Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Okay, I'm not even going to answer the question, Did you like it? Anyone who knows me knows the answer. And this is not going to be a long, detailed review. I'm just going to throw some thoughts out there that came to me during and after seeing the movie.

Due to various things going on, I was afraid I wouldn't get to see it before next weekend, but I managed to get to the early-evening showing last night, thus on its third official day of US release. Although I'm not one for whom spoilers ruin a film experience, I had managed to avoid any real plot details beyond the most general or those known to anyone who read Ed Brubaker's great run almost a decade back now in one of the more recent “reboots” of the Captain America comic book series, the first 25 issues or so of which I have in a wonderful Omnibus edition the centerpiece of which is The Winter Soldier story arc that did the unthinkable – brought Bucky back from the dead. (It’s also available as a series of smaller trade paperback volumes.) So I was as close as possible for a comic book reader – and fan of the earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings – to being a “blank slate.” Of course, the particular showing I attended would be in 3D, and I still agree with my son (who saw the movie the previous evening, but did not tell me anything other than he thought I'd like it – duh!) that 3D does not add much of anything to most movies, in fact seems to dull color and detail. It certainly did not ruin the experience for me, though. And I was anxious to see it, especially after belatedly, Friday night, finally watching the DVR'd episode of Agents of SHIELD from Tuesday, which ended with an “as-if-in-story” sequence directly from the movie, where the Winter Soldier takes on Nick Fury and his wonderful SUV – and had already seen such Internet headlines as, “So What The @#$% Happens to Marvel's AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.? SPOILERS” on Newsarama, although I had not clicked the link [LINK] (I have now, and it has some good ideas), as well as various “leaks” that the rest of the season of that TV show will deal directly with the fallout from The Winter Soldier. And I am very glad I did – because nothing is the same anymore. I will say this, though – for the first time since the TV show debuted, I'm actually looking forward to the next episode. So far I'd been watching the series more out of a sense of duty, and enjoying it all right, but finding it disappointing – and (no less astonishing to me than anyone else, given my initial revulsion last year when it debuted) enjoying the second season of Arrow a lot more. Hopefully, The Winter Soldier is going to give SHIELD's ratings a big boost – although were I Marvel Studios I would have included a this-weekend-only after-scene basically flogging Tuesday night's episode. That is a lost opportunity.

This was a marvelously (pardon the pun, which believe it or not was totally unintentional) complex and textured film, driven largely by character, primarily Steve Rogers as a living relic of an earlier age when the world seemed a lot more black and white stuck in a modern world where issues seem much more complex. Are they really? That’s a question for another time. They definitely do a great job tapping into the current zeitgeist of societal fear centering on the ubiquity of information, how much the government knows about individuals, what it is doing or may do with that information – NSA spying, drone attacks, pre-emptive strikes, how much freedom we are willing to trade for secrecy. It’s what has made Person of Interest so compelling, bounding ever higher in the ratings, writ large and translated to perfection into the world of comic book movies.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Ballad of the White Horse (1911)

By G. K. Chesterton, Methuen Press Illustrated 10th Edition by Robert Austin (1928), Marygrove College Press Annotated Edition by Bernadette Sheridan, IHM (1993), Reprinted Ignatius Press (2011)

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.
(Book 1, Lines 1-4)

The White Horse near Uffington,
historic Berkshire
So begins something I should have read long before now, for many different reasons. As hinted in the rather complex edition history delineated above, it is an Important Work of Literature. It is, indeed, usually regarded as the last great heroic epic poem in English. Although I frankly have always found reading poetry to be tough slogging, there is a certain charm in the narrative poems that are the foundation of so many national literatures – The Iliad and The Odyssey, Beowulf, and so forth. Typically products of a culture's pre-literate “heroic age,” a critical formative period in which the basic ethos of a people is being established, oral cycles of songs and poems – a distinction they did not necessarily make – eventually put into the written forms which come down to us, usually express most purely the fundamental characteristics that subsequent generations looked back to and strove to emulate. Sure, they are inevitably idealizations, but they nonetheless provide critical insight into what the bard and the audience considered of utmost importance. They are valuable historical resources – not to mention generally great stories if you can get into them. They're not called “epic” for nothing!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A Step Farther Out (2011)

By Jerry Pournelle

This is actually a somewhat annotated and updated reissuing of a book I remember reading many, many years ago, but thoroughly enjoyed revisiting. After at least thirty, probably closer to 35 years – it was first published in book form in 1979 according to the copyright page, and it is furthermore an edited compilation of monthly columns Pournelle initially presented in the pages of Galaxy magazine as early as 1974 – I had few specific memories of much of it. My clearest recollections, in fact, are of the section on “Building The Mote in God's Eye,” which novel I remember reading in high school (so, late 1970s), probably the second book by Jerry Pournelle (actually co-written with Larry Niven) (the first had been the novelization of Escape from the Planet of the Apes a few years earlier) that I read and the one that made me a life-long fan of his writings. I actually had the glow-in-the-dark "UFO" reissue of the plastic space-ship model Leif Ericson that Pournelle describes using as a template for designing the I.N.S.S. MacArthur, and I remember holding it and rereading parts of Mote with that visualization in mind.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Veronica Mars (2014)

Directed by Rob Thomas

Veronica Mars is one of my favorite TV series ever. Far too good for the fledgling UPN/CW network when it debuted ten years ago, it survived only three seasons, but in that time it built a small but devoted fan following. By all accounts the cast and crew were as devoted to it as the creator and the fans, which is reflected in the fact that most of them returned for this long-awaited follow-up motion picture which became a phenomenon in itself by breaking several records on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter last year, in rapid succession attaining its first $1-million in the shortest time, surpassing its initial goal of $2-million in a mere ten hours, continuing on to receive the most backers of any Kickstarter campaign ever, to eventually end as the largest single Kickstarter film-project ever with almost $6-million. All without me knowing anything about it until it was over and done with.... I doubtless would have thrown in something. Alas, all I can do now is thank all those who were on the ball and so generous with their support, and enjoy the fruits of their efforts.  And I could do so much sooner than I expected, because Veronica Mars achieved another "first" when Warner Brothers decided to release it simultaneously in theatres and home video.  I actually purchased and downloaded it through iTunes.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 Lenten Mission

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf
This is a bit belated, but I wanted to write something up anyway. Last week, Tuesday-Thursday 11-13 March we had the first, hopefully at least annual, Lenten Mission at the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. As a convert from Protestantism, the easiest way I know to define what a “mission” is in this sense is to call it a “Catholic Revival” – a speaker, often a guest, delivers a series of services on consecutive evenings. This year we were truly blessed to have Father John Zuhlsdorf, often called (for obvious reasons) “Father Z,” a Catholic commentator and blogger, and (in the words of Wikipedia), advocate “for reverent celebration of both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite liturgy of the Mass and the revival of the Sacrament of Penance” [LINK]. I had discovered his blog, at the time known as What Does the Prayer Really Say, now going by simply Father Z's Blog [LINK], a couple of years ago, and have followed it assiduously ever since. I was very excited to hear a few months ago that he was coming here, knowing that we were in for a treat – doubly so since I found out in the context of one of our Latin Schola practices and that Father Z was going to culminate the mission with a full on Solemn High Mass – the first celebrated here in Natchitoches for fifty years. A website I found for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, best defines the three levels of celebration in the Traditional Latin Mass: “First, there is the Low Mass. This is a Mass where the priest says all the prayers without singing and is only assisted by one or two servers. … Second, there is High Mass also known as a Sung Mass (Missa Cantata) where the parts that are said aloud in the Low Mass are sung by the priest and the choir. [This is what we celebrate at the Basilica every Sunday evening at 17:00.] Lastly, there is the Solemn High Mass where the spoken parts are sung and the Celebrant is assisted by two other sacred ministers: the Deacon and the Subdeacon” [LINK; there are other good Q&A links there at left]. I can only hope and pray that I have the opportunity to experience such a beautiful Mass again before I die.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tales of Honor #1 (Image Comics-Top Cow, 2014)

Cover D by Patrick Tatopoulos
It's actually wrap-around.
Beginning a five-issue adaptation of On Basilisk Station, by David Weber.

Especially in this day and age, when comics projects are spoiled months in advance even of the product's solicitation in Previews and are old news by the time they actually see the light of day (the Internet is a wonderful thing … but not in this respect), having something as near to my heart as this is come onto my radar with only a few weeks' warning (see my post of 17 January [LINK]) is virtually inconceivable. Were I among those privileged to attend larger conventions, or even a more assiduous reader of the Weber'verse fora, doubtless I would have known longer, but as far as I can tell those not within those circles knew little or nothing about the entire multimedia enterprise overseen by Evergreen Studios to bring the tales of Honor Harrington to the wider world through comics, gaming, and film until the appearance of the January Previews and more specifically the issuance of the press release of 14 January [LINK]. My own post linked above describes my immediate enthusiasm for the prospect. Now, after an amazingly short period of anticipation, the first issue is here. How well does it hold up? Does it meet my expectations?

The answers to those questions are, in short, Very well, and Yes, for the most part. Here's a short discussion of the issue, which I would definitely recommend to anyone looking for an introduction to the Honorverse in particular or to a well-executed fairly “hard” military sci-fi comic – or just a darn fine comic book story – in general. As I write the second part of that – “a well-executed fairly 'hard' military sci-fi comic” – it occurs to me that the Dark Horse Star Wars comics franchise (albeit a bit more in the realm of "sci-fantasy") is about to be a thing of the past, and while I don't read much of it at all I know there are many who do, and perhaps an Image Comics Honorverse franchise could fill a void that I'm skeptical corporate Disney/Marvel will be able to.

Monday, March 10, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Directed by Noam Murro.

Oh. My. God. – That was awful. I actually kind of like the original 300.  For all its absurdity I think it captures at least something of the spirit of one of the most storied and significant clashes of civilizations ever, that between the Greeks and the Persians, which in some ways inspired the sudden flowering of Classical Greece.*  But it is ridiculously cartoonish. 

This sequel, however, makes the original look like a sober documentary. Here we have much more of a jumbled, inchoate, incomprehensible mess. Part of the problem is, I guess, that the first movie benefited from being about a single incident, the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC). But this goes far beyond that in purporting to tell the stories of Marathon (490 BC), Artimesion, and Salamis (480 BC), cast as a completely unhistorical vendetta story with Artemesia and Xerxes brought to Greece seeking revenge for Themistocles' killing Darius in battle at Marathon. Historian Paul Cartledge has a good online article outlining a mere five gross historical errors [link]. There are many more. Suffice it to say that beyond the broadest of strokes (that those battles happened, and that Themistocles and Artemesia played roles in at least the latter), there is no history whatsoever in this movie, not in the depiction of the events, nor the personalities, not even the overall portrayal of the respective cultures.  None. What. So. Ever. There is nothing recognizable here. And even considering this movie as a movie, not for its “history,” it falls prey to the all-too-common failing of a sequel, which is to take the worst aspects of the first movie and accentuate them to the point of caricature in the second. Here, the cartoonishly overstylized violence becomes even more over-the-top overwhelming, an unrelenting barrage of jerky fast- slow- fast-motion action that filled the screen with blood, guts, and severed limbs and heads. Thank God I didn't go see it in 3D! I'd've left the theatre a gibbering idiot. But that's apparently what the audience here was looking for – they were whooping and hollering with delight – and especially the gratuitously violent and raw sex scene between Themistocles and Artemesia that was itself cartoonishly overstylized and had ... I hesitate to call them "my fellow audience members" and thus lump myself in with them ... the audience in ecstasy.  It was horrific.

While I do periodically pull out the original 300 and watch it, I don't see myself ever subjecting myself to this experience again. The main thing I can say now is, that when I savage it in class I can say I that I did indeed see it.  

Thanks for reading!
* * *
* Although I would not go so far as to call it a "spiritual experience that elevates the soul into the levels of the empyrean".... [link]

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Son of God (2014)

Directed by Christopher Spencer

Anne and I went to the 16:00 showing of Son of God, this year's recut theatrical release of just the Christ story from last year's television miniseries The Bible, overseen by Roma Downey and her husband. A year on down the road from that, I didn't perceive most of the extra footage that was added, although there was quite a bit (and some noticeable excisions). It had the same strengths (a very charismatic Christ and high production values, especially for a "mere" $30 million, although I do have to wonder exactly how that figure was accounted given the considerable production overlap with The Bible) and weaknesses (a superficial script that seemed to miss the point of a lot of the scenes, and mangle many more, as well as the basic chronology) that the miniseries did.  Among the weaknesses I would put the artificial and intrusive multiculturalism that plagued the miniseries (“Black Samson” – sounds like a great super-hero name! – and yes he was shown in one of the cursory scenes at the beginning illustrating a monologue telling how the Word was active throughout history; in the Christ story proper, I'm pretty sure one of the apostles was black, and certainly Simon of Cyrene). There also seemed to be too much effort to paint the Romans, especially Pilate, as inhuman monsters, and virtually absolve the Jewish leadership from their role in the events, which I figure was probably a reaction against the criticism that The Passion of the Christ was subjected to a decade ago. I almost feel a need to reread Paul Maier's Pontius Pilate again as an antidote! [link] Of course, the media firestorm that The Bible itself elicited last year, when its Satan was a close lookalike for Barack Obama, resulted in all those scenes being cut. One thing I hadn't been aware of until the closing credits here was that the excellent musical score was by Hans Zimmer, whom I mainly know from the Dark Knight trilogy as well as Man of Steel. (Mysteriously, although I saw it on-screen, IMDB does not reflect his contribution, listing instead one Lorne Balfe; the IMDB credits for "The Passion" segment of The Bible, however, do list Zimmer along with Balfe).  Overall, I enjoyed the whole experience again despite my criticisms, but this film comes nowhere near displacing my gold standard depiction of the Christ story, which continues to be the brilliant 1970s TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, by Franco Zeffirelli.  My mental image of much of the Christ story continues to be informed by that  besides Robert Powell's awesome portrayal of Jesus Himself, Nicodemus will for me always and forever look like Laurence Olivier!


Cheers, and Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Justice League: War (Warner-DC 2014)

Directed by Jay Oliva

Okay. This is actually my second attempt at writing a review of the latest DC Animated Movie, which reportedly sets up a prospective series of animated versions of the 2011 Reboot “New 52” Universe. My initial reaction upon viewing Justice League: War, which is based upon the opening story arc (issues #1-6) of the New 52 Justice League comic by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, there entitled Origin, was a visceral revulsion that verged on physical sickness. Although for whatever reason I felt compelled to share my reaction and envisioned it launching a full-bore diatribe about how it exemplifies all those things I do not like about the New 52 in general, in truth, I really do not like writing negative reviews and could get nowhere over the course of several days in trying to put my feelings into words to bring those ends about. My son pointed out my reluctance to be a negativist and wondered why I was trying to do so here. He could not understand the seething rage that needed some kind of release in this case, and as I got further and further away from the experience neither did I. That was when I decided to subject myself to it again for fairness' sake, determined to be more objective. I'm glad I did so. The resulting review is, I believe, far more balanced.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Captain Midnight, Volume 1: On the Run (Dark Horse, 2014)

Collects story from Dark Horse's Free Comic Book Day 2013 offering and Captain Midnight #0 and 1-3 (2013)

I've been aware of the name “Captain Midnight” all my life. It confused me somewhat when I was a kid, but already familiar with the DC Comics Golden Age character “Doctor Midnite” from the annual Justice League/Justice Society cross-overs as well as reprints featuring the “Earth Two” heroes, that my father would occasionally make reference to “Captaaaaaiiiinnn Midniiiiiight!!!” All I knew then was that he was an old radio serial character from Daddy's youth, and until just the last few years that remained all I knew.

In my rediscovery and exploration of the wondrous world of pulps a few years ago, I found that many of those old closely-related radio serials are now available free on the Internet in various places, including iTunes. The Internet is a wonderful thing!! At the time, I was doing a lot of driving, and over the course of a few months I listened to a fair number of old shows, including Captain Midnight. I also came upon a copy of Moonstone's Captain Midnight Chronicles at a book store, a collection of modern prose short stories by various comic-book and neopulp authors, which I greatly enjoyed while observing that there are significant differences between the classic audio and modern prose stories – the latter are, I believe, more in line with Fawcett's Golden Age Captain Midnight comic-book adventures (of which I've only read a couple, although they are available for free from the Digital Comic Museum [link]); I presume the same to be true of this new series from Dark Horse Comics.

Friday, February 7, 2014

No Dawn For Men: A Novel of Ian Fleming, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Nazi Germany (2013)

By James LePore and Carlos Davis

This book has a fascinating premise – two important writers of the 20th century meeting in October 1938 Germany under cover of a putative consultation between J. R. R. Tolkien and a prospective German publisher for his recent novel, The Hobbit, journalist Ian Fleming being there to document a meeting Tolkien would also make with an eminent medieval scholar. Of course, with the Shadow of Nazism about to descend across Europe, nothing is as it seems; Tolkien's meeting with his fellow academic has been arranged by British Intelligence – with Fleming as his MI-6 “minder” – to discover what historical secret the professor has uncovered to so embolden the Nazis. In the end, Fleming and Tolkien – with the help of a group of allies collected over the course of their adventure – thwart the unleashing of diabolical forces that would have otherwise assured Germany's quick victory in the imminent global conflagration. Moreover, having witnessed True Evil, Tolkien is wrenched from a state of depressed writer's block to a new determination to direct the clamored-for sequel to The Hobbit toward a similarly epic confrontation between Good and Evil.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Making of Middle-earth: A New Look Inside the World of J. R. R. Tolkien (2013)

By Christopher Snyder

This is another book I finished reading a while back – actually several weeks at this point – but am just now getting around to blogging. It's much more than just a book about Tolkien himself – that's just the first section. Subsequent chapters look at each of his three major works – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, in that, i.e. publication, order – laying great emphasis on the sources and influences in history, legend, and literature that he drew on in constructing “a mythology for England.” I found it thoroughly enthralling. But there is another dimension to this book as well, examining the enormous influence of Tolkien in many other areas, including the various media into which his stories have been adapted and the impact they have had on the whole genre of heroic fantasy. It truly is a near-comprehensive survey of the entirety of “The Tolkien Phenomenon.”