Sunday, August 6, 2017

Book Review: BiblioTech:Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google



Book: Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google
Author:John Palfrey
Publisher information: New York, NY: Basic Books, c2015

“May you live in interesting times,” that infernal Chinese cliche, has perhaps never been truer than for the bearers of that most beleaguered title, “librarian.”  Despite study after study indicating the power, importance and necessity of the institution and its custodians, enamorment with Google and other big firms of the Internet and their false promises of unrestricted quality information at everyone’s fingertips have lulled us into the delusion that libraries have become obsolete.  A darkly symbiotic falsehood infects many public officials squeezed by tight budgets in the wake of the colossal economic meltdown, and who so often place libraries on the chopping block in their quest to cut “superfluous” agencies.   In the wake of this assault on multiple fronts, champions of the library arise to counter the prevailing common wisdom, advocating for the library’s value and irreplaceable role in the so-called information economy.  BiblioTech is just such a book, a slim and relatively recent text penned by John Palfrey, law professor and co-founder of the Digital Public Library of America.  As apparent from the title, Palfrey subscribes to the digitization school of library future forecasting, albeit with a more sensible and incremental approach than most: he doesn’t herald the imminent death of the book, and his central argument is that as the world gradually transitions from the analog to the digital, libraries must lead the way through the turbulence, forming collaborations with each other to ensure that open access to information will be available to all in the future.

Palfrey takes a “tough love” approach to how he assesses the current state of libraries: while lauding the role they have played and will continue to play in the lives of millions, he chides librarians for not doing enough to form collaborations and transition from bound books to open access digital content.  This well-trodden path may be refreshing or irritating depending on your viewpoint, but Palfrey nails some valid points as he treks along.  He's right in declaring that information has grown too voluminous for any one library to house all of it, and that a joint digital effort will be needed to preserve precious historical documents in the future.  This preservation aspect of the library's modus operandi - so often lost in the rush to “redefine” its mission - is critical to the future, Palfrey argues, especially since digital documents are so transient compared to print.  His chapter on the legal hurdles facing libraries in the acquisition of digital content and navigating copyright law is, as expected, thorough, and Palfrey's proposed solutions are clear-sighted and obtainable.

Unfortunately, Palfrey’s “tough love” often veers toward the unrealistic and the naive; many of his proposals are simply too far out of reach for most public agencies, and his inconsequential chapter on “hacking” library spaces comes off as faddish and meaningless, despite promises to the contrary.  Despite his good ideas and acknowledged respect for the library and its mission, he falls for the standard technologist trap of viewing the library as a platform of limitless possibility, despite the very real limits of funding, staffing, and hours in the day.  He gives numerous and heartfelt beseechments throughout the book for public support of the library, but falls short of real, practical advice on how to accomplish this.  For a more grounded approach to library adaptation in the “information age,” see Michael Gorman’s cri de coeur Our Enduring Values Revisited: Librarianship in an Ever-Changing World, released as a second edition the same year, which provides a welcomed antidote to the blind rush to make libraries everything to everyone by revisiting the core values of this peculiar calling.  By skimping on this central understanding, Palfrey’s work, while more steeped in the murky heart of modern librarianship than most digitization truckers, doesn’t quite check in with the profession’s more nuanced transformation efforts.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August Releases

August Releases



Well, August holds fast to its reputation as the most mind-numbingly dry movie month of the year; there's little to speak of, save for the long-awaited film adaptation of Stephen King's fantasy magnum opus.  Besides that, Al Gore steps back in the ring to go another round against global warming in an expansion to his late July limited release, and...well, that's about it, really.

Television (and Netflix) is cranking out a new wave of pre-fall seeries, including Marlon and Marvel's the Defenders.  Check out these and other hot new releases down below. 




Movies

Television

Games


Music

See you at the movies 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a swinging good film with a huge dose of heart



"Hey, everyone."



Movie: Spider-Man:Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau

Verdict:
This latest incarnation of the Spider-Man mythos is a slick, streamlined, and refreshingly down-to-earth offering of Marvel’s heroic mascot, who swings back into focus on the shoulders of a strong, convincing lead, a relatable villain, a generally likeable cast, and a plot that keeps you engaged even if it leans a bit too heavily on the comedy at some points.

In depth:
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has risen to something rather singular in the world of multi cinematic franchises over the past decade.  Despite a few stumbles here and there, Marvel Studios has generally kept the quality on the up and up, even as they crank out the films like cars on an assembly line.  With Spider-Man: Homecoming, my expectations were already high, as I’ve not only been spoiled to quality from this series, but Tom Holland’s brief but memorable appearance in Captain America: Civil War filled me with high hopes.  I sung Holland’s praises in my review of the superhero tussle, and I figured that the new movie only had more teen witticisms and awkward bonding moments to offer.  And in a very, very rare display of magnanimity by the movie gods, my faith was vindicated, for Homecoming proves itself a high-flying, funny, and heartfelt addition to the canon, giving a unique twist on the Spider-Man legacy and providing the perfect vehicle to catapult Holland up the MCU pantheon.

The story starts a little while after the Battle of New York featured in the first Avengers movie, where scrappy salvage chief Adrian Tomes (Keaton) finds himself muscled out of a contract for some choice alien goodies by Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control.  Feeling the financial squeeze and burned by this latest insult by the big shots, Tomes and his crew pilfer a few Chitauri trinkets and use them to start a new, more clandestine line of business.  Flash forward a few years, and we find our favorite web head giving a hilarious video diary of the events leading up to his recruitment during the Civil War Arc.  High on the adrenaline rush born of trading blows with some of the best heroes on the planet, young Peter Parker (Holland) has seemingly nudged his way under the tutelage of Avengers heavyweight Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and waits eagerly by his phone, ready to spring at a moment’s notice should he be needed once again.  But as the months pass with no contact, our hero-to-be wilts in the dark, trudging through his days at Midtown School of Science and Technology (an interesting twist on Peter’s alma mater) dreaming of the global-scale heroism he believes is his destiny while taking care of routine crime in his neighborhood.  But when a series of Tomes’s super high-tech weapon deals leaves a trail of devastation and near-shattered lives, Peter decides that he’s had enough of sitting on the sidelines.  With the help of his nerdy friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his upgraded suit, he strikes out, hoping to slay this new criminal power shaking up his turf - and maybe in the process, work his way into Tony's good graces.

At its best, The MCU has the hallmark of consistent high quality, and Homecoming is no different.  The writing, acting, pacing, and other necessities of cinema storytelling are top notch here, and hits every note a decent reboot should.  Holland continues his triumphantly awkward march to cinema legend, balancing Peter’s wit and intellectual acumen with all the uncertainty and confusion that comes with being a teenager.  He's only a movie and a half into this franchise, but he's already proven to have a leg -up on his predecessors; Tobey Maguire relied too much on an unnatural adult charm that didn’t feel convincing most of the time, while Andrew Garfield, though a more worthy heir to the web shooters, was crippled by a convoluted plot line that morphed him into an unstable head case.   Holland breathes life into Peter Parker, and plays so naturally off of everyone he encounters in the story that it made the pacing and everything else a breeze.

Of course, Holland wasn’t alone in bringing this ship to shore, as Watts and company assembled a crack cast to support our lead.  While I was initially wary of the changes made to Peter’s school and social circle (it stunk a bit of that tired old cynical ploy of diversity for the sake of it) it turned out for the best, permitting Peter to thrive in his little niche in the high school pecking order without, as in previous incarnations, giving him reason to go on a shooting spree out of sheer frustration.  I wasn’t fond of Ned at first, who seemed disproportionately present and unpleasant as Peter’s “best friend” who causes more trouble than he’s worth.  But as the movie moved forward, he settled into a mercifully saner background role, simultaneously Peter’s sidekick and bridge to a perspective outside of his own ambition.  In fact, most of the film’s minor tweaks to denizens of the Spider-Man mythology turned out for the better.  The refreshing absence of Mary Jane Watson not only frees Peter from getting strangled by a romantic subplot, leaving him free to pine harmlessly for the ineffectual Liz (Laura Harrier), but it also introduces a new “MJ” - the strange, so-called apathetic Michelle Jones, played by the singer and dancer Zendaya.  Sardonic and observant, this newbie in the Spider-Man universe is more wound-down Allison Reynolds than a sultry girl-next-door, and Zendaya’s subtle expressions and mood shifts made her far more welcomed than the typical canon foreigner.  While the MCU received a bit of backlash for casting Marisa Tomei as a younger, sexier Aunt May, she plays naturally off Holland, their relationship more like siblings than the oddly underdeveloped mother-son (or grandmother-grandson) dynamic of yesteryear.  These characters, interesting enough on their own without overshadowing either our lead or the plot, are full of verdant possibilities awaiting full bloom in the awaited sequel. 

But the film really bears its fangs through the down-to-earth treatment it gives the superhero enterprise, the success of which lays squarely with Holland and how he battles with both his mentor and his adversary.  Robert Downey, Jr., of course, has mastered the Art of the Stark, and needs no further commentary on his role by this point; he’s so melded to the character that it's impossible to envision anyone else in that role.  What’s unique here is that he’s not pitching battle against aliens, superhuman freaks, or cybernetic antagonists, but rather, along with his assistant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) he faces the more arduous task of forming a mentor relationship at turns  both hilarious (Happy’s aggressive neglect, and the continual reinforcement that Tony sees the web-slinger as a wee spiderling) and serious.  Peter is driven by his admiration of Iron Man and everything he represents, while the flawed, cranky elder hero wants him to aim lower and do better.  At play throughout the film is this tension between Peter’s high-flying aspirations, and everyone’s attempts to keep him grounded so he can learn how to walk.  These concerns come to a head in his bouts against Alan Tomes, a.k.a. The Vulture.  Keaton’s villain is not an insane psychopath, nor is he a mutant, alien, or global threat whatsoever.  He’s simply a high-tech thief with a blue-collar ethic, a glorified arms dealer leading a team as muddled and bumbling as they are scarily competent when they need to be - and is more worried about providing for his family than taking over the world.  His pedestrian motives and origins ooze from every inch of his mundane surface, from his so-called “lair” (little more than a mechanic’s garage, even with the alien technology) to the Vulture suit itself, which melds a tacky but practical pilot’s jacket with a set of wings that, sci-fi luster aside, looks like something built in a backyard shop.  His ambitions never move beyond this scope, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Spider-Man’s most dramatic rescue in the entire movie (that wasn’t a mop-up of something he had caused) is of Happy Hogan’s career.  Keaton gives the rogue a very likeable demeanor even at his worst, and the serious talk he had with Peter at one point during their final showdown pretty much cemented their working-class positions on the hero-villain pecking order: through their concerns and perspectives, they probably have more in common with each other than either has with the likes of Tony Stark.  

With all this praise thrown at it, there’s certainly some negative ballast to balance everything off, right?  Well, not really.  Sometimes the humor can be a bit invasive; while the MCU is known to perfectly blend bathos and gravitas in their films, this time the pendulum shifted a bit too far in one direction, delivering laughs when I’d prefer not to hear them.  But this is just the gripe of a pedant, for the mood of the movie hardly missed a beat, and the actors involved were all talented enough to know when to drop the smiles and push their dramatic chops.

The rest of the film - the stellar effects, the smart script - is mere dressing on an already elegantly crafted cake.  The reprieve from apocalyptic battles or the clashing of superhuman titans is most welcomed, and the solid story of a young hero’s growth and journey as he learns to act locally while keeping his eyes on the big picture proceeds spectacularly from start to finish.  As the MCU hits the hump in its 3rd phase, Marvel’s most iconic hero couldn’t have asked for a better showing.

Grade:  A

Sunday, June 4, 2017

June Releases

June Releases
The first month of summer has barely set in, yet it's already giving us a swift kick in the teeth thanks to a few film heavyweights.  This weekend alone has offered up two of the year's strongest movie showings: Wonder Woman, the longed-awaited rehabilitator of the lagging DC cinematic universe; and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, the feature film debut of Dav Pilkey's beloved literature icon.  As the month drags on, we'll be treated to another Transformers flick, yet another Mummy reboot, and the sequelitis combo of Despicable Me and Pixar's quasi black sheep Cars.

Check out the other media goodies this June down below.



Movies

Television

Games

Books

 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings"





Book: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
Authors: Philip and Carol Zaleski
NYC, New York:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, c2015

Mythopoeia (“myth-making” in Greek) is not a word in everyone’s vocabulary, but maybe it should be.  A storytelling device characterized by a rich, densely structured, artificially-created mythos, it has existed since humans first told stories, but filtered into popular imagination today through the efforts of fantasy icon J.R.R. Tolkien.  The Oxford don’s compelling mythic narratives practically built our modern iterations of dwarves, elves and dragons, and we encounter variants of his creations in nearly every drop of fantasy media around, whether they are games, books, art, or the silver screen.  It's no exaggeration to say that the story of high fantasy in the second half of the 20th century and beyond is, ultimately, the story of Tolkien; everyone else is either a mimic, a detractor, or a renovator of his legacy.  

Tolkien’s towering presence in all things Fae is matched only by C.S. Lewis, the famous writer, scholar, and Christian apologist, as well as Tolkien’s friend and colleague.  Between them, they created some of the most memorable works of fantasy found in the English language.  But their most attentive devotees are well aware that the men were more than just casual friends.  Tolkien and Lewis were both part of an altogether higher order - an informal circle of like-minded peers, most hailing from the University of Oxford, gathered to discuss literature, philosophy, and the contemporary trends of society.  These men, “the Inklings,” were a diverse lot, bound only by a common Christian faith and a fondness for the fantastic, but they left a lasting impact in the world of letters and fantasy literature.  The fount of this grand legacy is captured in the wise and well written work by a husband and wife team; writers and religious scholars Philip and Carol Zaleski.  The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a riveting group biography, chronicling not only the lives of literary greats like Tolkien and Lewis, but also covering some of the lesser known members of this cabal, particularly Owen Barfield, the Anthroposophist philosopher; and Charles Williams, Anglican mystic and delver into supernatural worlds unseen.  The Zaleskis shed new light on these writers, and in the process weave together a spellbinding narrative of collaboration, friendship, and ultimately, the triumph of wonder over the technical ingenuity of their literary peers.

The book’s function as a literary biography lends an idiosyncratic structure in which the lives of the Inklings are accompanied and bolstered by examinations of their relevant works.  This proves a successful showing, though it took some time before the core of this got going. The book's first half or so narrows its focus to Lewis and Tolkien, who are given a very thorough treatment of their lives from birth onward.  It make sense narrative sense, since both Lewis and Tolkien are unquestionably the main draws of both scholarly and informal study of the Inklings: the former recognized as maestro of the Inkling gatherings and the advocate of their place in intellectual discourse, while the latter is crucial to their modern fame and their launch into current fictional consciousness.  The authors cover their early lives, including their nascent years and the deaths which shaped them, and onward to their harrowing experiences during World War I and post-war lives as academics, translators, and writers.  The narrative grabs you like a fantasy epic, one informed by personal letters and reflections, and leaves you following the trail of these “characters” as you would any of their fictional creations: Lewis’s climb from atheism to “mere Christianity,” Tolkien’s dealings with a national and intellectual environment hostile to his beloved Catholicism, and the manner in which both men confront the materialism and skepticism rife in their surroundings with faith and humor.  My only issues is that the two other foci, Barfield and Williams, are given comparatively skimpy treatments, their stories subject to curt summation in the space of a chapter or two, with the importance of their roles initially limited to their relationships to Lewis.

But soon after the Inklings formed, the book really hits its stride, seamlessly integrating the great works by these men and the corresponding life events that shaped them.  They come alive as  personalities along with their highs and lows, and the Zaleskis’ lively prose keeps things moving along in a well-plodded pace.  The language can get a little flowery at places, but that minor quibble pales before the passion clearly shown for their subjects on every page.  Likewise, some important aspects of the Inklings' private lives are left curiously unexamined, like the tensions between Tolkien and his wife Edith over his religion, or details of Lewis's courtship with and eventual marriage to American writer Joy Davidman - which seems odd, considering the amount of detailed they poured into many other areas.  That said, the final analysis reads like a clear and balanced apologia of Inklings’ place in literary history: though lacking either the stylistic sophistication of their modernist contemporaries, or the thorough mastery of technical argumentation present among academic theologians and philosophers, they were able to tap into a sense of wonder and joy clear only to unjaded eyes, and in the process shaped the face of modern fantasy fiction - and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.

Recommendation: Must Read

Saturday, May 6, 2017

"Power Rangers": current confusions and future directions for a franchise-to-be



When Saban’s Power Rangers reboot stormed into theaters a few weeks back, I met it with an almost glacial indifference.  I don't hate the franchise, and I never did; I grew up during its heyday, and even I offered my share of terrible karate mimicry along with my nerdy peers back when it was all the rage.  But puberty had scoured all the morphing out of me, and for a long while, I paid no heed to its numerous derivatives.  My misgivings only grew after seeing the movie's trailer, which gave off the disjointed self-awareness so typical of children's properties that make a stab at the "darker and edgier" route.  Still, I walked in expecting little more than a harmless trip down nostalgia lane, filled with Super Sentai camp and buckets of cheese, and framed by a superficial mantle of "relevance."  

But walking out, I'm honestly not sure what I watched. I can't say Power Rangers is bad per se,but it is certainly a film asunder, blowing its energies and potential in a confused effort to appeal to multiple tastes and maturity levels.  The tumult wobbles back and forth throughout the movie, channeling The Breakfast Club and its teenage angst one minute, before indulging in wacky, Ferris Bueller-esque night time romps al la Jason and Billy the next, and then bringing it all home with the now standard superhero assemblages seen in the MCU.  And all the while, we're exposed to a strange comedy chop suey, with adult-leaning jokes embedded in campy, adolescent humor ripped straight from the days when Jason David Frank reigned as undisputed king of the spandex brigade.  

It’s Crowded in Here…

The problems with Power Rangers began before the movie even came out.  Back when the original series and first film premiered, big screen superhero options for children were virtually nonexistent.  The exposure most of us had to the DC and Marvel worlds beyond the comics was through their sanitized and poorly animated treatments on the boob tube, so the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers was a unique treat for restless kids starved of high-flying martial arts action in the flesh.  But those days are long gone, and the advent of the MCU and its host of rounded characters and sensible plot lines gives us little reason to long for the quaint nonsense of past Power Ranger glory.  It doesn’t help that standards of what are considered "acceptable" levels of violence and maturity have shifted considerably since the 1990s.  It's almost laughable to modern audiences to discover that the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers incited such a row among parents when it first came out due to its supposedly violent content.  With stylized hyper-violence now endemic in PG and PG-13 hero films, the conflicts so assaulted before look positively feeble in comparison.  While I don’t fully agree with Variety critic Owen Gleiberman’s damning assessment of the movie, it’s hard to argue with his central claim: with so many options on the table these days, children no longer need “safe, lame and pandering” heroes to occupy them.

Who’s movie is it, anyway?

But Gleiderman does drop one other, largely unexamined hint.  We shouldn’t assume that Power Rangers was strictly for kids, and certainly the theater I attended was packed with adults who, like me, still remember halcyon days of reenacting the zords and Kung Fu action with exuberant delight.  These kids were now parents themselves, bringing their little ones along on nostalgia high to relive their own joys.  And therein lies the problem; Power Rangers didn't do a good enough job communicating who, exactly, it was targeting.  Children?  Too many mature themes and veiled masturbation jokes - and at least for the Russians, lesbians.  The adults?  While the nostalgia crowd swarmed in rank and file, I doubt even they knew what to expect from this reboot.  The confusion is very evident in the film’s execution, where the aforementioned mood swings threw off the narrative flow quite a bit.  While the awkwardly cobbled together display did little to beat down the most stalwart devotees (moviegoers gave Power Rangers, on average, a far higher rating than critics) minus an adjustment made for lowered expectations, Saban’s morphing quintet remained locked in a centrifugal trap, their potential wasted in a fruitless attempt to go everywhere at once.

Silver Linings

My gentle condemnations probably wouldn’t amount to much if this was the end of the line.  However, since Saban insists on spreading his reboot into a six-movie story arc despite the relatively lackluster return in theaters, this might not be the last time we see Jason and the gang karate chopping evil on the big screen.  Is there any hope, then, to see the series rise above superhero mediocrity?  Perhaps, and the key lies in the film’s tight-knit cast and how they skew the usual Power Rangers formula.  In most forms in the franchise, our leading heroes are generally Grade A all-Americans - proficient in martial arts, mostly well-liked, and seated firmly in the high school hierarchy, with every stereotype that implies.  Sure, there is "diversity," in a manner of speaking, but it's literally skin deep - expressed in ethnicity, but not in individual lived experiences.  But things are different this time around; our would-be Rangers are the quintessential rag-tag group of misfits, each with their own burdens to bear.  Jason is a fallen hero, now condemned to house arrest; Kimberly is a cyberbully, and Billy, in a surprisingly convincing portrayal, is autistic - a superhero first, along with Becky G’s Trini, a girl who, if not outright lesbian, is certainly questioning her sexuality.  Last but not least is Zack, who in a welcomed departure from his 90s Cool Black Friend depiction, is a bilingual Chinese-American, saddled with a sick mother who is the fount of his outlandish and at times unstable behavior.  It’s easy to criticize how Power Rangers handled this - the schizophrenic implementation, the lopsided execution - but you can’t deny that the very ideas themselves are groundbreaking.  Even with the diversity of hero flicks out these days, the trials and tribulations of teen heroes - not counting Spider-Man - are still rare on the big screen, and this push for “relevance,” which too often ends in abysmal failure, may point a way through the swamp of camp and string cheese miring the Power Rangers franchise as a whole.

So What Now?

So how can the future films avoid the pitfalls of confusion and contradiction that plague this first entry?   Keep the focus on the kids and their struggles.  The mood should be kept light, to resist the false luster of escalating angst in the name of “art.”  But they should respect the issues which arise naturally from such an eclectic mix of teenagers, as opposed to discarding them to the dustbin of mere superficial diversity.  How far can they take Trini’s burgeoning sexuality?  Will Billy’s autism ever become an actual issue to deal with on the field?  Does Kimberly still have a bit of the mean girl in her, and could this taint her interactions with her newfound friends?  All this and more are ripe for exploration, highlighting the difficult transitions we all face as we graduate from youth to adulthood - learning to get along, opening up to others, and collaborating into a functional unit much greater than the sums of our flaws and insecurities.

Is this a pretentious aspiration, especially in a franchise associated with kicking aliens in the face?  Maybe.  I say it's worth an attempt ether way, otherwise don't bother making characters with that degree of depth in the first place. While this might run the risk of alienating fans who wish only to relive past glories of martial madness across galaxies, it may yet open the door to a longer lived and, perhaps, more satisfying film series.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

May Releases

May Releases

So April's showers have left a few puddles in their wake.  Will May bring the expected late spring blooms?  If so, they're already off to a good start, with Guardian of the Galaxies Vol. 2 storming into theaters this coming Friday.  Tailing close behind is Alien: Covenant, the follow-up to Ridley Scott's Prometheus and another notch in his pre-Alien prequel series.  And, of course, the obligatory sequelitis diagnosis rounds out the big-name movies, with the latest Pirates of the Caribbean and Diary of a Wimpy Kid hedging in the last two weeks of the month.

Among the hot new games set to premiere this month, two stand out: Injustice 2, a sequel to the 2013 DC hero hit Injustice: Gods Among Us; and Prey, a re-imaging of the 2006 first-person shooter of the same name.

Check out below for more, along with this month's hottest books, albums, and television premieres:





Movies

Television

Games

Books