Friday, July 08, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

This month started with delightful race up on Mackinac Island. I'm not going to write it up since I've been there so many times you're probably thinking "Again? Go somewhere new for a change ya loser." And it was pretty much exactly the same as it has been for the -- oh, fifteen-ish years I've been going. I find that's part of the attraction. Because I'm old now I find myself appreciating stability.

I also had house guests all month. A dear friend of mine and her seven-year-old son were relocating to North Carolina and needed a place to stay so the boy could finish first grade without upheaval. They were a delight to have around. Childhood is simultaneously identical and completely different than I remember. That I may write about, but not this month.

[Movies] Flick Check - Round-Up
[TV] Toob Notes - Season End Round-Up
[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

[Movies] Flick Check - Round-Up

Deadpool - Probably dethrones Guardians of the Galaxy as the outright funniest superhero movie, and it becomes only really good movie that is related to the X-Men. Now I'm going to reminisce about my tween-age comic book days.

I was always a fan of supergroups; Avengers, Defenders, Fantastic Four etc. The interesting aspect to them was that they all had a different source of why they were together. FF was a family, literally for the most part. They did what they did because the Dad (Reed) was guiding them and while they occasionally defied and bickered there was the sense they were together because they were blood. The Defenders, who we have yet to see on the big or small screen (but are coming to Netflix) were a group of independent iconoclasts with their own personal motivations who came together when they had a shared interest. The Avengers were together to keep the world safe. They chose to be together and take on that responsibility, which was nice of them. The X-Men were together because, well they were born that way and they shared oppression by the wider world. I never really liked them. It was hard for me to imagine why such powerful beings would want to identify themselves as victims, but Marvel was always on the bleeding edge of progressive sentiment. Also, they lacked terribly interesting individual characteristics -- besides the shared oppression.

Back then, the Avengers were the kings. I would say FF was a close second and though I followed them, I didn't have great enthusiasm for them. The Defenders were my favorites and X-Men held no interest for me -- both were decidedly niche. But relevant to today, I would say in the comics themselves the relationship between The Avengers and X-Men was about the same as it is between the two movie franchises. The Avengers was the absolute pinnacle whereas the X-men were kind of "Meh".

A few years after I lost interest in comics I happened to check back in and I was surprised at what I found. The Defenders had drifted into oblivion. The Avengers and FF were still cruising along, but the X-Men were suddenly kings of the hill. The cool kids were all over Wolverine and heralding the X-Men as the supergroup of a new generation (a generation that is only slightly less old than me now). I wasn't interested enough to find out if the accolades were merited or not, but it does explain why the X-Men was the first of the Marvel supergroups franchise to make it to film.

The X-Men movies have varied in quality; none of them have been anything more than solid action films of the sort that were are churned out by the dozens every year in this Epoch of Blockbuster Action Films. They seem to have the same shortcomings as the old comic series. There is little definition to the characters and they all seem to live in pretty much the same two-dimensional personality space. The scripts lack the Feige/Whedon crackling wit, and even when they attempt to be lighthearted the timing is stiff. For all their obvious talent, guys like Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman just don't do droll repartee terribly well.

But, surprise, Ryan Reynolds absolutely does. This movie was a minefield of potential disaster; the nudity, the dark humor, the in-jokes, the breaking of the 4th wall. A little misstep with these devices and you find yourself in the midst of unintentional parody. Well that didn't happen here. They balanced it pretty much perfectly, enlisted actors with real comic chops, and just went for it. Success. Personally, I could have done with a little less potty humor. And the plot, such as it was, was pretty bland. Still, it must have been so joyfully imagined to have that sort of enthusiasm come through. It was everything the X-Men movies aren't. Where they go next I don't know. (I should point out I have not seen X-Men Apocalypse yet.) It's still a minefield if they don't get a good script and director for a sequel.

Deadpool arrived in print after my comic book phase, so if this is the sort of thing that made X-Men comics king of the hill, I now understand.

Mr.Holmes - An affecting rumination on facts and objectivity versus lying for the sake of human dignity . Ian Mckellen plays a very old Holmes who is facing the inevitable degradation of his mental capacity and memory. He is hoping some sort of homeopathic snake-oil will keep himself sharp -- royal jelly made with prickly ash -- but it's not working. In his senescence Holmes tends his bees, while he is in turn tended to by a good, but uneducated, woman and her tween aged son. The son has a bit of hero worship going for Holmes and his dedication to pure objectivity, which his mother finds threatening.

For his part, Holmes is facing his degradation with the same pure objectivity that he brought to his cases earlier in life. He is haunted, however, by a number of things: the account of his final case by Dr. Watson in which truth (but not in Watson's portrayal) led to tragedy; a recent encounter with man in Japan who believes his father had vanished from his life on the advice of Holmes; the cruel treatment of the son towards his uneducated mother.

In time a tragedy occurs and Holmes gets to exercise his skill for deduction one last time and in the course, begins to understand the need for artifice and kind delusions in preserving human dignity. Although everything ends OK, I wouldn't call it happy, just resigned. The tone of the movie is elegiac, as is existence for those whose lives are winding down. It would have served as a wonderful denouement for Ian McKellan (kind of like The Shootist was for John Wayne) if he wasn't still going strong. It was also nice to see a movie that eschewed bombast and great social themes and sought only to do a deeply personal character study. The sort of thing you usually can only find on TV.

[TV] Toob Notes - Season End Round-Up

Penny Dreadful - You probably didn't watch this show but you should have. It's gothic horror set in Victorian England populated by famous literary characters: Dr. Frankenstein and his "monster" and his "bride", Dracula, Dorian Gray, assorted werewolves and demons and such. By its description it should be utter tripe, but it exceptionally well done. It just does so many things right. The cinematography really aspires to the "every frame a painting" ideal. The dialogue has a florid beauty, especially that of Frankenstein's monster who spouts the poetry of John Clare -- you can tell the writing staff understands how to use the English language. Even more impressive is the acting. Eva Green is the centerpiece and gave a tour de force, but all the actors -- including Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper, and Rory Kinnear -- were uniformly magnificent from top to bottom. No scenery was left unchewed. The entire series of three seasons (and done) was a triumph of talent over a mundane and hackneyed premise. I predict Penny Dreadful builds a following post mortem, slow and steady via binge streaming over the next few years.

Game of Thrones -- Poor Hodor. For Game of Thrones this was the year it became conventional. Gone is the show that defied the primal dramatic need for comeuppance. The show where anyone could be killed, even the most beloved characters; where evil was just as likely to triumph as good, and without consequence. This year the characters of our sympathies got wins. Even the ones we didn't really like -- Cersei -- got wins over ones we hated even more -- the High Sparrow. The annoying Tommen, the pointless Margery, the guilty Red Woman, and the execrable Ramsay Bolton, other minor villains, were all dealt with satisfyingly. The only price we paid for this jamboree of righteous closure was the loss of a big, friendly dude with a severely limited vocabulary. My main fear is that now the forces coming to bear on Westros will be dealt with in a plot driven manner; that the characters will be puppeteered around to produce certain events that will give the audience the warm fuzzies. Perhaps it's better that way. It will keep ratings up and make everyone feel satisfied about the ending (notice I didn't say happy). As Ian McShane said, "It's just tits and dragons."

I, however, will miss the daring, almost nihilistic show that violated dramatic norms (and I am not speaking of the standard HBO lurid sexual displays for shock value). Perhaps they'll pull something off -- something truly outlandish or at least inconclusive. There is fodder for it. There is no telling what Cersei's state of mind is. The theme of how Arya and Sansa have survived and adapted since their father was beheaded in front them has promise. There are a couple of eunuchs scurrying about that may have some dramatic play. There is hope. And there's no point in griping about good entertainment. I think we can count on that in any case, especially the inevitable Dragons vs. the Zombies episodes.

Silicon Valley -- certain one of the best satires (as opposed to sitcoms) in history, it's a real pleasure to watch. Especially poignant for those of us working in technology as much of the satire is dead on accurate. The plot arcs move from between success and defeat and recovery and failure. Fates are reversed over and over again, as often at the capricious whim of fate versus personal effort and insight. That too rings true. Witheringly funny moments, mostly courtesy of T.J. Miller as Erlich Bachman, combine with deep irony and, sadly, a fair share of potty humor. Not the funniest show on TV -- that remains Archer even though it is not what it once was -- but the most sharply observed, a quality common to most comedy from Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Office Space, King of the Hill). If you're not up on Silicon Valley -- time to binge.

[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

Good ol' Barnes and Noble. There is one left here in Ann Arbor (ironically, Border's home town). Back in the old days, they had these big comfy chairs you could lounge around in (they have since removed them in favor of hard wooden dining chairs) and I would suspect a solid percentage of my second and third books were written while slouched in one of them. B and N, having pretty much smothered the small independent bookstores is now shivering in the cold shower of reality that is Amazon. They have managed to outlast Border's but every attempt they have made to compete directly with Amazon has failed miserably -- their website, Nook, and so forth.

Over at New Republic there's a somewhat confused article lamenting B and N's potential inevitable demise for what appears to be two reasons.
  1. There are people who feel the need to see a book before they buy it as part of the discovery process. Out of kindness, we don't accuse them of buying it based on the cover. Without Barnes and Noble, these people will have no choice but to buy at Target or Walmart where the selection is stiflingly small. Well, I'd suggest that the market of people who require a tactile experience to "discover" any book beyond those on the bestseller lists is vanishingly small and which and Walmart and Target and various airports is good enough for them.
  2. B and N is responsible for making large orders of books which provide a financial cushion for publishers which they use to support taking risks on unknown authors or risky books. Restated, that's a lament for the current revenue model. Which is a disaster for unknown authors. It supposes the people pulling the strings are the ones who know the audience and what they value, but if they did, the industry would be getting its clock cleaned by Amazon. Furthermore, I cannot comprehend an argument that choice for readers will be minimized in anyway when Amazon pretty much takes the cost of publishing to near zero. The publishing industry is a broken mess with none of it having to do with losing big orders from B and N. The problem with the publishing industry is that nobody knows how to sell books in the new world.
For their part, B and N aren't braying about how unfair the worlds is being to their noble cause of hawking books old school style. They are evidently going to begin testing an entirely new experience for shoppers, involving access to digital content, restaurant style food service, and alcoholic beverages. I like it. The whole slouched-in-a-big-comfy-chair-with-a-yellow-legal-pad aesthetic is even more appealing to me if I do it with a glass of bourbon over ice. But bear in mind, the extent of that market might not go past my own skin. Look at it this way, digital access aside, if you have a profitable restaurant combined with an unprofitable bookstore, you really just have a restaurant with an added expense. That is to say, unless the bookstore/restaurant combo creates some sort of synergy where the bookstore gives the restaurant enough added business to cover its own losses, you're better off burning the books and opening a Chili's. On the other hand, the fact that Amazon is dipping its gargantuan toe into brick and mortar suggests there might be a model that works, but it's important to remember Amazon is a tech conglomerate, not just a bookstore, and they have many more potentially profitable tributaries to exploit.

Which is why I am skeptical. It seems to me, a bookstore almost has to be a mom and pop shop to survive. It will never be big time profitable. It has to be a labor of love that makes enough money enough to keep mom and pop solvent. We have a couple of those in Ann Arbor; the owner/operators work their butts off out of love and pride and they just get by. B and N can't do that. They have shareholders who don't much value the image of the noble booksellers over, say, quarterly earnings. Best to leave the bookstores to mom and pop.