Aug 30 2012

The Outsiders

S. E. HintonLast night, I finished reading S. E. Hinton’s (pictured left) 1967 novel “The Outsiders”. I’d read online that it was an old favorite for lots of people and I remember people reading it in high school (not my class), so I decided to give it a go. I have plenty of other unfinished books lying around but wanted something easy to fill those few quiet moments left to me. We got it from the library a couple weeks ago. My wife read it quickly. I walked by the end-table where she’d left it for more than a week before picking it up. A few short evenings later and the book was done. It’s not very long and an easy read, even for someone that reads at a pre-21st century glacial pace. The Outsiders is young adult fiction written in the 60s by an Oklahoman teenager. It was an instant hit when published and has seen a couple of film adaptations. The following review contains spoilers aplenty. Read on at your spoilery peril.

The book is narrated by a 14 year old greaser named Ponyboy, who lives with his brothers Darry and Sodapop. Their parents died in a car crash before the story begins and the eldest brother Darry provides for the family. The boys are part of a small gang of Greasers, juvenile delinquents identifiable by greased hair and denim jeans. The greasers in the book are in a constant state of conflict with the Socs (socials), which are privileged kids from the west side of town. That backdrop offers the stage for a coming-of-age story, where Ponyboy learns about friendship, family, responsibility, loss, death, bravery, and perhaps most importantly that there’s often more to other people than meets the eye. Though the book can be rather brutal, I must admit that I thought the ending was heading in a different direction than it did. When it didn’t pan out the way I was expecting, I was a bit disappointed. As the end of the book drew nearer however, I knew that the author wouldn’t be able to deliver. It had all the hallmarks of an unfolding tragedy, more than what was already delivered, and I was ready for the final grim revelation, but it didn’t come. Instead the character comes to his senses and you’re left to believe that he rises above his predicament. Lame? Well, maybe. Perhaps it’s not fair to criticize the path that the author chose for her story; it’s her story, but I was expecting Ponyboy to be permanently damaged by the head-trauma he’d suffered. After the rumble, his cognitive skills seemed to be declining faster than Charlie Gordon’s in Flowers for Algernon (published a year earlier). I was expecting a story about a boy that finally figures things out, then loses everything. That’s not what happens here.

To be fair, the book did handle other events very well. The deaths of Ponyboy’s friends and his dealings with Randy (a Soc) were poignant.  Ponyboy’s ongoing revelations and those of his friends were also handled well. Perhaps his biggest and most important discovery was coming to understand his oldest brother, Darry. Throughout the book, I felt like Hinton was borrowing from Catcher in the Rye, but writing her story with a more likable protagonist. Both stories are told in retrospect, both deal with a teenage boy with mistaken preconceptions, and both include a poem that the narrator likes but doesn’t understand (i.e., Burns:  “Comin’ Through the Rye” vs. Frost: “Nothing Gold Can Stay”). The similarities taper from there, as Catcher is a much deeper and more challenging read. Perhaps I just prefer characters with more flaws (not that the Curtis family isn’t plenty dysfunctional)? While both Catcher and Outsiders were  introspective, Outsiders also tried to tackle the clash between sub-cultures, a story that each generation retells with different titles and uniforms. In summary, The Outsiders is a simple but good read. A story that was controversial in 1967 is now rather tame, though many of the coming-of-age elements still ring true 40+ years later.

“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home…”

3.5 out of 5


May 22 2012

Pure Leaf Iced Tea

As a kid, my mom would make sweet iced tea by pouring sugar into a large pitcher by the cup. Some days we would down that pitcher and beg her to make another. There wasn’t an extra ounce of fat on any of us (well, maybe dad) because we’d then go outside and run around for hours until we were called back in for dinner. Good times.

About three years ago I started drinking a bottled iced tea called Lipton Pure Leaf Extra Sweet.  I liked it because of the taste, the fact that there were no added preservatives or coloring, the small jolt of caffeine (~57mg), and that it was made with sugar instead of HFCS. I had been drinking Arizona Southern Style Sweet Tea for months beforehand, but preferred the taste of Pure Leaf and the fact that it didn’t have HCFS. The only problem with the drink was that each bottle of Extra Sweet had 220 calories. Now, that might not seem like a lot (it is), but when you take into account that I can down three or four of these a day without a batting an eye, the results were unavoidable (if you overlook self-control). About 20 pounds later, I’d been revisiting the idea of dieting and looking for ways to make the necessary cuts. Then I discovered that Shopper’s Food Warehouse sells these for $1 a bottle, half the cost of the same bottle at work. *Ugh* What’s a sugar-fiend to do?

Just as everything began looking bleak and I found myself searching for new pants sizes on Amazon, Pepsico (the bottler of Lipton Pure Leaf) and Unilever (what don’t they own?) made my decision much easier. They introduced a plastic bottle. Not only do the new bottles not feel cool and wet in your hands (who doesn’t like that on a hot day?!) but the taste of the tea has changed, and not for the better. I have now tried the newly bottled Sweet and the Extra Sweet varieties and have concluded that they both suffer from the same plastic taste. Truthfully, I don’t know if this is an imagined difference or a real chemical change but at this point I don’t really care. I have found my excuse and will be looking for a lower calorie substitute (water perhaps?) so that I can squeeze into my old pants again!

Now, where is that homemade eclair

 “The second day of a diet is always easier than the first. By the second day you’re off of it.” – Jackie Gleason


May 6 2012

The Avengers

Friday was opening day for Marvel Studios’ latest installment, The Avengers (2012). There’s been a great deal of talk and build-up for this movie, including five or more leading titles (e.g., Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America (2011)). As far as Hollywood was concerned, this movie was a huge gamble. Marvel took a handful of successful franchises and lumped all of them together in one movie hoping that the whole was greater (or at least equal) to the sum of its parts. If the movie tanked, it could do harm to a long list of sequels that are waiting in the queue: Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor 2 (2013), Captain America 2 (2014), Doctor Strange (TBD), and Avengers 2 (TBD), among others. Mark Ruffalo, the third actor to play the Hulk inside 10 years, already signed-up for 6 additional movies before The Avengers even premiered (internationally). To add to the gamble, hit-or-miss writer/director Joss Whedon (who had no blockbuster movies under his belt before Friday) was brought in to direct and work on the screenplay.  To his credit, Whedon did scribe a short run of Astonishing X-Men comic books a few years back (2004), but that’s hardly the same. We can only assume that Marvel was banking on Whedon’s geek credentials (i.e., Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008)) and his ability to craft story-lines and enjoyable banter with lots and lots of characters. I’m not a huge fan of Whedon, but I must say that Marvel made the right choice.

The first Avengers (team) comic book was published almost 50 years ago, in 1963.  At the time, the team included Iron Man (check), Hulk (check), Thor (check), Ant-Man (missing), and the Wasp (also missing). Dr. Henry Pym (e.g., Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket) had a quasi-cameo mention in Thor; he was mentioned as being a colleague of Dr. Selvig but his name was omitted. Janet van Dyne (i.e., Wasp) appeared in Thor, but her diminutive CGI form didn’t even earn her a mention in the credits. So why were these Avengers left out of the movie? Who knows? Perhaps there was too much back-story, and not enough time to explore it? Hawkeye (who first appeared as Goliath in Avengers #63)  and Black Widow (who didn’t join the team until Avengers #111) had already been featured (somewhat) in the leading movies. But it might be as simple as: What straight male director would pass-up the opportunity to squeeze Scarlett Johannson into a leather body suit, and not ask for multiple takes, retakes, call-backs, and a private stash of IMAX quality outtakes? To Marvel’s credit, at least the villain is the same as Avengers #1, Loki. That’s where the similarities begin and end. In the movie, the Avengers are summoned together as part of a SHIELD initiative, in the comic they were inadvertently drawn together by Loki himself, who was trying to avoid the attention of the Fantastic Four. Although it’s not canon, I think Whedon (and Marvel Studios) took the better path.

So what about the movie? Well, due to my desire to see it on opening night (and a last minute scramble to coordinate plans) the only reasonably timed tickets available were for the 3D showing. I’m not a fan of 3D movies, in fact I’m surprised that the gimmick has endured as long as it has. Compound that with the fact that the theater was PACKED when we got there (20 minutes early) and we ended up seated in the obstructed view nosebleeds *sigh*, I’m surprised I enjoyed the movie as much as I did. Did it live up expectations built atop four years of leading movies? Yes and no.

Let’s start with “no”. On the one hand, I think they did about as good as they could have done with the material. On the other hand, the movie lacked much of the charm and storytelling that made the individual movies so entertaining. I felt like I’d seen the action sequences a hundred times before. Large sections of these could been been cut and spliced into movies like Cloverfield, Transformers, War of the Worlds, Godzilla, et al. without anyone noticing  the swap. I felt that Loki’s army was lacking. If you’re going to take over a world, you might want to attack more than one city?! Okay, I guess there’s limits in all things, including the Cosmic Cube (sorry, the Tesseract). I also felt the invading army (i.e., Chitauri) were poorly defined. In the Ulimate Marvel Universe (a re-imagining of the Marvel universe, launched in 2000 by Brian Michael Bendis), Chitauri = Skrull. These were Skrull? The Skrull are shapeshifters! I don’t think there was one person in that theater that realized the Avengers were fighting an army of shapeshifters! Also, lets take a moment to address the SHIELD Helicarrier. At what point do the people at SHIELD get the hint that a flying aircraft carrier kept aloft by four giant turbines is not a great idea. Let’s see… Anything else to bitch about? With the exception of Asgard, Marvel Studios’ other worlds look like sytrofoam rock landscapes. Black Widow and Captain America seemed next to useless fighting their little street-battles while the heavy hitters (e.g., Iron Man, Thor, Hulk) were tearing into the aliens above (this may be unavoidable). I could go on… Ask me sometime and I will!

Let’s end with “yes”. This was a team-building movie. It was never meant to delve deeply into character development, back story, exposing personal demons, &c. It was meant to tell the tale of how the most powerful people on the planet could come together to take on a force that no one of them (except maybe Thor) could have taken on alone. In the end, the conflicts and relationships between the characters became more enjoyable than the overarching plot of Loki’s Army. My favorite moments were slapstick: Thor and Hulk, Hulk and Loki. I was still laughing about those while doing yard work. My favorite character going into the movie, Iron Man, didn’t shine nearly as bright as I’d hoped. Hulk on the other hand, was much more enjoyable than I expected (a surprise given his lackluster appearances of late). Thor was Thor, no better or worse (which in his case, wasn’t a bad thing). Black Widow, the same. Hawkeye left me unimpressed (learn to hold a goddamned arrow!). Captain America seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

Looking back through this, I’m surprised that this review sounds so negative. Avengers was a good movie. I was excited to see all the superheroes on the same screen at last. The more I think about it; however, the more I wonder whether squeezing all of this into one movie was a wise idea. Should it have been a two-parter? Some of the movie seemed rushed. The first time we “meet” the Hulk he goes on a rampage, but the next time he’s in control and has a sense humor? We were never really introduced to the Chitauri/Skrull, one of the most important alien races in the Marvel Universe, which were instead relegated to shooting gallery targets. At no point did the alien invasion look like it was going to be succeed. Not that there was ever a question how things would eventually turn out, it would have been nice if there had been SOME suspense. I was also looking for more Easter Eggs, which Kevin Feige (president of Marvel Studios) said were “distracting” so they left them out.

I must apologize for the rambling structure of this review. Not only am I out of practice, but there are far too many elements to this movie, many of which I haven’t scratched the surface of. I guess I should summarize before this becomes a book. Whedon did a fine job. The movie was enjoyable. Character interactions were handled well. I’m looking forward to the next movies. There was little or no suspense in the final battle. The last (there’s two) post-credit scene is great.

“He’s adopted.” – Thor

4 out of 5


Jul 28 2011

Captain America

Detail of Captain America Comics 1

This past weekend we went to see Joe Johnston’s comic book adaptation, “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011). Leading up to Friday’s release, I eagerly watched the reviews trickle into Rotten Tomatoes. The first reviews were disheartening, at one point dropping to 33%. As more reviews posted, the numbers clawed slowly upward, reaching a mediocre 77% at the time of this review (days later).

The character first appeared in Timely Comics’ “Captain America Comics” #1 in 1940. The cover depicted the patriotic hero punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw (see insert). Nearly a million copies sold. Compare that to Captain America #618, which sold 44,748 copies in May 2011. There’s no comparing Golden Age and Modern sales numbers. Where was I? Oh yeah, 1940… This was one year (to the month) before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II. According to Wikipedia, sales of the comic book soon out-sold news magazines like “Time”. After the war, sales ebbed and the title was eventually cancelled in 1950. Despite efforts to revive Captain America, he did not return for good until 1964 in Marvel Comics’ “Avengers” #4 (nope, not an original member) when (retcon alert) he was rescued from the north Atlantic, having been entombed in ice since a plane crash during the war. *deep breath* All that being said, making Captain America appeal to the movie-going audience was not an easy task. The director had to take a 70 year old superhero with an unwavering moral compass, dress him up in red, white, and blue, put little wings on his head, and weave a story and background that would establish him as a legendary fighter and protector of the American Way in one movie… both to reintroduce him to the public, and set the stage for Marvel Studios’ next big release, “The Avengers” (2012). Not only that, but they needed an actor that could fill the Cap’s shiny red Three Musketeer boots and make it all work.

Yes, I’ve been waiting for this movie for years, but also dreading it. Marvel’s plan to tie their franchises together, also means that any serious misstep could bring down the whole project. If Captain America turned out to be a joke, then the Avengers were screwed. The first glimmer of hope was signing on Joe Johnston, director of “The Rocketeer” (1991). If anyone could make a superhero period piece, it would be him. The next announcement (as I recall) was the casting of Chris Evans, of “Fantastic Four” (2005) infamy. *ugh!* In all fairness, he was enjoyable in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) as Evil Boyfriend #2; I just couldn’t see him as Steve Rogers (aka Cap). So after all of this preamble, I entered the theater with low expectations (the second best way to see any movie, ranked close after “primed with margaritas”), found a seat, fidgeted my way into the most comfortable slouch I could manage, and watched the movie unfold.

Nobody expects a superhero movie to be the next “Citizen Kane” (1941).  Science fiction (especially comic fiction) requires a temporary suspension of critical thinking. The ideas and characters presented in comics were originally designed to entertain children, so if you have some capacity to recapture that sense of wonder and awe, they become much easier to appreciate. If you can’t suspend your disbelief (sometimes it’s just not possible), perhaps you can use it as a window to remember how you used to see the world. Or, just enjoy the action; there’s plenty of it. After skipping through the impossible (or unlikely):

  • A super-soldier serum that can’t be reproduced
  • Vibranium, a metal that absorbs vibration
  • A round shield that returns like a boomerang (how does an object that absorbs kinetic energy ricochet?)
  • A 1940s invention that simulates anti-gravity (still bitter that it’s 2011, and there’s no flying cars)
  • A man that lives without skin on his head (insert skinhead joke here)
  • A man that can survive after being frozen for 60+ years (spoiler?)
  • A relic with limitless energy (you saw “Thor” didn’t you?)

You’re left with a movie about a little guy who is given powers and uses them to do the right thing, repeatedly. Sound boring? Yeah, it does. Which is another reason why Johnston and his scriptwriters deserve a lot of credit. Despite being bound to the source material, they managed to make an enjoyable story. Unlike numerous other movies that I can think of, where you just couldn’t give a shit about the main character, Chris Evans manages to make Steve Rogers a likeable guy. Even when he’s kicking Nazi ass left-and-right, you still get the sense that he’s the little guy, given an opportunity to make a difference. At their core, that’s what all traditional comics were about, reversing the balance of power (“Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1941), anyone?). It’s an enduring theme that will always have appeal. Johnston and company retold the story again in this movie, and they did a good job.

So why only 4 out of 5? The movie jumped around, a lot. It spanned all of World War II and then jumped to the present. While this was necessary because of the impending Avengers movie, it still seemed rushed. That, and I didn’t care for the make-up job on Red Skull. While Hugo Weaving was adequate, I think his head needed to be more craggy. I don’t know, it just bugged me! Also, as others have pointed out, the motorcycle chase might as well have taken place on Endor. Despite everything, I loved the movie’s ending; the Captain’s last words brought home just how down-to-earth this hero is, and left me with a lump in my throat. Anyway… a good movie, worth seeing, especially if you intend to see the Avengers next Summer.

“Whatever happens, stay who you are. Not just a soldier, but a good man. ” – Dr. Abraham Erskine, prior to the super-soldier experiment

4 out of 5


Feb 11 2011

Sic Semper Tyrannis

This has been a historic day for Egypt (and an excellent opportunity for a meandering post). The recently appointed (as of January 29th) Omar Suleiman, Vice President of Egypt, appeared on Egyptian television today and announced that Hosni Mubarak had resigned after 29 years of rule. Only yesterday, Mubarak himself had announced that he would wait until September to step down. The half-measure announcement angered protesters, more people poured onto the streets, and by today Mubarak “resigned” (he is thought to have fled to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, “The City of Peace”). His Vice President’s words were brief, but translated by NPR as:

“In these difficult circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the position of the presidency. He has commissioned the armed forces council to direct the issues of the state. God is our protector and succor.”

The protests leading up to Mubarak’s resignation were inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution of December and January. From January 25th until February 11th, the Egyptian masses demanded change… and today, it appears they have finally got their wish. What that change will be, is anyone’s guess, and a lot of people here are worried because we just don’t know what will come of this. Conservative fearmongers are claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood will sweep in and establish a Muslim state (90% of Egypt is Sunni) under Sharia Law, despite assurances from that society that they have no interest in promoting a candidate. Others are claiming that this is a diplomatic nightmare for the United States (and by proxy, Israel) who have lost a valuable ally in the Middle East. Personally, I’m not concerned. It’s more important to me that the country’s population is able to exercise some self-determination and develop a government that supports them and their rights, than worrying about how pro-West they will be.

I can’t help but think that this is exactly the way these things should happen. Lasting change only happens from within. The people of Egypt rose up against their government and with the exception of some military / police / pro-government responses (~300 dead, ~3000 injured), brought change without resorting to armed revolt. So what happens now? Suleiman’s announcement indicated that the army (i.e., Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) would fill the power vacuum until new elections could be held. While this is not ideal (i.e., martial law was one of the major items being protested), someone or something needs to get the county moving again. I just hope that if it is the will of the people, that the army is willing to step down as well. Time will tell.

With few exceptions, relinquishing power has never been easy…

“Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” – George Washington, Annapolis, 23 Dec 1783


Dec 8 2010

Thirty Years Gone

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon‘s death. On this day in 1980, he was murdered on a New York City sidewalk while returning to his apartment at The Dakota. His wife later scattered his ashes in Central Park at a location that’s come to be known as Strawberry Fields. I visited the memorial briefly in 2008.

I remember hearing about his death on the evening news while eating dinner (it would have had to have been the next day, which probably means my memory is muddled). It was a “What were you doing when you heard that Kennedy was shot?” moment for a new generation. I remember thinking that I’ll never see a Beatles reunion now — and that was about it. I had no emotional attachment to the man, his music, or his message at the time.  I didn’t begin to enjoy or understand his solo works for another couple years. In time, I came to love some of his music and message (though I’ve never cared much for his doodles).

On the anniversary of his death, I’m left wondering about Chapman. The man was charged with second-degree murder and has been at Attica ever since. To date, he’s been denied parole six times. During the murder trial in 1981 he changed his plea to guilty against the wishes of his attorney, who was arguing for “not guilt by reason of insanity”. The judge accepted this plea. In lieu of speaking in his own defense, Chapman read a passage from (one of my favorite books) “Catcher in the Rye”. He was holding a copy of the same book during the murder, annotated with the words: “This is my statement”.

Chapman immortalized Lennon. He cemented Lennon’s post-Beatles legacy for the ages. While the deed itself was horrific, Chapman proved that he was no phony and ensured that Lennon could never become one either…

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” – John Lennon


Aug 31 2010

Islamic Idol

One Merriam-Webster definition of “idol” is “an object of extreme devotion“. Wikipedia defines idolatry as the “worship of any cult image, idea, or object“. Idols can take many forms. These forms range from the revered icons  of a church/temple (e.g., Madonna and child, crucifix) to that of an adored entertainer (e.g., Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson). The leaders of the ancient Abrahamic tribes knew the power and danger of idolatry. Idols were powerful tools, divine simulacrums, foci for the spiritual energies (and devotion) of followers. The danger was that anyone able to create an idol was armed with a tool that could be used to manipulate the population and erode influence of the incumbent priesthood. The most famous example of this conflict is the “Sin of the Calf“. The golden calf is an interesting example because Aaron and the Sinners (rock band name?) weren’t necessarily abandoning the god of Abraham, they just wanted an image to follow and so adopted a form that the refugees were familiar with, the lunar bull. The practice is now called syncretism, but that’s an article for another day. So in review: sanctioned idols = good (i.e., ark of the covenant… unless you’re a Nazi), unsanctioned idols = bad (i.e., Aaron’s earring sculpture).

All of this is prologue of course. Let’s fast forward about 2,000 years. The year is 632 CE and a man named Muhammad ibn `Abdullāh (Peace be upon him) has died. His adherents call him the Messenger and / or Prophet (his youngest wife might have had other opinions, but again… another article). His greatest work (though never a New York Times Bestseller) is called the Qur’an but he can’t take full credit since he was really just a stenographer for the angel Jibrīl (i.e., Gabriel) over twenty-three years. Talk about a hand cramp! Apparently gods and angels can’t write their own stuff. Raining hellfire, flooding the world, and raising the dead are no problem… applying quill to parchment however, not in their bag of tricks. *shrug* Anyway, as a messenger of Allah, the Prophet is highly venerated (see Shahadah). Soon, the tradition (i.e., hadith) was adopted that his image should never be displayed for fear of it encouraging idolatry; he is after all, just a messenger. It is worth noting that this prohibition does not appear in the Qur’an. Fair enough… for a society that believes in all that. Fast forward another 1,300 some years and people are threatening death to anyone who draws a stick-figure Prophet. What happened?

I don’t want to use this article to bash Islam. I have a lot of friends that are Muslim. That being said, every religion has its nut-jobs. These are usually people who have clung to a particular idea or passage to the exclusion of all other evidence and ideas. You can’t judge all Protestants based on the rantings and pyrotechnic picnics of the Ku Klux Klan. I get that. What I don’t get (or accept) is any group that dictates what I can and cannot do, so long as no else is harmed. If you’re insulted, too bad. There’s a little thing called “free speech” (in the United States at least) that trumps your fragile sensibilities. Another thing I don’t get is the indignation and animosity generated by depictions of the Prophet, whether respectful or otherwise (see Everybody Draw Mohammed Day). The irony here is delicious. Many Muslim groups don’t want images created of Muhammad for fear of creating an idol, but in the process have imbued such power and passion into all images of the Prophet that they’re willing to kill in his name (Peace be upon him). Welcome to Islamic quality control.

As the world community grows and the influence of cultures come into contact like a global Peep Joust, there will be more and more of these conflicts. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in the world (PBS’s “Islam Today” claimed over 1.2 billion followers in 2010), almost 1 out 4 people on the planet. Whether they admit it or not, those that take offense to images of Muhammad are imbuing them with power and meaning, thereby creating the same idols that their traditions forbid. Do not take that fact lightly. According to the Bible, the tribes of Abraham swept into Canaan in the 15th century BC and slaughtered untold thousands in the name of their god, carrying before them the ark of the covenant, the earthly representation of Jehovah’s will. For the time period, this was an extraordinarily bloody campaign. As the centuries advanced, so have the zeroes on the body count… When the next holy war erupts, don’t be surprised if one or more zeroes are added. So what should we do? Moses was on the right track, if not a little self-serving. We need to undermine the power of idols. “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” was a good step in that direction. Maybe an “Everybody Draw Zombie Jesus Day” would be a good follow-up? When they’re able to dismiss these demonstrations as trivial, the power and threat of their images will be diluted. It’s a small win but even small battles are worth winning.

“Religion is the greatest idolatry of all time and, in many ways, the most dangerous also.” – Diarmund O’Murchu


Aug 13 2010

Inception

Nope, no new book reviews yet! I haven’t found / made much time to read lately so I’m still mired somewhere in the last half (third?) of the same book I was reading in June. I realize that this means there will forever be a missing July 2010 archive on this site (i.e., no posts) and for that I am very, very sorry. I apologize to my all my completist readers. *moment of silence* But August is a new month and as the Summer trips and stumbles into Fall, there are movies to see. Movies are much easier than books. You pay your $20, let the story flow over (and deafen) you for two hours, and you’re done. Most of the movies I’ve seen this Summer have been conveniently forgettable, so I don’t even have to be bothered with thinking about them ten steps outside the cineplex (other than that nagging sound in the background of someone complaining that we just wasted $20 on a movie). This weekend was different however. This weekend we went to see Christopher Nolan’s dream-scape tragic thriller “Inception” (2010). Leonardo diCaprio (I’m still warmed by the thought of Jack Dawson disappearing into the depths of the North Atlantic) stars as Cobb, a veteran dream-runner tasked with planting an idea into the head of Cillian Murphy (the Scarecrow from Batman Begins). Seems pretty straight-forward, right? Well, not so much…

Dream stories always risk being cliché. Blurring the boundaries of reality and dream is one of the oldest tropes: “The Wizard of Oz” (1939),  “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “Brazil” (1985), “Newhart” (1990), and many antecedents, e.g. “A Christmas Carol” (1843). What sets “Inception” apart from the crowd is that from the outset, it defines the mechanics of dreaming and then goes nuts within the parameters of that sandbox. Not satisfied with the trope of a character that wakes from dreaming uncertain whether he’s still asleep, “Inception” involves dreams within dreams within dreams within dreams (within dreams?).  While this might sound silly (and to a large extent, it is) the rules set forth at the beginning of the movie are followed throughout. Complicating things further, each subsequent layer / depth of dreaming allows for an exponential dilation of the passage of time.  In other words, in the time it takes for a van to fall off a bridge, a dreamer could live a lifetime embedded within a handful of nested dreams. Despite a dizzying amount of action, the events remained internally consistent. Even the soundtrack to the movie (based on “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien“) can be used as a metronome to determine what level of dreaming the action is taking place. Kudos for that! As usual, I got wrapped-up in the story and after a while stopped looking for problems. Which isn’t to say there weren’t problems, just that I didn’t see them (admit to them) until they were pointed out to me… *sigh*

In summary, “Inception” was an enjoyable movie that left me thinking, not about anything particularly deep but about the effort and execution of a well-planned, complex story. I think if other fantasy movie-makers took the effort to plan-out and clean-up their stories from the beginning, we wouldn’t leave theaters disappointed quite so often. A movie worth seeing.

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung

4 out of 5


Jun 7 2010

Splice

This weekend we went to see Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi horror hybrid, “Splice” (2010).  The movie was produced by Guillermo del Toro and stars Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley as geneticists and Delphine Chanéac as Dren, the monster. The movie is yet another remake of Frankenstein (maybe with a little Left Hand of Darkness thrown in)… and not a very good one at that. There are two scientists instead of one. The scientists use genetics instead of alchemy. The monster is female instead of male. But beneath it all, the story is about researchers who decide to make a human-like hybrid using multiple genomic sequences, the amazing result of their haphazard efforts, and their inability to cope with the resulting sentient creature. As Frankenstein’s monster was rejected by Victor, Dren is treated like an abomination and shielded from the world.

Not everything about the movie sucked. It actually started pretty good. The acting was good (given what they had to work with). The resulting “monster” looked like it had stepped out of the video-game Half-Life or possibly the Skyrealms of Jorune. The animation was good (not fantastic, but good… no real CGI innovations here). Dren’s early reactions were interesting (observing things monocularly always looks odd). It looked like all the elements were there for an enjoyable, if not good movie. Then, things, changed.

Maybe things changed before I realized it. Maybe I “accepted” too many leaps (logic, story, believability) before realizing that the whole story was silly. It could have been the ability to knit together the DNA of several animals into a viable chimera without first amassing a bloody pile of horrific miscarriages… It could have the strange morphological changes (eyes migrated from the side of her head) in Dren as she grew to accommodate the actress that played the final creature… It could have been the anatomical “surprises” evident in Dren (and her slug precursors Fred & Ginger) despite being subject to x-rays, MRIs, &c… There were a number of problems and most were evident DURING the movie… not as “way-homers“. Perhaps my biggest complaint was the ending. How does a movie with a good amount of promise turn into a B horror movie? The movie should have ended with the vat… As the scientists shut the barn door, believing the monster to be vanquished, the camera should have panned down through the murky liquid and found eggs. I know that sounds a little “Species” (1995), but it would have been better than the Bat Boy ending that we got. In summary, the slugs were best part of the movie.

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” – Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

2.5 out of 5


May 11 2010

Iron Man 2

On Saturday, we went to see the latest Marvel Comics superhero movie. “Iron Man 2“, directed by Jon Favreau and starring the usual cast of characters (sans Terrence Howard as Rhodey, for whatever reason), should have been as good as the original but sadly (and not unexpectedly) it wasn’t. While there was plenty of armored combat, repulsor beams, explosions (there MUST ALWAYS be explosions!), humorous dialogue, pseudo-science gizmos, Marvel universe cross-referencing, and Scarlett Johansson (who looks like a dwarf next to Gwyneth Paltrow)… the movie became bogged down by shortcomings more than it was buoyed by its flash, action, and volume (I can’t remember a movie being this loud since hearing thundering bass of “Earthquake” (1974) in the next cinema over from where I was watching some drowned-out kid’s movie… which escape me). Anyway, the movie was enjoyable but not great. Why wasn’t it great? Well, read on… but be warned, the details are SPOILER HEAVY.

Now, before I go too much further, I should point out that Iron Man has always been one of my favorite (if not THE favorite of my) comic books. I write about a lot of things on this blog that I’m not an expert on (not even close!) but I’m very familiar with the Iron Man canon (post-Tales of Suspense, pre-Bendis retcon). I have an Iron Man #1 (1968) which I cherish above all my other comics (which is to say: it is rarely touched by photons); I also have read nearly every Iron Man issue from 1968 through 2009 (even though many were reprints). That being said, there was no chance in Hell that I was going to miss seeing the movie on opening weekend, especially after the great job they did with the first one. We found seats toward the back of the theater (the place was packed) and waited for the lights to go down. After some forgettable trailers, the movie started, and my excitement died soon after.

Where to begin? The Iron Man Dancers (you probably saw them in the movie trailer) were ridiculous. I understand they were meant to be evidence of Tony’s inflated ego, but they looked more like the cheerleaders from “BASEketball” (1998). Why would Tony build a suit (the War Machine prototype stolen by Rhodes) with a self-contained power-source when just a few scenes before he was claiming that the armor was more of a prosthesis (powered by his arc reactor heart)? The use of a prototype of Captain America’s shield to align a particle accelerator? *sigh* The creation of a new element: Unobtanium was lame, why go that route again (too soon!)? It would have been so much more believable if the City of Tomorrow infrastructure showed Tony a way to properly shield his body from the palladium (Pd) (that was poisoning him), rather than give him a blueprint for a new element (that could be synthesized in his basement). And finally (though there were more) his deus ex machina laser lance that ended the movie’s penultimate battle in a decidedly un-Iron Man way (pre-Secret Wars); I guess the uni-beam isn’t flashy enough anymore? Also appearing was Mickey Rourke (enjoying a Hollywood resurgence in a series of brutish roles) as a Russian version of the villain Whiplash (not canon, but no problems there). Scarlett also put in a commendable performance as super-spy assassin Black Widow. I’m sure much of her acrobatics were computer generated but it was still nice seeing her wrap her thighs around the heads of half a dozen men (even if she did proceed to snap their necks). Sometimes you just need to thankful for what you get get!

All told, “Iron Man 2″ is an action packed movie and plenty of fun. Lower your expectations a bit before you find a seat and make sure to stay through the credits for a tiny preview of what’s coming next…

“If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him. There will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.” – Ivan Vanko

3.5 out of 5