Archive for July, 2013

Mother Jones Doesn’t Know Data

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

You know, you could probably cut out a career in responding to Mother Jones twisting and distorting of data from gun deaths. Today has another wonderful example. Hopping on the rather hysterical claim that gun deaths are close to exceeding traffic deaths, they look at it at a state by state level and conclude that “It’s little surprise that many of these states—including Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Utah, and Virginia—are notorious for lax gun laws.”

Look at the map. Then look at this one which shows the Brady Campaign’s scorecard for state laws on guns. The states were gun deaths exceed traffic deaths are Alaska (Bradley score 0), Washington (48), Oregon (38), California (81!!), Nevada (5), Utah (0), Arizona (0), Colorado (15), Missouri (4), Illinois (35), Louisiana (2), Michigan (25), Ohio (7) and Virginia (12). Of the 14 states, half have Brady scores over 12 and California has the most restrictive gun laws in the nation.

Going by rate of gun ownership, the states are Alaska (3rd highest gun ownership rate in nation), Washington (33), Oregon (28), California (44), Nevada (38), Utah (16), Arizona (32), Colorado (36), Missouri (15), Illinois (43), Louisiana (13), Michigan (27), Ohio (37) and Virginia (35). In other words, the states where traffic deaths exceed gun death are just as likely to have a low gun ownership rate as a high one.

Oops.

Moreover, the entire “guns are killing more than cars” meme is garbage to begin with. Gun deaths, as I have said in every single post on this subject, have fallen over the last twenty years. The thing is that traffic deaths have fallen even faster. The gun grabbers might have had a point back in 1991, when we had a spike in gun deaths that caused them to almost exceed traffic deaths. But they don’t now because both rates are down, way down. Traffic fatalities, in particular, plunged dramatically in the mid-00′s.

A real analysis of the data would look at both factors to see if better drunk driving laws or seatbelt laws or whatever are also playing a factor here. But Mother Jones isn’t interested in that (for the moment). What they are interested in is stoking panic about guns.

(Notice also that MJ illustrates their graph with a picture of an assault rifle, even though these are responsibly for a tiny number of gun deaths.)

The Worst of the Oscar: Round-Up

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

(Parts I, II, and III.)

In comparing the critics, the Academy and IMDB, I find that, with few exceptions (e.g, West Side Story, Crash, Braveheart) the critics and IMDB are in large agreement while the Academy is more often the outlier. That’s not entirely surprising, given that the Academy judges films in the moment while IMDB voters, for any year before about 1998, have the verdict of history on their side. Their ratings are reflective of the critic’s and historian’s opinions. If you look at the immediate judgement of IMDB — the last ten years, you’ll find some questionable favorites (The Dark knight Rises) but also some times when I think IMDB, even in the moment, did a better job than the Academy. Inception was a better film than the King’s Speech. Intouchables, from what I’ve heard, is better than The Artist. Batman Begins was better than Crash. Eternal Sunshine was better than Million Dollar Baby.

In short, I think my tendency to use IMDB ratings to judge films is justified provided one accounts for the biases it has. It is certainly less biased than the Academy.

Overall, however, I think while the Academy’s performance has waxed and waned, most of its picks aren’t horrific. I’ve sorted the Best PIcture winners into four categories:

Agreement: This is where the IMDB, the critics and the Academy all picked the best picture or the winners are neck-and-neck. Clearly, the Academy did its job. In this category, you would have All Quiet on The Western Front, It Happened One Night, Casablanca, The Lost Weekend, The Godfather, the Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the Deer Hunter, Amadeus, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Return of the King, the Departed. That’s 15 out of 85. I have seen all of those films except The Lost Weekend and agree with IMDB and history.

Defensible: There is some disagreement but the film has a place in the conversation as the best pic of the year. Generally I look for something rated at least an 8.0 on IMDB, in the top five and with either IMDB or the critics agreeing. Any film that makes the AFI top 100 or similar lists is defensible. In this category, you have Mutiny on the Bounty, You Can’t Take it With You, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Best Years of Our lives, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, In the Heat of the Night, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, Rocky, Annie Hall, Gandhi, Platoon, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Braveheart, Titanic, American Beauty, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, Million Dollar Baby, No Country for Old Men. That’s another 31 films where the Academy’s choice is defensible. That’s 46 of 85 years where I would say they did their job. So about half the time. I have seen all of these films except You Can’t Take it With You and generally agree with the verdict.

Meh: A good film, by not a great one. Probably got swept up in some hype. There are better films that could have been recognized that year. There’s a bit of play in this one as a few of these are probably seen as bad picks by some. Ordinary People over Raging Bull is regarded as a bad choice now, but IMDB still regards Ordinary People as a good film. I’m trying to be a bit objective here and leave my opinions out. But the way I see it, the “meh” picks are: Wings, Grand Hotel, the Life of Emile Zola, How Green Was My Valley, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Gentleman’s Agreement. Hamlet, All the King’s Men, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, Marty, My Fair Lady, A Man for All Seasons, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, the Last Emperor, The English Patient, Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo. That’s 25 years where the Academy muffed it. I expect some of the recent titles like Crash to eventually slip down into the bad category.

I’ve only seen ten of the “meh” films, actually, which is why I’m relying as much as I can on critics and IMDB. Does that mean I can’t judge them? Perhaps. My priority when it comes to watching old films is to watch ones I have heard are good or ones I know I will enjoy. For the sake of completeness, I will eventually watch all of the Academy winners and will post on Twitter if I think history and/or IMDB got it wrong. But it will be slow. The limited time I have for movies is better spent on things like Frankenstein than Grand Hotel.

Bad: Generally, this is reserved for films that rate below a 7.0 but special mention will be made where even a good film nudged out a classic, especially if it was for stupid reasons. The designation of a film as a bad choice is almost entirely objective, based on IMDB ratings and historical consensus. This is because I have only seen five of these to completion and bits of others. As I said, I’m still working my way through the Best Picture winners. And Best Picture winners that history has judged poorly are very low on the priority list. Sorted from the biggest difference between the IMDB rating of the Best Picture winner and that of the film historically regarded as the best, the worst pictures are: Driving Miss Daisy, Oliver!, Around the World in Eighty Days, Chariots of Fire, Shakespeare in Love, out of Africa, Tom Jones, Chicago, Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Ziegfeld, Cavalcade, Broadway Melody and Cimarron. That is 14 years where the Academy completely stunk up the joint, picking a mediocre picture while classic went unrecognized.

If we designate the first category as an A, the second as a B, the third as a C and the fourth as a D, the Academy has earned 15 A’s, 31 B’s, 25 C’s and 14 D’s in its 85 years for a GPA of 2.55 GPA. Let’s call that a B-. But … I’m kind of surprised to find myself saying this … I think their reputation is worse than their actual performance. We have the benefit of history. We have the benefit of time. We don’t have the disadvantage of studios harassing us to hype their picture. Considering the pressure the Academy is under and the skewed distribution of the electorate, I don’t think they’ve actually done that bad a job. If you’re looking for a list of films to watch, the list of Academy Award winner is not that bad a place to start, especially in recent years where IMDB and history are still a bit uncertain.

I think the Academy is getting less relevant thanks to IMDB and the explosion of online critics. But as a historical perspective … they’re OK.

So what is the worst of the worst? As I noted in Part I of this series, I don’t think it’s illuminating to look at the first ten years of the Academy, when they were still sorting things out (even though snubbing City Lights was mind-boggling). That leaves off four pictures. I’m also going to exclude any year where the best picture of the year isn’t regarded as one of the best of all time. The Searchers is rated as one of the best westerns ever, but IMDB only rates it an 8.1 — great, but not historically so. Ignoring it was a terrible snub, but we’re looking for the absolute worst choices. That cuts out Around the World in 80 Days, Tom Jones and Driving Miss Daisy. Next I’ll cut out Oliver!, since IMDB rates it a 7.4 and the brilliance of 2001 and Once Upon a Time in The West became obvious later — a bad choice but not the worst.

That leaves us with six finalists for worst picks of all time. Of these, I have seen five and bits of the sixth. And I’ve seen most of the films they snubbed. So without further ado.

Actually, you know what? I like good numbers, so we’ll make this is a list of seven with the seventh being:

#7 – Lifetime Achievement Award: Cimarron over City Lights, The Great Ziegfeld over Modern Times and Broadway Melody over The Passion of Joan of Arc. The first decade of the Academy was terrible, far worse than we will ever seen again.

#6 – 1981: Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark, Das Boot, On Golden Pond, Gallipoli, Excalibur(!!) and Body Heat. Chariots is actually a decent film. But it won in a strong year over far superior films.

#5 – 1985: Out of Africa over Back to the Future, Ran, Brazil, The Purple Rose of Cairo, The Color Purple, Witness and A Room With A View. IMDB regards Better Off Dead as a better movie than Out of Africa. That’s Gen-X bias, of course. But … I’m not entirely sure they’re wrong.

#4 – 1998: Shakespeare in Love over American History X, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowski, The Truman Show, Run Lola Run, Dark City, Lovers of the Arctic Circle, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth. Yes, that’s right. SIL wasn’t even the best film that year about Elizabeth I.

#3 – 2002: Chicago over The Two Towers, City of God, the Pianist, Talk To Her, Lilya 4-Ever, The Magadalene Sisters, 25th Hour, In America, Road to Perdition, Adaptation, Minority Report, the Whale Rider, Gangs of New York, The Hours, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Far From Heaven, Dirt Pretty Things, About Schmidt, Insomnia. If you lower the vote threshold to 10,000 votes, Chicago was ranked 50th out of 184 films that year. This is not just about The Two Towers. This was a very strong year and the Academy picking a truly mediocre film. Appalling. I didn’t expect I would see this as worse than Shakespeare in Love. I originally ranked this choice #4. But the more I looked at it, the worse the pick looked. Another reason why I did this exercise. I’m aware of IMDB’s bias against musicals. Chicago was still a bad choice.

#2 – 1958 : Gigi over Vertigo, Touch of Evil, A Night to Remember, Auntie Mame, The Fly. I went over this before. Gigi is a bit of a stand-in for the snubbing of Hitch. I’m aware that it swept the awards and is regarded by many as one of the best winners. Those many are wrong. It wasn’t even close to the best picture of the year. Look beyond the number of awards it won and it’s an awful pick.

#1 – 1952: I’m probably over-correcting for my bias against bad picks in my lifetime. In time, Shakespeare or Chicago could take over this spot. But consider what The Greatest Show on Earth (the only bad pick I have not seen in its entirety) stomped on to win the statue: Singin’ in the Rain, Ikiru, Umberto D, High Noon, Limelight, The Quiet Man, Othello, the Importance of Being Earnest, Moulin Rouge, Monkey Business, Ivanhoe. Some of those are over-rated, I grant you. But in 1952, you could have wandered into a theater at random and seen a better movie than The Greatest Show on Earth.

The Worst of the Oscars: 1978-2012

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

One of the things that happens from this point forward is that action movies and cult movies begin to take over the IMDB ratings. We also, by the 90′s, begin to run into IMDB’s bias toward recent films. So the comparison of Academy to IMDB becomes steadily less useful.

IMDB’s temporal bias is the result, in my opinion, of fanboys and excited audiences wildly over-rating pictures right when they see them and then not going back to revisit their ratings. There’s a sort of “observer effect” in films since the late 90′s where IMDB itself has become part of the process. So people, in the moment, think “Best. Movie. Ever!” rush over to IMDB and rate it a 10. Five years later, they’d probably rate it an 8.

IMDB ratings have a predictable rhythm. New movies shoot up to the top, sometimes to #1, based on early fanboy ratings and deliberate attempt to raise the rating. Then they slowly sink down to Earth as general audiences catch up. I don’t think they are as bad as critics say nor are as manipulated as snobby websites like to pretend. But they do have issues.

At some point, IMDB is going to have to tweak their formula to downweight votes that were cast (1) for movies that debuted since IMDB was inaugurated, and (2) in the immediate months after a movie was released. I think this would remove a lot of the bias, at least for anything less than ten years old.

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The Worst of the Oscars: 1953-1977

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Let’s just dive right back in, shall we?

This exercise turned out to be very revealing about the biases built into IMDB ratings. IMDB tends to over-rate science fiction, westerns and movies by certain directors (Tarantino, Leone, Kubrick). It tends to underrate musicals and movies with women leads. This is not entirely surprising if you know about the internet. But it is fascinating to see it in such fine grain.

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The Worst of the Oscars: 1928-1952

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Some time ago, I got into a Twitter discussion about the worst films to be tabbed by the Academy as the Best Picture of the Year. The usual nominees were bruited about but I wanted to approach it in a more systematic way.

So what I did was go through the list of Academy Awards winners for every years since 1928. What I was looking for was the answer to several interlocked questions: Was it the best picture of the year? If not, what was the best picture of the year? How is the film regarded historically?

I’ve talked about the limitations of IMDB ratings before, especially when it comes to films over the last 20 years. But my feeling is that comparing the films within any single year can be illuminating. This took a little bit of work since movies from early years don’t have a lot of votes. I’ve also taken the liberty of figuring out which movie for any particular years is the “consensus” best film, based on perusing the AFI and other critics’ ratings. I think the method to my madness will become clear once we get going.

The short story is this: the Academy has rarely done a great job, has sometimes done a horrible job but has mostly done an OK job. They rarely select the best picture but huge snubs are kind of rare. They clearly have biases: against silent movies, against comedies, against certain genres like science fiction. They clearly favor “important” movies that make them feel smart or politically aware and they are very prone to the flavor of the month. There’s a reason all the Oscar nominees are released in December.

Let’s go year-by-year. To save some sanity, I’ll break this up into three posts with a fourth to sum up.

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2012 in Review

Friday, July 5th, 2013

I’m getting better at this. It’s only July. Last year, my “year in review” came out in September. The year before in December. My review of 2009 didn’t come out until June of 2011. Hey, I got a kid. Maybe when she’s off to college, I’ll post my year-in-review while it’s still winter.

We’ll start in the usual place. Here are the list of films that were nominated for Best Picture:

Argo: I’m liking Affleck more as a movie maker than a movie star. While this was somewhat fictionalized, it was still tense and enjoyable. I’m not sure if it was the best picture of the year, but it was very good. 8/10

Amour: This is not yet out on DVD.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I really liked this motion picture for its magical realism and excellent low-key acting. I was reminded of the equally excellent Winter’s Bone, which used local actors and a great performance from Jennifer Lawrence to craft a great low-key film. Had I been an Academy voter, I might have picked this one. 8/10

Djanjo Unchained: Django, like Tarantino’s previous picture, is beautifully shot with excellent acting and some great writing. But the ridiculously excessive violence, the great length and the completely unnecessary final half hour dragged this down. Tarantino need an editor badly. 7/10

Les Miserables: OK, maybe I would have tapped this for the Academy. It has its flaws, as I noted in the long-form review, especially an editing style that wastes the visuals. But I love the story, so … 8/10

Life of Pi: Visually excellent with great acting. It just manages to walk the tightrope of not being ridiculously pretentious. 8/10

Lincoln: This has faded a bit but I still found it very enjoyable, mainly for the performance of Lewis and Jones. A movie is doing a good job when you’re tensed up about a conflict where you know the outcome. Apollo 13 was the best at that; but Lincoln does pretty well. What makes this movie good is that it eschewed a “Highlights from Hamlet” approach to Lincoln’s life and focused on one specific event that illuminates everything. Its flaw — the unnecessary coda — is fatal precisely because it departs from that, making us feel we’re watching a History Channel special. (Note to Spielberg: we know that Lincoln died). The movie should have ended with Lincoln walking down the hall. I was reminded of Munich, which was excellent … right up until the unnecessary and uncomfortable closing sex scene, complete with flying sweat beads and Eric Bana’s horrifying orgasm face.

Ugh.

8/10, in any case.

Silver Linings Playbook: I would not have liked this movie, most likely, had it not been for Jennifer Lawrence. I found the script a bit weak and a lot of the acting hammy. But Lawrence is just so damned good in the lead role that she makes the movie worthwhile. 7/10

Zero Dark Thirty: Jessica Chastain is her usual excellent self and the directed is taut. One problem I had with the raid scenes, however, was that they were so dark I could barely see them, even on my plasma. Other than, it was enjoyable. 8/10

Looking at the IMDB rating for movies with over 20,000 votes, we add the following titles.

The Dark Knight Rises: I’ll return to this in a second, but this is why any IMDB rating from the last decade or so needs to be taken with some salt. DKR is the top-rated film of 2012 on IMDB. I liked it, but it was long and not nearly as compelling as the Dark Knight. I give it an 8/10 now, but it probably deserves more of a 7.

The Avengers: One of my favorite movies from 2012. Great action, yes, but leavened with really good writing and acting that is suited to the task. Joss Whedon needs to do more. 8/10

The Hunt: I have not seen this.

The Hobbit I: I wrote a long form review. I’ve now seen it four times and still like it a lot. Again — this seems to be a recurring theme — the movie is too long. But it does a lot right. 8/10

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This movie hit close to home. While I didn’t have the protagonist’s mental health or life issues, I was a very lonely kid in high school. That was an improvement over elementary school, where I was relentlessly teased and bullied. While I did form a few friendships among outcasts, there was nothing like the group depicted in this tale nor did I know a teacher like the one played by Paul Rudd (who’s showing a bit more range these days). The only teacher who got involved with students’ lives was involved in a Christian prayer group. They invited me to things but … you know. Still, the movie surprised me by avoiding the worst cliches and managing to be original. The acting is uniformly good; the kids seems like real kids. The dialogue works. I gave it a 7/10 out of Twitter, but don’t be surprised if I raise that in the future. This might grow on me. (And … seriously? Not one nomination for this movie? Just in case you didn’t already think the Academy Awards were stupid).

Wreck-It Ralph: My daughter loved this movie. I found it clever and appealing, certainly a better film than Brave (which was a fine film). 7/10

Moonrise Kingdom: I’m not a big fan of Wes Anderson, but the two leads made this work well. 7/10

Skyfall: Also in the running for my favorite movie of 2012. The best Bond since Casino Royale. 9/10 (fanboy rating).

Cloud Atlas: I put up a long-form review. I should watch this again. 8/10

End of Watch and Conquest 1453: Have not seen these.

Looper: This was a really good science fiction movie and really should have gotten a lot more respect. This is the sort of classic sci-fi that is slowly emerging from the rubble of the Action Movie Era: a movie about ideas and people more than it is about action and CGI. 8/10

One thing you may have noticed: the movies of 2012 were ridiculously bloated. Almost every movie on that list ran a bit long and some ran long by more than half an hour. I don’t mind a long movie when it earns that length; Cloud Atlas earned it because of its complexity. But several movies — The Hobbit, Dark Knight Rises and Django in particular — could have been hoved down with no real loss. The biggest villain here is endless action scenes. It’s no longer enough to have a good action scene; now every possibly stunt you can think of has to be included; everyone has to get his moment to kick ass, everyone has to get their one liner. Writers used to make up their mind about how they wanted a movie to be resolved. Now they don’t; they just resolve it both ways by some ridiculous plot twist.

But here’s the big thing. Of the movie on that list, the only ones I currently own on DVD are Hobbit, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises — all fan purchases. If money were no object, I might add Les Mis, Looper and Cloud Atlas to that. But none of those movies screams for me to buy them.

I noted before that the Dark Knight Rises is the top-rated picture of 2012. That’s fan-bloated; it will sink. But right below that is Django, which is also fan-bloated. You have to get down to Life of Pi before you find a genuinely well-regarded movie.

In short, while 2012 was a good year for movies, it was not a great year. I don’t believe any of those films above are destined to be classics. I would frankly rate Before Midnight, which I saw two weeks ago, over any of them.

Now it’s tough to guess the judgement of history. But I’m not seeing the kind of classic that people watch for generations coming out of Hollywood these days. Look at IMDB’s top films since 2000. Almost all of them are action movies. Now Lord of the Rings may be destined for classic status, but is The Dark Knight? Inception? City of God?

OK, OK, IMDB is bloated by fan boys. Fine. But even if we strip those out, we have Memento, Spirited Away, The Pianist, The Lives of Others … Look at Roger Ebert’s Great Movies and narrow it down to the last decade. Not a lot there and not a lot that I think he’s absolutely right about.

Look, it’s Friday, I’m tired, I have a summer cold. I’m 1200 words in. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. But I’ve been thinking this for a long time. I see a lot entertainment. A lot of solid popcorn movies. But the only time in recent memory I’ve watched a film and said, “Wow, they’ll be watching this for the next fifty years” was when I saw Lord of the Rings. OK, maybe a couple of Miyazaki or Pixar titles, too. But I have no inclination to rewatch Argo or The Artist or The King’s Speech or The Hurt Locker. Slumdog Millionaire maybe.

Well, as I said, it takes a long time for history to judge. No one thought 2001 was a classic when it came out and the Academy once awarded Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Ask me in a decade and maybe I’ll be saying that one of those films above was truly great. But at my desk at 11:35 at night? Doesn’t seem like it.

Update: Yes, I’m aware that people have been saying the above since movies became talkies. Maybe I’m in a “get off my lawn” mood. But it honestly does feel like the great artists are moving away from film and more toward other media.