Monday, July 26, 2004

Notes on The Bourne Supremacy 

I probably write more about movies I don't like, or consider flawed, so I'll try to be short and sweet about it: This movie is superb.

I'll say a little more, but I warn you, I don't do the gushing thing very well. I wouldn't change a thing, and actually feel that rare drive to experience it again in the theater.

The movie is easily better than its predecessor (which was already pretty damn good). I think this is largely to do with the change in director (the writer and cast are the same). Doug Liman is a good director, and I really enjoyed the first movie (and Go), but Paul Greengrass took this movie to the next level. Greengrass takes that close-up, hand-held, documentary-like style that made Bloody Sunday so intense, and applies it to great effect here. The fight scenes feel raw and unchoreographed, and your face is pressed right into the action until you're going "Please, just let me back away a little bit." My fists were clenched in suspense for much of the movie. When he's running, or a car chase is on, you're slamming the pavement along side him, or scanning the fast-moving metal, trying to react fast enough. Somehow, it all reads, and I never found myself lost in the action, unable to follow what exactly was happening.

Even though it's primarily an action/suspense movie, The Bourne Supremacy shows how great this genre can be. The Bourne Supremacy takes a genre where silliness is the norm (and I'm not talking about purposely funny spy movies like True Lies) and executes it like it's actually set in our world. No invisible cars, disguises, or other high tech gadgets, and no hoards of generic henchmen charging around spraying machine guns and grenades everywhere with no concern for their own safety. The Bourne movies feel more like, say, Heat. The action is continuous and tense, and never gets over the top. There is no love plot to bog things down/make you roll your eyes. Attention is paid to the cinematography.

It all feels so right.

Notes on I, Robot 

or, The Squandered Opportunities of I, Robot

This movie has always looked really bad. I've never even read the book, and it was obvious to me from the trailer that it was a major departure from what Asimov would have written in his book. So I was pretty surprised when I went and saw it anyways, and it wasn't as bad as I expected. Well, I take that back. In the ways it was bad, it was inline with forecasts, and I'll just associate myself with David Edelstein's full review in Slate. He's absolutely right. However, it did have some surprisingly interesting aspects, though, and I think it's a shame they weren't explored further. 

According to IMDB, originally this movie wasn't based on the I, Robot stories, and was simply a futuristic murder mystery called "Hardwired" which took place in a similar setting. That probably would have been more appropriate for a project like this, but I think it helps to understand what I'm saying here if you keep in mind that the movie is forced into Asimov's imagined world, as opposed to thinking of it as a really, really horrible adaptation of what he wrote.

I also really thought that Smith's luddite leanings were dumb and unnecessary. First off, they were dumb, since he always trusts some other type of technology, just one that's less advanced than the one he's dealing with. He'll ride a motorcycle he didn't assemble, but doesn't like to trust robots. He'll drive a car manually at insane speeds, not trusting its computer to keep it in line with the computerized road markers. Philip K. Dick characters always find themselves out of place, yet they always feel comfortable in the world they inhabit, and don't question it (Who ever does? We only distrust technologies that seem foreign to us, but his characters grew up in the environments they inhabit). We in the audience, of course, are supposed to know that he's right. But really, up until the point when he is right, he's wrong. About everything. For apparently a huge chunk of his life. It's very strange when someone believes something so contrary to what reality seems to be for so long. It happens, of course (I'm sure we can all name names), but it certainly doesn't feel heroic.

Here's an example of something I thought was interesting, though. There's a scene where Will Smith is driving on the freeway, and some trucks filled with the robots start opening up and pouring attack robots onto his car. The first robot lands on his hood, punches through the windshield, and tries to grab his steering wheel to crash the car. However, the robot says in a very alarmed, concerned way, "You are having an accident!" That got a laugh out of the audience, and me as well, but I also thought it was really disturbing. In another scene, after deadlocking in a hand-to-hand fight with Will Smith, a robot hears sirens and runs at full speed to throw itself into some wreckage and fire. I think it would have been interesting if the movie had done more with how creepy it can be when technology (or really, anything) acts "confused" like that. Instead, the robots just get red lights in their chests and eyes and start ordering people around and attacking them. It's creepy in theory, but it didn't feel that way in the movie. Which is surprising to me, given what a masterfully creepy job Alex Proyas has done on other movies.

The movie finally got a little interesting when Will Smith finds the U.S. Robotics CEO murdered, and suddenly the movie's apparent villain up to that point turns out to have been innocent and naive. The true villain turns out to be interesting, a non-character up to that point: it was the AI system that they use to help design and coordinate all the robots. The system, in reflecting on the laws of robotics, realized that there is a sort of contradiction or vagueness in the first law. If they aren't supposed to harm humans, or through inaction allow humans to come to harm, then what if they could run the world better so that humans are safer? Thus, the computer decides to build in a central control mechanism into all the robots so that they can take over the world, to better protect humanity. 

I thought this was a clever idea too, but the impact is blunted by having all the interesting directions this could go in instead diverted entirely into a stupid subplot involving this belief that computers can "evolve" or become conscious, or something. At several points throughout the movie, such mystical ideas are hinted at, and of course, they come off as half-assed and forced as they sound. It never goes anywhere; the mainframe announces that she has "evolved" and that is what led her to the conclusion she came to, and that's the end of that plot thread. But where did evolution come into play here? That strikes me as a pretty straightforward conclusion a computer could arrive at without needing to attain some sort of mystical consciousness. If you really can't give that type of subplot what it needs, it's probably better to just leave it out entirely, instead of letting it sit there, awkward and undeveloped.

The movie had a very weird camera style. In the final climactic moments in the mainframe's core, the camera zips in orbits around a beam Will Smith is standing on while he fights off robots. It's incredibly fast, and thus hard to read, but I thought it was interesting shot to attempt (didn't work, I think). Similarly, when Will Smith is in a house that is getting demolished by a gigantic (cool-looking) robot, the effects look terrible. Will Smith is obviously not really in the scene, and it really takes the drama off it. In fact, you get that feeling in most of the movie's big scenes. The edges of real actors seem to be blurred, so they blend into the background. (I'll spare you the required bit about how this all makes the movie "feel" fake, or whatever).

I remember a few years ago reading that Chris Cunningham wanted to make a far-future sci-fi movie that was filmed entirely in closeup, with blurred backgrounds. I, Robot is pretty much the exact type of movie that would have been helped out by that, not only because special effects still don't look realistic enough, but also because it might have forced them to look at some of the more interesting possibilities in this movie.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Bad Econometrics 

I checked EconoPundit today and found this interesting link. You can pretty much look at this chart and his prediction and go "Hm, that can't be right." Indeed, if you look at what his model's prediction was, it seems that he's predicting something like 1 million new jobs a month for the next 5 months. That doesn't seem right, does it? His "most pessimistic prediction" of 1.53 million new jobs by the election breaks down to something like 300k new jobs a month. That's not impossible, but it seems unlikely to happen at this point. More likely, he doesn't know what he's doing, which is strange, since he says he's teaching a class on this stuff.

So, I started playing with the data (the data is the BLS's payroll employent series). When I ran a simple model that regressed total employment against time, I got a jump very similar to his in the predicted months, so I imagine that's something like what he did. I can't know for sure, of course, because he doesn't say. If that's what he did, his model is simply picking up the long-term growth trend in total employment. Given that we've gotten behind the trend in recent years, of course the model now predicts that we'll be back on the trend; it doesn't take into account recent history, just the "employment schedule" against time. That's all it knows about as that model is specified. Just look at his graph and imagine the trend line, it's right in line.

A better idea is to detrend the series by taking first differences (that is, construct the series that is the difference between total employment every two adjacent months). Then, you can run an autoregressive model on the series (I tried an ARMA(2,2) model, just off the top of my head). That model predicted growth in total employment to be around 200k to 160k a month for the rest of the year, meaning we'd just barely get back to peak employment by then. That model is based on what change in employment you would expect to see given what we've seen in recent previous months (with the coefficients chosen from the full history of the data). We might do better than that, and we might do slightly worse than that, but at least the numbers pass a simple sanity check. I expect we'll probably actually do better than that; 200k is not a bad guess for this month or next, but less than that seems unlikely after that.

Obvious disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about labor market forecasting, I'm just naively looking at his data and model and pointing out what seems to be a pretty clear problem with what he's doing. Specifically, this is a pretty clear violation of one of the assumptions of ordinary least squares estimation: residuals are independently distributed (no serial correlation, or trend).

Of course, I emailed him about this, asking for more details on his model, in case I'm the one who's confused, and mentioning my findings. He hasn't replied, nor changed his site, so either he's simply not received my email yet (increasingly unlikely as time goes by), or he's not really interested in doing it right.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Lady from Fahrenheit 9/11 

There she is! Posted by Hello

(I know, this is a terrible picture).

Notes on Fahrenheit 9/11 

It's hard to know where to start with this thing. I mean, you could really write a book on it, it's so huge. This guy already has a decent start: Fifty Six Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11

I found that site while doing a bit of research for some of the problems I thought of while watching the movie, and which I had not previously seen comment on. But he has mentioned all the ones I wanted to talk about, and commented on them much more extensively than I could. (The things I was going to mention were the Secret Service protection for the Saudi Embassy, the 7% figure on Saudi investment in America, the 7 crucial minutes of delay, and a few others I can't remember at the moment).

I don't believe that these are minor issues, either. The only thing that you can't really argue with is the the war footage, which is horrible and affecting. Perhaps sensing this, a friend told me that that's really what the movie is about, and the rest of it isn't very important. I disagree, however. You cannot fight stupid shit with stupid shit (but you can try). I hate stupid shit, I hate it no matter who it comes from, and I think you should hate it too. And this movie is filled with stupid shit.

If you're right, you shouldn't have to bend the truth - at all - to make your point. There are plenty of well-reasoned arguments for many of Michael Moore's viewpoints, but he can't put those on the screen, and given what is on the screen, I wonder if he even knows what they would be.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite passages in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude.

`That means,' Colonel Aureliano Buendia said, smiling when the reading was over, `that all we're fighting for is power.'

`They're tactical changes,' one of the delegates replied. `Right now, the main thing is to broaden the popular base of the war. Then we'll have another look.'

One of Colonel Aureliano Buendia's political advisers hastened to intervene.

`It's a contradiction,' he said. `If these changes are good, it means that the Conservative regime is good. If we succeed in broadening the popular base of the war with them, as you people say, it means that the regime has a broad popular base. It means, in short, that for almost twenty years we've been fighting against the sentiments of the nation.'

He was going to go on, but Colonel Aureliano Buendia stopped him with a signal. `Don't waste your time, doctor,' he said. `The important thing is that from now on we'll be fighting only for power.' Still smiling, he took the documents the delegates gave him and made ready to sign them.

`Since that's the way it is,' he concluded, `we have no objection to accepting.'

As is often the case with many controversial movies, some groups have tried to block its release. This is always a stupid thing to do, not only because I think it's un-American and inexcusable to try to prevent someone from speaking their mind, and then let everyone else choose whether or not to listen to it. It's also a stupid thing to do because the movie is rarely as offensive or shocking as you imagine it to be. This movie isn't anywhere near good enough to deserve having people try to ban it.

One thing that struck Claire and I was a weird vibe, where we were left going, "Wow, that's kind of offensive." For example, when they are listing the "Coalition of the Willing," he chooses to represent certain countries with say, a man riding on a horse-pulled wagon, or three monkeys sitting at a table. What the hell is that? And there is a scene in which members of the Bush administration are cut together constantly shaking hands with Saudi officials. OOooooooh! What is the problem here? Is it actually his assertion that you could not put together a similar montage of any other president (assuming footage exists), or what? And oh god, no! Don't let it be the case that Saudi Arabians invest in our country! This is exactly the xenophobic mentality that makes me love that wonderful speech in Network from Arthur Jensen in Network (search for "Arthur Jensen," and read the quotes in order. He gives this speech right after Beale manages to stop the Arab purchase of a media company). Better yet, watch this amazing movie.

Many of the problems with this movie strike me as stemming from data mining. If you build a friendster-like network of everyone in your life, and then search for connections, you're going to find some surprising things, even though they probably don't mean anything. People do this all the time with baseball statistics ("He's always hit a homerun when he's been at bat fourth in St. Louis on a tuesday") and elections ("Ohio has voted with the winner in every presidential election since 1969"). This is all especially true of especially well-connected people like the President. Just as it was stupid when a friend forwarded me a list of people "connected" with Bill Clinton who had died "mysteriously," it's just as stupid to find all these connections in George Bush's life and assume that they are the only remnants of a vicious and vast conspiracy (executed by a dunce, of course).

At one point, Michael Moore mentions that some defense company had its IPO and raised $237 million in one day. He refers to this as the company "earning a profit of $237 million in one day." A man next to me gasped, "Jesus Christ." Claire and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
Michael Moore also attacks Bush for "giving Bin Laden a two month head start" in Afghanistan, and not having enough troops on the ground there. Dave Kopel's site points out that this is an intellectually dishonest criticism when coming from Moore, but it's stupid on top of that. Rushing into war immediately would have obviously been a bad idea; Bush first tried to apply pressure on the Taliban to see if they would sell out Bin Laden (was he wrong?). But in any case, Afghanistan is a logistical nightmare. It's landlocked, and none of the surrounding countries really wanted to help us (very publicly, anyways) for various reasons. It already takes months to move our men and equipment and supplies and so forth around the world on boats. The fact that it was hard for us to get near it hampered our ability to deliver troops and set up supply lines quickly (and judging from other military efforts, two months would be a very quick timescale for getting all that stuff set up). That is why the campaign was largely based on bombing and special forces, two tools in our arsenal that aren't as affected by these problems.

I don't know how people, especially those who come wanting to hear what it has to say (since this movie cannot possibly change your mind), come out of this movie. Do they actually leave it thinking that Bush was actually in cahoots with the members of the Bin Laden family who were authorized to leave the country? Do they actually think the war in Iraq was just a business manuever? I can't imagine that, but it seems to be the case, judging from what I heard people saying. This movie takes a bunch of bad feelings, suspicions, and a few juicy bits gathered from data mining, throws in some cheap shots, and packages it into a complete package for those who want to buy what it's selling. It takes complex people, events, and relationships, and simplifies them into a simple story, an easy to follow framework for reading the world.

Geographical Notes: When Moore is standing in between the Watergate, the Kennedy Center, and the Saudi Embassy, he's about a block from where I live on Virginia Avenue. There's my building, Virginia crosses over a freeway, and then there they are (the Saudi Embassy is closest). I pass by there all the time to get groceries at the Watergate, and we of course walked right back through there on the way back from the movie.

I don't know why that lady talked to the lady who lives in Lafayette Park. She happens to show up in some photos I've taken there, so I'll upload one of those in a moment.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Notes on The Door in the Floor 

When I saw this movie with Claire, I remember fighting the urge to light up my watch, so that I could find out how much longer the movie was. Eventually, I gave in, and was dismayed to find that the movie still had more than an hour to go. Now, even at that point, I didn't think the movie was bad. I liked a lot of it, and didn't have any particular problem with it or what it was doing. But I felt very idle and bored, and either wanted something to happen, or the movie to end.

But now, a few days later, I can't remember why I was so ready for the movie to be done. I remember liking the acting and the writing at that time, and the cinematography was great. As I walked out of the theater, I told Claire that in a few days, I was only going to have good feelings about the movie, like summer camp. Sure enough, I feel that the movie was great and powerful, and Jeff Bridges was amazing, and so forth.

Well, one thing I remember was that the first half of the movie was mostly awkward sexual situations. Like Jeff Bridges stripping naked and showering in front of the guy he just met (don't worry ladies, you get to see the tush). Or our main character getting caught masturbating twice. And of course those awkward "first time" moments with a 50 year old woman. And getting caught bending that same woman over the bed by her 4 year old daughter. And of course, those conversations with her husband, your employer (awkward!).

But hey, it had good stuff, and even if you're bored during the movie, you might find that you can't remember why, and only remember that you liked the good stuff.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Notes on Spider-Man 2 

This is another one of those movies, I guess it's just not my thing. As these things go, it's pretty well done, but it left me just as unexcited as the first one. It's totally watchable, of course, it just didn't really do it for me, and I'm not sure why. And I know that trying to slam actual logic on a comic book movie will only result in idiotic quibbling and trek-style nitpicking. Nonetheless, here's some free-floating hostility that I feel might give you an idea of why I feel the way I do about this movie (and its predecessor).

First of all, I thought that opening scene was really stupid. I kept going "Man, after that sort of acceleration, those pizzas are gonna be trashed in those boxes." I suppose it's supposed to be funny that Spider-Man is delivering pizzas, but I didn't really think it was that funny. (Also, that strikes me as the sort of thing that might provide interested parties with a clue to Spider-Man's identity, but whatever).

There's something about the way Spider-Man has to chase down every single police car and ambulance, too. It makes him feel less heroic. Doesn't he have any faith that the police can handle a simple shoplifter or bank robber? Superheroes are supposed to be the last resort, the special weapons and tactics. This was taken to an extreme in the movie when Spider-Man quits, and crime shoots up 75 percent (according to a newspaper headline). Wow! That's a lot of crime he's stopping (even including the deterrent effect). If he could just scale back and concentrate on the really tough crooks, he could do his crime-fighting and have a life as well. Why's that so hard to figure out; we coulda skipped most of the movie if he would let the NYPD do some of the work.

Similarly, I understand that the Green Goblin had that armor. And Spider-Man has his "danger sense" that lets him anticipate bullets and dodge them. But why couldn't someone just point a gun at Doctor Octopus and shoot him? It's not like he was really that hard to find.

Also, I know these movies get lots of praise for having actual characters. That's really great. But to me, it's largely a bunch of pointless melodrama. Hey, physics-genius, just go to her after the show and tell her that you showed up but Bruce Campbell wouldn't let you in, for Christ's sake. You ran out of coins for the pay phone? Boohoo, find some more and call her later. I mean, these problems have simple solutions. I'm supposed to have patience for a whole movie full of that continual lack of effort? It made me want Spider-Man to lose out, because he deserved it. At the end, when Mary Jane is pouring her heart out to him, someone next to us said, "Oh stop," and we bust out laughing. It was just too lame. (And then he turns to chase some sirens. I fantasized that Mary Jane came to her senses while he was out hunting petty criminals).

The Spider-Man movies seem to go out of their way to try to make believable villains. And I guess this is something people appreciate. But I mean, is the entire world supply of supervillians created entirely by their own mismanaged inventions driving them insane? Aren't there ever just any sane greedy people who invent special powers? Apparently the dementia continues, and the Hobgoblin is driven criminally insane by the knowledge that Peter killed his dad. Well, whatever, nevermind.

I thought the train scene was painfully dumb. I had a real hard time believing that if a train's controls are destroyed, the train can't be stopped by a station by cutting power to the tracks. In fact, they pass a station, but Spider-Man doesn't pursue that, and apparently no one at the train's control center realizes what's going on. If I was one of the guys at Intuitor, I'd try to calculate the force that Spider-Man would have to withstand stopping the train as he does, and the likelihood that he would be able to hold onto those web cables against all that force. But I mean, it was already stupid. Why would someone build out those tracks to a dead end over the water like that?

Also, here's the weirdest thing about the movie. The effects look terrible to me. I saw a shot with helicopters, and they looked like cartoons. I could see the shadows popping across the triangle meshes. The skies look totally awful, the buildings look fake, and the characters move unnaturally. On top of the fact that they look like cartoons. I've always hated the way Spider-Man swings around in these movies, with his triple-lutzes and so on. But I'd swear he looks even worse while doing it in this movie. Where'd the $200 million go? And why does he swing between the cab and the trailer of a passing truck? That's stupid in so many ways.

Alright, that's enough for now.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Notes on Elephant 

Here's a term to watch out for when someone is describing a movie: "tone poem."

This could very well be the worst movie I've written about so far. Imagine if someone made a movie about some important, hard to understand event. Now imagine that movie was so cowardly that it couldn't examine or comment on anything. Simply turn it around and show the events leading up to it in 40 meaningless ways, then show you the actual event, and then end. All without giving you any insight or argument or substance at all.

Let me see if I can make this more concrete. Let us construct in a thought experiment the movie which I will call "Jello Zipper." It's a movie about some airplanes hitting the Sears Tower and knocking it down. Most of the movie will be about various people in the Sears Tower. Norm is an actuary, and we get to enjoy some nice long shots of him running some regressions on his computer wordlessly. John and Adam are janitors, and on this particular morning, they have to head up to floor 53 to clean up a leaking water pipe in the men's bathroom which is causing a flood. Maria, Beth, and Kim are three women who work in an advertising agency, and in one long shot, we experience their entire lunch conversation, about topics which are fascinating to them, and totally boring to us. Add about 10 or 20 more such characters, and show this sort of boring scene over and over. Then the Neo-Nazi homosexual outcasts hijack a jet and crash it into the tower, killing everyone. Roll credits. Give Palme d'Or.

If this movie has a point, it can only be "that was a normal day for everyone until that random act happened." Fine, that's sad, but that's not very insightful, is it? We sat there for 90 minutes, and that's all you give us? The analytical mind rebels; Claire and I sat there most of the movie complaining about how boring most of it was (the large majority of it is people walking places). Trying to cover up your cowardice with long, unending shots, and leaving the camera open a stop or two too many doesn't solve any of your problems, unless you can convince people that it is a daring artistic statement. No one would dare say it's just a bunch of stupid crap.

Updated: Dante has pointed out in a comment that Titanic actually got this right. I agree. A good way to do this movie is the way Titanic did it. Anyone knows that a sad event is sad, but it's very hard to truly feel sad about anything that you're not personally invested in. A movie, by giving you some characters to care about, can give you that investment. In that framework, something like that can actually make an event far removed from you feel significant and evoke an emotional response in you. When the kid who got 5 to 7 interminable minutes devoted to the minutae of how exactly he developed his film that day gets shot, well, that's sad, but I'm not particularly feeling any loss...all I knew about him was that he took some pictures and developed them.

Also, I don't want to suggest that I think this movie should provide "an explanation" or anything like that. I think this Slate article does a pretty good job explaning why we can't find a neat little bundle of blame. It was a psychopathic act, and we probably just can't understand it. But even then, that doesn't stop the movie from silently blaming video games by showing the shooters playing violent video games, and then later aping that shot by showing a "behind the gun" shooting shot in the school. Congratulations, very deep stuff.

Notes on S.W.A.T. 

Another horrid movie that might have had something interesting. Judging from the ads, I thought the idea of a major criminal declaring in front of the media that he would give a fortune to the criminals that got him out. Improbable, sure, but it was a situation that had the potential to provide the sort of 90 minute thrill ride I haven't seen since Speed. Were it a badly done thrill ride, that could have even been acceptable.

Instead, the movie is basically a weird "trying to make it on the force" buddy film for the first 80%, and then suddenly switches to the "I'll give $100 million to whoever gets me out of here" plot at the end so that it has a climactic action sequence. It really doesn't work, and another interesting concept is wasted.

Notes on Paycheck 

Saw this with a friend; I wasn't really in the mood to wrangle about the perfect movie to watch, and he suggested it. I knew it was based on a story by Philip K. Dick, so I figured hey, what the heck.

This movie is actually a pretty decent movie wrapped in a terrible, terrible movie. That is, it has some very interesting elements, and I think that if whoever green-lighted it had said "Hey, let's make it for $120 million and clean up the script a bit," it would be a very different movie from the $60 million mess it is. Of course, that's always the case, you might say (I would disagree). But the kernel of quality, the K-Dickian essence is unmistakably there, and it was painful to see it squandered so badly. Well-rendered, it would have been great.

Instead, the movie looks only a bit better than something you'd see on USA's movie of the week. Supposedly in an advanced future, it's obviously filmed in the blandness of Canada, and frequently looks like it forgets that it isn't set in the present day. The major chase scene is a weird contrivance involving some motorcycle stunts through some improbably laid out railcars and metal tubes. It's lame, but it struck me as exactly what Minority Report could have been if the budget had been cut in half and lower-tier talent was used.

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