Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Retrospective: Dave Barry's Year in Review

2015 was a crazy year, and it looks even crazier in humorist Dave Barry's zany, satirical retrospective.  Here's a bit of the section on January 2015:
In Paris, 1.5 million people march in a solidarity rally following the horrific terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Eyebrows are raised when not a single top U.S. official attends, but several days later, Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrives in France with James Taylor, who — this really happened — performs the song “You’ve Got a Friend.” This bold action strikes fear into the hearts of terrorists, who realize that Secretary Kerry is fully capable, if necessary, of unleashing Barry Manilow.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Professor and the Waitress: Thoughts on Life

Worth a read.

Belated Christmas Gift: the Honest Trailer for "Die Hard" (1988)

FINALLY!  Just today Screen Junkies has released an Honest Trailer for the best Christmas movie of them all!  La Parisienne, this one's for you, babe.

MM in the Kitchen: Olive Oil Chocolate Mousse

Everybody's predictable resolutions to diet and exercise don't kick in until January 1, so you can still indulge a teensy bit, right? 

Quote of the Day: Glimmers of Hope at Brown University

There are still defenders of free speech and open inquiry on campus.  As one of them just said in an interview with FIRE, if he were a university president, he would say this:
"I would make some sort of public statement—whether unprompted or prompted by one of these events—in which I said, 'This is academia and you have the right to say anything, no matter how radical it is, no matter how offensive it may seem to existing power structures. You are not required to uphold ideals held by mainstream America at all.'

Every time one of these issues came up, I would say, 'You can say here whatever you want. We can't police what you say. We can police what you do. And even though we can't police what you say, we discourage students in the strongest of terms attempting to shut down other students and we reject the notion that there are no open questions on controversial matters.'"
He then boldly slams Brown's administration for its deplorable spinelessness.  Kudos.  More of this, please.  Nobody cares much if teachers push back, but if more dissenting students do, it matters more in these ongoing and increasingly nasty campus culture wars.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The Saudi Arabia of Maple Syrup"

Smuggling, shenanigans, and skulduggery!  Oh, Canada.

An Author Considers How to Create Characters

Fascinating read.  Here's a bit of it:
"... your bad guys need to be great. They need to be so interesting that they potentially upstage your good guys. Hans Gruber versus John McClane. I’m rooting for McClane, but Hans steals every scene with his casual, clever villainy (best Christmas movie ever, by the way). "
If you don't think Die Hard is a Christmas movie, then I have nothing to say to you.

P.J. O'Rourke on the GOP's "Least Insane Candidate"

Admittedly, that's a pretty low bar. 

Still, I do NOT want to revisit this topic.

Star Wars: the Premake

Check out this incredible work by a fan:

 Star Wars: The Premake from John D'Amico on Vimeo.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Enjoy this traditional Latin Christmas carol sung by a great tenor who happens to be a Franciscan friar.  He's Italian, because of course.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Movie Review: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015) ~ No Spoilers!

More powerful than you can possibly imagine.

Gentle reader, the hype is real!  I had hardly let myself hope that this movie would be actually good.  I was only hoping that it (a) would not completely suck and that (b) it would be better than the Phantom Menace (but I repeat myself).  Still, after raking in $238 million over opening weekend in the US (and $517 million worldwide!) to smash all box office records, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will not only make you forget all about the horrible prequels but also do the seemingly miraculous: it makes the entire franchise fresh and exciting and - yes - fun once more.  The magic is back, that hard-to-describe and even harder-to-create kind of enthralling delight in a rip-roaring adventure tale that transports you straight out of the ordinary into a new world (or, for us here, a new world in touch with a beloved old familiar one).  You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll cheer, and you'll walk out of the theatre thinking about how soon you can go back to see this again.  These are the celluloids you're looking for!

I could go on (and on and on), but I dare not reveal spoilers, no matter how small, no matter how inadvertently.  I'm always cautious lest I spoil a movie, but I have it on good authority that if I spoil this one, my friends are going to throw me into a Sarlacc pit.  Let me say this, though: When the opening crawl began and I read absolutely nothing - zilch - nada - diddly squat about galactic trade federations and space taxes and planetary blockades, I knew things were going to be OK!  

I'll indulge in a few brief passing observations: Oscar Isaac, king of the arthouse film, is here as a dashing pilot, and I was happy to see him take on an action role.  Fresh faces John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as scavenger Rey bring new blood and great energy.  A new spherical droid named BB-8 is this year's Dancing Baby Groot in terms of sheer winsome appeal, and everyone I know wants his or her own.  Update: I can't resist pointing you to this tweet (or should we say "fightin' words"?) by geek lord Neil deGrasse Tyson:
It is now common knowledge that Harrison Ford returns as Han Solo, and I'll say that THIS is how you bring Ford back in an iconic role; THIS appearance is the utter polar opposite of the misfire that was the return of Indiana Jones in 2008.  One more thing: Star Wars Episode VII is a JJ Abrams project, so see if you can spot the now-traditional cameo inclusion of his old friend Greg Grunberg.

Mad Minerva gives Star Wars: The Force Awakens a grade of A+.  Abrams has made lightning strike twice: as he did with the Star Trek reboot of 2009, here he takes an iconic pop culture icon and made it new for a new generation even while remembering its initial past greatness.  Thank you, JJ, for the best Christmas present this year!

RottenTomatoes gives this flick the nearly unparalleled Fresh rating of 95%.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens runs for 135 minutes and is rated PG-13 for sci fi action and violence along with a few disturbing images.

Here is the trailer:  

UPDATE: The torch passes from Jurassic World to Star Wars: the Force Awakens, and this is too cute to ignore:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Ready for the New Star Wars? "Come on, JJ. There's No Way You Can Do Any Worse Than This."

Hooray!  Screen Junkies has finally done an Honest Trailer for Revenge of the Sith as part of the Overwhelming Universal Hype about the upcoming new Star Wars movie.  Let's now cheerfully ladle hate on the entire prequel trilogy at once, shall we?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jeremy Lin on Academic Pressure

Food for thought during exam time.

Incredibly, there have been haters responding to Lin's deeply personal account of his own struggles.  Well, screw those people.  I for one am grateful that he shared his vulnerability and offered a space to discuss the sometimes overwhelming pressure to perform, be it academically, athletically, or any other form.  You know, the fact that someone is prominent and successful does not mean that his or her psychological pain and lived experience are any less real or significant.  Let us all make an effort to be better, kinder, and more compassionate to each other, OK?

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Movie Review: "Spectre" (2015)

The world seems to be spinning into unimaginable lunacy and madness, so let us take a break and seek a tiny bit of cinematic escapism, shall we?  Bond is back, and here is my long-delayed review.

Live and Let Sigh.

The 007 universe brings back an iconic villain, but he and even Bond himself find themselves playing second fiddle in the end to traditional supporting characters who emerge from the wings to command the screen.  Give us a movie with Q, M, and Moneypenny (Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris ... and why not throw in Rory Kinnear's faithful Tanner too) on adventures right there beside Bond, and we might be onto a great twist to this venerable franchise.  As Spectre stands, though, it is a mixed bag of forgettable entertainment with tonal dissonances that threaten to push the movie into the world of camp at the most untoward moments.  Skyfall this movie isn't ... and more's the pity, because Skyfall set up the Bond universe with a promise of new greatness, but it's a promise that Spectre can't keep.

I'm not saying that I didn't like the movie.  I'm saying that I thought it could have been - and should have been - better than it is.  I suppose in the scale of Bond we should be glad that this is nowhere near as bad as Moonraker or Die Another Day or (since we're in the Age of Craig) Quantum of Solace, but for a movie that purports to give us none other than SPECTRE itself and that casts the indisputably great Christoph Waltz as the villain, Spectre fails to live up to its potential.  Missteps big and little keep dogging it and dragging down the already-bloated 2 hour 30 minute running time.  Let me try to explain.  Better get yourself a martini shaken, not stirred.  While you're at it, would you mind getting me one too, darling?

Monday, November 02, 2015

Monday Therapy: the Star Wars That I Used to Know

What with all the recent hype about The Force Awakens, I thought it'd be fun to look back a little, both at Gotye (remember this once-ubiquitous music video?) and the Star Wars prequels:

Thursday, October 29, 2015

China to End One-Child Policy

Well, good, because it was a stupid, evil, destructive policy in both the short and long term that has caused untold amounts of human misery and social damage.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

St. Crispin's Day 6 Centuries After Agincourt

It is the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt that was immortalized in Shakespeare's Henry V.  Here's that famous speech delivered by Kenneth Branagh:

Great Moments in Research: Peer Review Fraud

I'm resurrecting the sarcastic "Great Moments in Research" tag to report yet another massive scandal in scientific research publication.  Ugh:
In August 2015, the publisher Springer retracted 64 articles from 10 different subscription journals “after editorial checks spotted fake email addresses, and subsequent internal investigations uncovered fabricated peer review reports,” according to a statement on their website. The retractions came only months after BioMed Central, an open-access publisher also owned by Springer, retracted 43 articles for the same reason. 
“This is officially becoming a trend,” Alison McCook wrote on the blog Retraction Watch, referring to the increasing number of retractions due to fabricated peer reviews. Since it was first reported 3 years ago, when South Korean researcher Hyung-in Moon admitted to having invented e-mail addresses so that he could provide “peer reviews” of his own manuscripts, more than 250 articles have been retracted because of fake reviews — about 15% of the total number of retractions.

From the Trenches of WWI to the Hundred Acre Wood

Did you know this about Ernest Howard Shepard, the man behind the charming original illustrations for Winnie the Pooh?

A Contrarian's View on Star Wars Hype

I guess it does take some nerve to come right out and say this smack in the middle of the hype over the latest Star Wars trailer:
"... allow me the heresy of suggesting that all this craziness is over a movie. A movie that no one has yet seen. A movie based on another movie that was a great deal of fun 38 years ago and certainly stands as a major event in modern pop history, with or without the sequels, but that was — you may now ready the rocks for stoning — hardly a great work of cinema."
The writer then posits "the Footie Pajama Theory," which even though it does make sense, can't help but seem a little ... what's the word? ah, yes, condescending ... because of its very name.

Well, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion about Star Wars and everything else.  I'm going to allow myself the hope that the new movie is better than the abominable prequels and their most egregious error.  I'm hoping that when the new movie premieres we can all have a little fun along the way.  I'll leave you with this:

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Movie Review: "The Martian" (2015)

Space Cowboy.

The Martian is the brilliant younger sibling of 1995's sterling Apollo 13: both are tales that begin with disaster in space and go on to showcase human resilience, intelligence, creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance, bolstered by excellent all-star casts.  The Martian, though, has something not even Apollo 13 had: a hilarious streak of sass, along with bar none the best soundtrack since last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy.  While you may be tempted to compare The Martian with Interstellar in terms of gorgeous art direction and massive scope, it would be a misleading comparison: aside from the common denominator of rescuing Matt Damon, the two space epics could not be more different in personality.

This is the best space-themed film I've seen in years (remember what I actually thought of Interstellar?).  In fact, The Martian is the best film I've seen in all of 2015 with the possible exception of Inside Out tying for top honors.  This space epic is engaging, exciting, moving, and as emotionally intimate as it is narratively huge.  The premise is deceptively simple: Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is accidentally left behind on Mars when his team returns to Earth, and the entire film is fundamentally about his efforts to survive: one man on the Red Planet.  It is about working the problems and thinking your way to solutions, one problem and solution at a time in the face of adversity, about applied human intelligence, the refusal to give up, and the determination to invent and adapt in the face of inevitable setbacks.  I honestly can't tell you how delighted I was with this.   This is a great metaphor for life itself, and this is also the smartest, geekiest, nerdiest movie all year. 

Lest you think this flick is all a big soulless egghead tech fantasy, the movie also does an excellent job of never letting you forget the human element: Damon's running commentary, via video logs and satellite-transmitted text messages to NASA, is pure gold.  His Watney is no abstract figure or heroic intellectual cipher.  He is touchingly human, and his personality shines through in glorious fashion.  At one moment, for instance, he says with feeling, "F*ck you, Mars!" and the effect is more comic and empathetic than crude and offensive.  In fact, the entire movie is shot through with unexpected humor.  Some of it is bravado laughing in the face of impossible, terrifying odds, but much more of it is Watney's appealingly irrepressible personality manifesting itself with wit and sass that is literally out of this world.  Well, being left for dead on a lifeless planet is no reason to lose one's sense of humor, darling!  In fact, the movie is heavy on sass and science and very light on schlock and sentimentality, and if you throw in that aforementioned soundtrack too, then I think this movie is my spirit animal.

The plot soon multiplies out into  a number of interrelated subplots on Earth and in space, each with its own characters and complications, but the movie (to its credit) never loses sight of the centrality of Watney.  He is the tiny, lonely, spacesuited figure toiling in the sweeping, rust-colored Marscape, and you will be riveted by his efforts in which failure is not an option.  The film runs a little more than 2 hours, but it seems to race by, thrillingly, absorbingly, beautifully paced.

Mad Minerva gives The Martian a grade of A+.  I don't usually associate October with the release of Oscar contenders (Crimson Peak's Halloweeny atmosphere is more like it), but I think we can all expect to see The Martian compete in a few Oscar categories.

The Martian runs 144 minutes and is rated PG-13 for language, brief nudity, and a few frightening images.

Rotten Tomatoes gives The Martian the indisputably Fresh rating of 93%. 

Here's the trailer:

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Movie Review: "Inside Out" (2015)

Hooked on a Feeling.

Somehow I missed this flick when it premiered back in June.  I don't remember seeing or hearing a ton of hype about Pixar's Inside Out, but I do recall thinking that it sounded like that goofy and ultimately failed 1990s sitcom Herman's Head.  Still, recently a sweet psychologist friend of mine wanted to see Inside Out because of its depiction of emotions as actual individual characters, so I headed off to the theater too ... and I'm so glad I did!  Inside Out is Pixar at its most scintillatingly substantive and engaging as it seamlessly combines a touchingly tender plot, outstanding visuals, and an audaciously inventive take on storytelling.  It's the best Pixar movie since 2010's Toy Story 3 made you weep into your popcorn, and it just might be the best complex, nuanced movie of the summer.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Movie Review: "Ant-Man" (2015)

A Bug's Life.

Charming, cheeky, and just a little unheroic, the always-charismatic Paul Rudd metamorphoses from ex-con Scott Lang into the titular character in Marvel's better offering of the summer (sorry, Avengers: Age of Ultron).  Bigger isn't always better, and Ant-Man recaptures a good bit of the zany, lighthearted fun that seemed so often lacking in its more overstuffed, ponderous cinematic sibling.  Ant-Man, by the way, takes place after the events of Age of Ultron, but - thank goodness - you really don't have to have seen it in order for Ant-Man to make sense; Rudd's minuscule alter ego's story can stand alone and not be completely overwhelmed with Marvel mythology and bogged down with Significance.  Lang/Ant-Man is like Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream: though he be but little, he is fierce!  And funny to boot.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Friday Fun Video: "What if Werner Herzog Directed Ant-Man?"

I loved Marvel's Ant-Man and will write a review soon (update: here it is).  It's been a frantic summer of work (and, alas, far less blogging than I would like), but let's take a break right now, dear readers, and enjoy this:

Friday, June 19, 2015

Movie Review: "Jurassic World" (2015)


RAWR!  Jurassic World just had the biggest domestic box office opening weekend EVER, and right now it's the hottest thing to smash into the planet since the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.  This movie is the roaring, stomping, jungle-crushing behemoth of the season, and even if it can't recapture the sheer thrilling novelty of the iconic 1993 flick, it will do just fine for a mega-blockbuster popcorn flick for Summer 2015.  Really, how can you lose with Steven Spielberg as producer, the latest in eye-popping special effects, and a Goliath Franken-saur that treats other dinosaurs as chew toys, never mind 20,000 tourists?  

The movie does have its flaws.  Lots of them.  I didn't care.  I pretty much ignored them except for indulging a few eye rolls, because I had sprinted to the theatre for two things and two things only.  I raced there to see (A) Chris Pratt wrangle velociraptors (my all-time favorite dinosaur!), and (B) all kinds of other prehistoric critters wreak ridiculous amounts of bloody havoc by land, sea, and air.  In terms of those two basic requirements, Jurassic World delivered.  Everything else is distraction and detail.  

Friday Fun Video: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

Remember, though, that we've long been advised to look past our differences in order to team up against a true abomination.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

200 Years After Waterloo, "The Nearest Run Thing"

June 18, 1815: Napoleon back from exile versus a coalition force under England's Duke of Wellington and Prussia's Gebhard von Bl├╝cher.  It was Wellington, by the way, who supposedly called the victory "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."

There are all sorts of commemorations and related news items, but since I'm in a hurry today, I'll leave you with three that stood out to me:

Monday, June 15, 2015

800 Years of Magna Carta

June 15, 1215 at Runnymede: King John agreed to the terms of the Magna Carta and acknowledged that no one is above the law, not even the king.  The document has become a powerful symbol of liberty and resistance to the arbitrary - and therefore tyrannical - (ab)use of power by rulers.

The celebrations are in full swing!  Yes, bells and all!

Need a refresher about the Magna Carta?  Here is the text.  Here is a fun little video from the British Library. (Recognize the voice?  It's Terry Jones from Monty Python!)

Want more?  Take a look at the resources of the Magna Carta Project.  Go on a field trip to the US National Archives and visit one of the few remaining copies of the charter!

Monday Therapy: A Cappella "Jurassic Park"

In honor of Jurassic World's new release (and overwhelming dominance at the box office - RAWR!), here's a cool video to tide you over until I can write a movie review:

Lest we forget, John Williams is the man!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Tweet For Flag Day

I almost forgot!  June 14 is Flag Day. Of course the incomparable Iowahawk is on task:

Dave Grohl Turns Awesomeness Up to Eleven

I've posted about Foo Fighters' and Dave Grohl's awesomeness before, but this is of an entirely different magnitude. 

Come on, just look at the headline:"'I think I just broke my leg': Dave Grohl finishes show after Sweden stage plunge: Foo Fighters frontman returns to the stage in Gothenburg after treatment, completing the set with his bandaged leg propped up in front of him."  

Grohl is now an even bigger rock god whose badassery is clear to all.

Apparently he then told his worried fans, "I may not be able to walk or run but I can still play guitar and scream."

Here's a song in his honor:

Ave atque Vale: Sir Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

By now the sad news has flown across the Internet that iconic actor Christopher Lee has died at age 93.  Here is a proper British obituary, but I can think of no better way to honor the great polymath and Renaissance man than by pointing you to the fact that he received the honor of being hailed as Badass of the Week while he was still living.  Hail and farewell, sir!

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Movie Review: San Andreas (2015)


I can sum up this blockbuster action disaster flick in just one phrase: The Rock vs. the Fault.  Dwayne Johnson and the San Andreas, that is!  Johnson's established himself as an action movie star of the first order long before this flick, and he'll be one long after it.  That's good, because San Andreas is pretty much a huge, noisy, bombastic CGI cartoon of geological mayhem and mass urban destruction.  (Weather forecast: Cloudy with a chance of storage ship containers.)  I'd be lying, though, if I said that I wasn't stupidly entertained for 2 hours, because I was, and that's due almost entirely to the Rock's own irrepressible personal charisma.  Is the movie preposterous in a dozen different ways?  Yes, it is.  Did I have fun anyway?  Yes, I did.

Quote of the Day: Self-Debunking Middle East Policy?

My colleague Alessandra called this long ago: Obama's Middle East foreign policy debacles would induce the Saudis and Israelis to work more and more closely, even flat out openly, against Iran.  A common fear of a regional nuclear hegemon makes strange bedfellows?  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

There's also this observation (my emphasis in boldface):
Obama came into office convinced that U.S. influence in the Middle East, as well as regional stability, revolved around one problem: the plight of the Palestinians. Resolving their conflict with Israel was the president’s top foreign policy from his first day in office. His belief that the U.S. was too close to Israel and that by establishing more daylight between the two allies, he could help broker an end to the long war between Jews and Arabs. To accomplish that goal, he picked fights with Israel, undermined its diplomatic position, and did his best to pressure the Israelis into making concessions that would please the Palestinians. The failure of this policy was foreordained since the Palestinians are still unable to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But the events of the past six years have also shown that his focus on the Palestinians as the source of the problem was a disastrous mistake. The Arab spring, civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, and the Iranian nuclear threat proved that the Palestinians had little or nothing to do with the most serious problems in the region. Indeed, by forcing Israel and the Saudis to cooperate against Iran with little attention being paid to the dead end peace process with the Palestinians, Obama has effectively debunked the core idea at the heart of his foreign policy.

Hello Kitty Monstrosity of the Day: Hello NYPD


The Cinema-Mad Sibling Recommends: "Kung Fury"

This awesomely lunatic, over-the-top homage to 80s cinema hit the Internet last week, and you really have to see it to believe it. 

BONUS: Music video tie-in starring a real 80s pop culture icon. Enjoy, my lovelies! 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

All Movie Reviews

Wow, now that I've put all my movie reviews together in one place, I'm thinking: Have I really written THAT many reviews?  That's not counting the movies I've seen that I didn't write reviews for because I was short on time!

For your entertainment, here are all my reviews organized alphabetically.  All grades are listed after the movie titles.  I've also linked this list to the right, so you can have easy access to the movie review archive.  By the way, I haven't gone back to check the embedded links in 9 years' worth of reviews, so there may be some instances of link death in older entries.

Current number of reviews:  126.
Updated most recently on June 27, 2017 with Wonder Woman.

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Hell on Wheels.

Is this a movie or a really vivid hallucination?  Whatever else you want to say about Aussie filmmaker George Miller's return to the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max, you can't say that he isn't committed. Miller is completely dedicated to turning his fever dream roaring into maniacal life with all the gonzo gusto and automotive mayhem you can imagine ... and then some.  The premise of the thing is pure B-movie fodder, but somehow - impossibly, even - Miller turns what is essentially (let's be real here) a two-hour-long desert car chase into a surprisingly entertaining, even occasionally substantive, story.  Bolstered by actual practical special effects, moments of Oscar-level cinematography (yes, you read that right), and a much-ballyhooed performance by Charlize Theron as a bald, war-painted, one-armed road warrior named Imperator Furiosa (I can't make this stuff up if I tried), Mad Max: Fury Road both is and isn't exactly what you expect from a movie with that name ... and you will love it for being so.

I'm not sure how much I can say about the movie without spoiling your experience of seeing it for the first time and getting Miller's unhinged imagination thrown right into your face.  No matter how familiar you are with the Mel Gibson Mad Max, you won't be fully prepared for this latest go-around in the savage burning wasteland.  Of course there's Max, played by the versatile Tom Hardy (how is he not already a superstar of epic proportions?), but in one of the most subversive moves of the entire film, Max isn't the protagonist.  He shares the spotlight with Theron's Furiosa when he ends up traveling with her on her desperate mission, and it is a testament to Miller's storytelling that this diminishes neither character but instead creates a bond of mutual respect that elevates them both.  These two damaged badasses don't have time for cliched kissyface nonsense, but you don't need it or even want it here: you want to see them howling ferociously through sand dunes and gas fumes in a deadly game of chase with the grotesque masked villain, the hilariously named Immortan Joe, and his army of painted minions (including - of all people - Nicholas Hoult, his usual beauty utterly obscured). 

I'll leave you with the best line I've yet read about this movie: "Mad Max: Fury Road is like the film adaptation of your favorite heavy metal album cover."

Mad Minerva gives Mad Max: Fury Road a grade of A-.  It's a masterpiece of genre filmmaking, a cult classic from the word go, and one hell of a thrill ride, but I can't see myself watching it very often.

Mad Max: Fury Road runs for 120 minutes and is rated R for intense violence, action sequences, disturbing images, and completely unhinged vehicular pandemonium.  

Rotten Tomatoes gives Mad Max: Fury Road the unbelievably Fresh rating of 98%.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Friday Fun Video: Doctor Who Does the Time Warp Again

Quote of the Day: Dan Drezner on FIFA

FIFA, that hive of scum and villainy (remember this?), deserves everything that it's getting and probably more.  All my soccer fan friends and I are watching with unadulterated, Schadenfreudelicious glee.  Here's a hilarious comment from foreign policy prof Dan Drezner:
We live in an age when foreign affairs pundits like to bemoan the crumbling of existing order and ponder whether the United States’ best days are in the past, when rising powers seem more comfortable throwing their weight around than the U.S. government. These are days when American scandals and dysfunction and economic stagnation seem to wrongfoot U.S. foreign policy aspirations at every opportunity. 
But then there are days when the United States is the greatest country in the world, because it makes stuff like this happen ...

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. (Updated: Now online!)

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.