Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sci-fi at the Oscars 

I’ll be honest: the Academy Awards never loomed much on my horizon. The affair smacks of the kind of self-congratulatory swill so necessary to feed certain species of ego, and even the red-carpeted stars and spangles, shimmering with bright camera flashes and expensive regalia, do little to rouse much out of me. But I reserve the bulk of my disillusionment for the staggering amounts of bias that permeate the Academy  - and no, I’m not just talking about the justified accusations of racial and gender  shame hovering over this year’s nominations like an angry storm. Rather, the bias I address is far subtler and, in many ways, even more insidious: genre bias.  A casual glance at the history of Oscar nominations reveals an overwhelming trend towards drama and long, historical epics, with maybe a good nod or two towards the occasional black comedy.  Most comedies and mysteries, along with what one would call the “speculatives” - science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other visions of what isn’t and what could-be - usually come up with the proverbial short straw when awards season comes a’ knocking.  

Explaining the why and how such a bottle-necking of creative output occurs would take another post - and maybe a foray or two into social psychology.  But this season the Powers that Be decided to throw the much maligned science fiction category, at least, a bone.  Two films about would-be worlds were nominated for Best Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Martian.  This ties with 2009’s Avatar and District 9, but it doesn’t smack of shallow placation implied in that year; these films are genuinely great, and have as fair a chance as any of carrying away the big prize.  Fury Road got a flurry of other nominations in the the sound and effects categories - old staples of sci-fi films - but also netted a Best Director for George Miller, while The Martian landed a Best Actor for Damon along with Best Adapted Screenplay.  I expected Ex Machina to join the coveted Best Picture club as well, but nonetheless made due with a respectable Best Original Screenplay nomination.

I suspect that pop culture osmosis has a part to play in this, with the superhero tsunami mounting six or so years of momentum, along with some smart showings across the speculative fiction board (although conventional fantasy, unfortunately, has been on the downbeat for the past decade or so).  Only time will tell how well science fiction will do this time around, especially since it’s up against such stiff competition.  But who knows?  We just might see history in the making tomorrow night.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: Leonardo's Legacy


Book: Leonardo’s Legacy: How da Vinci Reimagined the World
Author: Stefan Klein
Cambridge, MA : Da Capo Press, c2010

Curiosity isn’t just a gift–it’s a gateway. Children endowed with an unquenchable thirst for figuring things out will be a real force in the world–as long as they never lose the simple joy in finding the bridge between knowing and not knowing. As a kid, that bridge was always over another horizon, obscured by a mountain of books and a plethora of facts, equations, theories, and gadgets–the collected wreckage of my endless pursuit for understanding.  I used to fumble through my local library, digesting facts, flitting from shelf to shelf and from subject to subject. It was there that I first discovered the quintessential “Renaissance Man,” Leonardo di Vinci. The fabled “Universal Genius” was my first encounter with the polymath concept, and every book on him I explored filled me with the hope that it was both possible and desirable to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of some.

But there was something missing. Many authors tended to rattle off his accomplishments like a Wikipedia list: he IS a scientist-mathematician-painter-sculptor-anatomist-writer-engineer. Any insight into his mind, his motivations, are usually swept under the rug or left unexamined. But there is one notable exception: Leonardo’s Legacy: How da Vinci Reimagined the World. A spectacular book penned by Stefan Klein, noted physicist and essayist, it departs from the laudatory fluff of most da Vinci biographies and examines some of the core tenets driving not just the man, but the polymath paradigm as a whole.

For instance, while da Vinci’s extensive resume usually places “mathematician” near the top, he in fact only knew the basics of long division–pretty advanced for his time, but hardly the stuff of pure genius. Instead of firing labels like a rabid kid with a paint gun, Klein looks for the origin of da Vinci’s unique mind view in his notes, letters, and sketches. As it turns out, da Vinci’s drive and most of his discoveries sprung from his pursuit of the ideal expression of art. His examinations into anatomy were born out of dissatisfaction with the outdated models of his time, so often used by artists; his discoveries in optics were spurred by his obsession with accurate light and shadow, and his engineering feats were extensions of these findings, fed also by his need for patronage and the demands of his volatile slice of Italy. Klein presents da Vinci’s achievements as both an extension of his artistry and as an outgrowth of his social and historical context.

By moving his development and discoveries beyond the vague and unhelpful “genius” label, Klein introduced me to a fuller and, dare I say, more accurate model of the “Renaissance soul.” Da Vinci never viewed his varied accomplishments in isolation. Though stricken by a lifelong love for knowledge, he tried to fit what he learned into a comprehensive framework, one much greater than the sum of its parts. Though Klein doesn’t quite mention it by name, his book is a nice primer on the idea of “systems thinking”–an approach to problem solving that views different elements and ideas in the world as part of a larger, interconnected whole, however isolated they appear. To da Vinci and other polymaths, knowledge isn’t just a series of disparate facts, separate leaves to be admired and collected in isolation. The objective is always to get at the “root,” so to speak, to see the tree in its entirety–leaves, branches, and all.

Unfortunately, Klein also points out just how fragile this peculiar brand of curiosity can be when not nurtured or funded by a generous patron. He argues that while we often lament the dearth of “modern day da Vincis,” our current emphasis on specialization and compartmentalization in education can hammer a budding polymath’s interests flat. This, of course, is a debatable point–but even so, Leonardo’s Legacy is a great book for anyone whose passions branch in many directions by offering a peek into one of our most illustrious champions.

Recommendation: Must Read

Monday, February 15, 2016

Movie Review: Deadpool


Movie: Deadpool
Directed by: Tim Miller
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin

Verdict: Crude, shameless, and often hilarious, Deadpool flips the overplayed superhero movie milieu upside-down with its dark humor, subversive wit, and surprisingly solid joining of bathos and pathos, topped with a strong showing by a likable lead that somehow manages to carry to plot over the weighty trappings of its own convoluted origin story.

In depth: Alright - let’s be honest: who’s sick of superhero movies?  Sure, it was great when Toby Maguire was shooting web all over the place, or when Christopher Nolan stepped out of his comfort zone to create compelling drama out of a man in a flying rat costume.  But it seems like every three months, one universe or another is spitting out a new baby to add to a growing family of increasingly superfluous flicks and sequels.  All this swill creates is perfect fermentation for a character like Deadpool to dip his grubby little feet into.  Deadpool is arguably this generation’s iconic Marvel personality - sure, he shares the spot with the still stubbornly popular Wolverine, but as a whole he’s come to represent the general mood of many superhero comic fans: he laughs at conventional morality, breaks the fourth wall with all the delicacy of a cavity search, and basically fails to be or do anything remotely heroic.  So with my expectations running high, I walked into Marvel's latest showcase featuring him in hopes of finding reprieve from all the larger-than-life, apocalyptic and/or origin stories that have saturated the movie scene for some time.  And I got exactly what I wanted, for despite a few slips here and there, Deadpool was a fast, furious ride through Marvel’s wild side, delivering a much-needed antidote to spandex overdose.

Reynolds stars as the legendary Merc with a Mouth, carving a bloody (and side-splitting) path of vengeance as he tracks down the mutant mad scientist Ajax - played by British actor Ed Skrein - who's responsible for ruining his life.  Along the way, he kills a few people, has a run-in with the X-Men (alright, two, including the unfortunately named Negasonic Teenage Warhead) and even gets a chance at love with kind-hearted prostitute Vanessa (Baccarin).  Stocked full of mythology gags, fourth wall malfunctions, and crude humor and below-the-belt shots at everything from cancer to blindness, Marvel’s bad boy revels in the film’s R-rating, all while somehow managing to piece together a mostly coherent plot line - certainly Marvel’s best effort in over a year.  

Ironically, (or maybe not) Deadpool accomplishes what Origins failed so terribly to do: provide an interesting origin story that matches the source material as closely as possible while still allowing necessary breaks from conformity.  From the delightful in medias res opening and laugh-out-loud gag credits, to Deadpool taking time out of his busy car-flipping schedule to delve into flashback, the movie doesn’t pull the punches right out of the gate and somehow makes exposition actually fun.  The detailed cinematography really stands out, with the action scenes almost literally hitting you in the face, and Deadpool's animated mask making you feel like you've actually stepped into one of his comics.  This shouldn't be surprising; this is a (sorta) superhero movie, after all, and actions scenes normally bear almost no commentary in this genre because of it.  But in this case, it wasn’t just the action, but how it was used to enhance the ridiculousness of the situation to spectacular effect, that are really noteworthy; the bullet time sequences, for example, were elevated to the point of parody, but bucked the usual trend by melding with and enhancing the action, instead of just taking away from it.

Ryan Reynolds hops into the title role surrounded by a small bit of controversy due to both his lackluster film corpus lately, and his connection to the horribly conceived big-screen debut of the beloved iconoclast in Wolverine: Origins.  I can’t say that I shared the same worries; his one-scene wonder was just about the best thing in that train wreck, and while his record has admittedly been spotty as of late, his aptitude for black comedy and wit is solid.  He proved me right, for while his comparatively nasally voice after Nolan North’s inspired renditions took some getting used to, in no time you couldn't help but to revel in Ryan’s profanity-laden tirades.  The actor’s natural motor-mouth tendencies served him well, and it seems like, after a little of fumbling, he’s found the role he was born to play.

That said, I can’t say that the other actors help him in carrying the movie in any way.  True, Morena Baccarin was delightful, even if she did fall into the damsel in distress trope way too easily, but Skrein’s odd cross between bored sociopath and soccer hooligan didn’t quite do it for me, nor did his butchy henchwoman Angel Dust.  Granted, this may have been part of an elaborate joke on the shallow and almost laughably stupid characterizations of many super villains in this genre, but it’s hard to tell.  I kept hoping that Deadpool would pop up and skewer or at least explain the inane choices and motives driving some characters - the most glaring to me being why Frances - sorry, Ajax - thought it was a good idea to taunt, and then lure, a virtually indestructible psychopathic killing machine to his location, with no real plan on how to, you know, kill him.  Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (and yes, Wade gave that name the poking it so richly deserved) came off a little better, played by Stefan Kapičić and Brianna Hildebrand, respectively; it helped that they were essentially there to play off of our main hero in different and very funny ways - one being the straight-laced dogooder, the other, simply a bored teenager who marvels at the stupidity in every single adult around her.

Besides that little gap, though, I found the story strong - surprisingly so, since of all the adjectives I’d use to describe a Deadpool movie, “touching” wouldn’t usually be in my top ten.  And yet, it managed to choke a few genuine drops of emotion out of the proverbial offensive turnip, particularly in Wade’s romance with Vanessa.  Their relationship wasn’t overplayed for the most part, and only delved into sentimentality once or twice, which already outstrips most romantic comedies by a mile.  It also gave Reynolds a modicum of room to maneuver, allowing him to show off his genuine nerdy charm - something most incarnations of Deadpool never get the chance to flex in anyway that isn't borderline creepy.  Unfortunately, this undeniable movie strength hides one of its biggest weaknesses.  While Deadpool doesn’t fudge up in indecisiveness like so many other movies that play both sides of the tragedy/comedy divide, it does make the mood whiplash hard and painful - particularly in those rare points when the bridging joke leading from one end to the other falls flat.

Worst of all, the tender moments, while well-done all by themselves, take away a bit of the... meanness, you’d expect in a Deadpool film.  Don’t get me wrong - it was plenty mean on most occasions, sometimes outstandingly so, especially as it concerned  legitimate pot shots at Marvel’s own ridiculousness.  But the movie was just a few snarky comments and subverted expectations shy of really twisting the knife home, and I was personally disappointed that it seemed to pull some of its punches.  But maybe I’m being a selfish; this odd balance was probably necessary in order to keep Deadpool from sliding into complete parody, which wouldn't have done the story any favors.  In the end, Miller found a good middle ground, between self-effacing parody and genuine storytelling, and following his example wouldn’t be a bad thing for any future superhero movie makers.

At the final stand, Deadpool was a fun, witty, and irreverent joy ride through the sometimes twisted, sometimes heartbreaking story of one of Marvel’s most iconic heroes of recent times.  Reynolds nails his role like the bulls-eyes he lands on his unfortunate on screen adversaries, and minor nitpicks aside, Deadpool is arguably the most fun, witty, and tongue-in-cheek superflick since Guardians of the Galaxy.  In a movie market overflowing with heroes and their sequels, here’s one franchise I wouldn’t mind seeing more of in the near future.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Super Bowl 50

So the biggest game of the year - well, in America, anyway -  has come and gone.  A lot of hearts were lifted that night along with the coveted trophy, but so, too, were many dreams and expectations shattered.  So what can we take away from it? Let’s find out.

Pre-Game Analytics:  The Panthers pounced on the championship grass with the best record in the season, suffering only one unexpected, come-from-behind loss in the Peach State.  They topped the NFC in an explosive display of overwhelming offensive power, with field marshal Cam Newton leading the charge as one of the most talented, mobile, and confident QBs to grace the game in many years.  Behind him stood the nimble Greg Olsen, the most flexible tight end in the biz and Cam’s go-to guy when the chips are down, as well as Jonathan Stewart, Corey Brown, and a strong offensive line that kept this team cranking out the points like water at a bottomless well.  Add in a solid defense, and you have the makings of a quintessential “dream team,” the ultimate, unstoppable predatory force bounding towards Super Bowl history.

Unfortunately, their opponent at the crossroads of destiny came equipped with all the tools to grind their offensive juggernaut to a halt.  The Broncos rode into the big game on the back of their unrivaled defense, hedged by the twin walls of DeMarcus Ware and Von MIller, dragging games to a crawl and subjecting every Quarterback they faced - including Tom “Best by Test” Brady - to a brutal whipping.  Their offense, in comparison, is relatively lackluster.  They coasted by on the skill of support QB Osweiler and the speedy Emmanuel Sanders, but eventually saddled up their old war horse who should have LONG been put out to pasture: Peyton Manning, who after a powerful showing early season, slipped into a decline that made replacement mandatory.  With as much admiration as I have for Manning as one of the greatest in history, he overtook his prime by a parsec long before this point, and after his humiliating performance two years ago, I didn’t have much hope for Denver’s scoreboard as they lurched their way to the final showdown.

Expectations: Can’t say I had a favorite or preferred team coming into this, to be honest.  On paper, the Panthers are the stronger, or at least more well-rounded team, though they’ve never faced a defense as fast and as fierce as the Broncos.  In a way, this was an ideal match up: the tops of their respective divisions, with the best offense squaring off against the best defense, in what would undoubtedly be a hard-fought match.  While I spun no prophecies of victory for one or the other - my skills with the crystal ball being less than optimal - I did predict that any necessary team adjustments to made coming into the game belonged to the Cats.  Defense wins championships, so goes the cliche with more than a germ of truth, and if the Panthers came in expecting to knock ‘em back to the end zone for 30 or 40 points, they were due a very rude awakening.

First Half: The gridiron tussle proceeded as expected, with both teams limping forward at a snail’s pace.  It’s already obvious from the start that Cam and his wrecking crew were completely unprepared for the lightning-fast blitz tactics of the Denver bulwark, who stopped them at every turn.  Unfortunately, the Broncos’ own failings in the offensive department laid solely at the leaden feet of Mr. Manning, who was looking every bit his 39 years, plus ten.  The Mile-High boys managed to squeeze out a field goal - the first time Carolina’s trailed in a game, not counting their Atlanta fluke - but things were otherwise unremarkable until Miller blazed past the Panthers line and stripped Newton of his ball and his dignity, landing Denver the first touchdown in the game.  After that, a not-so-quiet desperation sank into the opposing team, and Atlanta’s golden boy grew more desperate - and jittery - as his options dwindled down to one hand.  With the Broncos slamming the door on the running game and with every passing target smothered in bulky white jerseys, it’s no exaggeration to say that Newton pretty much carried his team’s offense for the entire first half.  There was a little light at the end of the tunnel when they pieced together something of an offensive drive to finally put points on the board, but what had become by that point business as usual set in once again, with turnovers, fumbles, and foul-ups galore on both ends.  And again, while the crippled performance of the Panthers can be blamed on their thorough defanging by the Broncos line, Denver’s own failures laid squarely with the ineptitude of the once almighty Manning, whose inability to produce anything on 3rd down looked scarily close to his debacle in 2014 - and had the Denver defense moving through a revolving door.

Second Half: Both teams hit the field with seemingly no change in strategy; the neutered Cats hacked up few offensive options and an increasingly worn out and frustrated Quarterback, while Manning continued his Stevie Wonder-levels of visual perceptiveness as the mounting strain on the Denver defense began to show.  Fortunately, they still had enough gumption to put the anaconda squeeze on Cam and his boys, suffocating any signs of life enough times so that Manning can strike lucky and get his men into field goal range to extend their lead.  Miller had punched the Panthers into a hole with his early touchdown, and it seemed like Carolina would not see the light of day thereafter.  It didn’t help that the Football Gods themselves were sporting brewskies from Rocky Mountain bars that night; the usually dead-accurate Graham Gano missed a 44-yard field goal by a hair, which, while unlikely to have been a game changer, could have provided a much-needed morale boost.  Fortunately, the Broncos Great Wall was starting to bare a few loose bricks since the Denver offense couldn’t keep them off the field for longer than five minutes.  Another field goal widened their lead, but the Panthers were still one touchdown away from snatching the high ground, and fought like they knew it.  Everything changed in the game’s apogean quarter, when the now-thoroughly wound-up Newton was stripped yet again of the ball...but for reasons only he, God, and the turf know, hesitated to drop down on the runaway pigskin, turning what could have been an easy recovery into a 1st and Goal for the Broncos.  With the winds of opportunity blowing on the lee shore, Manning suffered a startling lapse of competence and steered his team to its first offensive touchdown.  In a surprise move, they opted for a two-point conversion; even more surprising, Manning nailed it, and with the board now sitting at 24-10, Carolina would have to make two touchdowns in less than 4 minute to even tie.  With the inevitable in sight, the final few minutes wound down to a quiet conclusion, punctuated here and there by Cam’s tantrums.  The final insult came in the last eleven seconds, when what we can only assume to have been a little unsportsmanlike jostling not only cost the Panthers some yards, but also sped up the clock by ten seconds - denying them even the opportunity of one final blaze of glory.

Concluding Thoughts:  Peyton finally gets his second ring, though I can’t say it was well-earned.  If he’s smart, he’ll exit on a high note and ride off into the sunset, instead of subjecting his fans to another season of his unstable and rapidly fading star.  The real standout of the game is the Denver defense: Ware, Miller (who rightfully got MVP) and the rest of the crew not only held down the lid on the league’s most explosive offense, but they were effectively responsible for both of the Broncos touchdowns.  Though I feel a bit bad for Cam and the Panthers, I know they’ll be back; their set-up has real staying power, and this won’t be their last championship.  They just happened to have the worst possible match-up, and suffered for it.  At least in this case of the age-old proverbial encounter between irresistible force and immovable object, the object nets a commanding - and well-deserved - victory.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

February Releases

February Releases

Hey, everyone - sorry I've been a little slow with the blog, real-life writing assignments have proven to be stubbornly persistent.  That said, I can't pass up the chance to share this month's media goodies, and there will be a lot more reviews coming up, I promise:







See you at the movies!