Sunday!

mandfromuncle publicity stilll

Apparently, this past summer Warner Brothers released a film version of the classic Cold War spy series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and no one told me. Seriously, I had no idea such a thing even existed until I found it in the rental section of the iTunes site this past week. My total lack of knowledge of the film makes me wonder, did I just somehow miss all the advertising and publicity, or did Warner Brothers decide to quietly sweep it under the rug? Because I totally would have paid to go see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on the big screen, especially since it was written and directed by the always fun Guy Ritchie.

I was a huge fan of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. growing up. The series’ main gimmick, an American and a Soviet agent working together for a common cause, appealed to my early can’t-we-all-just-get-along sensibilities. It was in syndication at the time and my sister and I used to watch it together every Friday night, back-to-back with The Persuaders.1 Bond-influenced spy shows were pretty common back then, and I watched most of them: The Prisoner, The Wild Wild West, I Spy, The Avengers, Mission Impossible, and Get Smart are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I loved them all equally — though, to paraphrase Orwell, some were more equal than others in this regard. One of those more equal was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. So last night, sick and bedridden, I decided to try the movie, knowing when I did I was taking something of a risk.

To the best of my faulty memory, the trend of mining long-dead television shows for Hollywood blockbuster inspiration began in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Every now and then, in those early heady years, you would hear that a beloved TV show was being re-created for the big screen, and you’d get excited. And then the movie would come out, and you’d go to see it, and it would be terrible. Eventually we all learned. Eventually when we heard a beloved classic television show was being resurrected, we would quietly groan inside and wonder how, specifically, Hollywood was going to screw it up. I say specifically because we all knew what was going to happen generally speaking: Through the process of various executive meetings, focus groups, and test-marketing, Hollywood was going to decide that what this classic and beloved series really needed was to be updated and made into something bigger, louder, and more in tune with the modern sensibilities of kids today. Thus the final product would be closer to every other bit of treacle released that same summer than it would the original work.

And so it wasn’t enough to have cowboy-spy James West cunningly outwit a criminal mastermind and get out of jams where he was outnumbered three to one. Instead, we needed our 19th-century protagonist to be a cool cowboy-spy who sings hip hop and saves the planet from armies riding giant mechanical spiders. Or we would make the entire movie an over-the-top parody of the original, à la Starsky and Hutch or The Brady Bunch. Or, in the cases of SWAT, I Spy, Lost In Space, or The A-Team, we would simply make them unwatchable. Even the ones that found enough of the threads from the original to keep it somewhat true in spirit, such as JJ Abrams’ Mission Impossible franchise, found that they were required to make those revamps BIGGER and LOUDER, with MORE ACTION and MORE THINGS BLOWING UP. Though not based on a television series, Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies fall into this last category, and so I prepared myself for a similarly styled Man from U.N.C.L.E.: fun, hopefully, but totally detached from the original.

I was wrong.

Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is extraordinary in its faithfulness to the original source material. It isn’t a movie set in the 21st century whose characters just happen to have the names Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin; it’s set in the early 1960s — and everything about the movie flows from that setting. Even though they are spies in a big-budget Hollywood summer movie, none of the characters have anachronistically futuristic devices; rather, all of their “spy devices” look antique and cumbersome. For example, when one character goes to listen in on a bugged conversation, he has to take a radio receiving device the size of a suitcase within a few hundred feet of the house where the conversation is taking place in order to do so.

The plot is content to roll itself out leisurely, just like the original TV show. When Solo or Kuryakin are outnumbered, they are by a two or three to one margin, not hundreds to one. A castle-storming scene early in the film’s climax — easily the most action-y part of the movie — is presented in a fast-forward, split screen montage that takes place in about a minute, rather than the 15-20 minutes Michael Bay would have given it. The scene goes out of its way to say to the audience, “We aren’t going to be doing that kind of movie today.”

The sex appeal that oozes through the screen is not the sex appeal of 2015 tastes, but rather relies entirely on the styles, architecture, fashions, trends, and sensibilities of 1963. Even the way the movie is shot is reminiscent of spy films of the era. In the chase scenes especially, it’s hard not to think that you’re watching a spy movie filmed in the 1960s, as opposed to a spy movie that just takes place in the 1960s.

The overall pastiche is a deceptively remarkable achievement, and one which I suspect will likely go under-appreciated. After all, how many people out there have, like me, been longing for a classic 60s-era spy series to be made into a movie that looked like the original genre? Not many, I would guess.

Still, even if you long for the BIGGER, and LOUDER, with MORE ACTION and MORE THINGS BLOWING UP thang, I highly recommend trying The Man from U.N.C.L.E. More than any movie based on a long-dead TV show I have ever seen, this movie captures everything that made the original a classic.

So… what are you reading and/or watching?

  1. The Persuaders starred Tony Curtis and a pre-James Bond/post-The Saint Roger Moore as two millionaire, jet-setting playboys who travel Europe solving crimes that revolved around very rich people. Despite the wattage of its two stars, as an adult I have never encountered anyone who has heard of it, let alone seen it. One day, several years ago, I actually Googled The Persuaders to see if it was something I invented in my childhood, or a real thing. Turns out it was a real thing. []

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Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular contributor for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter. ...more →

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71 thoughts on “Sunday!

  1. Well I finally have TV on the road with me thanks to my lovely wife’s Christmas gift of a 10″ Kindle Fire HD and turning me on to an app / service called Droidtv. It’s a wonderful functional combination of Netflix, Hulu, and that service that got sued — and lost — over copyright issues. I’m pretty sure it’s legal (I hope, IANAL after all). Anyway what they do is create an instance of a “virtual DVR” that “watches” and records what you want into your own encrypted DVR space. Then you download it onto your phone or tablet (Android, thus the moniker) for viewing at your leisure. That last bit is the key for me: I can load my Fire up with dozens of episodes while I’m home on all-you-can-eat Internet to watch while I’m on the road.

    So I’ve finally finished up Breaking Bad and I’m up to date on Walking Dead. Just started American Horror Story and Falling Skies. There is a LOT of content available. Apparently, availability is dependent on the existence of a legitimate website to watch it from — free I guess. So no Game of Thrones or anything else from HBO/Showtime/Cinemax and none of the Netflix/Hulu/Amazon original stuff. They have some “Classic TV”, from the sixties, seventies, etc but, alas, no Man from Uncle. More’s the pity; it sounds fun.

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    • That’s great. I think of you whenever I get frustrated about streamers not having a “save to drive” option. There’s no reason that mobile bandwidth should be sucked up unnecessarily. It serves no one but the carriers (and they aren’t even the ones forcing it).

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    • I’m pleased you have TV on the road.

      I’m less confident that the service will stand up in court when that time comes. With my old “technologist who has to interpret things for the legal dept” hat on… The fundamental question here (from the technology perspective) is: given an activity X that is legal if all of the devices are in one residence, how many of the devices, in real or virtual form, can be moved outside the residence by high-bandwidth networks or high-density storage and still have the activity be legal? The original cable TV cases established that an antenna could be remote. Aereo established that a virtual tuner could not be remote. At this point, in the Dish Network Hopper case, the Ninth Circuit has held that it is legal to remote the display device, both to various devices around the home and to (at least) a single remote device. At this year’s CES, Dish announced Hopper GO, a 64 GB storage device that also acts as a wifi hotspot and serves up to five streams. I foresee more lawsuits. All of these court proceedings are enormously frustrating for a technology guy, because the courts have to filter every link in the chain through a “public performance” lens.

      The response to Will’s “no reason” remark is simple. If the content owner requires the stream to be in a container format that includes a do-not-copy bit and requires that the bit be set, then an app that offers a functional save-to-storage option is an excellent way to get sued out of business. Trust me that the content owners do that, rather than run the risk that some court might eventually decide that they gave up their copyright by not taking such simple steps to protect it.

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      • Oh, I know it’s coming from the content owners. It’s a form of DRM. I don’t think it’s especially more effective than another form of DRM that actually allows for local storage but rights-managed playing capability.

        Yeah, like ebooks, the DRM can be hacked. But if he wasn’t worried about skirting the law, the easiest thing for Rod to do for TV shows would involve BitTorrent anyway.

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      • I understand what you’re saying and they actually address this in the “Help and FAQ” section under “This is great. Is it really legal?”

        The answer:

        The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that, just like with your home DVR, individual recordings of potentially copyrighted TV episodes and similar material may be legally copied at your request and for your own personal use using technology such as that used by DroidTV, when made under the control of you, the consumer. See publicknowledge.org/pdf/cablevision-decision-20080804.pdf)

        So that would seem to cover the “virtual DVR” and “download to your device” end of it. The other end of it is the content acquisition and there they don’t store any of this content on their equipment other than than the individual copies on the customer DVR’s. Every time a customer requests an episode a bot is launched to view and record that from the originating network’s website or perhaps some third party source. Bottom line is they aren’t redistributing content so there isn’t any copyright issue.

        I should also note that while a great number of shows are available it’s far from everything and it’s limited to the content that the providers themselves have elected to make available in some way. These are all shows that you can view for free, legally, by surfing to some website or another.

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        • I skimmed through the opinion. I’m only a technologist and not a lawyer, but I think there are enough differences that I could make a case for infringement. It might be a fascinating case, though. The weakest link is that an “extra” copy gets made that wasn’t in the CableVision case. Here’s the logic puzzle…

          Assume DroidTV gets their content off the internet rather than over the air — a safe assumption, I think, since it keeps them out of Aeveo territory, and out of the various cases about providing over-the-air content outside the range of the original broadcast without permissions (note that Aeveo themselves were very careful to avoid the latter). Assume further that said content is marked “copy never” — the owners would be fools not to do so [1]. But DroidTV records it anyway. Ignoring copy control isn’t itself illegal — only providing technology to someone so they can do so is illegal (FCC is fishin’ insane). DroidTV provides you with an app that lets you specify what content you authorize the equipment to record, and that can download files the equipment recorded.

          So here we have a hypothetical chain of actions that would be perfectly legal — at least IMO — if you wrote all the software yourself and ran it on your own hardware. Even the standard Droid player software is in the clear, because it doesn’t make any copies. I would argue that DroidTV has violated the law because allowing you to control software that you didn’t write that ignores copy control, and giving you access to the output of said software, is indistinguishable from providing you with the technology. But the courts might not agree.

          [1] Certain service providers — cable and satellite companies — are required to mark content “copy once” to enable their customers to do time shifting. Since “available anytime by internet” streaming already subsumes the time-shifting, marking it “copy never” should be legit. I don’t know that that’s ever been litigated.

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  2. I somehow caught The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the theaters last summer, and loved it. I wasn’t super faithful, but I watched the show some in first run. They got the tone exactly right. Sadly, it seems nobody can really look or sound like Robert Vaughan, but it still made me feel like they got his manners right.

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  3. I’m listening to a Vince Flynn book. I can’t remember the title, because the title doesn’t really matter (these sorts of books seem to pick from some Master List of military or government terminology). Anyway, I’m relatively certain that I’ve heard this book before. The thing is… I can’t remember anything about it. Other than that I actually liked it enough that I am going to re-listen instead of move on to the next one.

    It’s kind of weird that a book can be so forgettable and yet fondly recalled.

    (Flynn’s plots and pace are really good. But man, his characters. The only interesting one is the terrorist.)

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  4. I saw UNCLE on a recent cross-country flight and really liked it… liked it better than the current incarnation of Bond; it had that brains/charm vs. brawn that Daniel Craig doesn’t really do very well.

    I also liked it better than Star Wars VII, which I saw iMax 3D per CK’s observations. Reminded me that what is missing from all the current movies is dialogue. UNCLE isn’t perfect with regards dialogue, but as Jaybird notes above, some effort has been made to move the focus from car chases to people – which I appreciate.

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  5. I used to watch The Persuaders. What I remember most about it is that there was in every episode there was at least one spectacularly beautiful woman that Curtis and Moore would fight over. The other show I liked in the super-spy genre was It Takes a Thief with Robert Wagner, and occasionally Fred Astaire as his father.

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  6. I saw The Big Short last night. Not only was it (to the extent of my knowledge) quite accurate about the causes and history of the almost-collapse [1], but it managed to be a lot of fun without dumbing things down. And what a cast: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, the guy who played Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s brother on Old Christine, and many more.

    1. I could go on, but no politics,

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  7. I remeber seeing previews for UNCLE. According to IMDB, it lost a lot of money (budget: $75M, gross $45M), and I’d bet that the conclusion Hollywood will draw is, once again, don’t make a film that appeals to adults instead of stoned teenagers.

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      • well it’s guy ritchie, so he might shell out more money for this very faithfully done genre pic, from the music to the sets, it did crib from the original moonraker tale, Nazis assembling a missile to target the West,

        of course it will be between the whole dc film series,

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  8. We might go see TFA today, dunno… (i have zero interest in it really)

    Reading a LOT of Conrad right now, trying to work my way throught the stories I never read, and revisiting some favorites. Also, Ballard (you know Good SF.)

    A new Tim Powes book comes out this week, so I will be picking that up!

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  9. Still reading Retromania, but only a chapter or two at a time. It’s a little dry. I may alternate it with something from my comics pile just to liven things up.

    Was too wiped to get to a show on Friday, but met a friend for drinks last night.

    Since I finished Master of None and Red Oaks and Ash v. Evil Dead last week, was looking for a new show to watch. Considered picking Homeland back up (I stopped after season 3), but watched the first ep of The Expanse and loved it, so that’s what I’ll be doing tonight.

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  10. Currently wading into the warm, wet ocean of a book that is Shantaram. Huge, perhaps a tad overwritten, but a sensual and emotional experience.

    Somehow I became a Robert Culp fan in the early 60s, so I Spy was my fave. And Mission Impossible, largely because of Barbara Bain. I wanted to be Martin Landau when I grew up because…well…Barbara Bain.

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    • I bogged down a bit past the halfway point of Shantaram, myself. By that point I had largely lost interest in the story, and was mainly enjoying trying to suss out who the author was – behind the authorial voice, who is the person who so wants us to believe that he is the protagonist in Shantaram? Because it seemed to me that while the author really wanted us to believe that Shantaram was an autobiography, the lead character in Shantaram would have written a very different book.

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  11. Finally got around to watching Ex Machina and loved just about everything about it. Oscar Isaac was great. Really good pacing and building of tension. Perfect soundtrack.

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      • He was absolutely perfect in that role. Rather than showing us the “computer genius” thing by making him perform ridiculous feats of nonsense in a nerdy way, they just tell us he’s a computer genius and introduce him as an intimidating, charismatic, alpha male powerhouse. He’s even physically imposing. You get so use to the idea of him looming, father-like, though the whole movie that the feeling of him being everywhere really sinks in and starts to gnaw at you.

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    • If I can continue to revel in Ex Machina for a moment, I also wanted to add that it immediately became one of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies for a very specific reason, in that it did something so few speculative/science-fiction films do. So many films confuse merely presenting an idea with actually engaging with that idea. Ex Machina not only engages with the idea at its core but makes it the central driver of the drama and conflict of the story. That is so phenomenally rare that I’m actually at a loss to think of another movie of that genre that succeeds on this level.

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      • If I may offer a suggestion: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

        Anyway, yes. The movie was downright freaking amazing.

        The interesting arguments after Maribou and I watched it (separately… I watched it on a plane and, when I got back, I told her that I thought it was absolutely amazing and I had no desire to watch it a second time), mostly revolved around who we saw as the main character of the movie. I thought it was Caleb. She thought it was Ava. And we argued against each other accordingly.

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  12. We caught U.N.C.L.E. in theaters as well, and were pleasantly surprised by it. I had no history with the show but K watched it as a kid, so her expectations were higher. We were both pleased with the movie and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t better marketed.

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  13. Saw The Big Short and largely agree with . It is really an impressive movie in that it manages to accurately explain the subprime crisis while using market events as legitimate plot points (it is an entertaining and very funny movie). And it is always good to see a movie about economics actually bother with the economics.

    My one small problem with the movie is that it relies heavily on personification. That is, it takes some fairly complex phenomena and portrays them in the actions and words of single characters. If you understand the phenomena, then it is a good way of explaining. It may, however, give some the impression that events that were cause by complex interactions of people with disparate motives and opportunities were actually planned and carried out by one set of actors.

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    • I saw the Big Short to and liked the technique used to explain the financial instruments behind the mortgage crisis to the viewer. It also managed to show the banks as the bad guys while not making the heroes into angels of light or the antagonists into clownish villains. It was probably one of the most morally complex Hollywood movies in recent years. Yeah, the bankers were greedy jerks but they just were following the instincts of the profession, the regulators were ignoring everything, and even the heroes were acting out of self-interest to even if they were really righteous and causing just as much financial havoc to regular people.

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    • Now that I think about it, there was one interesting omission. While the movie explained the treacherous nature of MBSs and CDOs, it didn’t say a word against CDSs, which were another huge problem: by appearing to be insurance policies but lacking any reserves backing them (the way real insurance does), they were one of the main enablers for horrifically risky behavior.

      Why leave that explanation out? Perhaps because the “good guys'” bets against the housing market were themselves CDSs. Several of the scenes towards the beginning show them persuading banks to “make a market” in such swaps, in other words, to be willing to take the opposite side of the bet. And when Baum(Steve Carell)’s partners are pleading with him to sell the swaps, what they’re really saying is to take their winnings now before the organizations they bet against can still afford to pay their losses (that is, before they go bankrupt). For all his talk about how the average people are going to wind up the real losers (as always), Baum is a reckless jerk too.

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      • Yes. The book is much better at that. It spends some time talking about the main characters’ internal struggles over being on the winning end of these trades.

        Also, the movie doesn’t spend much time talking about who was on the other side of these CDS trades and why. One of the more interesting parts of the whole story is that the banks started to wake up to the weaknesses in sub-prime lending and AIG, who had been buying issuing most of the CDSs, got out of that business. But instead of stopping and unwinding these positions, the banks just used the existing CDS positions to create synthetic CDOs and a whole new group of players started to take the other side of the CDS position (with the banks in the middle either taking their percentages or in many cases getting in on the trade themselves by creating CDOs specifically so someone could short them).

        In a sanely functioning/better regulated market, once the weaknesses of the subprime bonds were understood, the original shorters would have made a lot of money selling their CDS positions back to the banks and the banks would have marked down the losses. Instead, the banks just kept the machine running.

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    • I loved Sicario. Mostly because of Roger Deakins cinematography and because there is a way that those types of movies usually end. And Sicario walked right up to that and slapped it across the face with a bit of reality or maybe sur-reality.

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        • I saw Sicario and had also recently re-watched Edge of Tomorrow and it made me think that I want to see Blunt in more action roles. And that’s not something that I find myself saying much about any younger actors these days.

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          • She’s a female lead who’s managed to avoid romantic comedy almost entirely, which seems pretty rare. I’m glad they gave her a movie that was basically hers. I hope she gets more.

            Benicio del Toro was properly scary, and it’s weird to say that Brolin was the weak link among the three, though he wasn’t at all bad.

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            • she’s been in romcoms just not in any really memorable ones (or without a memorable part in any of the memorable ones).

              She’s stepping into that niche that Kate Beckinsdale sorta reached 10 years ago and Lena Headey more successfully reached 5 years ago (and the one Keira Knightley tried and utterly failed to reach) of Brit actress ingenue who is reaches her thirties and becomes big action star. She’s definitely had more success so far than any of the others. (interestingly the relative commercial failure of Edge of Tomorrow may have been the best thing that happened to her)

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              • Edge of Tomorrow may be one of the stranger movie situations I can remember. It’s not a bad action movie, but perhaps because it did so poorly in the box office, many of the ads and trailers for the DVD (etc.) release, and at least the first DVD covers, didn’t feature the movie’s title prominently, but seemed to call it “Live, Die, Repeat.” That level of confusion can’t have helped.

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  14. On the recommendation of multiple unrelated sources in the span of a single day, I watched a cool little horror-Western called Bone Tomahawk. It’s got Kurt Russell in the lead role, and it’s sort of like if you crossed The Searchers with The Hills Have Eyes, although it’s much more Western than horror.

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  15. I’ve been watching Nurse Jackie. Friday night, Fish came over and we watched the marvelous World’s End (conclusion of Simon Pegg’s loosely related trilogy of genre movies) and then the bizarre ought-to-have-been-terrible-but-somehow-managed-fun Ninja Assassin. Right at this moment Dman’s wife and I are embarking upon an Outlander rewatch.

    I’ve read the usual plethora of picture books, as well as a bunch of series books, anthologies, and factopedia-type-things. I read Stan Lee’s autohagiography, which was fun though I wouldn’t trust it as far as I can throw it, and Gillen et al’s first volume of The Wicked + The Divine, which I expected to disappoint me. Ha! Ha I say. It was wonderful. If the 2nd volume is this good it might be my new favorite. My favorite book in the last week, though, was the HILARIOUS picture book Mother Bruce, by Ryan T. Higgins. It is THE BEST.

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  16. Just finished episode 2 of Season 2 of True Detective.

    I loved the opening monologue about paper maché. It started with a good premise, wandered into some seriously horrible territory, then finished strong.

    The Rachel McAdams character is growing on me.

    There were a number of social criticisms of Season 1 and the writers, so far anyway, seem to have taken them to heart.

    There was a lot of supernatural kinda teases in Season 1. There don’t seem to be any so far in Season 2. The theme song, though, seems to hint and tease that it might show up at any moment. That’s one hell of a song. It seems silly to spend a paragraph praising Leonard Cohen, though. You already know these things.

    The first episode ended in a bar where a forlorn singer broke her heart for no more than a small handful of customers. The second episode ended in a bar where a forlorn singer broke her heart for no more than a small handful of customers. Part of me hopes that this happens every episode.

    T-Bone Burnett is a g-darn genius. But you know this already.

    Vince Vaughn is a better actor than I thought he was. I can see why he’d prefer to act in movies like The Wedding Crashers or Dodgeball than in stuff like True Detective, though. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he had to detox after the show. I would have to detox after doing a show like that.

    How about that ending to Episode 2, huh? Golly!

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  17. A friend of mine goes to CES every year and writes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek report when he gets back. He says that it’s clear the TV manufacturers are getting ready to really push the 4K sets, and are getting ready for the 8K sets. In one of his asides, he says that one of the big problems about going to CES is that they rub your nose in just how obsolete the TV set in your family room is :^)

    Anyway, I was doing a back of the envelope calculation. The average American’s visual acuity at a viewing distance of six feet is about 50 pixels-per-inch (ppi). The 8K in “8K TV” refers to the number of pixels per line horizontally; there are only about 4,000 pixels per column vertically. At 50 ppi, 4,000 pixels is 80 inches (6 ft 8 in, or 2.03 meters for the imperially challenged). 8,000 pixels is double that, so 13 ft 4 in (4.06 meters). How many here have a place in their house where they can put up a screen roughly seven feet tall and 13 feet wide (2m by 4m)? I have one place in the basement where it would fit, but getting it into the basement would require taking out some walls. Once in place, there would be some content I couldn’t watch on a screen that size from a distance that took advantage of all the pixels, because I’m one of the minority that suffers IMAX motion sickness. Video technology is about to leave me behind.

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  18. I watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a kid, along with Danger Man and The Prisoner. I had no idea this movie existed, I’m going to have to track it down now.

    Most recently, we’ve watched the whole Hobbit trilogy, over the course of about five sittings. It was very much the opposite of what U.N.C.L.E. sounds like – big dumb fun, MOAR AKSHUN in every possible scene, Orcs that are simultaneously terrifying fighting machines bred through the generations for nothing but violence, and also about as good at it as storm troopers.

    I’m reading David Nutt’s Drugs Without the Hot Air right now – it’s kind of slow going, because I have a thing where detailed descriptions of human biology, especially the liver and the nervous and circulatory systems, leaves me feeling faint, so I’ve had to put the book down for rather a lot of breaks.

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