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Review: Fatman’s concept is better than its execution, but it’s still kinda fun

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Enlarge / Mel Gibson plays Chris Cringle, a disillusioned Christmas shopkeeper in North Peak, Alaska.

There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy, which is why black comedy is a film genre that is notoriously tough to get right. Despite good performances and some nice moments, Fatman—in which Mel Gibson plays a gruff, grizzled, disillusioned Santa—doesn’t quite succeed tonally in finding that elusive sweet spot. The trailer was certainly promising, but the concept is better than the ultimate execution. That said, it’s still pretty entertaining, and a solid addition to the growing genre of what one might call “anti-holiday” films.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

Written and directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime), the film co-stars Walton Goggins (The Righteous Gemstones, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Oscar-nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies, Blindspot). Per the official premise:

To save his declining business, Chris Cringle (Gibson), also known as Santa Claus, is forced into a partnership with the U.S. military. Making matters worse, Chris gets locked into a deadly battle of wits against a highly skilled assassin (Goggins), hired by a precocious 12-year-old after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking. ‘Tis the season for Fatman to get even, in the action-comedy that keeps on giving.

Chris and his wife, Ruth (Jean-Baptiste) run a Christmas present manufacturing operation in North Peak, Alaska, with the help of their workers (elves), led by the elfin factory foreman, Seven (Eric Woolfe). Apparently the US government pays Chris an annual subsidy to run the factory, since Christmas generates some $3 trillion a year in holiday spending.  But in recent years, so many children have made the naughty list—thereby meriting a lump of coal in lieu of a gift—that it’s significantly reduced the factory’s output, resulting in much smaller subsidies. Chris tries to find other clients, but “everybody is outsourcing,” and he keeps getting underbid. To save the factory, he accepts a one-time contract from the US military to manufacture control panels for a new jet fighter program.

Cut to Christmas morning, when young Billy (Chance Hurstfield, The Package, Good Boys) opens a gift from Santa, only to find a lump of coal inside. Billy is not amused. In fact, he is outraged to the point of hiring Goggins’ assassin, Jonathan Miller (aka Skinny Man), to kill Santa Claus, aka the titular Fatman.  But first, Miller has to figure out where Santa’s been holed up all these years.

This is not a film with many laugh-out-loud moments, or even hearty chuckles; it’s more likely to elicit wry appreciative grins. Tonally, it’s pretty dark, although the violence is largely off-camera until the climactic confrontation. The ultra-dry humor lurks around the edges, in small ornamental details, like watching Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael) lecture Seven about the elves’ unhealthy diet. They subsist entirely on simple carbs and sugar six times a day, and he thinks they should at least get a bit of protein now and then. And when a smarmy government suit gets nipped by Donner, Chris rasps, “You’re lucky it wasn’t Blitzen. She’ll tear your package clean off.”

Goggins’ Miller pretty much steals this film, as we see him intently building up his weapons cache, brushing up on his mixed martial arts, and taking a few practice punches at a cartoonish Santa head target. He doesn’t even try to be “funny,” playing it straight with a deadpan delivery that lets the absurdity of the situation speak for itself—especially in his interactions with his young client.

For instance, once Miller locates Santa, Billy demands the big man’s head as a trophy, but Miller warns him that heads rot and mold. When Billy next demands his beard, the hit man refuses: “I’m not shaving off a dead man’s beard.” (Miller is clearly not fond of his client, since the caller ID for Billy is “Little S*&t.”) And despite being a cold-blooded assassin, Miller keeps a pet hamster, even stopping off in a pet store en route to kill Chris so he can mount a hamster wheel on the car dashboard for his rodent companion. He is not pleased when the pet store owner suggests he seems more like a snake person: “Snakes eat hamsters.”

There’s a theme here of absent, neglectful fathers—and in the case of Miller, outright abusive fathers. Billy’s father prefers to spend Christmas in the Bahamas with his hot young girlfriend rather than with his own son, and he sends Billy a giant stuffed teddy bear as a gift, suggesting he might not even remember his son’s age. One might be tempted to feel bad for Billy if we hadn’t just watched him hire Miller to kidnap the young girl who won the school science fair instead of him, and threaten to electrocute her with a 12-volt car battery if she didn’t confess to cheating, so he would win by default. Oh, and he stole blank checks from his wheelchair-bound grandmother and forged her signature to take out a hit on Santa. Billy totes deserved that lump of coal.

Fatman might be deemed the evil twin to the 1989 French cult film Dial Code: Santa Claus (itself a precursor to Home Alone), in which a Rambo-obsessed young boy named Thomas battles a murderous intruder on Christmas eve. Both films share a dark sensibility, with only touches of wry humor. Dial Code: Santa Claus is essentially a violent fairy tale about the loss of childhood innocence; Thomas is a sweet-natured boy form a wealthy family, with a loving mother and grandfather, who is genuinely traumatized by the violence that breaks out when “Santa” comes down the chimney. Billy is his polar opposite: spoiled, entitled, and most definitely a sociopath who really doesn’t seem to comprehend things like empathy for others’ suffering. The question Fatman ultimately poses is whether Billy deserves punishment or a chance for redemption.

Fatman is now available on VOD. Pair with Dial Code: Santa Claus (if you can find it), or perhaps Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, or Bad Santa.

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Twitch’s Trump ban sustained after leaving office

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Enlarge / Photo illustration of the Twitch logo on a smartphone.

On Wednesday, an automated alert about Twitch account bans included a somewhat surprising account name: “@DonaldTrump.” The surprise came because Twitch had already “indefinitely suspended” the former president’s official Twitch channel on January 7 in the wake of his January 6 speech inciting a seditious riot at the US Capitol.

Following this Wednesday alert, Twitch confirmed to Ars Technica that this was no accident: Trump’s account is indeed outright banned. Twitch continues to call the ban an “indefinite suspension,” but it has not offered any timeline for its return or steps that its account holders (either Trump himself or any representatives) may take to reverse the decision. Wednesday’s news lines up with a Tuesday claim by DW News reporter Dana Regev, who had hinted at Twitch waiting until after President Joe Biden’s inauguration to make a firmer ruling on the previous ban.

The service took the rare step of outlining the exact reason for the ban, a courtesy generally not reserved to those affected. This lack of clarity emerged in particular when Twitch offered no explanation for banning Guy “DrDisrespect” Beahm in the wake of spreading COVID-19 misinformation.

In Trump’s case, Twitch cited “the ongoing risk of further incitement of violence” as a primary reason for the ban. The statement, as issued to Ars Technica by a Twitch representative, continued:

The President’s statements continue to be interpreted as calls to action, and we are taking this action to remove the potential for harm to our community and the general public.

Twitch has clear rules that prohibit hateful conduct, harassment, or incitement of violence on our service, and we consider off-service events when making enforcement decisions. However, the events of the past weeks have highlighted a gap with respect to rhetoric that encourages violence, regardless of whether or not it was directly streamed on Twitch. We will be updating our policies as a result of our consideration of this situation.

Twitch has recently enacted sweeping new rules to allow moderators to take context into account when deciding whether content qualifies as “hateful” speech. In December, the company’s official channel cited specific gamer slang terms as examples of this context-sensitive approach, but the resulting video became widely cited as being an official ban on certain words and a hint of jargon whack-a-mole as opposed to an example of sweeping moderation changes to come.

Today’s statement strongly hints that Twitch’s rule-changing stance is far from over and that the company is clearly looking to enforce the rules, based on statements made outside of Twitch video streams.

Feels bad, man

The @DonaldTrump account, launched in October 2019, was used to either livestream or rebroadcast official Trump speeches and affiliated events as opposed to hosting the service’s usual gaming-related video streams—all while hosting a chat channel for the account’s followers. Twitch has long faced issues with chat toxicity, particularly with many streamers continuing to embrace the “Pepe frog” meme without denouncing white supremacists’ embrace of the icon (a fact that led its original creator to sue those who co-opted the image without his consent).

Trump’s Twitch account had been in hot water previously due to its rebroadcasts of rule-breaking speeches. His channel’s last temporary ban, enacted on June 29, happened because it had aired his notorious statements about Mexico “sending… rapists” to the United States.

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PC fan port of early Sonic games lets you zoom the camera way, way back

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A group of coders has decompiled the source code for Sonic the Hedgehog and its 1992 sequel from their well-regarded 2013 smartphone ports. That means these heavily enhanced versions of the early ’90s Genesis games—developed by Christian Whitehead using the same revamped Retro/Star Engine that powers Sonic Mania—can now be easily recompiled for play on new platforms including the PlayStation Vita, the Nintendo Switch, and Windows/Mac computers.

That’s an interesting-enough hacking/coding achievement on its own. But with a little tinkering, the PC versions also let players scale the game window to any arbitrary resolution, expanding the visible playfield without scaling up the games’ core pixel graphics. As you can see in the pictures and videos included in this article, this tweak effectively zooms out the standard in-game camera to show huge chunks of a stage at once, giving players an exciting new perspective on these classic titles.

But how?

Scaled up to 4096×2160, you can see a lot more of Sonic 2 at once. Be sure to extend to full screen for maximum impact.

Filling your PC screen with a playable Sonic map isn’t exactly as simple as dragging the corner of the gameplay window. First, you have to take a legally obtained copy of one of the 2013 Sonic games (which are still available on Google Play and the iOS App Store) and extract the “RSDK” file to your computer (this handy video tutorial can be of assistance there). From there, you can run the precompiled Windows release and edit the settings file to extend the playfield horizontally with relative ease (you can also edit the pixel scale if you want to effectively zoom the game’s camera back in on a large monitor).

Unfortunately, the game’s vertical height remains hardcoded at 240 pixels in this build, which means the game looks like a long, thin strip when extended across the width of a modern PC monitor. To extend the playfield vertically, you have to dive into the decompiled source code, change “SCREEN_YSIZE” in the retroengine.hpp, then recompile a fresh new executable (there are some tricky dependencies involved in getting this to work; much thanks to @CodeNameGamma for her assistance in my attempts).

The thousand-foot view

Once you get things working, however, the effect of this “zoomed out” view is immediately striking. The standard 32×48 pixel Sonic sprite becomes a tiny, Where’s Waldo-esque speck on a 2560×1440 monitor (or even tinier if you have a 4K or widescreen display). The new viewpoint lets players see well past the cramped, 320×224 screen area they may be used to on the Genesis, allowing them to take in the scale and design of these massive levels all at once. Hidden paths and secrets that once flew by in a blur become immediately apparent when you can take the ultrahigh-level view of a stage at a glance.

These 2013 mobile ports were originally designed to run at “full screen” resolution on a variety of different smartphones, so the engine handles all this rescaling pretty smoothly on its own. Enemies, moving platforms, and animated background elements all generally work, even if Sonic is thousands of pixels away on the opposite corner of the screen. The in-game physics still work as expected and everything is rendered with pixel-perfect authenticity at 60 frames per second, too (assuming your machine can handle all those pixels at these expanded resolutions).

Still, there are some odd gameplay and visual artifacts when you try to scale a game originally designed for ’90s standard-definition TVs to modern computer resolutions. This is most apparent at the end of many levels, where Sonic can get stuck on a newly obstructive invisible wall and the game hits an infinite loop waiting for him to run off screen. On flat levels, the background tiles and even the level architecture itself can sometimes repeat in a vertical pattern, too. And the AI for Dr. Robotnik’s boss battle also tends to freak out a little bit thanks to the new, much larger playfield.

These issues may get ironed out as hackers continue to tinker with the source code and build new versions of these freshly decompiled games. In the meantime, though, we’ll never look at classic Sonic the same way again.

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Capitol rioters were “predisposed” to conflict; Trump et al. fanned flames

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Enlarge / Trump supporters near the US Capitol on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The rioters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. (Photo by Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s a dark moment in American history that will not be soon forgotten. On January 6, thousands of supporters of soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump gathered for a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, DC, to protest the certification of the 2020 election results by Congress. Speaker after speaker pumped up the angry crowd by repeating false claims of widespread election fraud, culminating with an address by Trump himself, in which he called on his followers to “fight like hell” and march on the US Capitol. The result: frenzied rioters overran Capitol Police, smashing windows and triumphantly posing for selfies as they roamed through the evacuated building. By the time the National Guard regained control, five people were dead, including a Capitol Police officer.

As people struggled to process the horror in the immediate aftermath, Michael Bang Petersen, a Danish political scientist at Aarhus University, weighed in on Twitter with some counter-intuitive commentary. While the predominant theme among many pundits centered on the role of Trump and his enablers spreading lies about widespread voter fraud and then whipping the crowd into frenzy during that morning’s rally, Petersen suggested that perhaps they had it backward. “Did protestors storm Congress because they followed Trump and believed his misinformation about the US election? No,” he tweeted. “They followed Trump and believed in misinformation because they wanted to storm Congress.”

Petersen’s background is in evolutionary psychology, and his research focuses on how the adaptive challenges of human evolutionary history shape the way modern citizens think about mass politics. Back in October, Petersen published a review paper in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, making the case for his thesis that “mass mobilization”—like we saw with the Trumpian insurrectionists storming the nation’s Capitol—is not the direct result of manipulation by misinformation/wild conspiracy theories spread by a dominant leader. Rather, the paper said, those factors are vital tools for coordinating individuals who are already predisposed for conflict.

This perspective “does not necessarily imply that people do not believe in propaganda,” Petersen wrote in his paper. “But it suggests that such belief can be an effect rather than a cause of the deep need for action.” He describes a tipping point dynamic, in which a group that has coalesced around, say, Trumpism, suddenly becomes sufficiently coordinated to push it over the critical threshold into mass mobilization. In other words, a phase transition occurs, and a loose group of like-minded individuals becomes a violent mob.

On the one hand, Petersen wrote, this means that “groups and societies can be stable even if they contain large minority segments of individuals who share disruptive, violent, or prejudiced views.” On the other hand, “this stability can be quickly undermined if suddenly coordination is achieved.”

Petersen’s counter-intuitive insight does not let Trump and his enablers off the hook for inciting the mob by peddling disinformation; without those elements, there would be no sudden coordination. “I think that Donald Trump is a master of human psychology,” Petersen told Ars, pointing to Trump’s 2016 campaign messaging as evidence: that the world is dangerous place and only he could fix it and protect America from those who wish to destroy us.

Trump was offering himself as the avatar of a strong, dominant demagogue, in keeping with Petersen’s research. As he wrote in his paper, “If followers search for the optimal leader to solve conflict-related problems of coordination, they will seek out candidates who are willing to violate normative expectations by engaging in obvious lying, and who displays a personality oriented toward conflict, even if such personalities under other circumstances would be considered unappealing.”

“I think Trump knows what he does in terms of all of the psychological buttons that he is pushing,” said Petersen. “Maybe it’s not deliberate, but he has very deep intuitions about what works, and in that sense I would find it extraordinary if he didn’t know what was going on.” We sat down with Petersen to learn more about the psychological processes underlying this kind of mass mobilization.

Ars Technica: You argue that from an evolutionary standpoint, human beings should be resistant to easy manipulation. But people do believe quite a lot of silly things, and many eagerly embrace conspiracy theories.

Michael Petersen: Evolutionary psychology [holds] that the reason why we have the brain structures that we have is that they have been adapted over human evolutionary history. From that perspective, there should be limits to the degree to which we can be manipulated by others, because ultimately, we would have been at a fitness disadvantage if some person could just come and say, “Hey, do you know the Earth is flat,” or whatever, and then we said, “Oh, really?” We know that one of the ways that we humans engage in social conflict is by sharing rumors, telling stories, pretending that we are more formidable than we are. So we should have a number of psychological defenses that makes us more resistant to manipulation.

But nonetheless, we humans believe in a range of very weird things that we do not have evidence for. So how can it be? We’ve found that when you prime people with inter-group conflict, they reach out for the stronger, more dominant individual as the leader. It wasn’t actually fear that was driving this; it was inter-group conflicts among people feeling anger. Basically, inter-group conflict is this arms race of coordination; the better coordinated group eventually wins. The dominant leader is one way to create that [coordination], but another way is through these fringe beliefs. In the same way that you can form groups around religious beliefs to signal your group membership, you can use QAnon and other conspiracy beliefs with little basis in reality.

Ars Technica: You’re talking about tribalism, which is a double-edged sword. I think you’re saying that, evolutionarily speaking, tribes are good for survival, but this can be bad when it comes to a point where there are inter-tribal conflicts. 

Michael Petersen: Exactly. There’s always conflict in politics. But the tipping point where things go wrong is when the different tribes or the different groups lose a sense of shared fate, that in the end we are in this together. We have differences of opinions, but because our fate is tied together, we need to figure out [how to work together]. What happens at that point is that you go from just conflict, to zero-sum conflict, where whatever is a benefit to them is a cost to me. Then we are in very dangerous territory.

A noose hung from a makeshift gallows as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.
Enlarge / A noose hung from a makeshift gallows as supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump gathered on the west side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Ars Technica: How does all this help explain the outbreak of violence on January 6? 

Michael Petersen: Violence is a dangerous prospect. So you really need to make sure that this is the time to do it, and therefore, if you are violently disposed, then you are waiting for the right moment. A lot of the psychological machinery is operating [subconsciously]. We have people in the US who have high degrees of frustrations directed against the system, so to speak. We have been documenting that for a number of years: a construct that we call the need for chaos, which is basically this Joker syndrome where you just want to watch the world burn. There’s a substantial minority in the US who agree with very radical statements, such as “I think society should be burned to the ground. We cannot fix the problems with our social institutions. We need to tear them down and start over.” That comes with tensions that have been building up over decades, in my view. One of the factors is increasing inequality, which is not just a problem in the US, but across most western societies.

These individuals are alone with their frustrations. What Trump does is help forge a collective identity. On the day itself, presumably, people don’t know that this is the time to go when they meet up. But you have these small coordination processes—Trump’s speech, the tension’s slowly building. People go from the mindset where they say, “Well, I think something should be done,” to “I think we should do something,” to “I think these people also want to do something,” to what psychologists call common knowledge: “OK, now is the time. We as a collective entity want to do something and it’s now that we want to do it.”

Ars Technica: Much attention has been focused on the role of social media in the spread of misinformation, and in helping violent groups better coordinate. Removing Trump and various violent right-wing groups and individuals has resulted in a staggering 73 percent decrease in the amount of misinformation circulating on social media platforms, which is encouraging. But is this a long-term solution?

Michael Petersen: What happens on social media is basically a megaphone for what happens in the offline world. It is a reflection of what happens in the offline world. So long-term, we cannot steer society back on track without actually doing real reforms. On the other hand, social media does play a huge role. It acts as a coordination device. Just as radio was very important to the genocide in Rwanda, social media has been very important in stirring up sentiments in the US.

I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on what we call online political hostility. Again, it’s not the platforms themselves, it’s not that we change psychologically when we go from the offline to the online world. It’s not that nice people go crazy when they log onto Facebook and Twitter. The people who are offensive and difficult to argue with on Facebook, they are just as difficult to argue with in real life. The difference is that the audiences that you have online are much bigger, so the impact of those few antisocial individuals is larger in the online world than in the offline world. If one person is offensive in a conversation over the dinner table, then it’s just the people around the table that hear that. But if the person is offensive on Twitter, then there’s a large network of people who are exposed to that.

I’m increasingly thinking that in order to get online discussions back on track, it’s about shielding the relatively calm majority from this antisocial minority who are aggressive and using hostile tactics. One of the problems is the business model of Twitter and Facebook is really contingent on stirring up sentiments because that is what generates traffic. So there are some complications there as well; their incentive is not to keep things calm.

A memorial honoring Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by rioters who stormed the US Capitol.
Enlarge / A memorial honoring Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death by rioters who stormed the US Capitol.

Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ars Technica: If Trump’s rhetoric serves as a means of focusing pre-existing rage and discontent, how can we unfocus it?

Michael Petersen: That is very, very difficult. When you have forged a group, then it is very difficult to undo it again. In a sense what the US is facing is a mass process of de-radicalization, which we haven’t seen to the same extent in a modern democracy. Some of my colleagues are working with de-radicalization, and that’s not a trivial process. They are just focusing on single individuals like Islamic terrorists and so on. But this is at a much larger level.

Some lessons can be learned from the 1960s and 1970s in Europe. There was also a lot of social upheaval and violent confrontations in the street. That eventually—which is a likely scenario for the US—[evolved] into several small terrorist cells like Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany, Black September in Jordan, and so on. What took away from the mass protest was some kind of reconciliation with these groups. I think that’s potentially the most difficult part of the whole process. There are individuals who are clinging to beliefs that a lot of Americans would view as highly offensive, who have been supporting a violent attack on American democracy. But I think it’s necessary to listen to the frustrations underlying the madness, and see where some reconciliation take place—while at the same time standing firm on democratic principles.

Ars Technica: Is it enough for Trump to finally admit there was no election fraud, or would his most radical acolytes just assume that he’s been taken over by pod people, or he’s being forced to say it?

Michael Petersen: I do think that if he came out saying there was no fraud, the election was won fair and square by Biden, we should not go to the streets, and so on—that is part of breaking coordination at a mass level. So I think that could make open confrontations less likely. But the most likely scenario is Europe in the 1970s with, for example, Rote Armee Fraktion. I think the situation is extremely troublesome at least for the next five years in the US.

My sense is that what is happening in the US and other western societies is not a difference in kind, from ethnic conflict of the worst kind, but difference in degree. It’s the same kind of psychologic mechanisms that are operating, and therefore potentially some of the ways in which they have facilitated reconciliation can also be used in the US. In a way it is up to each individual to say, “Well I have two different identities. I have an identity as a son or as a daughter or as a friend or as a neighbor, and then I have my tribal identity,” as a Democrat, as a Republican, as a Trump supporter, or whatnot. It’s up to each of us to say, “Well, OK, I can try to put the tribal identities that I have to the side.”

I think you collectively need to say, “Well, we are not two tribes. We are one people with a shared faith who have all sorts of cross cutting links to each other.” It’s not easy, but I think that is crucial in the long run. It’s a very, very difficult time for the US. You should know that there’s a lot of people hoping that you will pull through because it’s a great country. In the struggle that you are facing, you have the support of a good deal of the world.

DOI: Current Opinions in Psychology, 2020. 10.1016/j.copsyc.2020.02.003  (About DOIs).

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