Sunday, May 24, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The IT Crowd.

I'll say this for the movie poster: It really was a WYSIWYG ad for the flick itself.  Think the poster is confusing and crowded?  So's the movie.  Avengers: Age of Ultron suffers from the Spider-Man 3 syndrome of shoehorning far too many characters old and new into the story, but unlike the disgraceful Spider-Man 3, the sequel to 2012's luminous and practically perfect Avengers is still worth watching.  I don't envy director Joss "God of the Nerds" Whedon his massive task in creating and then offering this follow-up to the same audiences that had adored Avengers.  The pressure to produce a worthy sequel must have been absolutely unimaginable, and I'm not going to complain (too much) that the movie cracks a little under that pressure, especially when I know that the studio's demands must have pushed Whedon's own creative liberty into a corner.  This brings up a host of other issues of various grades of nitpickery, but the short version of my review is this: flawed but still fun, Avengers: Age of Ultron kicks off the 2015 summer movie season in fine style ... and it's almost a certainty that I'll go see it again.  The Cinema-Mad Sibling thought Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) was a better follow-up film to the first Captain America (2011) than Age of Ultron is to Avengers.  Well, he's not wrong.

OK, I'm going to try to talk about the movie without spoiling it for everyone who hasn't it yet. (Once you have seen it, you can take a look at this and join the debate. All I'm going to say now is that Marvel should be careful.  Really, really careful.)  Three complaints, and then a few observations and one unqualified hoorah.

One: The crowding issue.  Yes, I get that Marvel wants to bring all the Avengers back together and give them a new adversary to fight.  I get that.  I also get that Marvel wants to introduce a few new characters.  The problem is that we end up with not enough time with any of the characters old OR new for character development.  This is compounded by the cameo appearances of a zillion other characters who have no real role in this movie but who show up anyway because they point you to other Marvel projects.  UGH.

Two: Joss apparently did not have the narrative room to BE JOSS.  The movie is so stuffed with characters and occurrences that it doesn't have nearly enough time for it, and by that I mean time for him to give us the witty banter and bickering that he's so good at ... and that is so good at character development.  Joss is really good at people standing around and talking ... arguing ... flirting ... hassling ... The witty retort, the sly verbal jab, the underplayed humor.  For a lot of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I couldn't even tell that it was a Joss Whedon movie.  That's not to say that the movie itself as spectacle wasn't entertaining.  I was entertained ... but it felt a little hollow because it didn't feel like Joss's project.

Three: Ultron was a missed opportunity for a couple of reasons.  One is that we really could have done more with Tony Stark and, to a lesser degree, Bruce Banner.  They were the ones who gave rise to Ultron, and I didn't think the movie did nearly enough with the emotional fallout of it.  There should have been.  There should have been TONS OF IT.  That would have been character development and a real meditation on how even the best-laid plans of well-meaning superhero science bros gang aft agley ... because that has some serious real world resonances in terms of tech and artificial intelligence getting out of hand and of protective measures that become themselves perils.  Road to hell, good intentions, anyone?  While we're at it, Ultron is voiced by none other than James Spader himself, an actor who has elevated smug superiority to a veritable art form, and we could have done so much more with that.

A few observations:
  •  Give us a Black Widow movie, and the fans will stampede to see it!  Shoot, even give us a backstory movie called Budapest based on one throwaway line from Avengers, and we will rush to get in line!
  • There's a lot going on in the movie, but if I'm going to be honest, I'll tell you that the party scene at Tony's is probably my favorite scene because it wasn't jammed full of CGI and special effects and whatever else: it's mostly about people being people.
  • Let me save you some time: There's a bonus scene in the middle of the credits but not one at the very end.  
  • If we hadn't already in previous movies grown to like and care about the individual Avengers as people, we wouldn't give a hoot about any of them in this movie.  That's not a compliment.  Losing sight of characters' humanity is a mortal sin that no amount of mammoth special effects wizardry can undo.  If we the audience don't care about the people, then we'll have no emotional stake in what happens to them. 
The unqualified hoorah: Paul Bettany is back on screen!   Here's the story behind that.   To be honest, I've had a soft spot for Bettany ever since he played Geoffrey Chaucer in A Knight's Tale (and he's terrific opposite Russell Crowe in Master and Commander).  As much as I love him being the elegantly starchy voice of JARVIS, I'm frankly delighted to see him on screen again.  Yes, I know he's been in some stinkers (*cough* Da Vinci Code! *cough*), but, hey, who hasn't?

Mad Minerva gives Avengers: Age of Ultron a grade of B+. 

Avengers: Age of Ultron runs 141 minutes and is rated PG-13 for various action sequences, a bit of language, and some suggestive comments.

Rotten Tomatoes gives
Avengers: Age of Ultron the Fresh rating of 74%.

Next up: I'm seeing the much-ballyhooed Mad Max: Fury Road.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Quote of the Day: "Our Stock Arguments Are Lazy Stacks of Cliches"

A thoughtful liberal takes his fellows to task (as well he should, because he's totally correct).  Read the whole thing, but here's a piece of it:
Criticism of today’s progressives tends to use words like toxic, aggressive, sanctimonious, and hypocritical. I would not choose any of those. I would choose lazy. We are lazy as political thinkers and we are lazy as culture writers and we are lazy as movement builders. We ward off criticism of our own bad work by acting like that criticism is inherently anti-feminist or anti-progressive. We seem spoiled, which seems insane because everything is messed up and so many things are getting worse. I guess having a Democratic president just makes people feel complacent. Well, look: as a political movement we are in pathetic shape right now. We not only have no capacity to move people who don’t already share our worldview, we seem to have no interest in doing so. Our stock arguments are lazy stacks of cliches. We seem to want to confirm everything conservatives say about our inability to argue without calling other people racist. We can’t articulate why our vision of the future is better than the other side’s, and in fact many of us will tell you that it’s offensive to think that we have an obligation to educate others on that vision at all. We celebrate grassroots activist movements like Black Lives Matter, but we insult them by treating them as the same thing as hashtag campaigns, and we don’t build a broader left-wing political movement that could increase their likelihood of success. We spend all day, every day, luxuriating in how much better we are than other people, having convinced ourselves that the work of politics is always external, never internal. We have made politics synonymous with social competition. We’re a mess.
... One-liners don’t build a movement. Being clever doesn’t fix the world. Scoring points on Twitter doesn’t create justice. Jokes make nothing happen. We’re speeding for a brutal backlash and inevitable political destruction, if not in 2016 then 2018 or 2020. If you want to help avoid that, I suggest you invest less effort in trying to be the most clever person on the internet and more on being the hardest working person in real life. And stop mistaking yourself for the movement.
Via Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard, who also notes: "The Democratic party's complete ideological breakdown in favor of party leaders fragging each other would be an amusing spectacle if so many of America's imminent problems didn't depend on working together."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Friday Fun Video: Peter Dinklage Sings About Tyrion's Survivability

I'll say this much: Tyrion Lannister's outlasted many another character on Game of Thrones so far.  Furthermore, Peter Dinklage is absolutely fabulous.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Summer Reading? 100 Novels to Consider

How many have you read?  Like all lists of this kind, it's plenty arbitrary and subjective.

I must confess that I thought Joyce's Ulysses was a bloated behemoth and a hot mess that isn't worth your time.  I can be an insufferable masochist, and even I could not force myself to get past the first half of this miserable monstrosity.  If you want Joyce, do yourself a favor and read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Wuthering Heights is a bit of Gothic nonsense with two of the worst characters I've met in literature.  Heathcliff and Catherine are both terrible people, and they pretty much deserve each other.  There, I said it.  If you must read a Bronte, read Jane Eyre.

Read more Jane Austen, please.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Weird Science.

A slick, spare, rather familiar yet visually striking combination of several of sci fi's most fundamental tropes, Alex "28 Days Later" Garland's directorial debut Ex Machina is the best small-scale sci fi movie that I've seen in a while.  Nothing explodes in eardrum-popping Michael Bay-esque fireballs, but the film's slowly creeping sense of unease will unsettle you in far more visceral ways as the age-old Pygmalion fantasy myth of creating the perfect woman meets modern fears about artificial intelligence run amok.

The story begins with a young, socially awkward computer programmer named Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) who works for a massive tech company named Google Facebook BlueBook.  As the winner of an intra-company lottery, he is whisked off by helicopter into the seeming middle of wilderness nowhere to meet the company's genius recluse of a CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac, his star fast rising in Hollywood).  Caleb soon finds himself in Nathan's isolated compound, a place of glass, steel, and concrete that is as immaculate and soulless as a laboratory ... and after signing a non-disclosure agreement, Caleb learns that the house in its windowless bottom layers is indeed a lab and he himself brought in to be take part in a groundbreaking experiment.  

Nathan has created an A.I. named Ava, and Caleb is there to be part of a Turing Test: to see whether a human being can interact with a computer and think that the computer is also a human.  The twist on the classic test is this, though: Caleb is shown immediately that Ava is a machine in a synthetic female form, but in interacting with her, can he both intellectually know that she is artificial and also begin to consider her a being with consciousness?  Thus the test begins as the movie divides itself into segments labeled with "Ava: Session #."

Ava, by the way, is played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander with an unsettling, glassy-eyed grace.  Vikander reportedly trained as a ballerina, a fact that would explain how she invests every movement with a studied grace that she plays as a little too uncanny.  I have to say that CGI in her character is wonderfully deployed, and it is noteworthy too for how it adds to the narrative instead of being frivolous eye candy.  Ava as she first appears on screen is clearly a machine: she has the smooth face of a beautiful human girl (airbrushed like a cover model), but the back of her head is a slick curve of metallic mesh, her arms are clear plastic housing for mechanical components, and - perhaps most striking of all - her torso is completely transparent, revealing the glowing, whirring complexity of hardware within.

The film soon reveals itself as a subtle psychological thriller with three elements in a stand-off: Nathan, Caleb, and Ava.  Nathan has ostensibly brought Caleb into his (increasingly claustrophobic while increasingly labyrinthine) compound to test Ava, but with cameras everywhere, evidence of Nathan's genius being devoid of moral depth, and Ava's startling, adaptive intelligence, Caleb - and we - soon begin to wonder just who is testing whom. Better: who is manipulating whom?

I'll stop here before I spoil the details, but I'll just say that Ex Machina is well worth a look.  While its basic ideas are commonplaces in sci fi storytelling, its execution of those ideas is quite good.  The film has its problems, but I can't quite talk about them without giving too much away.  Let's just say this: the line between human and machine becomes as queasy as it is fascinating as it blurs.

Mad Minerva gives Ex Machina a grade of A-.

Ex Machina runs 108 minutes and is rated R for language, nudity, and some violence.

Rotten Tomatoes gives Ex Machina the Fresh rating of 91%.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Friday Fun Video: Ultron Funk

I owe La Parisienne a big movie review for Avengers: Age of Ultron, but while I'm working on that, enjoy this as a placeholder:

Nerd Journal: As the Spring Semester Ends, One Last Lesson

Class is in session one last time.  Repeat after me: You do not give up your civil liberties and individual rights when you set foot on campus.

Got that?  No?  Write it out 100 times by hand then.

As a fellow teacher and I were just saying, thank goodness for FIRE.  Keep fighting the good fight, my friends.  Support and defend academic freedom, uphold the civil liberties of students (and faculty!), and abolish all campus speech codes!  (Why?  Because they are evil, muzzling, and blatantly unconstitutional, that's why, and because - to put it baldly - you do not have a right to never be offended.) 

After the UK Election: 3 Quotations

Well, politics-watching is fun again ... when it isn't my own!  I am already sick of the run-up to 2016, but it's been fun to watch the UK election for the sheer unvarnished Schadenfreude of seeing Ed Miliband's Labour get completely smashed.  Frankly, any party that engraves its campaign promises on a huge slab of stone and thinks cozying up to Russell Brand is a winning tactic deserves to lose.   At least Miliband can now use the other side of that stupid stone to write the epitaph of his political career.  Anyway, here are 3 quotations now that we've had a few days to think about the results:

Quote the First: Amid the usual howls of the defeated Left, one Labour voice actually talks some sense (and is quoted in the Guardian no less):
There’s absolutely no point in blaming the electorate. Any suggestion that they didn’t ‘get it’ is wrong. They didn’t want what was being offered.

Quote the Second: From Daniel Hannan, MEP, on how Labour overestimated its support:
If you want an explanation of the 2015 election in a single sentence, it’s hard to improve on the words of that great Whig, and founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke: "Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field."
Quote the Third:  David Cameron in victory might need a swift kick in the pants.
We must end the idea that as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.

Addendum and Bonus Quotation:  Now that the election's over, I'm even more tickled by Boris Johnson's verbal assault on Miliband's epigraphical excess with its 6 promises:
It is no joke, my friends. This thing exists, and Ed fully intends that this tasteless, verbless, truthless stele should loom over No 10 like some kitsch version of the laws of Hammurabi, or some new Decalogue – except that he couldn’t think of 10 things to say.
Let us therefore consign Milibandias and his tombstone to the bafflement of future archaeologists. Let it go down as the last act of a desperate candidate, and the heaviest suicide note in history.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

And You Thought the *American* Press Was Nakedly Partisan

As the Washington Post reports:
"With just one day to go until Britain votes in its general election, it looks like the British press has lost what little restraint it once had and launched into open political warfare."
I suppose this at least eliminates the hypocrisy of claiming to be objective and impartial.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Nerd Journal: Music for an Allnighter

Spring exam season is upon us!  We all know - with a sick sense of familiarity - that we'll be up at all hours for the next two weeks, so let's at least have some fun tunes:

Run, Bernie, Run!

This is probably the first actually interesting thing that's happened in the "I wanna be a candidate!" blitz.  

I'm not saying that I would leap on the Sanders bandwagon in earnest, but I would be darn pleased to see him challenge Hillary, because the whole "Hillary is inevitable" PR attempt reeks of ludicrous entitlement and should be challenged vigorously (not to mention soundly mocked).

While we're at it: Can we PLEASE on principle say no more Bushes and Clintons and nose-wrinkling whiffs of political dynasties and oligarchy?

Monday, April 06, 2015

March Madness 2015 Crowns Duke the Champion

Fine, fine, the hated Blue Devils and diabolical Coach K beat Wisconsin and took the championship.  Congratulations.  Now here's that song, because it's not March Madness without it!  (Sorry it's just a link, but the NCAA wouldn't let me embed it. Booooooo.)

Say Hello to My Little Friend: the Taiwan Navy's Latest

"Carrier killer"?

(Snarky) Quote of the Day: the Purposes of the EU

The European Union serves three main functions. It gives the French the illusion of power, the Germans a possibility of being something other than German and the political class of all European countries the hope of eternal life, or at least of power beyond the normal natural life of a democratic politician. It is a giant pension fund for European politicians.

Monday Therapy: For All of You/Us No Hopers, Jokers, and Rogues

From a little fishing village on the coast of Cornwall, England, comes this group of Cornishmen who made their mark singing sea shanties:

Sunday, April 05, 2015

God Help Us All: the Iran Mess

You know, over the course of watching this entire absurdity happen, I've said more than once - granted, more as a curse than a prayer - God help us all.

So when I looked up the Pope's annual Urbi et Orbi Easter message, I couldn't help smiling just a little bitterly when I read this part of it:
"At the same time, in hope we entrust to the merciful Lord the framework recently agreed to in Lausanne, that it may be a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world."
Good luck with that!  Really, good luck with that.

Well, if we're going to be reduced to prayer, there's probably nobody better credentialed to offer one to the Almighty than the Pope, aka the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.  

Still, I can't resist quoting that old line: "Trust in God ... and keep your powder dry."

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll try to offset my pessimism and bitterness with sweet, sweet chocolate bunnies and cream-filled eggs.  When I'm in a sugar coma, I'm sure Iran will be the least of my worries.

Awesome: Rube Goldberg's Passover Seder

Happy Easter 2015! Christos Anesti!

Happy Easter, everybody!  This year's Easter art is a painting (c. 1511) that was only recently identified as a work by Titian, one of the artistic giants of the Italian Renaissance.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Couch Potato Chronicles: Laddie, Come Home - "Outlander" Returns

The STARZ adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's historical fiction novels returns, and not a moment too soon.  I need to forget the lunacy in the news and the home stretch-to-final exams rush at school.  Fun fact: Ron Moore of Battlestar Galactica is one of the showrunners for this.  (At first the two shows seem wildly different, but they both deal intensely with politics and characterization.)

Short version of Outlander: Claire Randall, an English World War II nurse, is on a second honeymoon to Scotland with historian husband Frank when she suddenly finds herself transported to the 1740s in the same location.  Those are the days of Highlander clans, English redcoats, and the Jacobite risings for Bonnie Prince Charlie that would culminate in the catastrophic Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle in the British Isles.  Claire finds herself a stranger in a strange land ... and a dangerous one, in which she is a Sassenach, a foreigner, a stranger, and - yep - outlander.
She soon gets caught up in local political turmoil, for the redcoats suspect her of being a spy (for the French, perhaps?) and the Scots suspect her of being an English one.  What would you make of a stranger who suddenly appears in your lands, who has odd mannerisms and no connections? As Claire quickly finds out, she's caught between two radically different worlds.

OK, I must admit, it doesn't hurt in the slightest that the scenery is beautiful, the re-creation of that historical period is quite evocative, Caitriona Balfe as Claire offers us a heroine with brains and spunk (thank goodness for that as an anti-Anastasia Steele!), and Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser provides both a complex personality and ample testimony to just how much of a chick magnet an outlaw Scotsman in a kilt can be. 

There's a good deal of violence and some nudity, but both are pretty much nothing compared to HBO's (also wildly popular) fantasy-political epic Game of Thrones.  Still, Outlander is a cable show and not for little ones.

Holiday Humor: Jon Stewart vs. Easter and Passover

From the archives and still hilarious: 

Well-Known Right-Wing Rag Calls Iran Deal a Disaster

Call the deal what it is with a headline of "Obama’s Iran deal falls far short of his own goals."  So, yeah, even by his own stated standards.  Compare and contrast.

By the way, I was being sarcastic in the post title.  Nowadays I can never tell if people understand what sarcasm is.  

Oh, and the Onion nailed it 2 whole years ago.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree

Actually, it's an entire family of kookaburras, and they are adorable.

It's nice to remember that there are, after all, a few creatures in Australia that aren't bound and determined to kill you or frighten you to death