Notes On Contemporary Media

To kick off the year, and as an aside to my usual technology-centric fare given that I seldom write about books these days, here’s a little summary of the stuff I’ve been diving into lately to relax.

Movies

Let’s get started by dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room as far as Sci-Fi is concerned:

We actually went to a theatre and paid to watch The Rise of Skywalker (as part of a family Star Wars marathon, which was fun by itself) and as far as I am concerned Disney has completely murdered the movie franchise–it was a senseless, shapeless massacre of not just all the tenets of the original trilogy but also the past couple of movies.

It was visually great, mostly fun to watch, but totally inconsistent and a messy potpourri of clichés run through a blender, which have likely put me off watching any further installments.

Not that the original trilogy was a masterpiece of consistency (or originality, since they blew up two Death Stars in three movies) but as a dreamy, almost naive narrative, it was vastly better, and I can’t wait to read a proper critique (if you have half an hour to spare, I strongly recommend reading Bret Deveraux’s take on The Last Jedi–I hope he writes a follow-up).

And if you think I’m being overly critical, have your kids watch the saga in the canonical order (original trilogy first) and listen to their critique (and the way they inevitably come to the conclusion there are gaping holes in the overall plot).

I think this cements Rogue One as the best Star Wars movie I’ve seen in the past decade1, because it unfolded away from the Skywalker saga and was grittier and much less hand-wavy about things, even if it relied on some staple plot devices (super-weapons are always tiresome).

But there was plenty more to watch.

Besides dozens of miscellaneous re-runs of various kinds from “regular” TV movie nights, I deliberately watched a number of movies during 2019, mostly sci-fi (which is what I like to get mind mind off this mundane existence of ours) and a bunch of animation films (which is what the kids like), so here are a few sentences on some, in no particular order:

  • The Wandering Earth was stunning. Grandiose, (literally) world-wrenching, gritty and a great way to start the year. It had the usual smattering of self-sacrificing hero mystique I’ve seen in other modern Chinese narratives, but did full justice to the story (and if you haven’t read The Three Body Problem and other stuff by Cixin Liu yet, you really should).
  • Next Gen deserves a mention here, since it is also based on a Chinese piece (a comic, this time) and moves away from the usual linear plots into something a lot more interesting (the Steve Jobs parody is a good one, for starters). And it has a great, wholesome and polished visual style that makes me optimistic about non-US computer animation.
  • Toy Story 4, in contrast, was more realistic and poignant than usual, and had some amazing photography (yes, photography). Plot-wise, it’s funny to realize that Pixar can still wrap up their sagas a lot better than Disney these days.
  • Alladin was competent, visually great, but lacked the spark that Robin Williams brought to the “one true version”. I get it that there is a market for doing “semi grown up” versions of Disney intellectual property, but there are some huge shoes to fill there.
  • Alita was… unexpected. I went in expecting a more gladiatorial plot line and ended up thinking it was a polished, deep rendition of the manga (i.e., they didn’t whitewash it or make it overly cutesy). It nods towards a sequel, but I don’t think it was successful enough to warrant it. But I’m positive Weta Digital did a superb job.
  • LEGO Movie 2 was a bit weird. It was visually great, the music (and bad girl) were really well done, and it played to the unstated fact that Batman is the real star of all those movies. Fun, but never as much fun as the first instalment.
  • Ad Astra had some unexpected twists, and even though it had some grossly unscientific premises carried them off rather well because they at least got most of the physics right (the Moon scenes in particular). Great, but not excellent.
  • And of course I partook in the new Marvel mystique–both Avengers: Endgame and Captain Marvel were both shining examples of how to deliver upon the superhero mystique and suitably escapist considering the bulk of today’s popular culture. I quite like this new pantheon we’re tacking on to popular culture, and look forward to the next wave.

Best movie of the year for me? Easy: General Magic, which I wrote about the night I finally watched it. Too close for comfort in some bits, astoundingly great throughout most of it, and, overall, the best documentary I’ve seen in a long time as well.

Television

I’ve already written about The Mandalorian, so I’ll just say that I’m grateful someone actually still gets Star Wars (even if Baby Yoda is too obvious a lure). I finished watching it over Christmas, and look forward to the next season.

Apple TV+, in contrast, has had petty much zero impact on my leisure time. We watched around three episodes of The Morning Show, and I have yet to finish the first of For All Mankind (which shows a lot of promise, but somehow wasn’t as appealing as I expected–maybe it gets better?). The rest I didn’t even glance at.

I’ve also been watching some animation series, sometimes as background material for late night hacking, sometimes during trips, and some of those “lite” shows bear mentioning here:

  • Disenchantment was cute to begin with, but soon devolved into a “ah, whatever” mood. I haven’t finished watching it, might drag it out or might just drop it.
  • Final Space has been consistently fun. It felt almost like a sanitized Rick and Morty (which just never did it for me), and the second season did not disappoint.
  • I dug up a bunch of DVDs for the old Sherlock Holmes Granada series (which I’ve been re-watching apace as I transcode them into HEVC), as well as Cowboy Bebop, which are still queued up on my Plex server.

I also whizzed through Lost in Space (which has been stretching plot devices a bit but is family-friendly and has great visuals), but as far as I’m concerned, The Expanse is still the best sci-fi show to watch if you want to follow an actual, non-hand-wavy plot with characters that feel like real people.

Uncharacteristically (since I don’t really like the current wave of fantasy/medieval stuff–I am one of the few humans on the planet who didn’t care much about Game of Thrones, for instance) I’m currently about halfway through the first season of The Witcher, which has been an interesting puzzle–it took a bit to catch on to the juxtaposition of different time periods, and some of the fighting is tiresome, but the overall plot is interesting and I am genuinely curious to see where it leads, since I never read the books (and may never do so, even though my curiosity is piqued).

A point to note is that it has a cute ballad. I’m a sucker for those, and (funnily enough) was reminded that the series existed (and started watching it) when I came across it here

Books

Tom Gauld's latest cartoon for The Guardian, which serendipitously popped on on my feed as I was writing this.

As usual, I read around 50 books last year and still have a huge backlog of stuff I wish I had read by now, but here are (very few) of the ones I found interesting:

  • Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda was a well rounded out, fascinating read about what it was actually like to work at Apple, and the only issue I had with it is that it was too short.
  • The Site Reliability Workbook, by Betsy Breyer. Yes, this is a work book (pun intended), which is probably a first since I tend to avoid reading this kind of thing on vacation. I actually read both books (this and its predecessor) when they came out, but this is the one I recommend since it comes with with less Google-isms and more pragmatic advice.
  • The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal, is the first volume of the Lady Astronaut series, which I found to be refreshing in a number of ways (from narration style to plot twists). In an age where diversity is key, it sets exactly the right tone as to why it should be so.
  • The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher, drove home the point that every generation may think it yearns for its Leia, but what it really needs is a Carrie Fisher.
  • Fall, or Dodge in Hell, was a massively deep book (as is usual in Stephenson), with the ultimate plot twist sending out huge ripples nearly from the start, and most likely the best thing I read last year.
  • Circe, by Madeleine Miller, was a decent runner-up, and I also enjoyed The Song of Achilles a great deal.
  • As a counterpoint to The Wandering Earth, I also read a few more Chinese Sci-Fi books – Waste Tide was pretty good, but you might want to start with Invisible Planets if, like me, you’re always pressed for time.

Other Stuff

All of the above take up infinitely valuable free time, and most of it these days is often found in the interstitials between arriving home and dinnertime or late in the evenings after the kids go to bed (which encroaches on my newfound resolution to sleep better by going to bed early and without too much to think about), so I’ve also started dipping into YouTube for short-form content, and over the past year built up a collection of interesting subscriptions that are worth noting:

  • DUST is the go-to channel if you want to watch indie Sci-Fi. I poke at it now and then but avoid it in the evenings since it can be a little jarring and dystopian, but it has some excellent short films.
  • Where hardware and electronics are concerned, Andreas Spiess consistently churns out interesting IoT-related content (especially if you’re an electronics/radio nerd like me), and Strange Parts has amazing tours of the Chinese supply chain that are well worth watching.
  • Music-wise, The Sound Test Room is another favourite, and surfaces lots of interesting iOS music software I would otherwise never hear about (or see demoed), but Red Means Recording is the one channel I really enjoy, originally due to Jeremy Blake’s amazing OP-1 sessions but of late due to his Ableton walkthroughs (I’m starting to think that Live might be the right DAW for me to switch to on the desktop).
  • Finally, I’ve been watching more and more Blender-related stuff, originally due to my wanting to dip into 2.80 and now because the kids have taken it up to experiment with as well. Right now, Ian Hubert takes the cake for completely off the wall techniques, whereas Ducky 3D does more systematic walkthroughs that are quite fun to watch.

It bears noting, however, I’m still annoyed at Apple for not supporting VP9 on the Apple TV (or for Google not doing HEVC) since that means YouTube is the only content source that isn’t 4K for me right now (other than my personal DVD rips on Plex and older on-demand content).

And that’s it. I realise this is quite the wall of text when compared to my usual posts, but given that I hadn’t written about movies or books for almost a year and dozens of little notes were piling up everywhere, it was long overdue.

I’m still amazed at how much free time all of these ate into, though, and how I managed to find it in the first place–it never feels like there is enough to go by.


  1. It certainly was good enough for me to name a machine after it in honourable geek tradition… ↩︎

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