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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It has been a few years since Reamde, so I've been getting a bit antsy of late. Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, and I've long since exhausted reading just about everything he's published. I'm always on the lookout for his latest, and I recently discovered this mysterious book called Seveneves. How very palindromic of him. The blurb, which originally showed up in some random upcoming books PDF, goes something like this:
When the moon blows up, the earth's atmosphere is predicted to go through changes that will eventually lead to a Hard Rain, a meteorite storm that could last for thousands of years, rendering the earth’s surface uninhabitable. In preparation, the nations of the earth send an ark of humans to an International Space Station. But the Station isn’t immune to the galactic catastrophe and many of its people are lost, mostly men. When stability is reached, only seven humans remain, all of them women. Jump forward thirty thousand years. Two peoples exist: those who survived on Earth, living rustic, primitive lives; and those who derived from the Seven Eves of the space station, affluent, sophisticated, organized sects looking to colonize the surface of earth. Stephenson’s next novel is an epic potboiler, with political and military intrigue, and plenty to say about evolution, genetic engineering, and civilization as we know it.
The PDF sez it's due "Winter 2015", but Amazon and Goodreads have it at 4/14/15. Clocking in at 1056 pages, it appears that Stephenson's ways have not changed much.

Now, it's unclear to me if this book is the first of a series that Stephenson hinted at in a BBC interview last September, or if this was an interim book. Based on the description, I think Seveneves will be different.
"They're historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history," he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period.

"It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

"One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps - something like that."
"Something like that", meaning 2015 I guess. Not that I'm complaining, as it looks like we'll be awash in new Stephenson at some point in the near future. In other news, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future comes out on 9/9/14, and it features a bunch of stories inspired by Stephenson, in particular his desire to see more "positive" science fiction (as opposed to the dystopia or misery porn that seems to infect a lot of modern SF). It includes new stories by Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, and Bruce Sterling (presumably amongst others). I will most certainly be reading it, and will hopefully be able to glean a few Hugo nominatables!
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2014 at 05:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Professor Dewey Finn's Ostentatiously Odd, Schoolastically Scattershot Back-to-School (of Rock?) Movie Quiz
After yet another hiatus, Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as usual, I'd like to play along. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, and Professor Larry Gopnick are also available.

1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you'd most like to see get the HARD DAY'S NIGHT or HEAD treatment

And here I must admit that this sort of movie does little to excite me. I enjoy music, but I don't really know it or obsess over it the way do, for example, with movies and beer. So when you ask for a quasi-fictional movie featuring lots of music performances, I'm not overly enthused, even if you grab some bands that I'm intrigued by. That being said, perhaps a dramatization of The Mars Volta's ouija board fueled shenanigans while touring and making The Bedlam in Goliath would be an interesting watch...

2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates?

This is a close one, both actors I know and like, almost a draw really, but I'll go with Oliver Reed due to slightly more familiarity with his stuff...

3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

The answer, pretty obviously, is convenience. There are plenty of inconvenient bits about streaming media, but that's a topic for the next question, and streaming really is more convenient in many ways. No need to handle physical media, swap discs, walk across the room (the horror!), no worry about scratches/deterioration, no storage space needed, and when something is available, it's available on a whim, right now, ready to watch. Also, one of the bad things about streaming - lack of selection - can also lead to good things, like watching something you would never normally watch, simply because it's available and easy to access...

4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

Total inconsistency in availability, the lack of a truly comprehensive service, video quality, dependence on the internets, boneheaded DRM swindles, the fact that you never actually own what you're watching, the list is long and distinguished. One thing that never gets brought up: lack of special features or things like audio-commentary. I know only the nerdiest of nerds actually pay attention to commentary tracks, but the flowering of information that occurred during the DVD era was unprecedented and beautiful, and I have a feeling that it will wither away and die as we move towards streaming, which is sad.

5) Favorite Robin Williams performance

This is a surprisingly difficult choice. I'm not big on Williams' big, showy performances, but he still has a pretty impressive catalog of serious stuff or things where his boisterous qualities are more seamlessly integrated. I keep thinking of Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and of course, Dead Poets Society. That will have to do...

6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie

Night Train to Munich, coming in behind The Third Man.

7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema

The marching hammers in Pink Floyd The Wall. In fact, that whole movie, but especially the marching hammers...
Marching Hammers
8) Favorite movie about growing up

This is an impossible one, as the concept is nebulous enough to include all coming-of-age stories, of which there are many. Too many. But I'll give an answer that I'm positive that no one else will give: Real Genius. One of a handful of seminal nerd movies that prefigured the rise of the geek a decade or two later, it still speaks to the geek in me.

9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

I love that Dennis pawns this question off on someone else ("It wasn't me, it was that pervert, Peter Nellhaus!"), and since he will probably never post his answers, he will doubly get away with not looking like a total perv. As for me, my mind is straying more towards surprising nudity that was not unpleasant (with the actual unpleasant surprise being in the next question), and the first thing I thought of was Rosario Dawson's eye opening (and pretty ridiculous) scene in last year's Trance. Simply was not expecting it, and while the movie is completely absurd, I've always been in love with Rosario, so there you have it.

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

A long while ago, I was marathoning a bunch of ghost movies near Halloween (this is pre-6WH, but I still watched a bunch of horror movies before Halloween every year), and thought hey, this Ghost Story movie is pretty famous, let's give it a shot. And I was totally unprepared for the full frontal male nudity right at the beginning of the movie. It's not just that it was unexpected as that it's very nearly the first thing you see in the movie, and it immediately precedes death. So yeah, it sticks in my mind.

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming

In a theater, it was Guardians of the Galaxy, which I very much enjoyed. On BD, it was Under the Skin just this morning, and I'm not totally sure what to make of it. I liked it well enough, but the overly obtuse approach rarely works completely with me... And on streaming, it was the superb The Silence of the Lambs, which I watched because of a recent Filmspotting SVU episode where they discussed all the Hannibal Lecter movies.

12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie

I have not seen one, let alone two Betrrand Blier movies, so alas, I must take my first mulligan in this quiz...

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?

Googie Withers, mostly just because I really love The Lady Vanishes. Even though she has only a small role, this is more than I can say for Sally Gray, who I'm wholly unfamiliar with...

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie character that you've heeded in real life

When in doubt, run to The Godfather "A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man" or "Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family... Ever" (because it's lonely out there on that rowboat).

15) Favorite movie about learning

So I'm going to disqualify sports or martial arts movies, as training montages, while sometimes about learning, are perhaps too easy of a target. The problem is that you're left with a bunch of inspiration teacher stories, of which there are many. I'll go with Dead Poets Society for obvious reasons, but I'll throw out a lesser known instance that isn't quite as sappy or manipulative The Emperor's Club. Not a perfect movie, but well worth checking out.

16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but, for one reason or another, never made. These could be projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached-- and your "version" of the film might be the one with that lost director, for example (question submitted by Brian Doan, class of 2007)

This is a tough one too! Despite my reservations, I would genuinely like to see Alejandro Jodorowsky's take on Dune, so that's first on the docket. The next immediate choice that came to mind was Stanley Kubrick's version of AI. I actually like Spielberg's version, but I also have no doubt in my mind that Kubrick's vision would have been better. For a different pairing, I'd like to see Ken Russel's take on Dracula paired with David Cronenberg's Frankeinstein, both of which were rumored at one point or another.

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material

It's hard to call it a mismatch, because these are all good movies, but it's hard to believe that Mad Max director George Miller also directed the Babe movies. But since they work, I'll have to go with the default of John Huston directing Annie...

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor

This is a tough one because of the sorta nebulous line between actor and character actor, and the fact that character actors tend to be in small, bit parts rather than big showy roles. So I'll throw two out there: Ted Levine's creepy turn as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (just because that's on my mind, though I don't know how much of a character actor Ted Levine really is), and Stephen Tobolowsky's perfect Ned Ryerson ("Needlenose Ned"? "Ned the Head"?) from Groundhog Day. Bing!

19) Favorite chase scene

I'm going to narrow this down a bit and eliminate car chases from the running, as they seem like their own thing. What does this leave us with? For me, The Terminator. The entire movie is really just one big chase scene, but for my money, nothing beats that final chase towards the end of the movie. It's easy to forget just how effective that appearance of the endoskeleton was back in the day.
The Terminator Endoskeleton
We take such things for granted these days, but it was such a big shock, and the design was so brilliantly sinister that I can't quite get over it.

20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like proselytizing about right now

I have two relatively obscure movies that I love that few others have seen: the 1933 polemic Gabriel Over the White House and the intriguing video game documentary Playing Columbine. Of course, part of the reason they're underseen is that they're not very well distributed, though I believe they are now both available on Youtube (you may need to pay). They're both pretty fascinating films, and worthy of a larger audience! Oh, and sorry, I have to include a third one: Gambit, a most excellent heist film starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. It was on Netflix a while back, but then it went off and now you have to buy it (apparently there is a somewhat recent remake, though I can't imagine it being as worthwhile as the original).

21) Favorite movie about high school

Lots of choices here, with The Breakfast Club coming immediately and obviously to mind, and then I thought of Better Off Dead..., which is perhaps slightly more obscure (but not really obscure in any sense).

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance

I hate to go so obvious on you, but come on, The Big Sleep.

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?

So what you're saying is that I need to bone up on my Powell & Pressburger. Yes, another mulligan here, though I have a sneaking suspicion that I've seen these guys in something, nothing is jumping out.

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the upcoming awards season

I'm guessing Scarlett Johanssen won't get much official love for Under the Skin. I think Ralph Fiennes has a much better chance for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but sometimes movies released early get overshadowed later on...

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been a movie star

Well, this is a common answer, but there's a reason for that: Jim Morrison could indeed have made an impact in that 70s movie scene... if he had cleaned himself up, that is...

26) Second favorite Ted Post movie

That would be Hang 'Em High, with Magnum Force pulling in number 1. Beneath the Planet of the Apes has its charms and who knows, if I watched all three of these tomorrow, I might put this in the #2 slot, but I'll stick with my gut on this one.

27) Favorite odd couple

The first one coming to mind is Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, though there are many others that keep popping in as I write this (Riggs and Murtaugh anyone?) I know this is a movie quiz, but an honorable mention must go to Arya Stark and The Hound on Game of Thrones... a show that has its fair share of odd couples.

28) Flicker or Zeroville?

I know I just cheated by including television in the last question, but hey, this is supposed to be a movie quiz right? I have not read either of these books, but if I were to choose based on the blurbs, I'd go Flicker...

29) Favorite movie about college

Is anyone really answering anything other than Animal House? I could mention Real Genius again if I wanted to be contrarian, but I'll leave it at Animal House.

30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite underappreciated performance

I was kinda stumped on this one (as per usual, the definition of underappreciated is difficult to lock down), but Craig Kennedy posted the perfect answer at SLIFR: "He's not exactly underappreciated, but George C. Scott generally comes after Peter Sellers when people talk about Dr. Strangelove and he shouldn't be. He's spectacular and I wish he'd done more comedy." Damn straight.

31) Favorite movie about parenting

Calling National Lampoon's Vacation a movie about parenting might be a bit of a stretch, but that's what I thought of first, so it's just going to have to do. It's also hilarious.

32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?

Susannah York, mostly because she's Superman's mom. A bit part, to be sure, and I guess Sarah Miles has more artistic cred, but I'm sticking with York on this one.

33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with which you are well familiar

Rocky, even though the logistics of Rocky's jogging path are ridiculous, it really does capture a lot of Philly. I haven't seen it in a long time though, so there are probably much better choices here.

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the contemporary performer who most evokes their presence/stature/talent

George Clooney is almost consciously trying to be Cary Grant, isn't he? And I suppose he's having success at that too.

35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)

It's hard to beat Standley Kubrick, whose entire career was basically a hot streak, even if he wasn't quite that prolific (especially in later years).

And that just about covers it. Already looking forward to the next quiz (which, if recent history is extrapolated, will be sometime in late 2015 - hopefully it will be a much shorter wait)...
Posted by Mark on August 24, 2014 at 08:06 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hugo Awards: The Results
The Hugo Award winners were announced late on Sunday, and since I've been following along, I naturally had some thoughts on the winners. Also of interest were the final ballot details, which had some interesting information for statistics wonks... I don't claim to be an expert in such matters, but I still found many details interesting. So without further ado, here are some assorted thoughts on the results:
  • Ancillary Justice, by Anne Leckie, took the best novel award, surprising no one, as this novel has already swept every other major SF award (including the Nebula, Locus, Clarke, and BSFA awards, among others). While this was not my first choice, I don't have any real objection to it, it's got plenty of crunchy ideas worthy of exploration, even if it is a bit short on plot. Also of note, it absolutely stomped the competition, with 1335 first place votes, versus only 658 for The Wheel of Time. Speaking of which, that series of novels, while garnering the second most first place votes, fell to fourth place overall thanks to the Hugos' use of an Instant Runoff voting system. While many feared a Wheel of Time win, I was not surprised because this sort of voting system discourages love it/hate it nominees, and while the Wheel of Time was indeed popular, it had plenty of haters and conscientious objectors who didn't think that a 14 book series deserved to be considered as a single nomination (like, uh, me).
  • My first place vote for Best Novel, Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood came in second place, which is basically what I was expecting. Plus, it turns out that Stross won the Best Novella award with "Equoid", which I found mildly surprising, since it had a high squick factor (according to Scalzi, the story's genesis came out of a two word phrase, "unicorn bukkake", which gives you an idea of what you're in for with this story). Indeed, looking at the details, it appears to have been a somewhat close race, with Six Gun Snow White (which I had thought was going to win) nipping at Stross' heels the whole way. I wonder if Stross got the edge because everyone knew he would lose the Novel race, and thus shifted their votes accordingly.
  • No huge surprises for the other fiction awards, though it didn't go exactly as I had predicted either. I was a little surprised that Game of Thrones took Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (over Doctor Who), though since I voted for it, I'm obviously fine with that.
  • So, the Sad Puppy slate. It's a tough thing to judge, because the way Correia went about his campaign was designed to provoke a backlash, so that he could then go and proclaim that the awards were biased. Which everyone already knew. The Hugos have always been a popularity contest. I guess you could say that Correia demonstrated how crappy politics are when introduced to a situation like this (and make no mistake, most of the people taking a hard line on this were pretty crappy about it, on both sides), but that's a decidedly Pyrrhic victory. Anywho, all but one of the Sad Puppy nominees basically came in last place, with the only exception being Editor, Long Form, where Toni Weisskopf actually had the most first place votes, but wound up in 4th overall thanks to the voting process. Amusingly and entirely unsurprisingly, Vox Day's story came in 6th place out of 5 (meaning that he was beaten by No Award). In the end, I hope this doesn't happen again next year. Correia has proven his point, so while I assume he'll mention that his Monster Hunter book is eligible next year and encourage his readers to participate, he hopefully won't do so in a way intended to alienate the normal voting base the way he did this year.
  • Speaking of the Sad Puppy slate, there was a lot of speculation when the nominees were announced that those who got these things nominated were blindly voting for the entire slate. Looking at the nomination details, this was pretty clearly not the case. Correia's novel garnered the most votes, with 184, while Vox Day's story only captured 69 votes. So there are at least 115 people who didn't do a straight vote. I suppose it's possible that there were 69 people who did so, but I also find that unlikely. My assumption, shockingly enough, is that the people who nominated were still actual human beings and only voted for things they read and liked.
  • While I was not fond of the way that The Human Division ended, I absolutely loved several of the individual stories, so I was surprised that none of them were even close to being nominated in the short fiction categories. I guess the fact that there were so many of them may have spread out the love to the point where no individual work got enough votes to come close to being nominated. On the other hand, Scalzi's Mallet of Loving Correction (which I believe is just reprints of select blog posts, in book form) did show up on the Best Related Work category nominations, albeit relatively low on the list...
  • In terms of near misses, one of the novels I would have nominated if I had participated in that part of the process was The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which fell only 2 votes short of making it onto the ballot, which makes me feel a little bad. On the other hand, Upstream Color just barely made the nomination sheet for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form and was far from being nominated, which makes me sad, but I guess it's understandable. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself did not appear at all, which is a bit sad (you should read it anyway, I loved it).
Since I've got a supporting membership this year, that means I can nominate and vote in next year's awards, which means I should probably start reading some 2014 books (so far, I've not really read anything worth nominating, but I'm hoping to change that in the next few months). Any recommendations are welcome!

This basically concludes the 2014 Hugo Awards posting. I will probably write up a quick review of the second Wheel of Time book at some point (I liked it better than the first book, but it's still a bit of a repetitive, bloated, repetitive mess), but otherwise, you should be free of Hugo posts until next year. Stay tuned, lots of other stuff coming, including another patented SLIFR quiz and the quickly approaching Six Weeks of Halloween Horror Movie Marathon...
Posted by Mark on August 20, 2014 at 07:44 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Recent Documentaries
As I get older, I find myself more and more attracted to documentaries. I don't know if this is a function of my own personal proclivities or if it's that more documentaries are being made or that in the age of the internet, they're just more accessible than ever. It's probably some combination of all those factors, but I've found myself ranking at least one, sometimes two, documentaries in my top 10s for just about every year. I don't generally like "activist" documentaries (too much ax grinding to actually be effective), though if you're Errol Morris, I can make an exception (not sure if you'd consider The Unknown Known an "activist" film, but I'll most certainly be checking it out at some point) - The Thin Blue Line buys him a permanent exception. I tend to gravitate towards documentaries about professions or activities, personalities famous or unknown. This year has seen a bunch of interesting ones, all lining up in the past couple months (for me, at least). So here are four documentaries that I found worthwhile:
  • Jodorowsky's Dune - I watch a lot of weird movies, so when I say that Alejandro Jodorowsky's movie El Topo is, without a doubt, the oddest, most disturbing movie I've ever seen, that's saying a lot. You could make a similar argument for his follow up, The Holy Mountain, but once you've seen El Topo, you kinda know what you're in for. After those two cult oddities, Jodorowsky was somehow tapped to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert's novel Dune. This documentary tells the tale of that failed but profoundly influential production.
    Dune Concept Art
    It's an interesting topic for in-depth exploration (indeed, I was writing about this on the blog way back in 2001), and director Frank Pavich clearly forged all the necessary connections to garner access to all of the copious amounts of pre-production materials, as well as interviews with key collaborators, including Jodorowsky himself. The movie covers Jodorowsky's early career and how he came to be involved with Dune, then chronicles all of his recruitment efforts and pre-productiion work. The movie bogs down a bit and gets a little repetitive when you hit the recruitment phase, as it's a similar structure of Jodorowsky meeting with this or that famous artist and convincing him or her to take a chance on his kooky little movie.
    H.R. Giger Concept Art
    That being said, the sheer amount of talent that Jodorowsky managed to pull was staggering. Salvador Dali and Orson Welles were cast in key roles. Pink Floyd was going to do the score. Dan O'Bannon was going to do special effects. Chris Foss, H.R. Giger, and Jean 'Moebius' Giraud provided countless sketches, storyboards, and concept art. After the project fell apart, many of the collaborators hooked up in other projects, most notably O'Bannon, Foss, and Giger for Alien and Foss on Star Wars, amongst many other productions. So while Jodorowsky's Dune was never made, the shadow of its influence spreads far.

    The only point of hesitation I have about the documentary is that there are no counterpoints. Everyone points to the collaborators or its influence as evidence that it would have been great, but when I hear Jodorowsky talking about the book and what he wanted for the movie, then look at his earlier work, I hesitate to say whether this thing would be any good. Indeed, while I respect Jodorowsky's work, I find it hard to believe that it's as beloved as portrayed in this movie. Indeed, the movie plays it a little coy when it comes to the reasons why the project fell through (In short, few were willing to finance something like this, and I wonder how much of that was Jodorowsky's reputation versus how ambitious or audatious this specific project was). It's a little one sided in its praise and it would have been interesting to see someone counter all the hyperbole that was being laid on pretty thick by the folks interviewed. That being said, this was a fascinating documentary and well worth checking out.
  • Milius - An interesting look at the famous 70s era USC filmmakers from the unusual perspective of John Milius. A boisterous, larger than life figure, Milius was an outlier in Hollywood. A strident conservative and gun nut who nevertheless managed to get along with (and collaborate with) kooky leftists like Spielberg and Coppola, and he was among the more prolific writers out there in the 70s and early 80s. Lots of entertaining anecdotes about his wacky antics (bringing a gun to a pitch meeting, etc...) His output seemed to decline after Red Dawn, as his right wing ways started to catch up with him. The documentary also covers his somewhat recent stroke and his struggle to regain the power of speech (which must be devastating to a writer). This was a well done, entertaining effort, worth popping in your Netflix Instant queue, even if it won't change your life or anything.
  • Tim's Vermeer - Utterly fascinating account of one man's attempt to recreate Johannes Vermeer's distinctive, photo-realistic method of painting. Directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame, the guy who doesn't talk), this film is mostly portraying inventor Tim Jenison as he attempts to suss out how Vermeer accomplished his paintings with the use of various optics and mirrors, then his painstaking attempt to recreate one painting by hand (the overall process took years, the painting itself took months). I will leave it at that for now, but this is exactly the sort of thing that I look for in a documentary, and will almost certainly be making an appearance on my top 10 of 2014. I may be a bit unusual in this respect, but I still say this is worth seeking out...
  • Life Itself - This documentary covers the life of Roger Ebert, and so you know that film nerds like myself would be all over it, and it is indeed a very popular film. Directed by Steve James (whose Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert back when Documentaries were not as popular as they are now) has made a clear eyed look at Ebert's life and times, chronicling his successes and his failures, his friendships and feuds, always in a respectful manner. Lots of great anecdotes and stories, including many that I had never heard before, and his relationship with Siskel is particularly interesting. It gets a little more difficult once Ebert's various health issues start compounding (as it should), but if you're at all interested in film criticism or Ebert in particular, this is definitely a film to seek out.
And that's all for now. Hugo awards are being announced late tonight, so stay tuned for reactions and whatnot...
Posted by Mark on August 17, 2014 at 07:11 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is the second Marvel Universe movie of the year, and since this occasions a referendum on the series as a whole, I think I've finally bought completely into this whole Marvel Universe thing. To be sure, I've always enjoyed the movies, but in looking back at the blog, I found that I was almost never particularly excited about any of them. At best, there were a few appearances on the Honorable Mention portion of my annual Top 10 lists and honestly, there are only two comic book movies that actually appeared on a top 10 since 2006 and neither were Marvel movies (one was The Dark Knight, the other was Kick-Ass). It wasn't until Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the cumulative effect of repeated rewatchings of The Avengers that I started to get really excited about the series. Indeed, I think part of the appeal of these Marvel movies is their uncanny rewatchability. Even the worst of the films (Iron Man 2) benefits greatly upon repeated viewings, and as the series of Marvel movies goes on, the interconnected pieces start to underline and reinforce one another without burdening any individual movie (with the possible exception of Iron Man 2, which certainly suffers under the weight of Avengers setup).

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel proves that it is firing on all cylinders. It's not a perfect movie, but it does exactly what it needs to do, and the fact that Marvel has been able to make a movie this weird, yet still court mainstream awareness and success. As I mentioned last week, this was one my most anticipated movies of the year for two primary reasons: One, I knew almost nothing about it. This sets it apart from most other comic book movies, which I'm usually familiar with in one way or another and thus come with varying degrees of baggage. Not so for Guardians. Second, the talent involved is intriguing. James Gunn is a really odd choice, but then, this is a really odd movie. Part of that is Gunn's goofy sensibility coming through, but the fact that Marvel was able to recognize and court that sort of talent is admirable.

The acting talent was also interesting. Like the rest of the Marvel movies, they got some recognizable people, but not A-list stars, but this group works very well together. They have great chemistry, but also work really well together. Chris Pratt's Peter Quill/Starlord has a sorta naive Luke Skywalker component mixed with cocksure Han Solo charisma. Zoe Saldana imbues Gamora with a sense of gravitas that works well, yet is not so serious as to be devoid of levity (her line about "pelvic sorcery" is a standout that will surely enter the geek lexicon, if it hasn't already). Bradley Cooper provides a surprisingly effective voice acting performance for Rocket (I mean, he's not at Scarlett Johansson in Her levels awesome, but he is very good), and the CGI racoon he's playing works way better than I think anyone could have hoped for. Vin Diesel has perhaps the least to do, but Groot is the most likable character of the bunch and heck, Diesel has done this thing pretty well before. Finally, while Dave Bautista may have made a name for himself as a professional wrestler, he frankly steals the show on several occasions as Drax, displaying excellent comedic timing in addition to the more expected physical presence.
The Guardians
The story centers around a typical Marvel MacGuffin, which I admit is getting a bit tiresome. Then again, they are finally starting to talk about these things as Infinity Stones, which I'm guessing will become important in Avengers 3. Anyway, Peter Quill/Starlord finds the MacGuffin, but it turns out that evil warlord Ronan wants to use it to destroy planets. Ronan sends Gamora to retrieve the stone from Starlord, but she has motivations of her own. Rocket and Groot are bounty hunters who get caught up in Gamora and Starlord's fight. They meet up with Drax, who wants to avenge his family's death at the hands of Ronan.

Ronan is fine as a villain, by never really transcends being a generic bad guy. Thanos makes another appearance here, and I feel like the movie wastes his involvement. We are constantly told how powerful he is, but we never see him do anything. We've got plenty of time for that before Thanos hits in Avengers 3, but still, it would be nice to get more here. In any case, while Ronan isn't a hugely inspiring villain, he represents enough of a threat and the stakes are high enough that the movie doesn't really suffer.

The real fun of the movie, though, is watching the Guardians come together. Indeed, I think this is a strength of all the Marvel movies. The best bits are the little interpersonal touches, like the Schwarma bit after The Avengers, Bruce Banner nodding off as Tony Stark bores him at the end of Iron Man 3, or Black Widow haranguing Captain America about his love life in Cap 2. And this movie is full of characters coming together and connecting like that. It's just fun, and that's what makes this movie work.

From a visual perspective, Gunn knows what he's doing and manages the large scale battle sequences and CGI extravaganza well (certainly better than the Star Wars prequels), even if some of it is unnecessary. Some of the close-up hand-to-hand combat can be a bit difficult to follow, but it never approaches the worst of the aughts (when a lot of action was simply incomprehensible) and some of it is actually fantastic. For the most part, it's a very visually pleasing movie. The soundtrack, comprised of lots of popular 70s hits, works extremely well. It actually functions as part of the story, since they all come from a mix tape that was given to Starlord by his dying mother on Earth (and it's his only real connection to his former home). The actual choices are an intriguing mix. And "mix" is the perfect name for it, as it is genuinely diverse in terms of what is included. This isn't a Forrest Gump nostalgia-fest, it's an eclectic mix of fun little songs that matches the tone of the movie perfectly.

So what we're left with is an intensely fun adventure movie, taking on some of the best aspects of Star Wars and space opera in general, mixing that with some grand Spielbergian adventure, all with a unique and decidedly goofy perspective that works really well. Marvel seems to have taken some huge risks with this movie, and they are indeed paying off big time. I cannot wait to watch this again, and this one is almost certainly in my top 3 Marvel movies. Plus, we've got a sequel coming, not to mention Avengers 3. This is all very exciting, and I'm greatly looking forward to Marvel's next phase (though I have to admit that I'm very disappointed that Edgar Wright has left Ant-Man - then again, I'm hoping that since they were already so far along, much of Wright's perspective will remain intact...)
Posted by Mark on August 10, 2014 at 07:54 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Link Dump
It's been a while since my chain-smoking monkey research squad's research efforts on ye olde internets was posted, so enjoy some interesting links: And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on August 06, 2014 at 09:00 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Fall Movie Preview
As I transition off the Hugo Awards, I figure I'll return the other hobby horse of this blog: movies. I've actually been keeping up with new releases and will probably do some recapping in the near future, but for now, let's look ahead at some movies I'm excited for as we enter the fall movie season:
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (August) - A cheat, as I'll be going to see this tonight, but I will include it because it was, by far, my most anticipated summer movie. Why, you ask? Because I've really come to enjoy the Marvel universe movies, but this particular property is something that I'm almost completely oblivious to - I know nothing about it, and that excites me. It won't be a rehash of an origin story I've seen 10 times already (i.e. Batman, Spider Man, Superman, and all the other big super heroes) and it honestly sounds kinda bonkers (in a good way). I'm not expecting hard SF, but something along the lines of the original Star Wars (though I'm obviously trying to keep expectations in check, that's the sort of adventure film I'm expecting out of this). Add in the genuinely intriguing talent behind the movie (James Gunn directing and co-writing), not to mention the onscreen talent (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and a CGI Racoon, etc...), and I'm totally game.
  • The Green Inferno (September) - Probably the least exciting entry on this list, I've got mixed feelings about Eli Roth. On the one hand, I appreciate a lot of things about his movies, and he does tend to make them into fun affairs (if sometimes overly gory, and I'm not a squeamish kinda guy). And honestly, this looks to be a pretty brutal movie that I'm not entirely sure I'll be into... but that is often more interesting than typical mainstream fair, so I guess we'll have to wait and find out.
  • Gone Girl (October) - It's been a few years since David Fincher's disappointing Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, but he's a director I'm always on the look out for, as even his failures tend to be interesting in some way. In this case, I know little of the story, just that it's a sorta crime thriller thing, which Fincher has proven to be pretty good at...
  • Interstellar (November) - I'm deliberately trying to stay away from details on this one, as all I need to know is the talent behind it (Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and so on...) and the general premise (humanity expanding into the stars) to know I want to see it. I have some real hesitations, as filmic depictions of hard science fiction are few and far between, and often suffer in comparison to their literary counterparts, but Nolan has proven that he can pull of the internal consistency, sense of wonder, and conceptual breakthrough that is required in great science fiction. So basically, sign me up.
  • Inherent Vice (December) - This is a film that's already been pushed back once, so I'm not positive if it will actually be released this year, but it is a film I am very much looking forward to. Of course, most film nerds will look forward to anything that director Paul Thomas Anderson sets his sights on, but this one hold special promise for me because of the source material. I think Anderson is a fantastic director with a profound visual talent and ambitious attitude, but I've found has last few efforts to be disappointing. To be sure, I'm in the minority on that, but I feel like he's been hewing towards the obtuse a little too much. I think you could probably say something similar about the author of the book this movie will be based on, Thomas Pynchon. The man is an unparalleled prose stylist and this will carry his novels far, but with Inherent Vice, Pynchon did something amazing: he included a plot. And not a lame or tacked on plot, a real, honest to goodness private eye story with a somewhat unique setting. So Pynchon was slumming it, and it was absolutely fantastic, and now we have Paul Thomas Anderson picking up that source material. That's got winner written all over it.
  • Honorable Mentions: Kingsman: The Secret Service, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Drop, The Interview, BirdmanBig Hero 6, Fury, Foxcatcher, V/H/S: Viral, and maybe even Dumb and Dumber To...
So there you have it. I'm sure there will be about a dozen or two additional movies that I'll get excited about as prestige movie season approaches, but I'm sure the above will keep me pretty busy...
Posted by Mark on August 03, 2014 at 08:33 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hugo Awards: Miscellaneous Thoughts
Just a few thoughts that I've not crammed into the multitude of other Hugo Award posts I've been making of late.
  • For the uninitiated, when you become a member of a given year's Worldcon, you get access to the Hugo Voter's Packet, which contains the grand majority of the nominated works. However, it's an entirely voluntary thing, and the decision generally resides with the publisher, not the author. Indeed, the voter's packet (in its current form, at least), is a relatively recent thing (about 10 years old?) and was not even an official part of the process for the first few years. The reason I bring all this up is that there are a lot of people who seem to be dinging a given work on their ballot simply because it was not included in the packet. This is especially prevalent in the novel category, where three of the 5 nominees only included an extended excerpt in the packet. These included my top two picks, Neptune's Brood and Ancillary Justice, so I hope not too many people are doing that. Interestingly, the two most hated works also seem to have the most generous publishers: Baen included all three books in the Grimnoir Chronicles (of which only the third was actually nominated), and Tor included the entire Wheel of Time (that's 14 books, 11,000+ pages, and 4.4+ million words, mighty generous of them). I even saw one person ding Six Gun Snow White because the packet only included it in PDF format (Which, yeah, is annoying, but really? You're going to hold that against the work?) For my part, while I definitely took advantage of the packet, I also tried not to base my decisions on what was or was not in the packet. I will admit that some of the more obscure categories were more difficult to track down and probably did play into my eventual rankings, but I wasn't consciously trying to punish the artists because of the way the voter's packet works.
  • I only ended up deploying the No Award option (and the associated action of leaving a work off the ballot) twice, in both cases because of general philosophical disagreements (one because I don't think you should be able to nominate 14 books as one work, and the other because it wasn't Science Fiction or Fantasy, and thus should not be in the discussion for a SF/F award). If I'm reading the rest of the internet right, I'm not nearly vindictive enough, as most folks seem to deploy No Award at the drop of the hat, often just because a story had the impertinence to be part of a sub-genre they don't like. I get the reason for the award, but I feel like it's being used way too often.
  • I've read a lot of things I wouldn't normally read. I have obviously found value in that, but the end result will change little of my overall reading pattern. Of all the stories I've read, the only definite thing I'm going to follow up on is to read more Ted Chiang. I will also probably be more open to Charles Stross than I have in the past (still, I've had spotty luck with Stross).
  • Things I'm disappointed didn't get nominated:
And I think that just about covers it. In a few weeks, I'll cover the winners, otherwise, we'll be returning to the Kaedrin of old. I'm sure you're all super excited. Try to contain yourself.
Posted by Mark on July 30, 2014 at 09:20 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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