31 January 2007

Warner Bros. is working on a treatment for The Departed, Part II. I'm cautiously excited about this. There are, of course, a few obvious problems with the idea of a sequel, which come readily to mind if you've seen the movie. Still, I can't think of another recent film that has left me so eager for more, and which seems so open to expansion. There are a lot of untold stories that could be written about these characters. Clearly, what The Departed needs is an awesome HBO spinoff with the entire original cast. Those guys don't have anything better to do, right?

30 January 2007

Ugh. I apologize for my absence from the blog - I just submitted the first draft of my law review article, the final draft of which is due in a month. I haven't had this much fun since Noah tried to steal my senior thesis on April Fool's Day by entering my room at about time I always woke up. His plan was foiled when I, in fact, woke up.

I actually contemplated skipping watching the Super Bowl this year, and immediately regretted the thought ever crossing my mind. I always enjoy Super Bowl memories. When I was writing my thesis, Super Bowl Sunday was the single best day in the whole three month writing period. I saw Almea, I almost broke her neck (not) teaching her to tackle, the Patriots won, and it gave me a much-needed day away from the thing. I'm not expecting as much from the Super Bowl this year (who could?) but it'll still be four fun hours away from my article that I'll remember for a while.

27 January 2007

According to Wikipedia, Challenger, a movie based on Richard Feynman's investigation of the Challenger disaster, is currently in production, with David Strathairn cast as Feynman. Philip Kaufman will direct. This is the coolest movie announcement I've heard in a long time.

25 January 2007

Today's IMDb poll topic is "Which film was robbed the most by this year's Oscar nominations?" Children of Men tops the list, followed by Casino Royale and Volver. (Is this blog influential or what?)

24 January 2007

It's also shocking that Volver wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Film. I can't believe that I didn't notice this yesterday.

23 January 2007

As I never tire of pointing out, this was the best year for movies in a long time. So why do I feel so lukewarm towards today's Oscar nominations? Maybe it's because my favorite movie from last year, Children of Men, was a lost cause long before the nominations were announced. (It did get three nods, more than I would have predicted, though none for its spectacular art direction or visual effects.) Maybe it's because my other favorite movie, The Departed, has received plenty of love already. (I have to say, though, that if I had to rank Mark Wahlberg's performance against all of the other actors in that movie, he would rank about sixth. This is less a reflection on Wahlberg than on the amazingly deep bench of talent that Scorsese has managed to assemble.) Or maybe it's because Babel, the presumptive front-runner, is a movie about which I seem condemned to have permanently mixed feelings. (I won't be scandalized if it wins, nor terribly upset if it loses.)

The media is adequately covering the major snubs, but, as always, I'm eager to add a few gripes of my own. The Illusionist ought to have received nods for its screenplay, for the score by Philip Glass, and especially for Paul Giamatti, whose supporting role was my favorite performance of the year. Laura Dern really deserved recognition for Inland Empire, clearly one of the most emotionally and artistically taxing female roles since The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Given that Inland Empire was improvised over weeks and months, without a finished script, and that her role encompasses at least three distinct personalities, the coherence of her performance is astonishing.) And nothing for Casino Royale?

On the other hand, my favorite nomination is for Peter O'Toole, in Venus. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I love O'Toole, who nearly turned down his honorary Oscar a few years ago because he thought that he was "still in the game" and wanted more time "to win the lovely bugger outright." At the time, it seemed slightly absurd, but now it seems that the lovely old bugger isn't finished yet...

21 January 2007

I'm excited about the upcoming DVD release of The Departed, and amused by the list of plot keywords provided by Amazon: "Twist in the End," "Undercover," "Severed Hand," "Police Officer," "Racial Slur," "Shot in the Chest," "Shot in the Forehead," "Shot in the Knee," "Thong," "Chest," "Cigarettes." That sums it up pretty well, doesn't it?

18 January 2007

I didn't see it during hunt, so missed it in my puzzle roundup, but One, Two, Three, Shoot! is one of the best mystery hunt puzzles I've seen. Furthermore, it has instructions, so nonexperienced solvers can still have fun with it. So click on through and see where my puzzle obsession comes from.

17 January 2007

Rachel's comment on Pan's Labyrinth, by the way, was "I laughed, I cried, I threw up in my mouth." I think this counts as a positive review.
I'm very happy to say that my team did not win the Mystery Hunt, so I can spend next year writing a thesis, instead of writing a Mystery Hunt. Before the hunt I was very torn over whether I wanted to win or not. I'd like to write one more time, and you can't really choose when you win. But when the word came over Skype that Dr. Awkward had found the coin I was immensely relieved. On top of that, we were a fun good competitive team who can win soon. By next year we'll all be a lot more ready to try our hardest to win, so watch out everyone!

The next several posts will be my comments on the mystery hunt. First general thoughts, second some stuff on the Round 8 meta, and third some particular highlights from the weekend.

And to those of you who are used to this being Alec's movie blog, not Noah's puzzle blog, let me say "go see Pan's Labyrinth." No, really, go see it now. It's that good.
First off let me say congratulations and thank you to the Bombers for putting on a clean, professional, enjoyable hunt. I know from last year just how much effort goes into the little things, and the Bombers had very few errata, and although they had some puzzles I'd call broken, they didn't have any actual significant errors. That's really much harder to do than it sounds.

My initial response to the hunt was that I was a bit disappointed, but in retrospect I've realized that was mostly because I had unreasonably high expectations. It's been 2 years since I got to solve a Mystery Hunt, and during that time I've learned so much about puzzles and gotten so into them. Plus this team was full of puzzle writers whose work I greatly admire. Before hunt I went through all of Dan's puzzles from previous years and they'd gotten better each year. And Puzzle Boat was amazing for the work of one person. Somehow I came into things expecting the best hunt ever: clean, huge, totally innovative, etc. It wasn't really a fair expectation, and the more I look back on it the more I realize it was a very good hunt, despite my initial disappointment. Furthermore, I realized that some of my frustrations with the hunt were due to its not being the optimal hunt for me or my team, but it was better aimed at other teams (smaller, less student-ish, more interested in pop culture).

The best thing about this hunt to me is that it solved the Arms Race Problem. Over the past few years solvers keep getting better, and hunts keep getting longer. Writing a clean hunt that lasts until Sunday noon is increasingly impossible. Plus teams that don't get to see the whole hunt feel disappointed. The Bombers took a different approach. They front-loaded the coolness, and did their best to encourage teams to keep hunting until they saw the end. I think this will be a model for how future hunts will work, and I think it's a great model. Had they gone the other way and written a 140-puzzle hunt life would be miserable for the next few writing teams. They really kept the average team in mind, and deserve great credit for that. After last year's hunt's bottlenecks made life quite sad for the middle-tier teams, I'm thrilled that the Bombers made a great hunt for middle-tier teams.

There were also a lot of other highlights. The activities attached to the metas were a great idea and a lot of fun. From Berkeley we only did one of them (the Illuminati card) but we had a blast with that. The meta-meta was the best meta-meta ever. Really, it was that good. As I'll explain in a future post, there were a lot of individual puzzles that I liked a lot. Furthermore, they did a great job putting accessible stuff at the beginning for inexperienced teams. I hope that doing stuff like that will build excitement among new people for the Mystery Hunt and for puzzling in general.

And I really can't stress enough how professionally the Bombers handled everything. From the error-free nature of the hunt, to how they dealt patiently yet professionally with the Round VIII debacle, to their putting solutions up immediately after wrap-up. That last one is one you really can't understand just how impressive it is until you write a hunt yourself. I was very impressed with how on-the-ball they were. Kudos!

Now for some of the things which I didn't enjoy so much. My main complaint was that in general things felt inelegant. Just counting the number of sin puzzles you solved, instead of having metas for them; long long videos; flavor cluing in long paragraphs; answers that weren't very much like words; putting extra clues or instructions in for puzzles that could have stood alone; etc. Not every hunt can be as tightly and elegantly structured as Monopoly, but I hope that future hunts can try to come closer.

I spent a lot of time working on the metas. I'm definitely partial to the "pure meta" type (see MHs 02,05,06) over the "shell meta" as used here (see MHs 03,04, and Puzzle Boat). However, what I really don't like is the shell metas that don't use their answers in an interesting way. So, Round IV meta (magazines) was great. It had minimal excess information, it was easier as you got more answers, and the aha! felt rewarding. Something like the Round V or X meta, on the other hand, I think is pretty terrible. They used nothing interesting about the answers, it didn't get much easier as you got more answers, and wasn't satisfying to solve. Plus in Round X there was tons of extra information that you weren't sure if it was useful or not (the former jobs). I really didn't like the videos being attached to the metas. Cluing flavor text is sometimes a necessary evil (cf. Rite Awaits Myth), but 5 minutes of tons and tons of extraneous random information with the occasional hidden hint is excruciating. So basically, I know I can't expect to have "pure metas" every hunt, but I hope that in the future "shell metas" are more like the Round IV meta, and that they don't come attached to videos.

The rate of puzzle release was just too slow for our team. I hate to complain about this, because I know our hunt was much much worse in this way, but I hope that future teams can improve on both 2006 and 2007 in this respect. Although my team was half the size of any team I'd been on before, it was very hard to get dibs on puzzles when there were only 5 or 6 available at any given time. Had that number been 8 or 9 it would have made all the difference. The release mechanism worked perfectly in Puzzle Boat where teams had half a dozen people, but it needed to be speeded up for Mystery Hunt. We need to go back to stuff more like the Monopoly/Matrix/Normalville and less like Bandits/SPIES/Evil.

The mix of puzzles also didn't work well for us. Although the individual puzzles were good, the total mix meant I spent a lot of time working on not the sort of puzzle I'd prefer to work on. There was less interesting pattern recognition than usual. There was way too much pop culture. We knew that there were going to be fewer dorky puzzles and more pop-culture, but I wasn't also expecting so few word puzzles. Puzzle Boat had lots of great word puzzles. The word puzzles that were this hunt were very good, but our most 733T people always got to them too quickly. The ratio of IDing stuff to answering crossword-style clues was much too high for my liking. Also, for the MIT Mystery Hunt, starting out with a round of pop-culture and a round of sports was somewhat inappropriate.

Anyway, despite those complaints, I did enjoy myself a lot. And I think I'd have enjoyed myself a lot more if I were on a 25 person team, or if i liked pop culture, or if I had never gotten to see a whole hunt before. And I know there are a lot of teams that fit those profiles, and I salute Bombers for writing a hunt aimed at a different group. Hopefully in the future people will be able to please everyone, but that's notoriously hard.
I hadn't want to discuss the Round VIII meta at all, I figure the Bombers were punished enough during the wait for someone to solve it and we needn't pile on. But there's a disturbing trend among people whose puzzle writing I love and who are on the writing team that this puzzle "wasn't broken" or "wasn't that bad." Yes it was broken, and yes it was that bad! But this is all aimed at future writers, not meant as just nasty stuff about the Bombers. Furthermore, as I said, I'm happy we didn't win. The only thing I'm bitter about with this puzzle is that we didn't install the Wii 6 hours earlier.

I also want to emphasize that it's hard to not have any broken puzzles. Our hunt had several. Some were my fault too. Obviously one should take particular care with metas, but in general testsolving and having only clean unbroken puzzles is really hard, and can only be avoided by eternal vigilence. It's one thing to say it's inevitable that some puzzle will be a bit broken, and it's another not to think it's that bad. Behind the second door lies the potential for really bad hunts.

First let me say there is a difference between hard, broken, and unsolveable. A puzzle can be hard and not broken, and it can be broken and not unsolveable. My big complaint with the West Coast puzzleing I've done is that people seem to identify a puzzle being hard with taking a puzzle and breaking it a little bit. An unbroken puzzle:

  • Should not require multiple simultaneous guesses with no confirmation

  • Should seem "clearly the right thing to do" at least in retrospect

  • Should not require extra cluing. If your puzzle was broken before you added some subtle hint somewhere, then it's probably still broken. (I think this is taken from Setec's list of advice to us writing the hunt.)

Any puzzle that stumps so many smart people for so long is probably broken, even if it is ultimately solveable. And when a good clean hunt comes down to solving one broken puzzle, it is a tragedy. Being stuck on one puzzle is a miserable experience. It's bad enough when it's your own fault (say our team during Monopoly) or when its a bizarre hard to testsolve issue (like the Orange Star), but when it's just due to negligence it's really unfortunate. I hope that the members of Palindrome who are saying this was just hard and not broken rethink things, because it would be sad to have this happen again.

The main problem with this puzzle was that there were a lot of red herrings, and little to confirm your progress. A few very small tweeks would have improved the puzzle immensely. First off, there was no reason for it to be a 10 x 10 grid. That was not used in the puzzle, and led to many wrong ideas. Patterns like that shouldn't be there for no reason. Secondly, the main flaw in the puzzle was that there was no way to know which letter referred to the Jr. senator and which referred to the Sr. senator. This discourages looking at the senator<->letter pairing, and it doesn't confirm the initial guess that it has to do with the senate. We hit on very close to the right idea at some point, but didn't like it because there were 2^50 possible choices, and who would write a puzzle with 2^50 possible choices? (We did pursue this lead, but were unable to find a chart after a while of looking and so discarded it. That's our fault, but that's what happens when you have 100 ideas and the right one doesn't seem much better than the wrong ones.) Something like just having one of them be "NY" and one be "ny" would have made all the difference. Even after hearing that the puzzle used the senate floor, several of us guessed incorrectly how it worked (we thought the jr./sr. split would be given by taking the first or second occurrence either reading left to right or top to bottom, which is at least only 4 choices instead of 2^50, but is still too many choices). Yes it is possible to easily read out the sentence out of the 2^50 possibilities, but the point is that there's no confirmation until the very last step.

Furthermore, it seems likely that this was testsolved without the actual video. If that's the case, then it is very very bad. This is one of the reason why subtle flavor cluing is bad, because it's hard to know the difference between a transcript and a video. It wasn't always easy to tell in the videos how much was memorized and how much was slightly ad-libbed. The other metas all stood alone without in-video cluing. There's a rumor that this puzzle was actually testsolved with a picture of the senate floor, but I have to assume that it was also testsolved later without that, because a team otherwise so competent can't really have been that dumb. Rumor turns out to be false.

Finally, this puzzle illustrates the main danger with shell metas. They don't become easier as you solve more puzzles. For a pure meta, they're almost always easy once you have all the answers. So you can either solve the meta, or you can solve more puzzles. Here solving more puzzles didn't help.
My personal highlights included:

  • Bruce's cameo in Encore! Encore!

  • Everything about Unscrambled Cable Porn, a puzzle which proves that you need neither be original (see Seven Days) nor hard to be a great puzzle. You just need to be fun to do. The wit in this puzzle is delightful.

  • Backsolving ATTLEBOROMA as the answer to a puzzle. Sometimes it pays to have a list of city names lying around.

  • The Metas in rounds III, IV, VI, and IX. In particular, my top highlight of the weekend was remembering from back in my christian days that Breakaway is a Focus on the Family teen magazine.

  • I had a good time doing terribly at the golf video game in Going Out Clubbing. Fortunately one of my teammates was actually good at it. I managed to solve the rest of the puzzle though.

  • Rewriting the Record Books was the best sports puzzle ever.

  • Killing the Audience was worth it just for hearing people dictate to each other the text of the clips to google them.

  • Black Bed was a standard hunt puzzle, but people keep going back to it because they're so much fun. This one was a cute one. I wish these sorts of puzzles became a standard puzzle type. I'd be so much happier with the world if newspapers published these puzzles.

  • UN-Speakable was two great ideas shoved into a rather unsightly chimera. Still it was quite memorable.

There were a lot of other puzzles that sounded good and which I wish I'd worked on (the various gridless crosswords, for example). The Kingdom of Loathing puzzle went over huge, and, as I said before, the meta-meta was the best meta-meta ever. I'm sure I'll find other gems when I look through what I didn't get to see, but these things above were the things that stood out to me at the time.

13 January 2007

I think that I've finally figured out the Shamu mystery: it's because the Times just published its list of the most e-mailed articles of the year. It's an interesting list, too. The top two articles are about marriage (although only one involves Shamu), followed by messy living, diabetes, low-fat diets, college e-mail etiquette, evangelical Christianity, Trader Joe's, gay cowboys, and soccer. Clearly, if I can write a book involving all of these topics, I'll have a bestseller on my hands.

12 January 2007

What the...? Why is that darned Shamu story back in the top five of the New York Times most e-mailed article list? If this goes on any longer, I may actually need to read it.

10 January 2007

On a somewhat less exalted level of cinema, this trailer is one of the cleverest I've seen in a long time. It's so clever, in fact, that for a few seconds I thought that it might be for the new Coen Brothers movie. Well, it ain't quite that. But it's still impressive, especially for a movie that I have no plans to see.

09 January 2007

If you're still on the fence about seeing Children of Men, watch this. (It contains some spoilers, so if you're sure that you're going to see this movie eventually, I'd avoid it until afterwards.) Oh, and if you're in New York, and can't find anyone to see it with you, just give me a call.

08 January 2007

The trouble with living in a great year for movies is that you start to sound like a lunatic, or like one of those pathetic shills in the movie ads. In September, I noted that The Illusionist was easily the best movie I'd seen all year. A month later, I raved that The Departed was the best movie since The Illusionist. Then came a little number called Pan's Labyrinth, which, according to this blog's resident critic, was "the year's most powerful movie, and the most remarkable work of its kind in a long time." And I haven't even mentioned Volver yet. (Or seen Babel, for that matter.)

I stand by all of these statements. So how can I possibly convince you that Children of Men is the best movie of the year, and the most cinematically exhilarating movie of the decade? Obviously, I can't. I've gone crazy. But the sliver of my brain that still cares about movies insists that Alfonso Cuaron has just raised the bar for every director in the world. A few friends have pointed out problems with the plot, which I'll grudgingly admit. But this movie isn't about its plot, or its politics, but about the most remarkable sequence of purely cinematic epiphanies—at least one per minute—that I've seen in ages. Like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Cuaron is so far in the zone that he transforms everything that he touches. He keeps showing you things that you've never seen before.

Some trivial examples are in order. This isn't an action movie, but it contains a couple of action scenes that kick the shit out of anything else I've seen this year. Its creation of the near future is sly and unobtrusive, but as persuasive as any movie since Blade Runner, and demands multiple viewings to fully appreciate. The soundtrack is smart enough to use "Life in a Glass House" by Radiohead and "In the Court of the Crimson King." Most impressively, Children of Men contributes a new champion in the extended tracking shot sweepstakes, hands down, and then tops itself in that category less than an hour later. And these are all things that a casual viewer might not even notice. The closer you look, the more you see. The fact that someone gave Cuaron $80 million to make this happen strikes me as insanely hopeful.

Best of all, I've finally found the right director to adapt my novel to the screen. At this point, there isn't even a runner-up. Mr. Cuaron, are you reading this?

02 January 2007

Pan's Labyrinth, which is the year's most powerful movie, and the most remarkable work of its kind in a long time, is also a savagely effective rebuke against the shallowness and cynicism of most "fantasy" films. Fantasy, in the context of movies like A Night at the Museum, not to mention How the Grinch Stole Christmas, implies something harmless, approved for all ages, and suitable for cross-promotion as a video game, even if its vision remains depressingly earthbound. Even a movie like The Chronicles of Narnia, which was at least assembled with some care, begins to look calculated and opportunistic when compared with Pan's Labyrinth, which is not harmless, definitely not for children, and the darkest, scariest, most gorgeous thing on God's earth.

Hollywood clearly has no trouble cranking out prepackaged blockbusters crammed with special effects (see next year's Evan Almighty, for one), but it tends to outsource its most vivid dreams to foreign auteurs like Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Hiayo Miyazaki, and now Guillermo Del Toro, who was previously known for superior genre films like Blade 2 and Hellboy, and who now proves himself to be a truly fantastic director, in all senses of the word. I was lucky enough to see Pan's Labyrinth without watching the trailer or reading any of the reviews, with only two glowing recommendations (from Frank Darabont and Stephen King) to light the way. If you're wise, you'll do the same thing. It's quite an experience, and I wouldn't want to ruin it for anyone, not even by hinting at what you're about to discover.