|Monday, June 17, 2013 12:18 PM|
|On the Viewer - Man of Steel|
| by FŽanor|
My brother and I celebrated Father's Day yesterday by ditching our families and going to see a movie! Because there's nothing a father wants more on his special day than to have his children leave him the hell alone for a couple of hours for God's sake. But I kid!
As it turns out, we picked a very appropriate movie to go watch on Father's Day: the latest reboot of the Superman story, Man of Steel. One of its major themes is the bond between fathers and sons.
At this point Superman movies fulfill the same role that a play in Ancient Greece did. Everybody in the audience knows the story and how it plays out. There are no real surprises. We just want to see that same story acted out again with skill and power, providing the right amount of comedy, tragedy, and catharsis. To that end, Man of Steel starts as every Superman story does: on the planet Krypton, with a frustrated Jor-El (Russell Crowe) trying in vain to convince the rulers of his people that the planet is doomed, while he and his wife Lara (Ayelet Zurer) secretly prepare to launch their son, Kal-El, toward a distant planet where they know he will be not only safe, but as powerful as a God. Man of Steel spends a little more time on the Krypton portion of the story than usual (and a little more time than I was really comfortable with), revealing that the planet's children have been genetically engineered for centuries, and that Kal-El was, in an act of rebellion, born naturally, outside of this system. (Perhaps this religious adherence to eugenics explains why everybody on Krypton is whiter than white bread.) There's also a lot of nonsense with robots and lasers and flying lizards and a beaten up old skull which will end up making a little more sense later on in the movie - but not a lot more sense. Frankly, I could have done without a lot of this, and I kind of prefer the super-fast, super-short origin we saw in the Christopher Reeves movie (thanks, Marlon Brando, you weirdo, for refusing to be on screen for more than a few minutes!), and in Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman (see here). I found the Krypton sequence boring, melodramatic, and overdone (although admittedly the moment where the desperate parents have to say good-bye to the son they barely know to save him is pretty moving). But it does perform the important function of introducing us to the McGuffin that will drive the story (that beaten up old skull, which is called the Codex) and the villain of the piece, who will again be familiar to Superman fans: General Zod (Michael Shannon). Zod has a trusty lieutenant named Faora-Ul (Antje Traue) and a holy mission to protect the people of Krypton. He and Jor-El agree that the leaders of Krypton are fools, but disagree a bit on what to do about it; Zod decides to crash in with guns blazing, which ultimately gets him thrown in a prison called the Phantom Zone, a punishment that, ironically, ends up protecting him and his fellow rebels from the fate that awaits nearly every other Kryptonian: death by apocalyptic planetary explosion. The movie does a rather poor job of explaining why no other Kryptonians make even a half-hearted attempt to escape the destruction of their world. I mean, I get that a lot of them were blind to the calamity that was coming, but surely Jor-El and Lara weren't the only ones aware that the planet was about to blow up, and clearly the Kryptonians have the technical ability to fly through space. Maybe they should have left Zod and his buddies on the planet and all gotten into the Phantom Zone themselves? Just an idea.
Anyway, at this point the movie mercifully leaves Krypton behind and jumps across time and space to Earth some 33 years in the future (does that number sound familiar? More on that later). We meet a now fully grown (and fully bearded!) Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and learn that although he is aware of his incredible powers, he has kept them hidden, only using them in emergencies, and quickly vanishing afterwards, so that his true nature and identity are hidden. He is a wanderer, helping where he can (and occasionally taking extravagant vengeance on jerks who mess with him), but never staying anywhere long. We learn in a series of (incredibly moving and well done) flashbacks that this is in accordance with the wishes of his now dead adoptive father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), who believed that humanity was not ready to know that a super-powered alien was living among them. But he also believed his son was capable of great things, and when the time came, he would change the world.
Clark Kent's wandering eventually causes him to cross paths with intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who's investigating a mysterious discovery at the North Pole. This discovery holds the key to Clark's origin, and will trigger the arrival of Zod, who will force Clark to reveal himself to the world, and to choose between the planet of his birth, and the planet he grew up on.
Like its namesake, Man of Steel has strengths and weaknesses. It's at its strongest when it focuses on the character of Clark Kent/Kal-El. The scenes dealing with his troubled past, with him growing up as an outsider and a freak, learning to control his powers and to be a good man with the help of his mother (Diane Lane) and his father - these are fantastic, incredibly moving, and absolutely pitch perfect. Lane, Costner, and Cavill are tremendous in these roles, not to mention the kids they got to play the young Clark (Cooper Timberline and Dylan Sprayberry), who look so much like tiny Cavills it's incredible. Adams' is as brave, tenacious, and stubborn a Lois as we could hope for, and although Crowe is occasionally ponderous and stuffy, he still manages to show us a bit of Jor-El's "humanity" (such as it is) and his fatherly wisdom. Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Richard Schiff acquit themselves well in ancillary roles (although I kept waiting to hear the bum-bum Law & Order sound effect whenever Meloni came on screen), but this is rightly Cavill's movie. Director Zak Snyder and crackerjack writing team David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan make the very interesting, non-standard choice to wait until the very end of the story for Kal-El to embrace his identity as Clark Kent, reporter. And I can't even tell you how much I love that scene, and Lois' line, "Welcome to The Planet." It reminds me a bit of the way Iron Man ends, with Tony only then coming into his own and embracing his new identity. In a way, Kal becomes Superman first and Clark Kent second, which rather neatly underlines which of those identities is the true one, and which the mask he wears.
The movie is not at all subtle about making the now de rigueur comparison between Superman and Christ. If the imagery, a simple plot summary, and that 33 years thing weren't enough, Snyder even goes so far as to have Clark talk about sacrificing himself for all humanity... with a priest... in a church... while there is literally, in the same shot, a stained-glass window depicting Christ over his shoulder. I'm not going to complain too much, as I rather like the allusion - it gives more strength and power to Superman's legend - but being hit on the head with a hammer can be a bit painful.
The action scenes, though sometimes a bit overwhelming, are extremely impressive. Technology has improved a bit since the last time we saw Kal-El and Zod clash on the big screen, and it shows. Their battle takes place on a global scale, and the amount of devastation that Metropolis experiences is breathtaking. (The people of Metropolis give the people of Krypton a run for their money in terms of poor judgement, however, hanging around in their hundreds on the streets and in the buildings well after it should have been obvious it was time to get the hell out.) I also really enjoyed the Kryptonian technology Jor-El's "ghost" uses to tell his son the story of his people; it's not only a neat effect, it's a beautiful piece of design.
Where the movie is weakest is in pretty much any scene on Krypton or any scene involving Zod. I like Shannon in the role, but the character makes little sense. He is not written as if he were a person, but rather as if he were a Villain and a Plot Device. He is there to make Superman become Superman, to test him and his limits, and that's it. An attempt is made, rather late in the movie, to give him an understandable motivation - his overwhelming desire to protect the people of Krypton, no matter what the cost - but it doesn't really explain a lot of his actions. If he really wanted Kal-El to trust and help him, why immediately treat him like a criminal and an enemy? Why insert into his head a vision of himself being drowned by the skulls of everyone he's ever known and loved? He could have, I don't know, lied to him just a little about what he was planning to do? I'm not sure anybody's ever gone about trying to convince somebody to help them in a more wrong-headed fashion. And then at the end, (spoiler alert) he practically forces Superman to kill him, and it feels more like a test for Kal-El as a character than something Zod would actually do if he were really trying to achieve his ends.
I like the idea of Kal having to choose between his birth home and his adopted home, but the way the movie's written, this doesn't end up being a hard choice for him at all. Everyone he's ever known or loved is on Earth. He knows almost nothing about Krypton, and every Kryptonian he meets tries to kill him. It's kind of a no-brainer.
I enjoyed spotting a couple of neat references to the DC Universe in the background of the movie. A satellite that gets wrecked during an action sequence belongs to Wayne Enterprises, and a number of vehicles have the Lex Corp logo on them. Actually, as my brother was pointing out after we'd finished watching Man of Steel, it seemed odd that Lex himself didn't make an appearance in this movie. One of its major themes, and the main argument Clark has with his father, is the question of whether humanity is ready for Superman or not - if they will accept him or reject him. And Lex Luthor is pretty much the embodiment of humanity rejecting Superman. Ah, well. Maybe he'll show up in Man of Steel 2.
Speaking of which, I'm looking forward to the sequel. Despite its missteps, I really enjoyed Man of Steel. I laughed, I cried, I believed a man could fly. I'm ready for another story about this Superman. Especially now that Krypton's good and blown up and we don't have to worry about it anymore.
|Friday, June 14, 2013 12:46 PM|
|Meta Tweet Blog|
| by FŽanor|
I noticed that my tweets weren't loading on the blog anymore and finally looked into it. Turns out I was using a deprecated Twitter widget! How embarrassing! I've updated the blog to use the latest version, and now my tweets are showing up here again. Please enjoy! Thank you.
|Friday, June 14, 2013 12:16 PM|
|(Last updated on Friday, June 14, 2013 01:38 PM)|
|Book Report - The Fire Chronicle (The Books of Beginning, #2)|
| by FŽanor|
I was surprised to start this book and find the kids back in the orphanage. I was always kind of confused and annoyed when Harry Potter returned to the awful Dursleys during the summers, too. As in those books, I suppose the idea here was that the old wizard thought they'd be safer there for some reason, although in this case Dr. Pym is deeply mistaken, and the kids have barely been reintroduced to us when they're attacked and split up yet again. Stephens seems to delight in pointing out to us how desperately the kids need each other and how much they don't want to be split apart, and then splitting them apart anyway. I don't think all three of them are together for more than a couple of pages in this entire book, and occasionally he even puts each on his/her own, and all of them in terrible peril. It's rough! But this book does get us much closer to understanding what the kids' destiny is and who the Dire Magnus is and where their parents are and what all this is about. It's a very exciting book and I read it in a rush, sometimes having to stop myself from skipping ahead to see what happened next. I liked in particular the scenes between Kate and Rafe, and the implications their relationship has for the future, and the scene between Michael and the ghostly messenger, and how that quote from King Killin becomes so important and shifts in meaning as the book goes on. Unfortunately I read The Fire Chronicle too quickly, as now I have to wait for the next book to be published. Ah, well. Gives me something to look forward to.
|Wednesday, June 5, 2013 02:23 PM|
| by FŽanor|
"...but of all the creatures in these pages, this one is arguably the most dangerous. It has an almost human aspect, though it is smaller than a person, more unevenly proportioned, and of extreme attractiveness. But a wary man shall not let this confound his senses. For this creature is not capable of experiencing shame or empathy, and has no conscience of any kind. It will ingratiate itself to you with its sweetness and loveliness, but will then do whatever is necessary to get what it wants - and what it wants is to consume you. Its voice, though often as sweet as its looks, can be raised up in an unholy screech that is hideous and painful to hear. It is extremely manipulative, and will lie and cheat and steal and bite and punch and backstab without pity or remorse. It will promise you anything, agree to any rules or commandments you set, and then break all agreements as if they were never spoken. It will demand you give up all other company but itself, wheedle out of you all you treasure and hold dear - your money, your property - even unto your very soul, until you have nothing left and are nought but a hollow man, wasted, sleepless, shattered, empty..."
†††††-Doctor Astrodus, A Compendium of the Most Monstrous Beasts of Heaven, Hell, and Earth and Descriptions of The Habits and Aspects Thereof, Chapter 245: The Toddler
|Saturday, June 1, 2013 01:30 PM|
|(Last updated on Saturday, June 1, 2013 02:16 PM)|
|A Trip to Jiffy Lube|
| by FŽanor|
I took the car to Jiffy Lube today for the "Signature Service" (which is an oil change, plus whatever else they can talk me into, which is usually one or two relatively expensive extras). Brought the kid with me. He was good.
I should mention the only maintenance I have ever personally performed on my vehicle is that once or twice I've helped to replace a flat tire with a donut, and a few times when I was out of state I personally poured gas into the tank. If there is ever some apocalyptic scenario wherein all the mechanics are killed and I somehow survive, the car will be a wreck in no time.
So I felt my manhood shrivel up and cower inside me in the Jiffy Lube waiting room as two muscular contractors talked about all the giant stuff they've built and how they only take their big old trucks to Jiffy Lube for oil changes (more cost effective) and do the rest of the maintenance themselves. By the end of the visit they had exchanged names and business cards. Meanwhile, the lady at the register was wishing all the male customers a Happy Father's Day. Which seemed weird to me, as first of all, it is not Father's Day yet, and secondly, I was the only one there with a kid, and what the hell, maybe he wasn't even mine, you don't know!
Anyway. That's my story. Bye.
|Friday, May 24, 2013 12:26 PM|
| by FŽanor|
I've been tinkering with an update to the back-end of this here blog for ages and I've finally implemented it today. You shouldn't see any differences on your end, except maybe things might run a bit faster (I hope). All I've done is try to be smarter about how I organize posts and retrieve them from the database (mostly to keep my host off my back about how badly I'm treating their database server). As always, let me know if you have any issues or notice any errors. Thanks!
|Thursday, May 23, 2013 01:39 PM|
|(Last updated on Friday, May 24, 2013 09:41 AM)|
|Book Report - The Emerald Atlas (The Books of Beginning, #1)|
| by FŽanor|
This is another book I listened to purely because Jim Dale was the reader, with no idea what it was about, and it turned out to be well worth it. The prologue is totally standard fantasy novel stuff, with children of destiny and a mysterious evil and monsters and a car chase, and I was thinking this was going to be a lame Harry Potter knock-off. But I stuck with it and it got much, much better. The main characters are three orphans named Kate, Emma, and Michael. When we meet them, their lives have consisted of a succession of orphanages, each one worse than the last, and they've had only the hope that one day their parents will return to sustain them. Everything changes when they're moved to what seems like the last and worst orphanage of all, and discover there, in a hidden chamber, an extremely important magic book.
The three children are great characters, fully human, and completely likable. Some of the other characters in the story could charitably be called archetypes, and uncharitably be called cliches, but I liked them anyway. Two of my favorite characters in the book, whom I thought for sure were going to have a large part in the story, but disappear soon after they're introduced and never return, are the Lovestocks. It's probably entirely due to them that I continued reading the book past the prologue. I hope they pop up in the later books again somehow.
The Emerald Atlas definitely travels down some well-worn paths, but it does so in a thrilling and moving manner. The strong theme at the center of it is family, so if you have one of those, I think it will bring a tear to your eye. I'm looking forward to the second book in the trilogy, and I'm hoping the third will be published by the time I'm done that one!
|Wednesday, May 22, 2013 01:25 PM|
|Book Report - Mockingjay|
| by FŽanor|
I've finished The Hunger Games trilogy, and I think it's really great.
(I'm going to try to avoid any really big spoilers, but if you want to remain completely ignorant of what happens in these books, I'd say stop now and come back after you've read them.)
I was again interested to see how this third book would still be about the Hunger Games, as clearly another one couldn't be held now that the whole system had fallen part, but Katniss does indeed find herself pulled into another kind of Hunger Games when she's in the streets of the Capitol, moving from pod to pod, trying to stay alive. And really, in a way, her entire life from the first page of the first book, right up until the end of this one, has been a kind of Hunger Games - a terrible competition for survival, with nearly every moment of it filmed and watched and scrutinized, nearly every moment of it planned and performed. The characters play a game in this book called "Real or Not Real?" and I feel like it really gets at the heart of one of the trilogy's central themes: that living under constant surveillance is its own kind of oppressive torture. It can put you in a place where you feel you have to pretend to be someone else all the time, to the point where you no longer know who you really are inside anymore; you don't even know what's real and what's artifice; who you love and who you don't. This is where Katniss finds herself, and it takes her a long time to finally dig her way down to what's real and important.
I saw in the second book how important Katniss' choice between Peeta and Gale was, but it wasn't until the end of this book that I realized why it was so important, and what it meant. This choice ends up symbolizing the different paths to take in the face of tyranny and brutality. Do you turn it back on itself, fight violence with violence, turn hate into hate? Do you use your oppressor's playbook against him, designing traps as cruel as his own to defeat him? Fight an inhuman enemy with its own inhumanity? That's Gale's solution. Gale is all rage and vengeance. But there's another way: to face inhumanity and cruelty with dignity and refuse to lose your own humanity. To keep yourself, to not become a pawn in someone else's game. To believe in the possibility of redemption and forgiveness. That's Peeta's solution.
The vote at the end - choosing whether or not to condemn another generation to the Hunger Games - is an extremely important moment. Once you've lived through that, do you put your tormentors back into it, and let it continue? Or do you destroy it? Do you end the cycle? Katniss realizes then that President Coin is just going to take Snow's place, and continue the cycle, and it will just go on and on. Unless someone stands up and says enough.
The final sequence of this book is traumatic and brutal, but it also feels true and right and incredibly moving. Mockingjay pulls all the themes of the trilogy together, puts everything in focus, and brings the series to a satisfying conclusion. Collins says she was inspired to write these books while flipping back and forth between a reality competition show and coverage of the Iraq War on TV, and it's not hard to see the connection. It's a great series of books, and what it has to say about people and how awful and wonderful we can be really resonates.
|Wednesday, May 15, 2013 09:56 AM|
|On the Viewer - Iron Man 3|
| by FŽanor|
Hey, poppy and I saw this movie! It's good.
One thing I like about these Marvel movies: things don't just happen, and then they're resolved and that's that. Tony and Pepper are a couple now, but that doesn't mean that everything is fine with them and it's happily ever after. They have the same problems any couple has, only one of them is the CEO of a multinational technology company, and the other is a super-genius superhero with post-traumatic stress disorder, so their problems are magnified considerably. And that's another thing: the events of The Avengers are not just glossed over. What Tony did there - how he almost died, how he killed hundreds of living things - has had a lasting impact on him and the people around him. He is not okay. He is still dealing with what happened. Like a real human being would.
The way he deals with these issues is the way he has always dealt with all his issues: he tinkers. He builds. No one knows how much. He's up to Mark XLII of his suit now, and this one comes in pieces that fly onto his body automatically when he calls them with a simple movement of his arms. Of course, it doesn't work perfectly. This is another thing I like about Tony: he is not perfect. He's arrogant, and kind of a jerk, and when he tries to be really cool, he often fails and trips over himself and his cool new gadget punches him in the crotch.
The movie opens with a glimpse into Tony's shameful past, when he was even more of a jerk. There's a one night stand with a brilliant scientist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) who's developed an amazing piece of biological technology called Extremis. And Tony unwisely and cruelly brushes off another very smart person: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), who's just started a new company that he calls A.I.M. (a name that will mean a lot to fans of Marvel comics). Jumping forward in time, we find that Killian has done very well for himself. He's now handsome and strong and successful, and he's taken over development of Hansen's Extremis. Again he tries to connect up with Tony's company, this time through Pepper, who's a little stunned by his new appearance, but is not interested in what he's selling; it sounds too much like a weapon to her. Which, of course, it is.
Meanwhile, a new threat is rising in the world. A mysterious terrorist who calls himself the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). This is another very familiar name to Marvel comics fans, but it's rather a tricky character to handle. The Mandarin, when he was originally created in the comics, was basically an old fashioned, Fu Manchu-type, Yellow Peril villain. Luckily, writer/director Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce come up with a brilliant new twist on the character that makes him not only palatable, but also funny and believable, and gives Ben Kingsley a truly wonderful role to sink his teeth into.
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Pepper gets to suit up and do some pretty amazing things in this movie, and that it's great. I'm only disappointed it didn't last longer and she didn't get to do more. Also, the movie passes the Bechdel test, which is exciting to see in a superhero movie.
One of my favorite sequences in the movie is when Tony finds himself alone in a small town and ends up teaming up with a young kid named Harley. If Harley is a character from a comic book, I didn't recognize him. He's a random kid with his own scars and issues and he and Tony lean on each other for a bit. I like very much that when Tony is in the middle of another PTSD attack, Harley gets him out of it by reminding him that he is a mechanic and he should just build something. That puts him back together, gives him something to hold onto.
Sometimes the movie's plot doesn't hold together as well as I'd like. Sometimes things happen that are a little hard to swallow. But the more I think about it, the less this matters to me. Most of it holds together pretty well. And from the beginning of the first Iron Man movie, you've had to accept that Tony is capable of impossibly amazing things when left on his own with almost no resources.
Iron Man 3 is another good superhero movie from the Marvel people because it is not just about action set pieces and things blowing up and super people punching each other (although it is certainly about those things, too). It is about people being human, and failing, and getting back up, and failing again, but changing, and eventually, slowly, maybe healing a bit and turning into slightly better people. By the end of the movie, Tony is still a scarred, beaten up asshole. But he's a little more aware of his own failings, and a little better than he was before. We know he'll always be a mechanic and a tinkerer, but maybe he won't be quite as obsessive about it now. As he points out, Iron Man is not the suit: Iron Man is him, the man inside. He can step out of it, and still be himself. Still be a hero.
|Friday, May 10, 2013 12:07 PM|
|Book Report - Catching Fire|
| by FŽanor|
I don't have a lot to say about this book that I didn't already say about the first volume of The Hunger Games. It's again very well written, with many fascinating characters, moving passages, and shocking twists and turns. I was struck by how much the book focuses on which of Katniss' two male admirers she will give her heart to. It's a romantic triangle that the fate of the world depends upon. I was wondering what would happen in the next Hunger Games, if perhaps Prim would be called again during the Reaping, or Gale, but I was completely unprepared for what actually did happen. It's interesting how Collins continues to find new depths for the Game to plumb and new details to reveal about it, like the Quarter Quell and the little boy opening the box full of all the yellowing envelopes, each encasing some new, secret torture. The clock structure of the Games is quite brilliant, and some of the perils in there are wonderfully horrific, especially the Jabberjays and their screaming.
(Spoilers ahead.) A few things bug me a little about one scene, which at the time I found really intriguing, in which Plutarch Heavensbee shows his unique watch to Katniss. Why does she never even guess what the Mockingjay symbol there might mean, when it was obvious to me almost immediately? Collins is careful to point out that in the Capitol the symbol means something else, but still. And then there's the question of why Heavensbee does this. At this point he supposedly has no idea Katniss will return to the Games, so why would he feel the need to risk so much to give her a hint about its structure? How can either of them gain anything from this? Of course, if in the third book it's revealed that Heavensbee did know Katniss would go back to the Games, that perhaps he deliberately engineered it as part of the larger plan to transform her into a symbol for the rebellion, then I understand. But his explanation makes little sense, and I wonder why Katniss doesn't question it.
But despite these few lingering questions, I really enjoyed the book, and got a huge thrill out of the moment when Katniss stands and fires that last arrow, and then got a stab to the heart when the aftermath of that shot is revealed. I've already made good progress on the third entry in the series, Mockingjay, so I ought to have a review of that one up soon.
Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this
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