Thursday, October 01, 2015

#42Movies, Day 21: Puzzle Hunts

This is not a clue. OR IS IT? No, it's not. Swearsies:

Midnight Madness (1980)
The Game (1997)

Hints and solution after the trailers. j/k! ;)

For the record, that trailer for Midnight Madness is terrible and tells you nothing about the movie. This clip is more revealing, but still not very informative. And I have to imagine it's not because the distributor wanted to be mysterious about the content; I'm sure it's because they weren't sure advertising a movie full of "puzzles" was the best way to attract an audience.

We have this problem all the time with Puzzled Pint, when we try to describe the event to the uninitiated. The second most popular response—after "What do you win?"—is "I'm not smart enough for that." Both of those attitudes (and Midnight Madness, for that matter) assume that all puzzling events are competitions. It's not surprising, since the point of most games and sports is to determine a winner, but PP aims more for education and outreach.

The Game also focuses on a problematic aspect of puzzle events: the double-edged sword of mystery, which can contribute to surprise (good) or paranoia (less good). When I first got into puzzling in the mid-1990s, "The Game" was still very much underground, to the point that Game Control (the people running the event) would go out of their way to conceal their identities. In fact, GCs were outright antagonistic in some of those Games, flat-out refusing to give hints even when teams were stuck and not having fun anymore.

I'm happy to say that kind of hostile behavior is less prevalent in puzzling events these days, but many people still find mystery to be a very compelling element of puzzling—sometimes overwhelmingly so, to the point that they prefer (and actively seek out) experiences whose creators shroud themselves in manufactured obscurity. I personally prefer to know the author of a work before committing to a chancy product. I do value the process of discovering how a puzzle works, but I want some assurance that it will not be a disappointing waste of time and money.

(If, at this point, you feel the need to point out that "past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes:" fuck you. Seriously, FUCK YOU. Our lives are built upon the principle of inductive reasoning; we know the Sun will rise tomorrow before we understand anything about astronomy or science. That disclaimer is valid when applied to a known-volatile situation like legalized gambling the stock market, but when it comes to people, we make laws based on the idea that personal change, if it happens, is slow and difficult. So yeah, I want to know who's behind something before I believe in it, whether it's a puzzle hunt or a Kickstarter.)

Anyway. I'm not sure how I became known as "that puzzle guy," but here I am. It's been a big part of my life for almost two decades, and though it's changed a lot over those years—fewer weekend-long driving hunts, more escape rooms everywhere—it's still an interesting and exciting hobby. I plan to keep using my brain for fun until the day I die.


I'm Feeling 42


That's Taylor Swift, in case you were wondering, from her foreword to 1989.

And here are The Doubleclicks to sing me into a new year:

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling forty-two.

(Are you in Portland? Come celebrate with me!)


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

#42Movies, Day 20: Emily Blunt's Time Machine

She's a brick house. As shown here:

Looper (2012)
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Let it all hang out after the trailers.

Here's what you're going to do. You're going to do a double feature of these two amazing films, back to back. First watch Looper, in which Emily Blunt's character has a smaller but still pivotal role; then watch Edge of Tomorrow, where she gets to play a motherfucking badass. Seriously: even though it's William Cage's story, Rita Vrataski is the hero. (Yes, hero. Not "heroine." HERO. The myth leaves something to be desired—as does Shakespeare's homage—but "Hero" is a woman's name. DEAL WITH IT.)

And when you're done with all that, feel free to deploy this animated GIF liberally on social media:


(See also:


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#42Movies, Day 19: What A Twist!

Are you surprised to see... *THESE* TWO MOVIES AS A DOUBLE FEATURE???

The Mask (1994)
The Prestige (2006)

Major spoilers after the trailers.

For the record: I don't care that much about spoilers. That's not to say that I will seek out information on how a story ends, if I plan to enjoy it myself later; but I won't object if you want to tell me what happens in a particular narrative for the purpose of discussing it further. In general, I agree with Scalzi's Spoiler Statute of Limitations, and I do my best to check with any audience or conversation circle before dropping spoilers.

A big part of this is that it's just plain difficult to avoid spoilers these days. Marketers and promoters seem to want to reveal more and more about their products all the time, to the point where I've literally seen a three-minute movie trailer and then felt no need to see the actual two-hour film, because I was pretty sure I knew everything important that was going to happen. Part of that is how formulaic some genres can be, but studios also want to reassure audiences about what to expect when they sit down in a theatre. And nobody can agree on how potentially damaging spoilers actually are.

You may recall seeing news articles like this one about a 2011 UC San Diego study on the psychology of spoilers, which trumpeted the conclusion that "Story Spoilers Don't Spoil Stories" (PDF). However! A more in-depth 2014 study titled "Spoiler Alert: Consequences of Narrative Spoilers for Dimensions of Enjoyment, Appreciation, and Transportation" (PDF), came to the exact opposite conclusion, reaffirming the conventional wisdom that spoilers can and do adversely affect an audience's enjoyment of a story:
[A]lthough spoilers may not always "spoil" as much as one is intuitively led to believe, they can certainly harm the audience's experience, or at least specific facets of their responses to the narrative. The present results demonstrate that spoilers do not have a universally positive effect on enjoyment and related media gratifications... Clearly, for some audiences, the production and editing of trailers and promotional materials should aim to minimize spoiling narratives, while programmers who write code that helps fan communities avoid online spoilers (Liebelson, 2013; Nakamura & Komatsu, 2012) are likely providing a useful service.
Scholarship on this topic is still pretty thin, with only a handful of studies to date. And there's an overwhelming tide of lay opinion which probably makes research difficult, from Joss Whedon calling surprise a "holy emotion" to Mark Evanier's friend Bob learning that Richard Dreyfuss is an alien. We instinctively want our first experience of a narrative to be completely fresh—perhaps because that's how real life works—and we each know how much story spoilage we ourselves will tolerate.

There are many fun things in both The Mask and The Prestige besides their respective "twists," but they hold up to repeat viewings for two reasons, I think: one, because knowing what's coming allows you to appreciate the build-up to that reveal, hints and misdirects both; and two, because the point of each story is not just surprising the audience, but surprising the characters. We care about how the people in the story deal with the revelations, and knowing what's coming gives you a clear before-and-after view.

Finally, director M. Night Shyamalan demonstrates the proper way to pronounce the title of this blog post:


Monday, September 28, 2015

#42Movies, Day 18: A Very Specific Milieu

Setting is everything here:

Office Space (1999)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Take a tour after the trailers.

I knew next to nothing about both of these movies when I walked into them. For Office Space, DeeAnn and I went to our local multiplex to see something else—I don't even remember what our original selection was—and ran into our friend Aaron Hallmark in line at the box office. He was a huge Mike Judge fan, and very excited about Judge's live-action feature debut, so we changed plans and joined Aaron's pilgrimage. It's always more fun to do things with friends.

For Master and Commander, I want to say DeeAnn and I were at the Metreon in San Francisco, possibly after having done something else in the city and wanting to extend our stay (to meet her 2:1 fun-time-to-travel-time requirement—long story, tell you later). I distinctly remember eating at a food-court-type place after the movie and talking about how much we liked it. Neither of us had read the late Patrick O'Brian's novels, but the film is extremely well made and completely immerses the audience in its historical era (to the point of skirting a few uncomfortably racist/sexist moments, but only incidentally, not maliciously or overtly).

Speaking of racism and sexism... I recall later discussing Master and Commander with another friend and having one of my most naked encounters with white male privilege. This friend said he didn't like the movie because he didn't buy its central premise: that a single ship patrolling around South America in 1805 could possibly affect the wartime fortunes of the Royal Navy against Napoleon's forces. I didn't even know where to begin to respond.

Because the point of the whole thing was the officers and crew of HMS Surprise believing in their duty, whether or not it was actually, strategically significant. It became clear to me, in that moment, that my friend wasn't interested in understanding what made the characters tick as people—he was only interested in analyzing them as the parts of a political machine. And it's sad but true: not caring who people are, only how you can use them, is an attitude endemic (though by no means exclusive) to straight white dudes.

I didn't try to talk to this friend much about fiction after that. (BTW, this was also the same guy who refused to travel by car unless he was driving the vehicle himself. Yup, he literally wouldn't go anywhere with you unless he felt like he was in control. OMG THE MAN PAIN)

But back to the movies. Both Office Space and Master and Commander make great use of the details of their specific time and place, from dialogue to costumes to music. To watch them is to briefly glimpse another world and get a fascinating view of the native culture, whether it's late twentieth century suburban Texas or a vessel sailing the Atlantic Ocean in the early nineteenth century. You can never visit either place now, but you can understand something about them through these stories. That's the point.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

#42Movies, Day 17: At the Movies with DeeAnn

If you want to understand my wife, it might help to know that these are two of her favorite movies:

Zero Effect (1998)
Mumford (1999)

Backstory after the trailers.

First order of business: both of these films are much better than those trailers make them look. Seriously. I'm talking light-years. Zero Effect is a brilliant modern retelling of "A Scandal in Bohemia," and Mumford is honestly unclassifiable, but even though it covers a lot of different narrative territory, it never feels like it's all over the map; it simply feels inclusive.

And here's another fun bit of trivia: Mumford was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, and Zero Effect was directed by... Jake Kasdan. That's right, it's a father-and-son filmmakers double feature! (DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND? No? Okay. Moving on.)

A few years ago, I wanted to plan something special to celebrate DeeAnn's birthday, and I hit upon the idea of a day out centered around a private little film festival. This was also the year before we moved out of the Bay Area, so I thought it'd be a nice way to catch up with people we might not see again before we relocated.

Here's the invitation I sent to our friends:

That day was, in fact, a whole lot of fun, and the private screening of Zero Effect and Mumford was pretty sweet. (I'm telling you: if I ever get rich someday, like GRRM rich, I'm totally going to buy a movie theatre.)

I was glad to be able to introduce these two movies to some people who hadn't seen them before, and happy to be able to experience them with DeeAnn again. She's very particular when it comes to comedies. She doesn't generally like broad schtick or outrageous physical stunts. She's more into offbeat dialogue, unusual relationships, and characters who feel real.

I've learned a lot about storytelling from watching movies and TV with DeeAnn—in particular, about how audiences want to connect with the people they see onscreen, and how that becomes easier if those characters seem like complete and authentic human beings. My writing (and, indeed, my life) is better now because of her.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

#42Movies, Day 16: When Curtis Met DeeAnn...

And speaking of strong female characters... These two films figured prominently in the week when I met the woman who is now my wife:

Titanic (1997)
As Good As It Gets (1997)

I'll explain after the trailers.

In December of 1997, DeeAnn—who was living near Chicago at the time—flew out to the Bay Area to visit her best friend from high school, Karin, who (with her husband Bryan) happened to be my next-door apartment neighbor at the time. We actually met at another movie, the Stanford Theatre's annual Christmas Eve screening of It's a Wonderful Life (the viewing of which has become a holiday tradition for us).

I hadn't seen Titanic at that time, but DeeAnn was talking about it when she first arrived. So I went to see a matinee (I was working for AT&T at the time, and the company shut down for the entire week between Christmas and New Year's Day), so I could talk to her about it in detail.

Yeah, that was probably a signal right there.

A few days later, all four of us went to see As Good As It Gets together. It's a small, quirky movie, but makes good use of its unsympathetic comedy protagonist (played by Jack Nicholson) to push all the characters into unexpected situations and relationships which blossom into real human concerns. Okay, that flowery description might oversell it, but it's good beyond my own personal history. And yes, that is Julie Benz as the hapless receptionist in the trailer.

One of the other movies we watched that week was Sophie's Choice. I don't remember why. Does seem kinda weird in retrospect. Anyway.

DeeAnn moved to the Bay Area in 1998. We moved in together in 2000 and got married in 2005. This winter, we'll have been together for eighteen years. I look forward to growing old with her—like, at least as old as that Titanic lady—with more movies, more anniversaries, and more happy memories every year.


Friday, September 25, 2015

#42Movies, Day 15: Strong Female Characters

Speaking of Joss Whedon (video)... this list could be much, much longer:

Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
The Peacemaker (1997)

...but it still wouldn't be long enough. Let's talk after the trailers.

Earlier this week, parody news site The Onion ran an article titled "Screen Actors Guild Develops Retraining Program For 30-Year-Old Actresses Aging Out Of Workforce." It's a spot-on satire, and it's as painful as it is funny.

Because it's true: Hollywood today has very little use for actresses over thirty. (Even less for non-white women who want to play lead roles, but that's another topic.) Even as TV viewers flock to shows like The Good Wife and Orange is the New Black and anything from Shonda Rhimes, movie producers still shy away from from female protagonists for bogus reasons we need to banish for good.

Politics aside, these are two highly entertaining films. Long Kiss Goodnight is one of our go-to holiday movies, even with the uncomfortable moments which probably weren't as bad pre-9/11. And Peacemaker not only has a classic Hans Zimmer score—it's one of my favorite soundtracks for writing—it also has fun with its Kidman-Clooney, brains-versus-brawn buddy pairing. Director Mimi Leder really doesn't get enough credit for working humanity into her action pictures (Deep Impact is another of my sentimental favorites. ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE MAN).