Tag Archives: comedy

Things August 2015: Movies, books and stand-up comedy

Momo (1973 novel)

Six years before The Neverending Story, Michael Ende wrote Momo, well known in his native Germany but undeservedly less well known here. It takes a fairly common message (to do with how you should spend your time / what is important in life), but rather than using a fantasy setting to metaphorically imply the message, he uses a fantasy setting as a way to state the message as directly and clearly as possible. Some books change how you look at life if you take the time to really think about them; Momo leaves you no choice. I thought it was brilliant.

Also, here’s a a quote from it that I like:

He looked down at the tortoise. ‘Cassiopeia, my dear, I’d like your opinion on something. What’s the best thing to do when you’re under siege?’

‘HAVE BREAKFAST,’ came the reply.

‘Quite so,’ said the professor

Street Fighter (1994 film)

The Street Fighter movie is fascinating. Here’s a few key facts that let you know right away something weird is happening:

  • Written and directed by Steven de Souza (the writer on Die Hard, The Running Man, among others)
  • Budget $35m ($57m in 2015 adjusted for inflation)
  • IMDb rating 3.7
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating 12%
  • Worldwide gross $99m ($161m in 2015 adjusted for inflation)

If nothing else, I highly recommend reading the Polygon article Street Fighter: The Movie – What Went Wrong, which pieces together the extraordinary story of how that movie came about. It sounds as if de Souza had a truly nightmarish experience as director, blocked from making the movie he wanted to at just about every turn (seriously – it’s incredible the movie got finished at all).

Having read the article I just had to see the movie for myself. As it turns out, it’s a rather brilliant B-movie that knows exactly how silly it is, and is tremendously enjoyable as a result! This often seems to be the case when the IMDb rating dips below 4.0 (it’s the 4.0-6.5 region you should avoid). My personal highlight: Guile (Van Damme), leading an assault on the bad guy’s base, in his state-of-the-art stealth speedboat, takes a moment to watch some home movie footage of himself and his good buddy (now captured) on a VHS casette he evidently brought with him, on the CRT monitor built into the stealth-speed-boat control panel, perhaps to remind himself what he’s fighting for. Amazing.

Even more brilliantly, there’s a director’s commentary evidently recorded by de Souza a few weeks after the movie came out (intended for the Laserdisc edition), in which he betrays no bitterness about the process of getting the film made, but rather conveys a genuine warmth for the material and pride in what they managed to achieve. The Street Fighter movie is a great example of someone being given life-lemons and making life-lemonade out of them.

Mitch Hedberg

I originally referenced Mitch Hedberg back in Things 104 in 2011. I finally bought one of his CD’s, Strategic Grill Locations, which is as funny as the many YouTube clips you can find of him would suggest, but instead lasts for almost an hour, which is pretty great.

He has some nice one-liners, such as:

I haven’t slept for ten days, because that would be too long.

But what I didn’t adequately convey in Things 104 is his delivery style. His laid-back demeanor and accent are part of it, but his unusual prosody is what really makes his material work. So I can give you this quote, which is okay, but it’s infinitely better when he’s saying it:

I was at the airport a while back and some guy said “Hey man, I saw you on TV last night.” But he did not say whether or not he thought I was good, he was just confirming that he saw me on television. So I turned my head away for about a minute, and looked back at him and said “Dude! I saw you at the airport… About a minute ago… And you were good.”

Stewart Lee

In some ways the mirror opposite of Mitch Hedberg and his non-sequitur one-liners, Stewart Lee makes long-form stand-up comedy. I didn’t really understand what he was trying to do until I read his book, which I guess makes him hard to recommend.

That said, when I saw him live, I found one particular segment – in which he responds to a silly statement from UKIP with a 12-minute long reductio ad absurdum argument – to be a brilliant result of the weird territory he has been exploring. So I was glad to find that someone has taken that segment from his TV series and put it online. (Link died, try this one or this Youtube search – TM 24/01/18)

Zathura (2005 film)

Let’s have another breakdown:

  • Written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones… 4) and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Cowboys and Aliens)
  • Budget $65m
  • IMDb rating 6.1
  • Rotten Tomatoes rating 75%
  • Worldwide gross $64m

… ouch. So what went wrong there?

One problem was the release timing: they went out against Disney’s Chicken Little (which people went to in droves, assuming Disney’s first foray into 3D would be as good as Pixar – Chicken Little made more money than Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, conclusively disproving money as a measure of movie merit), and in the second week when people realised Chicken Little wasn’t that good, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out.

The other problem was the perception that Zathura was just “Jumanji in space, without Robin Williams”… which is actually a very accurate description.

But while it is that, it’s also brilliant, partly because space is cooler than jungle, and partly because Robin Williams isn’t the best thing about Jumanji anyway. Jon Favreau makes use of practical effects wherever possible (for example in the trailer below, that robot smashing through the doorway is literally doing that; even the jet-flames on the ships are practical), and this is particularly effective for the ever-increasing destruction of the house. Also featuring before-they-were-famous starring roles for Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart, it’s just a really lovely film that is unjustly overshadowed by its precursor.

Okay, one caveat: there’s some stuff that’s almost cool sci-fi but then is instead just fantasy, which some of you might find a bit disappointing. As is so often the case, keep in mind it’s a fantasy film rather than a sci-fi one, and it’s all good.

- Transmission ends

Things 58: Video Special

(Originally sent September 2009)

I’ve built up a backlog of interesting videos I think are worth sharing, so it’s time for a Video Special. Whenever someone links me to a video I always have two questions I want to know before committing to a click – how long is it, and do I need sound – so I include this information after each link. [In the blog version videos are embedded so you can see the run time; I’ll just note if you need sound – T.M. 7th August 2011]

Everything is amazing, nobody is happy
Standup Louis C. K. gets some great mileage out of how the incredible speed of technological change is still exceeded by the human capacity to adapt to and take for granted new concepts (sound is all you need):

Mad Skills
“A man who taught himself rock climbing and acrobatics to escape poverty in India” – most amazing climbing move features at 30s (no sound needed):

 

The idea mill
Assuming I saw the same trigger video, this is the fastest turnaround from an individual’s creative work going viral to the same idea being used in an ad I’ve ever seen (sound optional for all of these):

9th April 2009: “Wolf vs Pig”, using a kind of meta-Stop Motion:

2nd July 2009, 84 days later: same concept used in an ad for the Olympus PEN:

A bit later (as it doesn’t seem to have been officially uploaded), the same thing again, this time for Land Rover:

 

Simplicity
I find this kind of video reassuring – a simple concept and attention to detail in the execution, rather than incredible extravagance, can still produce a really nice result (sound essential):

Teaser trailer
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Dark Knight) has a new film coming out next year. I think this is my favourite teaser trailer ever, for conveying just an atmosphere and a single fun idea (sound not essential but awesome):

Things 104: Power of Music, Misleading Impressions, Two Envelopes

Video
The effect of music on the brain is a very interesting thing that varies tremendously by individual. Last year I discovered a track that has an incredibly powerful mood-altering effect on me: Olympians, by a band with a potentially offensive name. It took a couple of initial slightly bemused listens before it properly seeped into my brain, but now as soon as I hear this track, I feel unbelievably positive, and become filled with an absurd confidence.

Unfortunately I suspect the fact that this track is so resonant for me also suggests that it’s very specific, and it will seem really quite boring to most others. But I find it so amazing I just have to share it anyway. So first, here’s a short version with a video to slightly entertain you while you wonder what on earth I’m going on about:

And if you are so inclined, here’s the full length version:

Tim Link
I saw The Lion King in 3D at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and reviewed it here. The short version of my review would essentially be this:

Quote special: Misleading Impressions
Thanks to Last.fm recommendations I discovered Brian Transeau (BT)’s album This Binary Universe, which turns out to be a bit different to his other albums. As I listened to his back-catalogue I thought I detected an incredible sense of optimisim and positivity. When I later found Brian Transeau was on Twitter, I found this impression was entirely correct. Sample tweet:

5am and time for our first ever sunrise, father daughter bike ride. Today is already #WIN Good Morning!

My favourite musician is probably Jon Hopkins who I now listen to instead of any other Chill Out music since for me he somehow trumps pretty much the entire genre. He is behind some of the most relaxing and beautiful tracks I know, so I was curious to see what he was like on Twitter. The answer: actually a bit different. Brilliantly, this was the first Tweet of his that I read:

I wish one of James May’s Big Ideas was to FUCK OFF

Finally, moving away from music, I referenced Mitch Hedberg’s famous escalator line in my Lion King 3D review:

An escalator can never break – it can only become stairs.

Realising I was unfamiliar with his work, I ended up reading through his Wikiquote page, and found much to like, such as:

My belt holds up my pants and my pants have belt loops that hold up the belt. What the fuck’s really goin on down there? Who is the real hero?

and:

When you go to a restaurant on the weekends and it’s busy they start a waiting list. They start calling out names, they say “Dufresne, party of two. Dufresne, party of two.” And if no one answers they’ll say their name again. “Dufresne, party of two, Dufresne, party of two.” But then if no one answers they’ll just go right on to the next name. “Bush, party of three.” Yeah, what happened to the Dufresnes? No one seems to give a shit. Who can eat at a time like this? People are missing! You fuckers are selfish. The Dufresnes are in someone’s trunk right now, with duct tape over their mouths. And they’re hungry. That’s a double whammy. Bush, search party of three, you can eat when you find the Dufresnes.

So after that I naturally looked him up on YouTube, and at that point discovered him to be completely different to what I had imagined:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2491LucLa1g

Gone, try this one:

Picture
A lot of infographics annoy me, but I like the idea of bringing together the data that drives this one so much I don’t mind its shortcomings.

Puzzle – The Two Envelopes
I can’t believe I haven’t put this one in Things before.

In a standard abstract setting with no distracting details, you and another person are presented with two envelopes. One envelope contains some money (but you don’t know how much). The other envelope contains twice as much money. You get to select an envelope, and you get to keep however much money is in it. The other person gets the other envelope. There isn’t anything to go on, so you choose one of the envelopes for arbitrary reasons.

Before you get to open it, you are offered the chance to change your mind, with the following reasoning:

You don’t know how much money is in your chosen envelope, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s £10. That means you either have the envelope with twice as much money (so the other contains £5) or you don’t (so the other must contain £20). So if you decide to swap, there’s a 50% chance you get that £5, and a 50% chance you end up with the £20. Since you currently have £10, that means there’s a 50% chance of effectively losing £5 and a 50% chance of gaining another £10. Imagine if the universe split into two at the moment you made that decision – one of you loses £5, the other gains £10, so on average you gain (£10 + (-£5) )/2 = £2.50. Since the average gain is positive, clearly that’s a gamble worth taking, and you should definitely swap.

This is of course a strange conclusion. You effectively chose an envelope at random, so how does swapping it improve your odds of getting more money? The paradox is even more stark if we consider the fact that the other person could be convinced to swap by exactly the same argument.

Previous Puzzle – Co-operating with yourself
Last time I asked how well you would get on with yourself.

Xuan said:

They say that people you dislike/hate are likely to be people who’s characteristics are most like yours. People are most critical of what they see in the mirror. My clone better not have the same taste in clothes.

Which reminded me of a problem the sci-fi stories don’t tend to go into – if there’s suddenly two of you, you’re going to need some more clothes, and one of you will probably have to find another job, and probably somewhere else to live. Marriages get complicated. Phil suggested David Gerrold’s time-travel sci fi story The Man Who Folded Himself for an in-depth dissection of this kind of problem.

Richard observed that he tends to like people with whom he shares attractive personality traits, and dislike those that share his negative personality traits, suggesting that the latter may be because they serve as a reminder of these aspects of himself. This potentially makes the question even harder to answer, although one might guess that a negative would trump a positive and ultimately lead to the kind of confrontations that usually crop up in sci-fi versions of this problem (and endorsing Xuan’s observation).

I think the question raised by The Man Who Folded Himself of co-operating with a version of yourself in the future is a clue to how we can actually ask this question of ourselves. In a very real sense, we really do choose how much to co-operate with our future selves every day: will you do a chore now, or will you force your future self to do it instead? Will you eat all of the cake, or will you save some for your future self? If you know how you generally answer those questions, I suggest this gives you an idea of how well you would get on with yourself.

In practical terms, just thinking of these kinds of questions in this framework makes me more likely to co-operate with my future self, which is probably a good thing. Well, I’m glad that my past self thinks that way, anyway.