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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Link Dump
A regular old link dump, interesting stuff from the depths of the internets:
  • Advice to Young Critics - Matt Zoller Seitz (who writes at Roger Ebert's site) lays down some pretty common sense advice for young critics, though I'd argue that it's pretty good advice for fans as well:
    2. Learn about TV and film history beyond your date of birth. Go back as far as you possibly can. Seek out the past because it informs the present.

    ... 6. Read about history and psychology, because so much art draws from those two areas. If you don't have some passing familiarity with history (recent and ancient) and psychology, your inferences about an artist's point-of-view will draw almost entirely upon second- or third-hand attitudes: i.e., you'll be critiquing film and TV based mainly on what film and TV you've seen. This will make your work shallow and prevent you from connecting the art to life.
    Actually, this is probably just good advice, period. (Of course, some of the other suggestions are very specific to critics and writers, but still.)
  • The Poetry of the Trading Floor, Going Beyond Bears and Bulls - I had no idea where half of these terms actually came from:
    Once upon a time, for instance, all that you needed to start a bank was a bench. You put your bench up in a square in medieval Italy and sat down behind it to do business. The Italian for bench is banca, and hence our modern word bank.

    Sometimes, of course, bankers would run out of money, and when they did - in an age before the invention of TARP, bailouts and Ben Bernanke - their bench would be ceremonially smashed in front of them. It was then a "broken bench" or "banca rotta" or "bankrupt."
    And there's lots of others, too.
  • Why The Idling Mind is the Mother of Invention - Clive Thompson on the benefits of letting your mind wander:
    Granted, most scientists think that if you really want to let your mind roam, you need to engage in a nondemanding task, like going for a three-hour walk.

    Most jobs don't allow that, of course. That's why I've begun to think that the "social" Internet has become a rough substitute. If your boss is trying to force you to focus on PowerPoint and Word documents, you might gravitate to mentally discursive, floaty experiences — the idle surfing of Facebook updates, Wikipedia entries, YouTube videos, casual games like Bejeweled. Maybe these things aren't so much time sucks as desperate attempts by our brains to decouple from the go-go-go machine and head off on its own.
    Wishful thinking, perhaps, but interesting nonetheless.
  • The Expert - Haha, they made a funny.
  • The Case For Going to the Movies Alone - She had me at alone. In all seriousness, it was a liberating revelation when I started going to the movies alone. Of course, I still go with other people (often, even), but it's nice to know that if I want to watch something weird or at a weird time, I can do so with no problems.
  • A Statistical Analysis of the Work of Bob Ross - From the Some people have too much time, but that's ok because they make stuff like this file.
That's all for now. Go forth, and be merry.
Posted by Mark on April 30, 2014 at 06:24 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Link Dump: Hugo Reactions
The Hugo Award nominations were announced last week, and as you might imagine, there's been a lot of blathering about it on the internets. There always is, but this year is especially heated due to some controversial happenings. I covered some of this in last week's initial thoughts, and while I don't want to dwell on the negative, there have been plenty of discussion this week that's probably worth checking out (after which, I plan to move on to the meat of actually reading and writing about the nominees).

In short, there are three major issues that folks are incensed about. One is that, due to a quirk in the nominations rules, the entire While of Time series of books has been nominated as a whole (that's an 11,000+ page, 4+ million word series). Two is that Larry Correia explicitly sought nominations for himself and some others, with the express notion of making a political point. To my mind, these first boil down to the same problem: The Hugos are a populist award, and thus vulnerable to voting blocs. Both The Wheel of Time and Larry Correia are very popular, and both were the subject of an explicit push for nominations. Many are skeptical of the quality of these popular works, and thus upset that they ended up on the final ballot. For his part, Correia seems to have engaged in this for the express purpose of pissing people off, which is obviously against the spirit of the thing. That being said, the issue here is largely a matter of semantics. There's no evidence of fraud or stuffed ballots or anything like that, just populism, and Correia's posts on the subject mirror a lot of other folks who want to see their favorite things nominated. To my mind, these first two issues are not new at all. Indeed, you could very well argue that the inclusion of Charlie Stross and Mira Grant on the Best Novel shortlist are also populist choices that are more reflective of fandom's love of the authors than the works themselves. Last year's winner was John Scalzi's Redshirts, and many complained that it won more because Scalzi is a popular guy with a high traffic blog than because that was truly the best work of science fiction last year. And so it goes.

If that was all that happened this year, there'd be lots of grumbling and shouting at the sky, but that's always the case (and it probably also applies to other awards too - just look at all the griping the Oscars get every year). But there is a third issue that seems to be severely mucking up the works, and that is the nomination of Vox Day in the Best Novelette category. Once his name shows up, cries of racism/sexism/homophobia become rampant, and to a fair extent, warranted. There will be more detail below, but for now, I'll just say that he seems like an ass and I think it's valid for people to not want to have anything to do with the guy. Personally, I'll be reading his story and judging it accordingly, but I get that some won't be able to separate the story from the man.

With that scene set, let's see what some other folks are talking about:
  • On Merit, Awards, and What We Read - Joe Sherry uses the Vox Day issue to struggle with the question of separating the art from the artist:
    ...I want to extend this a little bit beyond Vox Day and into a more general thought. Also, I believe where a line is drawn will depend both on the reader as well as on who the writer is and how the two intersect. How much does who the artist is matter in our enjoyment or appreciation of the art? How much should it matter? Does time and distance matter?

    Can we watch a Woody Allen movie knowing the credible accusations of molestation against him? Do we view Annie Hall or Manhattan differently, or do they remain major works of art? Does it change how view his new work? Is Ender's Game a lesser work because Orson Scott Card is openly homophobic? Rachel Acks can no longer read Card's work, despite having admired it deeply before she learned of his homophobia. Does reading a particular work suggest support for the personal views of the artist even if those views are not evident in the work itself? Does it matter if the artist is still living?
    He doesn't have an answer, and neither do I. There are lots of other examples. Fugitive child rapist Roman Polanski is someone I have trouble with, though oddly, not as much with films made before the rape (or films I watched before I knew the details, which I believe are the same). When The Ghost Writer came out, I couldn't really get past it. Maybe that's because that movie isn't as good, or maybe I can no longer separate the art from the artist in that case. On the other hand, noted racist H.P. Lovecraft isn't as difficult to deal with, perhaps because he is not alive. There's historical and technical value in watching The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, but those have troubling content, rather than just troubling artists (who are also no longer with us). Ultimately, I tend to come down on a hard-line free speech position. No one is calling for governmental censorship of Vox Day, but self-censorship can be problematic in itself. A while ago, Salmon Rushdie was commenting on anti-Muslim videos, and said this:
    "Terrible ideas, reprehensible ideas, do not disappear if you ban them," he told me. "They go underground. They acquire a kind of glamour of taboo. In the harsh light of day, they are out there and, like vampires, they die in the sunlight."
    Again, no one is banning Vox Day's story and a commitment to free speech is not the same thing as nominating something for an award, but I also have a hard time condemning something I haven't read. If I refuse to read Vox Day's words, that doesn't make them disappear or any less dangerous. Some have said that reading his work implicates you in his hate, which I would argue strongly against. Especially if the work in question is not about hate or any of the horrible things that get tossed around when Vox's name is brought up (and apparently the story is rather tame in that respect, though I have not read it yet and cannot say for sure.) To me, words can be harmful, but banning them or forbidding yourself to read them isn't going to solve anything either.
  • An explanation about the Hugo awards controversy - Larry Correia has responded to the whole kerfluffle on his blog. At some points, he sounds reasonable, at others, it sounds like he's just engaging in shennanigans to piss people off then trying to play a victim card (though, in fairness, many of the things said about him seem to be false). He also seems to think that he is the one who got these people nominated, and yes, I'm sure he had something to do with it, but I'll be very curious to see the actual stats when they're released later in the year. At the very least, one should acknowledge that Correia himself didn't do this, but rather, a small, dedicated portion of his fans (more on this in a bit). I would be really curious if those fans simply voted as a bloc, blindly nominating the things Correia suggested. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case. Shockingly enough, the people who voted on the Hugos are human beings and not automatons. And yet, the grand majority of the discussion around Correia's suggestions, on both sides, seems to assume that everyone who voted for these stories did so blindly and without question. It's not like Brad Torgersen or Dan Wells haven't been nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards before, even without Correia's help.
  • Well, the Hugos... are not - Ian Sales has a predictably terse response, though the real gold in this post comes from the comments, in which JaneG very courteously explains her perspective on why she nominated many of the works that Correia suggested (among other works not on Correia's suggested ballot). As mentioned above, it's good to put an actual human face on some of these voters, even if this is only anecdotal. Still, she certainly knows her stuff, and while this is only one person (and I guess not a confirmed voter either), I suspect it is more representative than most are claiming.
  • On Writing the Good Fight: Hugo Roundup - Kameron Hurley (one of the best Fan Writer nominees) tackles the populism aspect of the award, predicting that Best Novel will be crushed by the Wheel of Time fans (I am more sanguine, as the ballots apparently use an instant runoff process, where the winner has to have a good distribution of votes. This may help control the voting blocs). She also touches on politics and the other issues of this year.
  • Hugo Did What? - Population: One sheds some light on just how many votes it takes to get nominated. It turns out that Correia's bloc probably wasn't that large, but that it didn't need to be either:
    This year, there were 1,595 nominations for Best Novel. Last year, there were 1,113 nominations. That's 43% more nominations. This year, there were 728 nominations for Best Novelette. Last year, there were 616 nominations. 18% more nominations.

    ... It took 38 nominations to get on the Best Novelette ballot last year. Apply the 18% adjustment: it probably took between 44 and 45 nominations to get on the Best Novelette ballot this year. That's not block voting, that's a mild wave in a fairly shallow wave pool.
    It turns out that the number was more like 69, but that's still not that many votes. Steve Davidson notes something similar in Amazing Stories.
  • No, The Hugo Nominations Were Not Rigged - John Scalzi has taken a very pragmatic approach to the whole situation, and one that more or less mirrors my own. He has also written about how he reads nominated works (with special focus on how he plans to tackle the Wheel of Time) and graciously linked to people who think he's crazy for wanting to read the works and vote on them.
  • Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 3 - Brad R. Torgersen is one of the folks who appeared on Correia's shortlist and presumably benefited (though again, it's not like Torgersen wasn't getting himself Hugo and Nebula nods before this year).
    You can't have a healthy fandom unless you run a big tent. And by big tent, I mean a fandom that doesn't impose litmus tests. Fandom (that very-small piece of the consumer pie that keeps Worldcon alive) represents an increasingly monocultural segment of the overall fan market. The so-called TruFans work to marginalize and exclude the NeoFans. "Show us your cred!" the guards cry at the entry points to the science fiction "ghetto" that fandom jealously occupies — though Larry Niven once famously argued it’s not a ghetto, it’s actually a country club. Those with insufficient or bad cred ("You only like movies and games!" or "Your politics make you stinky!" or "Your favorite author is too commercial!") are discouraged in both obvious and subtle ways. Go back to what Brandon Sanderson said: if you invite people in, it's rather strange of you to then try to kick them back out simply because they're not matching your taste and preferences 1-for-1. So while I am somewhat sympathetic to the notion of, "Well we liked science fiction before science fiction was popular," I also think this is the slogan of a dying culture. And that makes me sad. Because as someone who came of age reading Larry Niven's wonderful anecdotes about Worldcon, the picture he painted was not that of a dying culture. Worldcon fandom can't be healthy if it imposes hard filters and actively shews away "interlopers" who haven't been properly anointed or baptized into the field, per traditions of old.
    A very fair perspective (and lots more in the post), though I think Vox Day does sorta strain that big tent a bit.
  • 2014 Hugo Nominations - the reactions - Well, if my posts don't have enough to chew on, head over here and gander at this near comprehensive list of reactions.
So that's all for now. I don't expect to tee up on the controversy much more, but I guess you never know. Next up, I'm going to catch up on some non-Hugo reviews, after which point I should have finished my first Hugo works. Stay tuned.
Posted by Mark on April 27, 2014 at 04:40 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The 2014 Hugo Awards: Initial Thoughts
I started this year with a goal of reading the fiction nominees for the Hugo Awards and casting an official vote. The nominees were just announced yesterday, so it's game on for the Kaedrin Hugo run. Today, we'll give some initial thoughts on the Best Novel slate, as well as some general thoughts on the rest of the nominations. Let's get to it:

Best Novel (1595 nominating ballots)
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie - No surprise here, and I gather that this is the favorite to win the award as well. I've already written a review of this one, but I'll say that this seems like an eminently worthy nomination and I could certainly see myself voting for this if none of the other nominees grab me.
  • Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross - A frequent nominee, Stross has yet to actually win the Best Novel award (though he has taken home a couple Novella awards). My experience with Stross is limited, and I genuinely disliked Accelerando (I did not finish, but that says something in itself, since I can count the number of books I've not finished on one hand), but I do enjoy his blog from time to time, and a lot of his books do sound interesting. This one is apparently a "follow up" (but not a sequel) to 2008's Saturn's Children. It is positioned as a standalone novel though, so I'll only be reading this one. Of the nominees I haven't read, this one seems the most up my alley.
  • Parasite by Mira Grant - Another frequent nominee, Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) made waves with her trilogy of Zombie novels. I'm not a big fan of zombies, so I did not read those. This book looks to be the start of another series and has a premise that I find interesting. Assuming this book is self-contained enough to stand on its own, I could certainly see myself enjoying this.
  • Warbound, Book III of the Grimnoir Chronicles by Larry Correia - This appears to be a controversial nomination, as Correia has made a hobby of whining about liberals, political correctness and, in particular, the frequent nominations (and wins) of John Scalzi (who won for last year's Redshirts). There is a lot of speculation that this is a protest nomination that happened more for political reasons than for the quality of Correia's work. Not having read anything by Correia, I cannot say, but I'm not immediately endeared to him because of his antics. I'm also a little annoyed that this is the third book in a series. I'll have to look into this further, but I'm guessing I need to read all three books (and they're all of moderate length).
  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson - Holy hell, I thought this was a joke. Not having read the books, I can't speak to their quality, but the fact that a 14 book, 11,000+ page, 4.4+ million word work has been nominated makes this a pretty impractical nominee. It hinges on a relatively obscure rule that says if no individual work in a series is nominated, the entire series can be nominated once it concludes. When this possibility was raised earlier this year, I thought it was pretty funny, but now that the work has made it to the final ballot, I'm a little unsure of what to do here. 11,000 pages is around how much I read in a year, and I don't have that long (not to mention all the other stuff I want to read). If I want to be honest in this process, I'll need to read at least some of this... and if I really enjoy it, that will be a problem, because voting for something that I haven't finished seems rather dishonest. If I hate it, I can at least say I made the effort and read at least a couple entries in the series, but even that rubs me the wrong way. I guess we'll see how this goes.
Other assorted thoughts:
  • The series thing bugs me. It's always been a tricky proposition, because even if they had only nominated the final Wheel of Time book, wouldn't I have to read all the others to truly understand what's going on? This has always been something of a turnoff to me when I looked at the shortlists of previous years. Heck, the Correia nomination might force me to read two additional books, and if I don't like the concept of "Grimnoir" (which I don't find particularly inspiring by itself), that's going to be a slog. Last year, Mira Grant's zombie series had the same issue. The year before, the latest in the Song of Ice and Fire series book was nominated (which would also mean thousands of pages of catchup, etc...). Bujold's Vorkosigan series at least consists of somewhat standalone novels, though I'm guessing that fans who've read the whole series are getting the most out of the recent books. And so on. I don't know what the real solution is here, except, I guess, to quit my job and start reading full time or something.
  • The politics thing also bugs me. There are two works that seem to be on the ballot solely to jab a finger at a certain liberal element of fandom, which strikes me as rather boorish. I'm really not down with the whole politicization of everything that seems to be happening in our culture these days, and that goes for everyone, not just these two writers (I expect a lot of people will try to make something big out of these nominations, which will of course only feed the fire and cause more annoyance and frustration than is needed. I'm already seeing people claim that this year's awards are tainted by these two nominations, which I find a bit ridiculous, and it's exactly the sort of attitude that gets these protest nominees on the short list in the first place. We need a way out of this negative feedback loop that politics has put us in...) That being said, I will take these works on their face and judge them as I would anything else. I could see myself enjoying Correia's books, and I know nothing of Vox Day, except that he appears to be an ass (he's nominated for a Novelette). So it looks like I'm taking the Scalzi approach to this.
  • Speaking of Scalzi, no Scalzi on the ballot. I was a little surprised by this, but my guess is that while he is a popular guy and has garnered all sorts of noms over the past decade or so (including almost all of his novels, and several shorter works), no one saw The Human Division as a cohesive novel (it being a series of loosely connected Novellas and Short Stories), and that because there are 13 different eligible stories, any sort of votes for Scalzi got spread out amongst the eligible stories (i.e. there was no clear favorite).
  • There are some categories I won't be voting in at all. I'll leave the more specific complaints about the structure of categories for a separate post, but I can't see myself voting for the Best Editor awards (Seriously? How I am I supposed to know how good they are as an editor, I'm only seeing the finished work...). And the notion of "Zines" is.... I don't know, it's 2014, they seem quaint and not very relevant (though it looks like some are at least online). I'm not sure what to make of the Artist awards
  • Best Fan Writer looks to be an interesting category, as all the nominees are online (apparently, this was not so in the past) and some are writers I already read. They also represent a "terrifying flood of girl cooties" (to borrow a phrase from Cheryl Morgan from last year).
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form is an interesting list, but the best SF film from last year is missing (that would be Upstream Color). This is one of the few things I would have nominated for, since I'm pretty up to speed with SF and Fantasy movies, so I regret not submitting the nomination (I'd guess my vote wouldn't be a deciding one, but still, it's the principle of the thing).
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form is a consistently weird category in which fully half the nominees are from a single show (Doctor Who)... This is not a new thing (and usually the proportions are even worse), but in this case, I'm hit with the same series problem from above. I've been slowly wading my way through the early seasons of the recent run (i.e. starting with the Christopher Eccleston Doctor), so do I need to watch more before I watch these three? They seem to be particularly focused on continuity, so I'm not sure what to make of that. Otherwise, I've already seen Game of Thrones and really want to get onboard with Orphan Black, so I guess we'll just have to wait and see what's going on there...
So it begins. I'm in the process of finishing off two books right now (should be done within a day or two), then I start in on the Hugo reading. I'm sure many posts will follow.
Posted by Mark on April 20, 2014 at 05:27 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ranking the Marvel Movies
In keeping with my recent thinking on Referendums and such, it's worth noting another edge case. Like Pixar, a new Marvel Universe movie has, of late, yielded a general referendum on the state of the overarching franchise (rather than just a simple review of the latest movie). All the cook kids have been posting their rankings, ranging from the absurdly comprehensive, to official, indisputable rankings, to unofficial, disputable rankings.

For my part, I'll only be ranking the official Marvel Universe films (so no Spider Man or X-Men movies, etc...) and with the added caveat that every one of these movies has achieved a certain level of base competence that is pretty solid. The fact that they are all connected helps strengthen and reinforce even the "bad" movies, and the all tend to be fun. Another thing worth noting is that these all seem to be infinitely rewatchable, which isn't the only or even primary measure of a movie's worth, but it is one of the things that I think ties these movies all together. Let's get this party started at the bottom of the heap:
  • Iron Man 2 - This movie is a total mess, groaning under the weight of an ill-advised multi-stranded plot, with multiple villains, too much Avengers prep work, and an otherwise limp story. In this movie, Tony Stark is basically a jerk, and not the lovable kind he is in all the other movies. I kinda hate the whole "poisoning" plot thread and Tony's lame attempts to hide it all. The friendship with Rhodes never really works, and that party scene is severely lame. I did revisit this movie somewhat recently, and must admit that it's growing on me. I no longer hate it, but it's still a mess. I have grown to really enjoy Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell's performances, even if their plot is a bit on the incoherent side. I could see this potentially taking a jump up one rung on this list, but that's pretty much the ceiling on this one.
  • The Incredible Hulk - This is a movie I want to like, but it ends up pretty low on the list because it's the one Marvel movie that everyone always forgets is part of the universe. Plus, while I enjoyed Edward Norton's take, Mark Ruffalo completely owned the character in The Avengers, which makes this movie a bit of an oddity. On the other hand, there's nothing really dramatically wrong here, and it's got some fun action at the end.
  • Iron Man - I'm a little surprised that this one is as low as it is, but on the other hand, I was never as in love with it as everyone else, even at the time. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is a revelation in this role, and that's the one thing that really keeps this movie afloat for me. I'm not a huge fan of the opening of the movie, but the second act is fantastic (in particular, the sorta buddy-comedy aspect of Tony working with Jarvis on the new suit). Alas, the finale is a bit strained. I actually really liked Jeff Bridges here, but as with a lot of origin stories, he's given short shrift. Upon rewatching, the ending sits better with me and the movie is still a fair amount of fun, so I'll give it that much credit. It's also worth noting that for its time, it really did represent a shift in comic book movies, which were in danger of getting mired in grimdark. This came out in 2008, the year of the excellent but pretty dark The Dark Knight and the decent but super-dark Watchmen. Batman is allowed to be dark and brooding, because that's his schtick, but it seemed like the comic book movie was burning itself out, and Iron Man (particularly the second act) made comic book movies fun again. It may not be my favorite, but it is probably one of the more important films on the list.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger - Upon first exposure, this was my favorite of the pre-Avengers films, but on subsequent rewatches, I got a little tired of the montage-heavy second and third acts. That being said, this has, by far, the best origin story in the Marvel universe films. The first act of this movie is superb, and while it does slowly trail off into montages and a rather odd climax, I do like Red Skull as a villain and the present-day ending piece is a nice setup for The Avengers (this was the movie that immediately preceded that film, and it does an excellent job leading into it). In general, I'd consider this on par with Thor, and the two movies sorta go back and forth for me.
  • Thor - I expect that this movie would be way lower on most other people's lists, but for whatever reason, I tend to connect more with the Thor movies than most everyone else. Maybe it's the fish-out-of-water comedy or the Shakespearean theatrics, or perhaps just the charismatic lead performances from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. The romance with Natalie Portman is a bit rushed, and I understand that it doesn't work for some, but it worked fine for me (there is something similar going on with Thor's friendship with Stellan Skarsgard's character). The ending is definitely a weak point, but that is an affliction that all the phase 1 Marvel movies (pre-Avengers) suffer from (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Captain America all have lackluster third acts). Something about this movie just works for me.
  • Iron Man 3 - After Iron Man 2, I was not sure what to expect out of this, especially coming off the high of Avengers. I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy this movie. I know in the comics, Tony Stark has struggled with alcoholism, but that's not something that would really work in movie form. In Iron Man 2, they tried to get at it by making Tony a total dick and calling his little chest reactor poisonous, but that clearly didn't work. Here, Shane Black rather cleverly substitutes PTSD as Tony's problem, and it fits (perhaps not as perfectly as some would like, but it worked for me). One couldn't ask for a better kickoff to Marvel's Phase 2, and what you see here is a higher degree of competence and indeed, confidence. This is one of the more even movies in the whole enterprise.
  • Thor: The Dark World - Again, this is probably higher than most would put it, but it does represent an across the board improvement over the first film, and given my feelings on that film, you can see why this one would be this high. The broad humor works really well here (excepting the pantsless Stellan Skarsgard, a rare miscalculation in an otherwise solid movie), along with some reversal fish-out-of-water elements. Like Iron Man 3, you can see Marvel's confidence really coming across here. I will admit that I have not rewatched this or Iron Man 3, so perhaps I'd flip-flop them, but for now, I'll stick with Thor.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I just saw this last week, so maybe I'm a little too high on it, but I don't think so. Marvel is really making this stuff look easy. I can't get over how well this film balances all of its disparate elements. It's extremely well paced, it's got an amazing amount of action, but for the most part, it's not repetitive (there's a little shaky cam here, and I normally hate that, but the situations were all excellent enough that I didn't really mind). There's a big conspiracy (consciously evoking those paranoid thrillers of the 70s) uncovered here that will have huge implications to the universe, and I love that they went there, but it's the little things that really got to me. In particular, I love that this movie continues the blossoming of Black Widow as a fully realized, charismatic character. Her introduction in Iron Man 2 was hackneyed and underwritten, but she came into her own in the Avengers, and shows even more here. Likewise with Anthony Mackie's Falcon character, who has a great introduction and comes across well for the rest of the movie. I love the little character interactions in this movie, and they get at why these Marvel movies are doing so well. They're just so much fun, and this movie is a prime example. This is a remarkably even movie, and again, indicative of the confidence of Marvel in this second phase.
  • The Avengers - Right now, this movie is hanging on to the top slot by a hair. It's certainly got some flaws. It takes a little while to get going, and I've never been a fan of the sort of Thor vs Iron Man fights that happen in this movie, but Joss Whedon managed to make it work, and while there are plenty of things that I'm not particularly in love with for this movie (the helicarrier, the fact that Hawkeye is mostly sidelined, etc...), it also reaches the highest-highs in the entire series. Unlike the rest of Marvel's phase 1 movies, this is one that gets stronger as it goes, and the big action scene in the finale is actually worth the buildup (unlike the rest of phase 1 movies). Also of note, the aforementioned Black Widow really shines here, and is given really distinctive and important talents. Also, Mark Ruffalo's Hulk is a total revelation. Again, it's the little character interactions and showcases that just work so well here. Most of the characters get some great marquee moments, and there are single lines here that just work so well that any flaws in the movie just sorta melt away. I mean, come on, when the team is finally assembled in New York and Iron Man asks Captain America to call their play (which is pretty cool in itself), and Cap starts handing out orders and finally says "Hulk: Smash." Perfect, and the movie is filled with similar moments. It's definitely not as evenly constructed as the second phase Marvel stuff, but it does have the highest peaks, even if there are plenty of valleys.
So there you have it. Who knows, all this stuff may swap around with future movies or rewatches (of which, I will probably do a lot of). Plus, I'm really looking forward to some of the weird stuff that's coming down the pike, like Guardians of the Galaxy and even Ant-Man.
Posted by Mark on April 13, 2014 at 08:37 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Weird Book of the Week
And the hits just keep on coming. I don't specifically go out and hunt for weird stuff, somehow it just finds me. Last time on Weird Book of the Week, we pondered the age old question: How Green Were The Nazis? (It turns out that they were not as environmentally friendly as they claimed.) This time around, we'll stick with the Nazi theme (indeed, Nazis seem to be a common theme amongst Weird Books/Movies of the week).

Many times, the hook for the weird thing of the week is purely visual. A book cover or poster or whatnot, but this time, it's all about the title: Call Me Mumbles: Subcommandante Mumbles vs. The Dinosaur Nazis. I mean, you know right away if you want to read this story (which, actually, is only about 40 pages long, making it a short story or novelette or something like that). But if you were on the fence, this brief description might also help:
He expected boredom, or maybe a Taliban attack. He didn't imagine Dinosaur Nazis. But then, who ever does?
Who indeed? But I get it, that's a terse description, perhaps you'd like some sample awesome? Here are the first lines in the story:
Call me Mumbles. Why, you ask? Because I fucking told you to.

I was humping up this hill in shitbagistan; heavy load and thin air. I could hear the cherry private wheezing behind me. Wanted to tell him to stop fucking breathing, but it just wasn't worth the effort.
If you're not on board by now, I don't think this is for you. Me? They had me at "Dinosaur Nazis" (or probably even just "Subcommandante"),
Posted by Mark on April 09, 2014 at 10:56 PM .: Comments (1) | link :.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Adventures in Brewing - Beer #15: Barleywine
A sort of companion to my Russian Imperial Stout (which I named Bomb & Grapnel), this is another beer I'm hoping to clock in at ~10% ABV. As with the RIS, I'm going to brew up a full 5 gallon batch, then split the result into two secondary fermenters. One will simply condition, the other will get an addition of bourbon soaked oak cubes (just like the RIS). At packaging time, I'll bottle some of each, then a blend of the two. With the RIS, the blend actually came out the best, though maybe the bourbon oaked one will hold up better over time (alas, only one way to find out).

For the recipe, I used one of my favorite barleywines as a guide, Firestone Walker's §ucaba. Fortunately for me, Firestone Walker is pretty open with their ingredients. Unfortunately, they're not quite as open with their proportions! So I took a swing, and made some tweaks along the way:

Brew #15: Barleywine
April 5, 2014

0.5 lb. Crystal 40 (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Crystal 120 (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Munich Malt (specialty grain)
0.25 lb. Chocolate Malt (specialty grain)
9 lb. Briess Golden Light DME
0.75 lb. Turbinado Sugar
2 oz. Bravo hops (bittering @ 15.5% AA)
1 oz. East Kent Golding hops (flavor)
1 oz. East Kent Golding hops (aroma)
2 oz. Oak Cubes: Hungarian Medium Toast
16 oz. Bourbon (Eagle Rare 10)
Wyeast 1028 London Ale

Barleywine Ingredients

I'm shooting for something in the 10-11% ABV range here. Now, §ucaba is 12.5-13.5% ABV, but as I understand it, this is difficult to obtain for mere mortals like myself. Something about the laws of physics not operating the same in Firestone Walker's warehouses? Whatever, the point is that this recipe isn't quite the beast that §ucaba is...

I tried to keep my specialty grains reasonable as well. I think one of the reasons my RIS had such a high FG was that I included too much in the way of unfermentable sugars. So I toned that down here. I also added a small simple sugar addition, which should help keep that attenuation in check. Fingers crossed.

For the hops, it seemed pretty straightforward. Bravo for bittering and East Kent Goldings for late kettle additions, just like ┬žucaba. This puts the beer firmly in English Barleywine territory. According to my calculations, the IBUs should be somewhere in the 40-50 range, which is actually a little low, even for an English Barleywine, but then, §ucaba clocks in at 42 IBUs, so I'm actually on track.

For the oak cubes, I chose Hungarian Medium Toast (supposedly less intense than American oak, but more intense than French oak) and started soaking them in bourbon a couple months ago. I think one of the issues with the RIS was how long I kept the oak in bourbon, so hopefully the additional time will yield more complexity and less char (among other harsh tannins, etc...) Depending on how this goes, I may also keep this batch in secondary for an extra week as well (so 3 weeks primary, 4 weeks secondary).

Firestone Walker's house yeast is rumored to be similar to Wyeast 1968 (London ESB, same as WLP 002), but that has relatively low attenuation and low alcohol tolerance (which is yet another reason to question the laws of physics at FW). I ended up going with Wyeast 1028, which has a much better attenuation range and one of the higher alcohol tolerances (11%, which should work here). Also, since this is a big beer, I did a yeast starter. I've had trouble making starters in the past because I never took into account how much water is lost to evaporation. This time, I managed to get it almost right. Started with 1250 ml of water and 1/4 cup malt extract, and ended with about 900 ml of 1.042 wort (slightly high, but right around the 1.040 I was shooting for).

On brew day, the Original Gravity ended up at 22.3 Bx or 1.094, slightly lower than I was shooting for, but it should still be fine. I installed a blow off tube instead of the airlock, as I'm anticipating a pretty active fermentation.

So that just about covers it. This one should take a while, so I anticipate doing one more batch of something before the heat of summer makes brewing a bit more difficult. I'll probably do something sessionable that I'll keg, like a 4% pale ale or maybe a light saison for some summer drinking fun. Next up on the big beer front would be a Scotch ale, which may also get the oak treatment described above (though it'll likely also be lower in ABV)...

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on April 06, 2014 at 04:44 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Again Referendum: John McTiernan Edition
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned how some newly released works of art seem to initiate a referendum on the whole of the artist's oeuvre. This was occasioned by the release of Wes Anderson's latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel (which I have since seen, and which is fantastic, among my top Anderson films), but I came across this curious case recently, which marks an interesting case of the referendums. Jonathan V. Last lays down the gauntlet:
Proposed: John McTiernan is the most under-rated director of his generation, having helmed three instant classics (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, The Thomas Crowne Affair), one of which is in the running for Most Influential Movie of the Decade. Even his middling work (Predator and Last Action Hero) is really, really good.
First thing's first, I object to the notion of Predator as a "middling" effort. That three movie run from Predator to Die Hard to The Hunt for Red October is nothing short of astounding, and there are a rarified few directors who can boast a similar run of classics. I'm less sanguine about Last Action Hero, though I will grant the notion that it was a movie that was way ahead of its time, probably deserves its increasing cult status, and is definitely worth a revisit. I really enjoyed both Die Hard: With a Vengeance and The Thomas Crown Affair, though I should probably revisit those films as well.

His work after The Thomas Crown Affair seems a bit lacking, but the general explanation there is mounting legal troubles which basically sidelined him for most of this century. This is basically one of the reasons that Last cites for McTiernan not getting the respect he so richly deserves.

The other reason he cites probably also plays a role:
McTiernan eschewed any particular visual style and instead concentrated on economy of storytelling. There are truly great visuals in his movies (see the opening series of shots in Thomas Crowne where the camera zooms down on the Met from space; a shot which seems cliched now, but predates Google Earth by nearly ten years) but these visuals don’t have any particular signature to them. Instead, you can tell a McTiernan movie by how skillfully it moves the story, builds tension, and uses every knife it lays out on the coffee table.
This is dead on, though perhaps a closer analysis of his work would reveal some signature moves. But I would add that he's a director that doesn't call attention to his filmmaking. Similar to how some of the best movie scores blend into the background while still playing an integral role, McTiernan's clear visual style hits all the right notes without forcing you to notice them. This isn't to say that great directors with bold styles can't produce great works, just that this is a different kind of greatness.

In terms of the commonalities I found in this sort of referendum, McTiernan may not qualify for the "singular vision" criteria (though I suppose it's arguable), but he most certainly does qualify for the "relatively small filmography" criteria. What's more, it's a really interesting filmography. He's got multiple classics, a growing cult film, and several films that were legitimately "middling" (but in those cases, they are often better than they have any right to be - I'm looking at you The 13th Warrior).

I've lost track of when he is getting out of jail, but IMDB already has his next film listed, called Red Squad (about the DEA hiring a team of mercenaries to take on a Mexican drug cartel). Will the release of this film warrant the same sort of referendum that the likes of Wes Anderson receives? I suspect that Last is correct and that McTiernan is underrated, so I don't think the referendum will be as universal as it is for Anderson, but I think it very likely that it will be common, especially if the movie is great. I suppose time will tell...
Posted by Mark on April 02, 2014 at 10:59 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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