•January 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment

foolish

things i watched at otakon #8

•July 29, 2015 • Leave a Comment

otakon cosplayOtakon has come and gone for another year and as always, it was a load of overstimulating fun.  The weather was cooperative, the escalators seemed in better repair than usual, all the rooms were cold, and I bought just the cutest fox bag ever in the dealer’s room.  The cosplay was exceptional, with lots of Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Attack on Titan, and whatnot.  There was more cosplay that I didn’t recognize this year than usual so I guess I need to step up my anime game and get caught up with what all the kids are into.  I will note that I was shocked, SHOCKED, to not see a single Tardis, weeping angel, Dalek, or anything having to do with Dr. Who throughout the entire convention.  That just boggles the mind….

Without further ado, here is the wrap up of events that I attended.  There  might be SPOILERS.   Deal with it.

___

otakon cosplayYamada and the 7 Witches:  One day at school, bored delinquent Ryū Yamada trips on the stairs and crashes into the lovely Urara Shiraishi, who is the school’s top student.  When he wakes up in the school infirmary Ryū is shocked to discover himself inside Urara’s body.  After a couple of the sorts of scenes that one would expect in these circumstances (Ryū looking at Urara’s breasts, figuring out his penis is gone, etc), he rushes off to find her, under the assumption that she is now in his body and doing god knows what with it.  When they meet they agree to finish out the rest of the school day in the switched bodies and then go back to the same stairs and enact the same accident in the hopes they will switch back.  After some trial and error they figure out that Ryū is able to switch bodies when he kisses someone (heh).  They decide to use this ability to deal with the issues in their lives.  Ryū is very close to failing some of his classes and Urara takes his tests for him.  Urara, although smart, is not popular and is actively harassed by her school mates and Ryū deals with them.  So this is the basic set up.  The two are shortly found out by another classmate who convinces them to reactivate the school’s Supernatural Activities club with him and this trio are shortly joined by another classmate, a young woman obsessed with all things supernatural.  They start randomly experimenting with kissing each other and body swapping and by the end of the second episode it works out so that the two girls, who are actually the two boys, are kissing while the two boys, who are actually the two girls, watch and make comments on how weird the whole situation is.  In general it is a pretty funny show and I am guessing from the title that eventually there will be a total of seven witches for Yamada to kiss and body swap with, with all the attendant slapstick, gratuitous boob and panty shots, and furious blushing and screaming that implies.  I would have stayed and seen the other two episodes but the room was too cold for my light summer clothing.

Score: meh.

___

otakon cosplayKumiko, the Treasure Hunter:  Although billed as something of a quirky comedy in the Otakon guide, this movie was pretty much nothing but sad from start to finish.  Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi, who you might remember from Pacific Rim) is an unmarried Tokyo office lady with a despicable boss, a filthy apartment, and a mother who does nothing but pester her to get married or move back home.  She barely manages to dress herself, runs away in panic from any situation that stresses her, and finds what little solace she can in her pet rabbit Bunzo and obsessive treasure hunting, for which she hand stitches simple maps.  One on of her excursions she finds a battered videotape of the film Fargo and she becomes convinced that it is a documentary and that the treasure Steve Buscemi hides in the snow is real.  When her boss makes it clear that her time at her job is limited, she stitches up a map, steals the company credit card, and heads to Minnesota in the middle of winter to find the treasure.  Although there are some  humorous moments in the film (Kumiko feeding cup noodles to Bunzo, her culture clashes with random people in Minnesota) the general tone of the movie is one of stultifying depression.  Kumiko moves through her life as if she wades through molasses and the movie moves just as slowly.  Her face rarely changes expression, regardless of what is happening to her.  The only time she shows any emotion is when she has to leave Bunzo behind to go to America.  Tokyo and Minnesota are equally bleak, both cold, and both full of people who can’t or won’t understand Kumiko and what is happening to her.  It is hard to like Kumiko (she’s too passive, stubborn, and noncommunicative) but I spent most of the movie feeling sorry for her and wrapped in a sense of dread.   It didn’t help that, in the finest Otakon tradition, the screening room was freezing cold.

Score:  meh.

(PS:  Turns out this film is very loosely based on circumstances surrounding the death of Tokyo office worker Takaka Konishi, who committed suicide in Minnesota in 2001.  That makes it even more of a bummer.)

___

otakon cosplayDD Fist of the North Star: So, bit of a disclaimer here:  I’ve never seen the original Fist of the North Star anime or read the manga so I can’t comment on how well this actually works as the spoof it is clearly supposed to be.  I can, however, comment on how successful the two episodes that I watched were at making me laugh.  In the year 199x the world is a peaceful place and the three brothers Kenshiro, Roah, and Toki, who are powerful martial artists, basically have nothing to do.  They are forced to work part time in order to eat and when Kenshiro loses his job he uses his “North Star Snuggle Fist” (or something like that) move to transform into a cute kitten.  He’s adopted by a young woman who works in a convenience store and when they arrive at the store, Ken finds his brothers, who are also disguised as cute animals, have also been adopted.  The convenience store is hiring but only for one part time position.  And so the three brothers must compete in a variety of tasks set before them by the owner of the store in order to win that coveted part-timer slot.  First among these tasks are thwarting would-be shoplifters and challenging the evil Fist of the South Star Shopping District.  The series is drawn in exaggerated chibi style.  The three brothers and most of the villains have giant heads and huge fists (which is pointed out in the hilarious opening song).  The  master of the convenience store is a very tall and mysterious man who exudes (literally) an aura of power.  His daughter Lin and the other part-timer Bat are drawn mostly as normal teenagers and Bat appears to be the only rational person in the series.  The leader of the Fist of the South Star runs around naked but for a cape and has little sparkles where his dangly bits are supposed to be.  Ken’s fiancee, Yuria is tall, thin and pale, and is usually actually a doll.  The three brothers approach every problem with their fists, usually crying copious amounts of manly tears and announcing in advance all their extreme moves.  When Toki, who is sickly, is stressed he pukes blood everywhere.  Raoh names himself the “King of (insert thing random thing here)” and is always surprised that he has more tears to cry.  I can only guess what all these things are parodies of so I’ve pulled Fist of the North Star to the top of my queue and once I’ve watched it I will then take in the rest of this little jewel.  It was funny enough that I barely noticed how cold the screening room was.

Score:  meh.

___

otakon cosplayKung Fu Killers:  There are few entertainment options that I enjoy more than a good kung fu movie so I was pretty stoked to see a Donnie Yen film on the program this year.  In this one Yen plays Hahou Mo, a formerly respected martial arts instructor.  He accidentally kills a man in a duel and is sentenced to five years in prison.   About three years into his sentence, which he is serving without incident, someone starts killing off retired martial arts experts, all of whom were friends of Hahou Mo.  He convinces the detective (played by the wonderful Charlie Young) in charge of the case to have him released from prison so that he can help stop the killer.  She is reluctant but after another martial artist is killed she is convinced and he is released into police custody.  Things are not as they appear and in short order Mo is on the run from the  police as he tries to find the killer and also to protect his beloved Sinn Ying (who is no slouch with a sword).   The plot is a bit thin and melodramatic but the movie is full of the things one watches these movies to see, namely lots of fighting.  The killer’s modus operandi is killing the best martial artist in the respective schools so we see fights using all sorts of different styles: grappling, kicking, use of weapons, etc.  Donnie Yen does not disappoint and good performances are turned in by nearly everyone in the film.  I had a great time.  Also, I brought a sweater so I wasn’t so freaking cold.

Score:  meh

___

otakon cosplayHow to Take Better Convention Photographs:  This is the only panel I attended this year (damn the scheduling demons that overlap things I want to do with other things I want to do!).  The panel was led by a really nice professional photographer from Canada who led us through some of the standard photography rules of thumb (exposure triangle, rule of thirds, depth of field, etc.).  It was a pretty big crowd and looking around it seemed that most of the people there were shooting with their phones or with point-and-shoot cameras so he kept the discussion fairly simple.  This was a little disappointing to me, since I was looking for something that would address the specific issues with shooting at Otakon and conventions like it, rather than basic principles.  Stuff like how to deal with the unusual and varied lighting conditions, how to manage with photographing in crowds or in places with unattractive or intrusive backgrounds, how to take good photos at photoshoots when you either can’t get very close or have to shoot from odd angles, or what to do when you are someone like me who has a great deal of trouble talking to strangers and who is never going to be the kind of photographer who will approach fabulous cosplayers and get them to pose for her.  Still, he did discuss how you can set up interesting shots by thinking a bit outside of the box and half the panel was devoted to hands on practice and critique.  He was accessible to the group for questions and made it clear that camera snobbery is kind of foolish and that you can take wonderful pictures with whatever camera you have to hand if you are familiar with the instrument.  If they hold the track next year I will certainly try to sit in again and maybe work up the courage to have him critique my photos.  Maybe.

Score: meh

___

And that’s it for Otakon this year.  One more year in Baltimore and then we are off to DC!  Maybe the screening rooms will be warmer….

otakon cosplay

 

 

crap i have read recently #27

•April 9, 2015 • Leave a Comment

zorakThe book reviewed today is a second pass at the work of an author who I have enjoyed in the past.  As usual, there are probably some SPOILERS!! below.

___

Embassytown (Mieville, 2011):  Embassytown is a trading and emigration outpost on the planet Arieka at the farthest edge of known space.  Nominally a colony of Bremen, it is so far away from everywhere that its inhabitants rarely leave and the arrival of ships from elsewhere is an occasion of great interest and grand celebration.   Because of its location and the value of its trade goods it is a colony of some importance and it enjoys a remarkable amount of freedom from central government oversight.  Residents are primarily human with a smattering of other “exots” (non-human species).  The Ariekein natives, who Embassytown residents call Hosts, are tall,  insectoid, and biotechnologically advanced.  It is their tech that Embassytown trades to the rest of the universe.  Despite living so close to them, the Hosts are an enigma to most of the city’s inhabitants.  They are possessed of an unusual manner of communicating, called simply Language, that very few humans or exots can learn.  Genetically created and extensively trained Ambassadors are the only interface between the colony and the Hosts and they conduct all trading and negotiation.  Among the other intricacies of Language is that the Hosts are incapable of expressing anything that is not literally true.  To augment their communication the Hosts therefore create literal “similes” wherein someone performs a strange and occasionally painful action for them; these become concrete things they can use as allusions in Language.

Avice Benner Cho is a Simile and is known among the Hosts as “the girl who was hurt in darkness and who ate what was given her.”   She is an Immerser, one who can travel through the environment called the Immer, which seems to be a sort of alternate universe that joins the various parts of her universe together (I suspect other sci fi works would have just called this hyperspace).   This ability makes her valuable as a pilot and she is one of the few Embassytown natives who have left home and one of even fewer who have returned.   The ship that brings her home also brings a being of great wonder: an Ambassador who was not born and raised in Embassytown.   Accompanying her is her husband Scile, a linguist who becomes fascinated by Language and who eventually goes more or less native.  Shortly after arriving in Embassytown, the new Ambassador has an entirely unexpected effect on the Hosts, and Avice, her friends, and even the Hosts find themselves in a race to save the colony.

For the most part this is old school sci-fi and for the most  part it works, although I suspect it works less well for people who are actually linguists.   There are a lot of ideas in this book.  The primary one explores the relationship of language to culture and identity and the profound effect that changing one can have on the other.  Mieville aims a few jabs at those who seek to preserve in amber ephemera such as the fluidity of language and culture.  He takes a dim view of colonial politics, terrorism, small town social climbing, cultural meddling, and fanaticism.   Although it’s an interesting read it ends up feeling a bit flat.  Avice is both of Embassytown and outside of it due to her time offworld and her existence as a living part of Language makes her something special to both humans and Hosts.  It’s unfortunate that she remains little more than a narrator despite her managing to be at the center of every important event in the story.   The Hosts are fascinatingly alien but the other exots are barely described and are mostly incidental to the story.   Avice’s automaton friend Ehrsul, the other Similes, and the cleaved former Ambassador Bren seem like they might be interesting but are mostly unexplored as characters.

Overall, it was a good read.  It’s one of the books that really sucked me in as I was reading it but once I closed the covers and started to think about it, it didn’t really hold together.  I didn’t like it nearly as much as I did The City and The City.

Score:  Meh.

crap I have read recently #26

•February 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

in the wasteland

Welcome to the sickbed edition of “crap i have read recently”.    There are most certainly SPOILERS below.

___

After the Ending (Fairleigh & Pogue, 2013):  Imagine it is the end of the world.  A flu virus has killed 90% of the world’s population inside of a month.  Government has collapsed.   Law and order is nonexistent.  Most of the survivors have gone crazy.  The sane ones may not be trustworthy.  In such a world, with corpses rotting around you, your family and friends all gone, predators (human and otherwise) lurking everywhere, what would be your priorities?  Food? Fuel?  Shelter?  Weapons?  Vehicles?  Getting it on with that hot guy you are traveling with?

Wait, what?

Meet Zoe and Dani, the two heroines of our post-apocalyptic fantasy world.  Joined-at-the-hip BFFs since grade school and now in their mid-twenties, the two young women live across the country from each other when the virus starts killing everyone.  Dani lives with her fiance in Seattle and Zoe tends bar and works at an art gallery on the East Coast.   First Dani’s roommate dies, then Zoe’s, then Dani’s lover.  The two communicate by email throughout the crisis and when both become sick themselves Zoe asks her brother Jason, who is in the military in Seattle, to check on Dani and see if she is safe.  Dani is barely conscious when Jason and a squad of military personnel find her and evacuate her and her dog from her apartment.  Jason tells Zoe he is heading down to their childhood home in Bodega Bay to check on their families and then heading to a military base in Colorado that is supposed to be safe.  Zoe sets out with her surviving roommate Sarah and her old boyfriend Dave and his dog to meet them there.  Both women bring their laptops and regularly check in with each other via email on their journeys.

Right about here is where the story starts to go horribly, horribly stupid.  I admit it starts out reasonably well.  A pair of aimless, self-absorbed, privileged twenty-somethings suddenly find themselves in a broken world and have to find a way to survive.  It’s not entirely original but it has potential.  Unfortunately, the emails these two send each other in the midst of chaos and darkness read like something from a tweener’s secret diary.  When Dani describes her increasingly disturbing dreams of her dead boyfriend, Zoe responds with “ugh, sounds sooooo gross”.  The two gossip merrily about their female traveling companions and gripe about the skanky hos who apparently  have their eyes on the aforementioned hot guys each woman finds herself traveling with.  They go on and on about their clothes and their hair and boys.   They gripe about the stupidest shit, like having to share their laptops with other survivors who saved their lives and are helping them.  They gripe about having to help those other survivors look in on their families and friends.  They sign off with “Ciao” and “Hasta”.    It would be funny if 9/10ths of the world weren’t dead.

Both women are, of course, beautiful.  Dani is petite with “Brave”-esque flaming red curls.  Zoe is tall, with straight, dark hair down to the small of her back, and teal eyes.  (Teal eyes?  Who has teal eyes?)  Dani’s hunk is Jason, whom she has had a crush on since she was a girl.  Her poor dead fiance is quickly forgotten once Jason flexes at her a few times.  Dani rages incoherently every time he makes eyes at another woman, which he does rather frequently, being something of a womanizer.   Zoe’s hubba-hubba is Jake, an enigmatic loner her group meets up with at a nearly abandoned Fort Knox.  He is also remarkably fit and toned and ripply-muscled.  He’s not much of a talker and actively avoids Zoe for mysterious reasons; she finds herself drawn to him for reasons that are somewhat less mysterious.   Neither of these two (theoretically) adult women is capable of maintaining composure around these men and the book is full of casual touches and glances that cause full-on blushing and incoherence.   Both are convinced that their respective hunks either don’t like them or aren’t interested in them; Dani in particular spends an enormous amount of her narrative being jealous of whoever Jason happens to be sitting next to at any given moment.  Occasionally one of the two will walk in on her man in a state of undress and you’d think they’d never seen a penis before.   When sex finally does happen for one of these pairs (my lips are sealed) it is, of course, perfect in every way and after that we are treated to the loving couple’s sexy banter and knowing glances entirely too often.   It is absolutely ludicrous what passes for sexual tension in this book.  I fully understand that retaining one’s humanity post-apocalypse may involve a fair amount of life-affirming sex but this isn’t like that.  This is junior-high school infatuation.   Sadly enough there is an entirely sweet and believable relationship in the book that basically flies under the radar, that of Sarah and Biggs, both of whom realize they like each other right off the bat and get busy without all the teenage drama.

So, anyways, back to the apocalypse.  Dear reader(s), would you be surprised if I told you it wasn’t very, well, apocalyptic?  Dani’s and Zoe’s journey’s are something of a mirror image.  Dani’s group sets off south toward California and Zoe’s sets off East toward Colorado.  Their first stop is Dave’s cabin in Ohio, where they get snowed in, Dave gets mauled by a mountain lion, and his dog dies.  They meet up with a small band of military people also heading east toward the mysterious Colony, which has been broadcasting on the radio.   They go to Fort Knox, where they pick up a few more stragglers and hunky Jake (who also has a dog, surprise) and later to Sarah’s house outside of St. Louis.  Dani’s group spends time picking up a few people, losing a few people to a schism brought on by Jason’s horndog ways, and fighting off the less fortunate of the flu’s survivors.  From Bodega Bay they head into the Sierras, where they run into a cult headed by a grotesquely fat mind-controller (more on this later), and from there to Colorado.  Both women are attacked and nearly raped and/or killed by evil dudes and are saved by their hunks.  Both hunks are haunted by a crazy psycho-bitch who thinks he belongs to her; both of these women are murderous although Jake’s is a little more effective at it.  Dani and Zoe start self-defense and weapons training, although one gets the distinct impression of a movie-style martial arts montage.  Meaning, they seem to do very little practicing and yet magically get toned and sculpted and effective.  Despite this Dani and Zoe  are almost completely useless and routinely do very stupid things.  It is very fortunate for them that their companions don’t seem aware of this.

Oddly enough though, through all this, there really isn’t that much around them that is horrible.  Remember, NINE out of every TEN people are dead and most of them lie where they fell.  There have been no emergency services, no burials, no funeral pyres (no time and no one left).  Both groups stay in places like fancy hotels, wineries, dude ranches, and Sarah’s family’s mansion, where there is little to no evidence of horror other than a few overgrown lawns.  The pantries are well stocked with nonperishables and with liquor.  They have medicine (including birth control), camping supplies, and vehicles.  Once the vehicles are gone they have no trouble finding horses and feed for them.  Fuel is hard to find but they manage to power generators and wi-fi is apparently everywhere.   There is no evidence of the anarchy that usually accompanies the collapse of civilization.  They rarely find dead bodies and  if they do they just…close the doors to that room.   (Do neither of the authors have any idea how much a decomposing body smells?)   Dani finds one of her aunts dead in a bathtub and after a moment of shock she gets over it and moves on.  She didn’t much like that aunt anyways.  The sad thing is that she doesn’t have much more of a response when she finds out that her beloved grandmother did not survive.  Neither Zoe nor Dani spend much time wondering about what has happened to their world or how they managed to survive.  They seem, in fact, almost entirely unaffected by it.  By the end of the book they have not developed or matured one whit.   Every minute of introspection either of these two spend is focused on their dudes and their amazing new powers.

This brings us to the super-powers.  Yeah.  Sigh.  Another side-effect of surviving the flu is the development of what the characters call Abilities and what the rest of just call a silly plot device.  Zoe discovers hers first, while she is getting down with Dave (pre-Jake) and realizes she is inside his head watching him having sex with her.  This understandably freaks her out, and freaks him out when she tells him about it, but it doesn’t seem at all surprising to the military types they are traveling with.  Over time she realizes she can basically read minds.  Dani discovers her Ability via a mysterious guy (who she and Zoe dub MG in their emails) who visits her dreams.  Aside from having a few dream sequences where the handsome MG loses his pants momentarily (sigh), he primarily seems to be trying to teach Dani something.  Eventually she learns that her power is…wait for it… she can talk to the animals.  People too, but the animals is the best part.  She has chats with her dog, her horse (doesn’t like bridle, wants apples), random squirrels, and the odd mountain lion or two.  Left unexplained is why the animals should give a good goddamn about this, but regardless they all come to help her when she needs it.  Superpowers appear to be more or less random.  Some involve telepathy, seeing the future, dream walking, and mind control, while some seem to provide a more generic benefit, like being able to calm someone, or read an environment for danger, or dampen someone else’s ability.  None of it makes much sense but it does provide a reason for “someone” (the military?) to be luring people to Colorado.   The book is definitely of two minds about the military.  On the one hand most of Zoe’s and Dani’s traveling companions are military of one stripe or another and they are mostly nice people.   On the other hand, there are hints that the military knew about the virus before it started killing people, may have actually created it, and are doing horrible things to survivors.

The over-riding impression this book leaves is that attractive people are good and will survive the apocalypse.   Whenever Dani or Zoe meet someone new the astute reader can know instantly whether or not they are trustworthy merely by how they are described.   Are they handsome, friendly, motherly, fatherly?  Have they a kindly twinkle in the eye or are they a beloved high school teacher?  Well, then they are all right.  Do they look a little skeevy?  Are they fat?  If they are a possible rival for your hunk’s attention, are they very pretty?  If so, they are evil.  Probably best to just shoot them.   This of course begs the question, did 90% of the world’s population deserve to die?  I am guessing based on who the good guys and bad guys are in this book the answer is a resounding yes.

The writing is juvenile.  The main characters are indistinguishable.  If the chapter headings weren’t labeled with their names I’d have had a hard time knowing who was speaking.  The main male characters exist solely to be handsome and enigmatic and are written as if the authors never actually spent time around men.  I, ummm, actually kept getting confused between Jake (dude) and Jack (a dog).  That can’t be good.  The book is repetitive and nothing happens for very long stretches of time.  One could cut out, I don’t know, 200 pages out of a 457 page book and probably not miss much.  Plot developments seem random and often nonsensical.  There is so much that just makes no sense.  I can live with the power, water, and internet still working.  Most of that stuff is automated and will work probably for a little while at least.  What I don’t understand is why no one seems to use the internet to actually find stuff out, like where is it safe, what happened, is any government still functioning, are roads clear, bridges intact, etc.  A radio broadcast is mentioned now and again but no one ever seems to turn on the damn radio in their vehicles and listen for news of any sort.  No one mentions getting a short wave radio or ham radio kit and trying to find other survivors.  I can believe this of Dani and Zoe but not the dozen or so military people they are traveling with.  No one seems even remotely interested in finding out what is going in the rest of the world.  Finally, there is an entirely foreseeable plot twist at the end that came nowhere close to inducing me to read the next one.  Yes, there is a next one and (I think) two more after that, along with rather a lot of novellas going into the history of some of the characters, and plans for more novels set in this brave new world.  Yeesh.

So, why did I read it all the way through?  Blame my cold.  I’ve been sick for days.  I like post-apocalyptic fiction and figured a Nook freebie about a virus-induced end of days would go well with my cold medicine.  Plus, I was at that point where I needed something stupid and not mentally challenging to pass the time.  After the Ending fit that bill perfectly.

Score:  Fail.

2014 in review

•January 12, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.  I figure they go to all this trouble, the least I can do is share it.

All you really need to know about 2014 is that it was the year I discovered X Japan.  🙂

Thanks everyone for reading!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 710 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 12 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

crap i have watched recently #31

•December 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

the winter soldierLogging in from a suddenly busy life to do a couple of quick movie reviews.  As always, fasten your seat belt, keep your hands and feet inside at all times, and beware of SPOILERS!!

___

The Hobbit:  The Battle of the Five Armies (2014):  Along with about a billion other people I went to see the latest (and last) installment of the Hobbit trilogy during the holidays.   Normally, for something so conspicuously epic I’d devote an entire wordy entry to it.  But frankly, I’ve wasted enough time on hobbitses, at least of the movie variety.  Here is the briefest of recaps:   Smaug dies in the first 10 minutes but not before laying waste to Lake Town.  The refugees head to Dale and hunker down to starve.  Thorin goes loopy with gold-fever, refuses to honor his promises, and barricades himself and the rest of the dwarfs inside the mountain.   Golden elves show up en masse to pick a fight over some sparkly shit.  Then more dwarfs show up but before the throw down starts orcs show up via tunnels made by the worms from Dune.  They all fight for a long time and when it looks like all is lost Thorin and his twelve companions charge out of the mountain and turn the tide of battle.  Then goblins show up.  With bats.  After some more fighting and dying the magic eagles and Beorn the bear guy show up and the good guys win.   Sort of.  I’m not entirely sure who was supposed to be good in this mess, but the orcs and goblins are clearly evil (because they are ugly, duh) and they lose so that’s that.   Bilbo spends much of the fight unconscious.  There are some tender partings (Tauriel and Kili, Thranduil and Legolas, Thorin and the surviving dwarfs, Bilbo with everyone) and our intrepid hobbit soon finds himself back at Bag End, where all his possessions are being auctioned off by greedy relatives.  Jackson wraps up with some obvious references to and tie-ins with The Lord of the Rings.  The End.  There is some rather nice artwork under the endless credits.

I’ve griped before that this is not The Hobbit of my memories or even of my recent re-reading.  This is a Hobbit that exists to serve as a prequel to the much more dramatic LotR trilogy.  It draws its entire meaning from the earlier films and the meaning and the message behind the original work are lost, along with almost all of the emotional underpinnings.  There is so much drama in everything that there is no heart.  Most of the time it is just ridiculous.  Take the Tauriel/Kili/Legolas love triangle as an example.  Apparently I am supposed to believe that a dwarf and an elf who are barely acquainted beyond beyond making moon eyes at each other are so deeply in love that when one of them dies dramatically the other is emotionally destroyed to the point that they never want to love again, ever.  Had Jackson been able to convince me that these two had something profound going on between them I might have actually felt something.  Even Legolas didn’t seem all that broken up as he watched his beloved weeping over the body of another man.  So, no, I don’t fault Jackson for expanding roles that weren’t in the book (Legolas, Galadriel, etc.) or that were in the book for a page or two (Thranduil).  I don’t fault him making stuff up (Tauriel) or rewriting Tolkien (Fili and Kili died defending a wounded Thorin), or changing characters to suit his narrative (Bard was really kind of a jerk in the book).  I don’t fault him for stretching out a straightforward novel into three convoluted films.  I do fault him for taking one of the best fantasy books ever written, stripping every bit of soul out of it, and replacing it with loud noises and nonsensical narrative filler designed to distract us while he picks our pockets.  Bilbo, who is supposed to be the hero of this tale, is almost an afterthought.  He does almost nothing in the entire film except look concerned.  Big, big disappointment all around.

I will say this though.  As far as I can tell, the take-home message in all of Tolkien is “don’t fuck with the elves.”  Also, Lee Pace is  hot.

Score:  Meh.

___

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier (2014):  Oh great, another overblown, testosterone driven, explosion filled superhero movie.  Except that, well, I rather liked this one.  Cap is joined by Black Widow and Nick Fury from the Avengers films and Falcon, a character new to the films, in an exploration of terrorism and its effects on even the very best of intentions.  At the start of the film Cap and Natasha are rescuing hostages from pirates and also stealing some data from the ship’s computers.  When Fury can’t access the data he suspects that S.H.I.E.L.D is compromised and tries to have the agency’s latest massive spy project (three helicarriers linked by satellites designed to “preemptively cancel threats”) delayed.  On the way to a meeting with an agent he is ambushed by the Winter Soldier, a legendary Russian assassin with a bionic arm.  Fury escapes to Rogers’ apartment, gives Rogers a flash drive, and then the two are attacked again.  Fury is gravely wounded and dies in surgery.   When Rogers won’t hand over the data S.H.I.E.L.D declares him a fugitive.  While on the run with Natasha they discover an old bunker and a supercomputer that contains the consciousness of a bad guy from the first film.  He conveniently tells them that super-secret evil-doer organization Hydra has infested S.H.I.E.L.D and is busily working on a scheme to kill millions of people with the space battleships.  From there it is a race against time and the Winter Soldier to expose Hydra and stop their evil plan.  And then Cap discovers something that changes everything.

Steve Rogers is arguably the most conflicted member of the Avengers.  He fell asleep at the end of the last good war America fought and woke up in a country that has embraced fully the idea that the end justifies the means.  The past that is so distant to us, where we knew right from wrong, that seems so naive, is yesterday to him and the world’s shifting moral compass troubles him deeply.  He is still faithful to his now very old “best girl” at least partially because she is a link to that past.  He has always had his doubts about S.H.I.E.L.D, which operates seemingly without any kind of oversight, and sees clearly the dangers inherent in its nearly limitless  power.   He is not comfortable with the idea of trading liberty and privacy for safety.  He is constantly shocked by the routine falsehood around him, from advertising, to his cute neighbor who turns out to be an agent, to the Hydra moles in S.H.I.E.L.D and the government.  His growing friendship with Natasha, a woman whose life is all about lying, is a challenge to both of them as they try to find common ground.   Rogers’ instant connection to Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) stems from their shared history as former soldiers.  While Rogers increasingly finds himself doing questionable things for Fury, Wilson spends his time counseling fellow veterans with PTSD and Rogers suspects that Wilson is doing the nobler thing.  When he discovers the identity of the Winter Soldier Rogers realizes that there is someone else out there like him, a man adrift in a time not his own, working for an agenda he does not understand, someone who knows him like no one else.  Suddenly, he is not quite so alone.

Are there stupid things in this movie?  Oh, undoubtedly.  My favorite was the nifty handheld device that can tunnel instantly through miles of earth.  Even the bad guys just shrugged and gave up when they saw it in action and made no attempt to follow their quarry through the perfectly round tunnels it leaves behind.  There are not one but four space battleships in this film and we get to see three of them spectacularly blow up over downtown DC, with no apparent damage on the ground to anything other than S.H.I.E.L.D HQ (which is actually sort of refreshing).  There are certainly enough explosions, and cars flying through the air, and chase scenes, and gunfights, and dramatic fights on giant flying boats to make anyone happy (and slightly deaf).  But where The Hobbit plays at having a heart this movie really has one in Steve Rogers.   When he decides once and for all that truth is the only right way to go, when even Natasha sees things his way, when he destroys both Hydra and S.H.I.E.L.D.  because they are two sides of the same coin, that is when he truly becomes the kind of man Captain America should be.  Chris Evans, who struck me as sort of insipid in the first CA film, also comes into his own in this one.   He is perfect for the role, boyish and charming, with the sort of steely essence that doesn’t come from a super serum or a magic shield.  In a world where even the good people are sort of bad, he will have none of that.  I’m actually looking forward to Evans’ next outing as Captain America

(Usual disclaimer here:  I don’t read the comics.  I’m pretty sure that S.H.I.E.L.D, Hydra, and anything or anyone else that died in this film is only mostly dead.  And as we all know, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.  Hell, in the comics even all dead is only mostly dead.)

Although the movie primarily serves as a meditation on the dicey ethical tradeoffs we have made in response to the world’s dangers, it is also an homage to Cold War spy thrillers and old-time action movies.  There’s lots of tricksy spy stuff and hand to hand fighting and not nearly as much CGI as one would think.  Almost everyone in it does a great job.  The lovely Scarlett Johansson is unglamorous and believable as the morally flexible Natasha, who seems to be taking on the role of Rogers’ big sister.  Samuel Jackson is pretty much Samuel Jackson.   Sebastian Stan, who spends much of the film with his face covered, does a creditable job as the Winter Soldier (you may also know him as the Mad Hatter in Once Upon a Time).  An elderly but still totally gorgeous Robert Redford takes a turn as S.H.I.E.L.D’s leader and the eternally lovely Jenny Agutter reprises her role as a member of the security council.  Aside from Evans, though, the real standout is Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, a man who has seen some shit and come back from it to help others.  He steps to the plate immediately when his country and Captain America need him and he is awesome.

So, it’s a good film, as these thing go.  If you haven’t seen it already, go thee forth and rent it!

Score: Meh.

crap i have read recently #25

•September 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

hurricane katrina

 

Just some stuff I’ve had in my “to read” pile for awhile.  These are both books by authors whose other works I have enjoyed.  There’s probably a few SPOILERS.

___

 

Complicity (Banks, 1993):  If you’ve spent more than a few minutes here, you know that I am a huge fan of Iain Banks’ Culture novels.  I have, however, never read any of his “regular” (as opposed to science fiction) works.  Complicity is a comparatively short and straightforward murder mystery.   There are two protagonists.  The first, Cameron Colley, is a self-described gonzo journalist in Edinburgh and kind of a loser.  He snorts more speed than is good for him, drinks a lot, is having an affair with a married friend from college, and plays a very quaint sounding video game (remember, this is 1993).   He is probably suffering from PTSD stemming from his coverage of the first Iraq war.  The other protagonist is a serial killer who seems to have some connection to Colley.  When the killer begins to target white collar criminals and corrupt officials that Colley has written articles about, the journalist finds himself under suspicion.   The novel alternates between first person (Colley) and second person (the killer) and each voice is ambiguous enough that we are not sure if either of them are telling us the truth.   The murders are clever and and appropriate for the victim’s guilt.  There is a bit of a twist at the end but nothing an astute reader wouldn’t see coming.

Banks’ Culture novels are space operas painted on gigantic canvases and involving casts of thousands.  Complicity is all together a quieter and more personal affair.   Unfortunately it starts rather slowly and I found my interest lagging for much of the first half of the book.  It also suffers a bit from seeming dated.  If it weren’t so short I might have gotten discouraged and not have finished it.   It does become more interesting once Colley is both under suspicion and at risk of himself becoming a victim and I am glad I stuck with it.  It never rises to the gripping level of any of the Culture novels, but is instead small tale about a man whose past comes home to roost in a big way.

Banks is gone now and there won’t be any more Culture novels.   There are, however, many more of his books to read.   I am sure that I will read them all eventually.

Score:  Meh.

___

Isaac’s Storm (Larson, 1999):  This book about the 1900 Galveston hurricane was written some years before The Devil in the White City.  Larson bases his narrative on source documents, including eye witness accounts of the storm and its aftermath, and sprinkles in a fair bit of “deduction” (or, as I like to call it, “guessing”).   Unfortunately this is nowhere near as good a book The Devil in the White City and it is primarily because of his focus on Isaac Cline.  Cline was the head of the US Weather Bureau in Galveston at the time of the storm and Larson goes to great lengths, despite a dearth of actual evidence, to convince us that Isaac failed the citizens of Galveston.   His thesis is that Cline should have known somehow both that the storm would hit Galveston and that it would be huge.  He concludes that because some years earlier Cline had given his opinion that a hurricane would never hit Galveston that Cline willfully ignored evidence that a big storm was approaching the city until it was too late to evacuate the population.  He takes every opportunity to bring up Cline’s alienation from his brother Joseph, who also worked in the weather bureau office.  There is no documentation of the cause of the rift between the two brothers; all that is clear is that later in life they had very little to do with each other.   In this absence of evidence Larson speculates that it occurred because Joseph was angry with Isaac for failing to take decisive action before the storm.  He mentions it so often that it looks like an attempt to drum up drama and perhaps pad the narrative.   I’m sure Larson was attempting to bring a personal view to this horrific event and to create a protagonist but what we actually end up with is a hatchet job.  This was 1900.  There was no doppler, no satellites, no storm trackers, no up to the minute models and course projections.   Isaac basically had to guess about whether a storm was coming and how big it would be and other meteorologists in the Weather Bureau and in Cuba were in serious disagreement about the direction the storm would take.  Under the circumstances it is hard to fault him alone for the failure to recognize the signs of a major storm in time to warn the populace.

Despite these faults and some others (including a nonsensical discussion of the butterfly effect), the book is absolutely riveting once the storm starts.   The suspense builds with the swells rolling up Galveston’s beaches.   As the wind rises the townspeople come out to take advantage of the suddenly cooler air and their children play in the surf.  When the full force of the storm hits the city we read first hand accounts from people who watched their families and their homes wash out from under them.  We read of heroism as people try to rescue their neighbors and of their despair as their efforts fail.   The storm surge was 15 feet high and washed over the entire city, damaging or destroying nearly every structure.  Entire neighborhoods just disappeared.  As many as 12,000 people may have died in the hurricane and it remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the United States.  Survivors spent weeks after the storm rescuing those who were trapped and recovering bodies.  Cline himself lost his pregnant wife to the storm.  There were so many corpses that funeral pyres burned for weeks.  The storm changed forever the economic importance of Galveston as a port city, although it found later prosperity as a resort and university town.

Rather than trying to lay all this at Isaac Cline’s feet, Larson would have done better to focus on the experiences of the people who lived through it.  Even after all this time their terror and bravery is compelling and there is drama enough in their stories to fill a dozen books better than this one.

Score:  Meh.