Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Month That Was - October 2016

I got up to Mackinac for the last time this year. Half Marathon. Pretty good time. On a sunny autumn day Mackinac Island is as beautiful as anywhere in the world. Back down south I still have a lot of clean-up to do before winter -- my deck, my garage...ugh.

I have a minor injury I need to work through. I apparently tore something or other in my left forearm. It was a terrifying occurrence; I was lifting weights and I heard three distinct pops in my left arm, as if bands were snapping under the skin. The pain was bad. Of course the first thing I did was start doing internet research on what I might have done to myself. Stupid idea, since I ended up convinced that I was going to need surgery and be in a cast for six months. Subsequent visits to a PT and my doctor calmed me down. The word is that the only thing I need is two or three weeks of R & R (rest and rehab) and I & I (ibuprofen and ice). Still it will keep me out of the gym. I will try to use that time for writing instead.

And the comic event of the month was me accidentally ordering a $300 pair of headphones from Amazon. I had no idea I did it until I got an alert on my phone that my "headphones had shipped". What headphones? I didn't order any headphones! Quick check of my Amazon account tells me I one-clicked them. It seems when I was on my little Samsung tablet I was clicking around Amazon shopping for a pair of earbuds. Now, my tablet doesn't have the best response time and I am the most impatient browser in the world so I was probably rapid-fire punching my right index finger to try to make it go faster and in the course of that I evidently one-clicked a $300 pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Luckily it was Amazon so I could just ship them back for a refund. I have disabled one-click on all my devices now.

[Movies] Flick Check: Yet More Action
[TV] Toob Notes
[Rant, Baseball] Windy City Memories

[Movies] Flick Check: Yet More Action

It's astonishing how bad the X-Men movie series has been. With the possible exception of Days of Future Past, which managed eek a single toe beyond the line into mediocrity, the rest have ranged from simply lame to completely unwatchable. No they aren't Fantastic Four level disasters, but just because you didn't get food poisoning from that gas station breakfast burrito doesn't mean it was worth eating.

There is nothing whatsoever to recommend them. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are just mailing it in so they have a good excuse to hang out together. Michael Fassbinder and James McAvoy must feel like they lost a bet. Hugh Jackman's acting has all the nuance of an episode of roid rage. The rest of the characters are pretty much indistinguishable. That is, of course, the source of the problem; there's no there there with this scripts or characters. The villains' motivations are nonsensical. The storylines, of which there are exactly one per movie, are without any sort of purpose. They are all formula and no inspiration. When they try to be witty, they only end up more insipid.

There are probably not more than 10 minutes of action in the entirety of X-Men: Apocalypse and pretty much none until we are nearly an hour into this snooze-fest. What does come is staged in the least compelling and creative way possible. They mostly talk at each other and set the table for something that never comes. They have exchanges like: "I'm not afraid of him!" "You should be!" (Whither, Deadpool?)

What's clear from all this is the no one cared enough about the project to devote any talent to it. Everyone is going through the motions; painting by numbers. It's just a job and a paycheck and hope the marketing team can generate enough profit to keep the train running.

I guess whether it's out of hope, habit, or hunger, enough people are still gonna buy those dicey-looking breakfast burritos.

Also lame is Star Trek: Beyond. Although more spritely that X-Men, it still misses the mark. Oh it's a good quality production, the hallmark of JJ Abrams. The CGI here is definitely a cut above. And Simon Pegg does reasonably well at keeping things moving along (although he is no Joss Whedon). But the whole exercise seems kind of pointless. We get some contrived character development as both Kirk and Spock have doubts about continuing in Star Fleet, sadly this is conveyed via exposition, and the performances of Quinto and Pine are so lackluster that I really didn't care what they decided. The villain was a confused mess of tropes. Fortunately there were nicely delivered bits and pieces of humor to break up the monotony, although it occasionally descended into camp. Shrug.

Side note: I'm pretty sure if they eliminated this exchange...
A: Go do this very specific action!
B: Why?
...we'd reduce running time of most action films by a third.

I think it's time to put Star Trek to bed, or at least turn it inside out. The Abrams movies are descending in quality. The new series that was a supposed reboot is smelling like a disaster, what with delays and personnel problems, and when you hear that their big new idea is to have gay crew members you begin to sense that it will be based in formulation rather than inspiration. Maybe it's time to let the franchise die.

You know what I find I miss? Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That show had some real drama about it. It was, at least in the later years, the brainchild of Ron Moore who was involved in many renown tv project including the late, lamented, Carnivale. DS9 would actually be a perfect reboot for a 12-episode-a-year auteur TV series. It is the only one of the old shows I will check out if I stumble on a rerun. The rest are thoroughly unwatchable.

Bonus: I rewatched Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it came on free premium cable (so to speak). It's better than I gave it credit for. Yes, it is a pastiche of the six prequels, but at least it isn't the lowest common denominator. It manages to equal the suckitude of the worst of the prequels but it also manages to hit some very high points as well. I still think it would have been lost without Harrison Ford's mighty performance; it really only sizzled when he was on screen. But it wasn't a total loss (even if Plinkett thinks so).

I keep harping on action movies because, as I've stated before, I believe them to be the premier art form of the 21st century so far. Although technically I am not sure they are "art" so much as "craft". However categorized, they exist now at such an elevated level that even half-hearted fare such as the movies above are lightyears ahead of where they were thirty years ago. Drop any one of these lukewarm films in the 1990 market and it will be legendary.

That, for what it is worth, is a grown-ass man's justification for following nerdy kid stuff.

[TV] Toob Notes

While we are on the Superhero topic, this month saw the release of Luke Cage to Netflix, the third of four Netflix series that will lead to a short-lived, apparently, Defenders series (they've announced only 8 episodes). After reading some early reviews I almost passed on watching Cage since reviewers had me convinced that the whole point of it was its "blackness" and I have no interest in being subjected to a 12-hour diatribe on racial injustice. Fortunately that was just the reviewers personal biases coming into play. What it was was a typical entry in the Netflix Marvel universe -- flashes of brilliance but deeply flawed.

Much of the quality of these stories is dependent on the quality of the villain. The villain in the first half of this series was quite good. Cottonmouth -- the Harlem gangster who has to deftly keep on top of a dirty cop and his dirty politician cousin and his dirty overlord was a good one. Then for some reason the writers decided to shift the emphasis to his dirty overlord, Diamondback, who instead of being shaded, was cartoonishly all-powerful and had a contrived personal vendetta against Cage, leading one to pine for Kingpin and Vincent D'onofrio.

To continue the contrast, the action scenes were sad. Like straight-out-of-the-seventies sad. After the groundbreaking work in Daredevil I expected more. Though the dialogue was superior to Daredevil, that's not saying much; they still drifted into their fair share of exposition. There were a couple of fine supporting characters -- Misty and Shades were a cut above -- again better than DD. But the best thing about it was the astonishingly great soundtrack, acts which I will describe perhaps inaccurately as neo-soul. Great music. A playlist is available on Spotify.

While both DD and Luke Cage are seriously flawed (I have not seen Jessica Jones, but I assume from reviews that it suffers from similar flaws), they are the best the TV realm has to offer for this genre. A step up from the DC characters on the CW. Just don't be expecting a Kevin Feige-esque vision and you won't be disappointed.

As to more adult fare, the best show nobody watches just wrapped up season 3. Halt and Catch Fire is one of only two shows I can think of that is truly character driven (the other being Better Call Saul). A summary would be an injustice, especially since you need to understand and see the full development of the characters over the course of three seasons. I should really do a review and summary of the entire series, if I can ever find the time.

I don't use the phrase character driven lightly. The qualities of the four main characters are finely drawn so that it is not just the events that bring about transformations in story, it's the personalities that keep moving these four people in and out of each other's orbits and altering the relationships and initiating dramatic conflicts among them. If anything, it has a more difficult path than Better Call Saul because there is not the underlying criminal activity to titillate the senses. These folks are interacting at a crazy point in a crazy industry, but it's still about business -- making it spiritual kin to Mad Men. This season we saw the horrible damage that can be wrought by blatant self-serving ego, but also the lesser damage of the ego of good intentions. I loved every minute of it.

God bless AMC for giving them another year to wrap things up despite the horrendous ratings. I am no fan of the Walking Dead, but if it finances quality shows like this, I hope it never ends. If you decide to binge Halt and Catch Fire let me warn you that season 1 is of lesser quality, and a little overwrought. Season 2 is terrific and season 3 steps it up from there. Don't give up in the early going, is what I'm saying.

Lastly, let me give a thumbs up to a new comedy, The Good Place. Essentially the story of woman who finds herself in Heaven by mistake, it is one of those smartly written comedies which somehow keep the gag volume high without sacrificing quality. If you were ever sitting around wondering if it was possible to turn ethical philosophy into a quality sitcom, the answer is yes. It also features Kristen Bell, who has about the best comic timing of any actress today. It's been awhile since I glommed onto a sitcom, but I think this one's a keeper.

[Rant, Baseball] Windy City Memories

I have spent more time in Chicago (4 hours away) than Detroit (1 hour away) in the last 15 years. I think in that whole time I have been to Detroit once and that was just to pass through to Grosse Pointe. I have never seen the Tigers at Comerica Park, although I have seen them at spring training in Lakeland. On the other hand I have twice seen the Cubbies at Wrigley, have taken a historic tour of Wrigley, and spent a number of summer afternoons in Wrigleyville watching the games in the bars just outside the stadium.

In fact, one of the most delightful summer activities I can think of is renting a bike at Millennium Park or Navy Pier and riding up the Lakeshore trail along the Lake Michigan beaches past the Lincoln Park Zoo to Addison and then dashing a few blocks inland to Wrigleyville. You can probably scalp a ticket if you want, but I'd suggest just settling in at one many restaurant bars within a two block radius and watching the game on the big screen in comfort. Honestly, I'm sad I didn't get a chance to do it this year.

I was especially envious when I saw the World Series victory celebrations. I should have been there. I read that it was the 7th largest gathering of people in history. 5 million people. If they had decided to form their own State they would have been the 23rd largest. Remarkably, and somewhat surprisingly, there was no rioting, no looting, in a city that is known for an outrageous murder rate. Chicago from The Loop north, and for maybe 6-8 blocks west of the lake is really a remarkably safe city. Angry people accuse the city of herding the bad element into their bad neighborhoods, generally abusing them and ruthlessly and unconstitutionally punishing them if they bring their evil activities into the business and tourist centers. It wouldn't surprise me if that was true. It also wouldn't surprise me if the forces that express such outrage at the practice are the prime beneficiaries and are glad to be the beneficiaries even if they can't admit it publicly or even privately. For better or worse, when you see the population of an average sized State crushed into the area of Grant Park without it turning violent, you have to think something has been achieved, for better or worse.

I can't claim the Cubs as my team, despite my love for their city and their neighborhood and their ballpark. Even if I don't go to Detroit to see them, the Tigers will always be my baseball team since I was 8 years old and the '68 took the World Series in wonderfully dramatic fashion. That started my lifelong interest in baseball which admittedly has waxed and waned over the years. My second awakening of baseball fandom came when I was around 1980 when Bill James' Baseball Abstract came to my attention and rekindled something in me which had previously made me fascinated with the stats on the backs of baseball cards. It was a vision of rationality -- of a minor corner of the universe that made sense, even if the rest of the world wallowed in ignorance. It would be another couple of decades before Billy Beane proved those principles correct (and even longer than that until Moneyball made it common knowledge). Since the Red Sox couldn't convince Beane to come work for them, they went looking for a another stat guy to run things and found Theo Epstein who used those principles to end the Red Sox curse, then moved to Chicago where he managed to lift and even longer curse. You can read about that angle here.

It was an interesting ongoing lesson for me in the resistance of humanity to the rational. Something that the data showed so clearly and definitively, yet the world was quite content to just not believe it. Something that has grown more clear to me everyday I live -- people are not rational, they are emotional, even when they think they are rational they aren't. That includes me, although I hope I am not just making myself feel good when I say I am more aware of it and therefore guard against it more than most people. Even now, evidently, I can't just be glad for the Cubs. I have to look for the sharp angle. Sad.

But not sad. Happy for the Cubs, happy for Chicago, happy for a victory for rationality that is celebrated by 5 million people. Maybe there is hope after all. I must never to let another summer pass without an afternoon in Wrigleyville.