The Avengers

First reactions aren’t always the most reliable.  About half-way through The Avengers, I felt like it was a serviceable action film, but I got stuck being disappointed with the plot.  Yes, it is a ‘superhero’ film, but recent entries into that genre have raised the bar.  I think my expectations were a little higher, given my familiarity with Joss Whedon’s work.  I kept waiting to be impressed.  I’m still waiting.

The Avengers was a fun film, almost breezy if it were not for the death of a significant character (more on that below), with several notable laugh-out-loud moments interspersed with tons of action.  The dialogue is really a high point in the movie, which is no real surprise given the script was written by the director.  That dialogue was constructed around a comics-simple plot.  It’s a film that is appropriate and unchallenging for its target audience: children.

So, how do I feel about The Avengers?  Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by superhero films with more depth, but I found The Avengers to be a very entertaining movie, but nothing I’d hold up as an example of excellent cinema.  The Dark Knight, Iron Man (1), and The Incredible Hulk are superior examples of what happens when you add story and gravitas to characters running around in suits.

Now on to *spoiler* elements…

I was impressed by the use of the Black Widow.  Not normally associated with the higher ranks of costumed heroes, the Widow carries her own and then some.  I didn’t clock it, but I’d suspect she has as much screen time as Iron Man or Captain America.  She definitely made the biggest impression, and might have had one of the few development arcs allowed in this film.

The Hulk was the scene-stealer of the film, certainly in the last third.  His trashing of Loki and arbitrary left on Thor were moments of genuine brilliance.  I think the film was worth it just for those two scenes.

But in that same brilliance was the arbitrary trashing of New York City.  The Avengers was epically epic, fighting to save the world, etc., etc., but where do you even go from there?  I’m not so concerned about the sequel, which I might imagine could be a more intimate film since it will be tough to top the destruction in this film.  And do you want to even top it?  Explosions, billions of dollars of damage, the US economy will not recover too quickly from the bill paid against an intergalactic foe.

Of course, when you have a SHIELD helicarrier, I guess you have some adequate financing.  I still can’t quite wrap my head around the plot that Loki “hatched”.  The characters come to the conclusion (after the Black Widow “tricks” him into revealing his motive for being captured) that he is there to induce the Hulk into a rampage and trash all his enemies while his Barton-led team sabotages the helicarrier.  Well, why does Loki need to be there to make this all happen in the first place?  Couldn’t he have done that remotely?  I’m probably overthinking it, but as I’ve said, I’m accustomed to having plots make sense.

Loki was probably there in order to execute the death of Agent Coulson, which in the Whedon world, is a necessary element into forging a team.  I genuinely did not want Coulson to die.  (You could sacrifice Nick Fury in a heartbeat.  Sam Jackson kinda mailed this one in.)  He was portrayed as a likeable, dry everyman by Clark Gregg, and I think the series and the Marvel universe will miss him badly for it.  He had a great exit, though, have to admit it.  And this is the comics universe – characters don’t stay dead for long.
So, what to think of it?  I will have to watch it on repeated viewings to really assess.  The two kids next to me (6-8 years old) fell asleep half way through, so I don’t think I’m way off here if that’s any indication.  Solid B or B+ on a grading scale.


All-Star Superman

With a mythic weight to it that feels epic, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman exceeded expectations.  I didn't know if I was going to be a fan of the artwork, but I've subsequently picked up other comics of Quitely's.  His art careens somewhere between sculpted beauty and the grotesque.

The series opens up with a space mission to the sun that goes awry (thanks to uber-villain Lex Luthor).  Superman, naturally, saves the day, but not before absorbing lethal amounts of solar energy.  It makes him stronger and more powerful than ever, and it will kill him.

Superman, his mortality virtually assured, proceeds to make a living will and resolve some of the things he's put off for so long.  From his engagements with Lois and Jimmy, to final confrontation with Luthor and Bizarro, the story feels urgent.  What it is to be Superman is translated directly for several of the characters, and the results are at times charming and grounding.

I haven't checked out the animated film, but that might be on my list.  The graphic novel series, however, is moving and a keeper in my collection.

(Kindle Fire version -- always handy!)

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes

It wasn't until I had finished Neil Gaiman's first volume of The Sandman chronicles, Preludes and Nocturnes, that I realized that what I had read was a horror comic.  And, dumbly, what made me realize it was the post-script written by Gaiman himself when he described his book as horror.  And I thought, that makes sense because it was quite disturbing for a regular superhero comic.

Superhero doesn't really apply here.  The protagonist of the story is Dream, the immortal personification of dreams.  He's not a hero.  He's aloof and dismissive in his judgement, when applied, even as it appears brutal to us.  He's not on the side of "good".  He's the lord of dreams, and the stories presented present his re-emergence into the world from a long imprisonment.

Disturbing is always a matter of degrees, but Gaiman's writing is never the issue.  I don't frequent horror as a source of entertainment, but if I do, I really prefer those that have a depth.  In particular, the story "24 Hours"sticks with me as brilliant and particularly horrible.  Will be collecting the other volumes.

(Read on the Kindle Fire and the quality was excellent.)

The Hunger Games

I’m very used to irritating movie-going experiences these days.  The advent of cell phones has dramatically increased the ways in which an audience can break your concentration in a theater.  I fully expected, at the very least, some chatter in the full house viewing of TheHunger Games.  But, to my surprise, it was a very reverential crowd.  My guess is they had all read the book and were fans of the movie before it even rolled.

I’ve only seen it once, but here are my takeaways from the movie.  There was nothing eye-rolling in the dystopian fantasy, unlike the Twilight series.  But, in that comparison, there is a truth that it clearly comes from young adult source material.  I was expecting some more intrigue from the games themselves, but I should have known they would be handled in a rather straightforward, uncomplicated fashion.  This is not to say the scenes weren’t exciting, but the solutions were a little simplistic.

And the most common solution for Katniss’ (the main character) problems appears to have a black character solve them for her.  I counted three different, glaring instances where she is assisted.  I’m not one to look into racism in film, but it became a little obvious.  I haven’t read the books (and I don’t plan to), but I have heard that isn’t the case in the written form.

That said, there are some genuinely funny moments.  Woody Harrelson owns the film in a supporting role as a former Hunger Games winner.  And speaking of winning, I didn’t expect the game itself to be over so quickly.  With the amount of money this film has raked in already, it’s a mortal lock for the two other books to be made to film.  And quickly.  I’m not sure if I’ll hit the theater for the next two, but I’ll certainly rent them to see how this plays out.  Overall, it was a good film.


Fright Night

Fright Night is not horror; it’s suspense with a dash of romantic (and bro-mantic) comedy under a layer of vampiric gore.  It’s definitely not an original concept for the genre (see Buffy) or even for the plot itself (see the original 80’s Fright Night – this is a remake), but it does bring a freshness to the Bella-saturated genre.
It’s impossible to ignore Colin Ferrell’s importance in his role of Jerry, the vampire-next-door.  Colin seems to be perfectly at ease playing a physical, sexual predator and alpha male.

The scene that defines this is framed in the door to Charley’s kitchen, when vampire Jerry asks innocently for a beer, and Charley – very suspicious that extending an offer to enter his house would mean his death – dances around in conversation with him.  Not for long, though, as Jerry is no fool and sees through his feigned ignorance of the rules of the vampire.  At that moment, still in the course of the “innocent” conversation, Jerry switches to thinly-veiled threats against his mom and, especially, his “ripe” young girlfriend.  It’s a moment of threat and grudging respect between the two, and a challenge from Jerry to Charley as a man.

The quick payoff to that is a harrowing, silent invasion of Jerry’s home by Charley – to rescue the neighborhood tease from being a caged, living blood source.  The tension is wonderfully built up as a successful rescue until the two final shots of the scene, one of Jerry cluing the audience in that he’s been playing with Charley, and the final devastating reveal.

Fright Night is a rewatchable, fun romp.


Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (3D)

My wife kept suggesting a trip to see the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace during its 3D run over the past few weeks. At first, I thought she was just suggesting it because she knows my love of Star Wars, but it has begun to dawn on me that she is a genuine fan. (This may seem unusual to not know about your spouse, but my opinions and dedication to the universe are pronounced. When combined with our tendency to do things for the other out of desire to make that person happy, it is sometimes difficult to know what is a genuine preference or just a willing deferral for the sake of the spouse's happiness. It's wonderfully complicated.) So, we finally made it to a showing Sunday afternoon on a blissfully relaxing three-day weekend.

What I found was a film that surprised me. I found it to be well-paced, moving, interesting, visually stunning, and above all, fun. I don't mean this in an analytical Lucas-apologist sense -- I think I actually surprised myself with how much I appreciated and enjoyed the film when it was just me and my wife and no one around to have to defend it against.

R2D2's entrance remains pitch-perfect and (almost) evoking tears in my eyes. Were it not for the pluck, ingenuity, and courage of the astrometric droid under the most dire and consequential of circumstances, the story of Darth Vader ends right there in the flight from Naboo. The four adult leads -- Portman, McGregor, McDiarmid, and Neeson -- all bring skills and gravitas to their nuanced roles. Ian McDiarmid's performances as the (future) Emperor are legendary. McGregor infuses the role of Obi-Wan with an arrogance and youthful disdain ("Why do I suspect we've picked up yet another pathetic life form?") that makes his transition to leader and mentor more striking in the subsequent films. Natalie Portman portrays her dual roles with convincing separation. And Neeson, a physically imposing actor, cuts a wide swath as the zen-like rogue Master and doomed purveyor of the Chosen One to the Jedi forefront.

And speaking of the chosen one, Jake Lloyd's Anakin was just fine as an excitable, all-too-self-aware young slave boy who shows a chilling Vader-esque calm in tracking down pod racers in the Boona Ev course. In the final space battle, he's cool under pressure, even for a child well-aware that he could get killed at any instant. Perhaps it is those slave-honed nerves that came from being forced into life-and-death situations in Pod races by Watto that allow him to disconnect from his fears (or even use his fear as focus?) and give his dark side the ultimate edge in the race for his soul.

The Republic's effective ignorance of slaves within its own boundaries is a jarring subplot that is ignored by *all* our heroes in this story. Both Qui-Gon and Padme (Amidala) express regret that they are not here to free slaves. What they imply is they have their own larger issues going on, and they can't interfere with the way things are. Perhaps the will of the Force, the midichlorians themselves created Anakin to bring this balance. And the way he'll be most effective is being tutored about real life-and-death and how beings are *really* treated here, by his original mentor, Watto.  Is Watto the real chosen mentor of the midichorians?  I love that this film still reveals new angles that I hadn’t seen before.

In his archetype friend, Jar Jar, amply supplies some extra humor in the breaks between the action. Consider the scene with the robots in Watto's shop, near-pod mishap with his hand, and the Bongo line in response to Qui-Gon's calm assurances ("Wensa you thinkin' we in trouble???"). Each of these made me chuckle reflexively. Combined with the almost slap-stick action he exhibits in the final battle on the plains, he's really a remarkable character.

And just one note about the epic lightsaber battle -- Obi-Wan's hopping preface before his aggressive final duel with Darth Maul always gets me going.

Final note: I found the audience experience to be the best I've had in recent memory. The theater was not sparse, yet the usual annoyances (cell phone texting, chatter) were conspicuously absent for the entirety of the film. Even a spattering of (enthusiastic) applause at the end. I guess I was expecting some idiots in the audience who would not be able to restrain some derision for Jake Lloyd or Jar Jar, but then again, perhaps the notion of giving more money to George would keep the angry away.

In short, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (in 3D) was an unexpectedly joyous experience.  Even more so 13 years later.

PS: The 3D enhancement was nicely done and unobtrusive.  Frankly, I’m partial to Blu-Ray crispness over 3D, but nothing trumps the big screen.


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

  The Believing Brain is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.  The science behind just what makes us believe in the supernatural, the odd, the elusive, is a fascinating read that makes sense to someone who struggled his entire life with the amazing pull of the supernatural.

Beliefs themselves are not borne of hard, logical, empirical data:

“Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time…
“The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. We can’t help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality.”

But why we are be built this way?  It’s an evolutionary survival trait:

“In other words, we tend to find meaningful patterns whether they are there or not, and there is a perfectly good reason to do so. In this sense, patternicities such as superstition and magical thinking are not so much errors in cognition as they are natural processes of a learning brain. We can no more eliminate superstitious learning than we can eliminate all learning. Although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the patternicity phenomenon endured the winnowing process of natural selection. Because we must make associations in order to survive and reproduce, natural selection favored all association-making strategies, even those that resulted in false positives. With this evolutionary perspective we can now understand that people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.”

How hard is it to control the body?  The sense of free will itself is very likely an illusion:

“Add to this processing time the other two-tenths of a second to act on the choice, and it means that a full half second passes between our brain’s intention to do something and our awareness of the actual act of doing it. The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act.”

Even if you want to change, there are other factors that discourage change:

“On top of this, our brains place a judgment value upon beliefs. There are good evolutionary reasons for why we form beliefs and judge them as good or bad that I will discuss in the chapter on political beliefs, but suffice it to say here that our evolved tribal tendencies lead us to form coalitions with fellow like-minded members of our group and to demonize others who hold differing beliefs. Thus, when we hear about the beliefs of others that differ from our own, we are naturally inclined to dismiss or dismantle their beliefs as nonsense, evil, or both. This propensity makes it even more difficult to change our minds in the teeth of new evidence…
“Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist, which is affected in part by education but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social change.”

Even if you have a science degree:

“The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.”

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do with my own belief system.  And I can vouch for the following:

“Rarer still, there are those who, upon carefully weighing the evidence for and against a position they already hold, or one they have yet to form a belief about, compute the odds and make a steely-eyed emotionless decision and never look back. Such belief reversals are so rare in religion and politics as to generate headlines if it is someone prominent, such as a cleric who changes religions or renounces his or her faith, or a politician who changes parties or goes independent. It happens, but it is as rare as a black swan.”

In short, beliefs are created and then rationalized, often as an evolutionary survival mechanism, but hardly ever with the conscious mind.  Quitting those instincts has societal as well as mental hurdles, and even when you’re convinced you are following the logical path, it’s hard to ignore your ancestor’s genetic coding.  Read and enjoy.