Monthly Archives: February 2014

The general

A silent, black and white film which has some laughs.  65%


The General poster.jpg

Despite being the major creative force in this movie (looking at Wikipedia’s entry for this movie now, I seem him co-credited for roles such as director, producer, script writer and editing) Buster Keaton seems to humbly list himself in last position as far as the acting credits go, even though he is the lead actor in this movie.

In this story Johnnie Gray (played by Buster) is a railway engineer (…um…’just’ a train driver?) in America’s South. It also happens to be set in the spring of 1861. For non-Americans, that date may not mean much, but no doubt most Americans would recognise it as the time when the American Civil War broke out (very early on in the movie, at the train station Johnnie pulls into, you do see two young black males carrying luggage…it certainly doesn’t seem like the South is a Hellhole for black people…but then again, you don’t see anymore blacks afterwards). When his love interest Annabelle Lee (played by Marion Mack) wonders when Johnnie will enlist to fight for the South after seeing her father and brother do so, he goes to great lengths to do so, to some comedic effect. Marion makes for a feminine and attractive co-star. Keaton himself makes for physical prowess and derring do in his performance.

Being an ancient comedy (i.e. being in black and white and silent to boot), I think that the humour is no doubt dated for modern audiences (or at least adult ones), but I did chuckle more than once for its duration. E.g. when Johnnie contrives to be alone with Annabelle when there are two young boys inside the mansion with them (I have no idea who those two boys were meant to be…and it’s also quite weird in how Johnnie and Annabelle first meet…it’s by no means clear they are meant to be a’courtin’). The other scene which made me chuckle was when Annabelle takes it upon herself to do some sweeping on Johnnie’s train (which is called “The general”, hence the title) at a rather odd moment. A few seconds after that event, there’s a bizarre moment between him and her. Anyway, the humour for the most part is of the “slapstick” variety.

The Wikipedia entry for this movie mentions that there are different versions of this movie which have different running times. The version that I saw was screened on ABC1 (Australia) on 06/01/2014) at 1:50 a.m. Of course I PVRd it to watch later, as well as the cult Australian movie “Stone” which preceded it. Yet to see the Australian movie though…and I saw “The general” some weeks after I recorded it…and am writing this review weeks after seeing it too. Anyway, in case the following information helps identify which version of the movie that I saw, the running time from go to whoa is 75:30 minutes length. The score features a lot of piano solo music to it…I’m assuming some of the score references a funeral march piece one time, and I can definitely hear “The teddy bears’ picnic” later on…it’s played on a constant loop for a while and later on it is used to comedic effect at an apt moment. There is one scene where the advancing army of the North gets a jaunty score…which makes me wonder if this was a later version of the movie.

“The general” has a cast of 100s at times and the cinematography is nice at times…with shafts of light breaking into a forest. There’s also a probably a good example of special effects ‘magic’ in one scene where you see a lightning flash. For one scene with a shot of a train on a high bridge, I did wonder if that was a model, but I could see figures moving inside of it, suggesting it was not a special effect.

In favour of this movie is the good, easy to follow narrative structure and the way that the captions linger on the screen even when there is the occasional slab of text, making it less stressful to read the dialogue before it disappears.

One thing of interest to note about this movie is the fact that in it, it’s the South (as represented by Johnnie which is the ‘hero’ of the movie. This relates to my earlier query about whether the score for the advancing Union army was a later inclusion.

This is my first Buster Keaton movie. As an Australian, I have to point out that having seen this movie now, I can definitely see the homage being paid to Keaton by the Australian comedian Frank Woodley (of “Lano and Woodley” fame…in fact, they made a sit-com together as well, “The adventures of Lano & Woodley”). I was very impressed with his 2012 sit-c0m “Woodley” and found it funny and sweet. He leans on the kind of minimalist slapstick humour utilised by Keaton in this movie. In any case, I suppose I’m saying that if you are a fan of Keaton’s work, I can recommend “Woodley” at least…his other work/tv shows are too foggy in my memory to recommend.


The smartest machine on Earth

Score: 80%

An interesting documentary concerning the attempt by IBM researchers to create a computer capable of competing on the American game show “Jeopardy!”. As these boffins explain, the ability of computers to play chess was once seen as the pinnacle of computer intelligence. However, the highly formalised and rigid nature of the game of chess was something which computers quickly mastered, even recently being able to defeat chess grandmasters…I Wikid this topic and found some interesting information on this, as well as a link to a documentary on this achievement:

An interesting quote from the first link, above, is:

“Kasparov claimed that several factors weighed against him in this match. In particular, he was denied access to Deep Blue’s recent games, in contrast to the computer’s team, which could study hundreds of Kasparov’s.

After the loss Kasparov said that he sometimes saw deep intelligence and creativity in the machine’s moves, suggesting that during the second game, human chess players, in contravention of the rules, intervened. IBM denied that it cheated, saying the only human intervention occurred between games. The rules provided for the developers to modify the program between games, an opportunity they said they used to shore up weaknesses in the computer’s play revealed during the course of the match. Kasparov requested printouts of the machine’s log files but IBM refused, although the company later published the logs on the Internet.[108] Although Kasparov wanted another rematch, IBM declined and ended their Deep Blue program.

Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue inspired the creation of the game Arimaa.[109]

That first paragraph in the quote, above, mirrors something which happens in this current documentary…the computer created to play on “Jeopardy!” improves once it has access to the answers already provided by human contestants in the category currently being played.

For what it’s worth, the computer designed to compete on “Jeopardy!” is called “Watson” by the boffins.

The appeal of this documentary is the insight provided into how a computer of this sort approaches providing answers to the sorts of ‘questions’ given on the game show. It’s the nature of those question (well, the show is sort of bizarro…contestants have to provide a question to the sometimes cryptic ‘answer’ given in the show) which mark out this experiment by IBM as being much more demanding of computer science than building a better chess playing machine. Ordinary language isn’t as rigid and formal as the rules of chess, hence creating a machine capable of competing against the very best players of “Jeopardy!” is a much tougher proposition.

Two approaches to the issue of artificial intelligence are mentioned:

1) Rules approach – this is a kind of “brute force” approach which is suitable for chess programmes. The computer simultaneously thinks through all the possible combinations of moves which made me made by itself or its opponent…a figure of something like 30 moves ahead is mentioned…which absolutely dwarfs what the best human chess grandmasters can manage.

Some of this approach is used on Watson. The computer programmers code millions of items of “common sense” to make the computer able to give logical answers to questions. An example of that would be the distinctions between “child”, “teenager”, “adult” say, and “boy”, “man” etc. If you know the meaning of one of those words, then you can make deductions and inferences based on that knowledge. However, a limitation of this approach is humans aren’t really capable of formalising all these kinds of “common sense” facts which we all take for granted.

2) Machine learning – this is more akin to human learning. The computer is allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. When humans can’t code the millions upon millions “common sense” facts which we all take for granted, another approach to make Watson able to compete against the champions of “Jeopardy!” will be required to fast track the process of making it competitive against them.

There are some laughs to be had in this documentary. In trial runs against humans at IBM headquarters, comedian Todd Crain hosts the game show. He often mocks Watson for incorrect answers. For instance, due to computers coming up with answers to questions as found on “Jeopardy!” differently to how humans do this, Watson proposes that “Richard Nixon” is a First Lady of the U.S.A! To a human, it’s obvious that a man cannot be a First Lady, hence Watson’s answer is extremely stupid. Presumably the IBM programmers didn’t add that kind of Rule into Watson’s database!

Before Watson is ready to tackle “Jeopardy!”‘s finest champions for real, on television, some ‘bugs’ must be addressed. Another issue is Watson’s inability to hear contestant’s correct answers to questions in a certain category which would allow it to work out what the ‘question’ is really entailing. Once that data is provided (the human contestants already have this information) Watson will have the ability to “self-correct“. In other words, if Watson is not ‘getting’ the import of a category on “Jeopardy!” and is giving ‘stupid’ answers, then ‘hearing’ correct answers given by the human contestants will allow it to work out what feature of their answer is relevant to the notion of providing a correct answer in that category. For instance, if Watson gives the answer to a question on dates as a particular day – and gets it wrong – and the human contestants give a month as the answer, Watson can self-correct to match a month to two dates given as clues in the ‘question’.

The documentary does mention the computer programme called “Eliza” which is available on the internet now. I’ve interacted with that before and may post my experience of that sometime soon here.

P.S. since posting up this review, the machine at the centre of this documentary (“Watson”) has been in the news again. I.B.M. is looking to incorporate Watson into mobile phones:

A paragraph from that link above reads:

“During a keynote address at Mobile World Congress 2014, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty announced the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, a global competition to promote the development of mobile consumer and business apps powered by Watson”.