materials and an invocation of the gods this architectural fiasco has insulted, exorcisors will then lay a perimeter of salt around the building to render ineffective the sinister frequencies it broadcasts. In a rite of liberation and fertility, thousands of pages of personal data, bouquets of flowers, and an ostrich egg will then be sacrificed to the building, thereby triggering a massive spiritual data hemorrhage that will release the banal facts of our lives back into their proper home - the ether -- and expel the demons of fear and suspicion from the temple.

Windowless, monolithic, and creepy as all hell, the building at 33 Thomas Street is an altar to a false god, a monument to the bottomless fear that locks us in permanent war and makes us suspicious of our neighbors, our own towns and cities, our own capabilities and impulses. Windowless, shuttered to the world that it is intended to spy on, the building at 33 Thomas Street is a maelstrom of negative energy, a black hole that sucks up light in the form of our personal communications, then in some alchemical sleight of hand returns that light in the form of a panic and dread which we are assured is the real common currency of our civic life. Rather than allay fears of the end however, this brutalist heap - designed to withstand a nuclear assault and sustain the employees working within its bowels for two weeks - broadcasts paranoia.

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Autocracy: Rules for Survival

Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes."
Autocracy: Rules for Survival

However well-intentioned, this talk assumes that Trump is prepared to find common ground with his many opponents, respect the institutions of government, and repudiate almost everything he has stood for during the campaign. In short, it is treating him as a "normal" politician. [...]

But Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. [...] He is probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat -- and won.

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin's Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

  • Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler's anti-Semitism was all posture. [...]

  • Rule #2: Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. [...] Confronted with political volatility, the markets become suckers for calming rhetoric from authority figures. So do people. Panic can be neutralized by falsely reassuring words [...]

  • Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century's accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy. [...]

  • Rule #4: Be outraged. If you follow Rule #1 and believe what the autocrat-elect is saying, you will not be surprised. But in the face of the impulse to normalize, it is essential to maintain one's capacity for shock. This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting. It is no fun to be the only hysterical person in the room. Prepare yourself. [...]

  • Rule #5: Don't make compromises. Like Ted Cruz, who made the journey from calling Trump "utterly amoral" and a "pathological liar" to endorsing him in late September to praising his win as an "amazing victory for the American worker," Republican politicians have fallen into line. Conservative pundits who broke ranks during the campaign will return to the fold. Democrats in Congress will begin to make the case for cooperation, for the sake of getting anything done -- or at least, they will say, minimizing the damage. [...]


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Today in tasp snake-oil news


The forehead and the neck piece generate impulses, controlled by the program you've loaded via a companion smartphone app, that actively jolt the neurons in those two sensitive areas; these programs generate mood shifts that Thync calls "Vibes." At present, there are two sets of Vibes available: One designed to produce relaxation, and another designed to produce alertness. [...]

I barely wait before jacking the setting to 100. There's no point in experiencing something unless you're doing it to the max. At 70, the sensation the device produces is like ants crawling on the surface of your skin. At 100, the ants are on the inside of your skin and dancing a wild myrmecoid folk dance. [...]

The 20 minutes are up sooner than I imagined. I peel the device from my forehead, remove the underlying disposable electrodes, replace my glasses. The difference, I must admit, is palpable: Everything seems more finely etched, crisper. I notice more details in the world around me, and the sense of dullness that three days spent listening to press pitches from moribund industry giants has draped over my brain seems to have been peeled away.

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Consciousness on-off switch discovered deep in brain

For the first time, researchers have switched off consciousness by electrically stimulating a single brain area.

The woman has epilepsy so the team were using deep brain electrodes to record signals from different brain regions to work out where her seizures originate. One electrode was positioned next to the claustrum, an area that had never been stimulated before.

When the team zapped the area with high frequency electrical impulses, the woman lost consciousness. She stopped reading and stared blankly into space, she didn't respond to auditory or visual commands and her breathing slowed. As soon as the stimulation stopped, she immediately regained consciousness with no memory of the event.

To confirm that they were affecting the woman's consciousness rather than just her ability to speak or move, the team asked her to repeat the word "house" or snap her fingers before the stimulation began. If the stimulation was disrupting a brain region responsible for movement or language she would have stopped moving or talking almost immediately. Instead, she gradually spoke more quietly or moved less and less until she drifted into unconsciousness. [...]

Anil Seth, who studies consciousness at the University of Sussex, UK, warns that we have to be cautious when interpreting behaviour from a single case study. The woman was missing part of her hippocampus, which was removed to treat her epilepsy, so she doesn't represent a "normal" brain, he says.

However, he points out that the interesting thing about this study is that the person was still awake. "Normally when we look at conscious states we are looking at awake versus sleep, or coma versus vegetative state, or anaesthesia." Most of these involve changes of wakefulness as well as consciousness but not this time, says Seth. "So even though it's a single case study, it's potentially quite informative about what's happening when you selectively modulate consciousness alone."

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It was to be a spectacular 19th Century publicity stunt with a carefree carnival mood. It ended in explosions, flying metal and death.

Crush's proposal was to take two of the obsolete locomotives and put them on a track facing each other a couple of miles apart. The crews would then fire the engines up, get them moving and jump off. The trains would race toward each other, picking up speed, until they met in a fiery and spectacular crash. The railroad would charge nothing to view the man-made disaster, but would profit from tickets sold for special excursion trains running to the site. [...]

The trains hit very near to the expected spot. What was unexpected was that the boilers on both locomotives exploded like twin bombs. "There was just a swift instance of silence, and then as if controlled by a single impulse both boilers exploded simultaneously and the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel..." reported The News. The flying metal had a deadly effect. People ran in terror. Two young men and a woman were killed. Six other people were seriously injured. One of the official photographers lost an eye. The trains themselves were completely destroyed, except for their last cars, which remained virtually untouched. After the crowd recovered from the blast, it swarmed over the wreckage to find souvenirs.

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