Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ranking: Logan

I'm falling behind on ranking my comic book movies! I have two I haven't gotten to, and I haven't even seen Ant-Man & the Wasp yet. So let's start with the oldest one, Logan, which my son and I watched on DVD last weekend.

You know Logan, right? The real name of Wolverine, the gruff, unshaven guy with claws, unbreakable bones, and an ability to heal from wounds almost instantaneously? In this movie, the year is 2029, and mutants like Logan have been hunted down (perhaps as a result of the events in X-Men: Days of Future Past?) and are either dead or living in hiding. Logan lives in El Paso where he keeps a low profile, driving a rental limo for money. When he has time and spare cash, he visits Professor X, the telepath and former leader of the X-Men, now a doddering old man who suffers from epileptic fits that make his psychic powers go out of control. Professor X lives in an abandoned factory out in the desert with his caretaker Caliban, an albino mutant who can't go out in the sunlight.

A Mexican lady and her 8-year-old daughter, Lara, have somehow tracked Logan down and asked him for help, but he doesn't have time or inclination to help random people, even though the sight of the girl somehow makes him uneasy. It turns out they're being hunted by the Reavers, a pack of humans enhanced with robotic body parts, who want to capture the girl and bring her in. When they figure out Logan is connected, they raid Professor X's place, and Logan must fight. It turns out the girl has claws and a healing factor, too, as well as an attitude almost as bad as Logan's, and together they manage to escape in the limo, with Professor X in the backseat.

Now the girl and Professor X want Logan to drive them to a refuge for mutants in Canada. Logan doesn't believe the place really exists, but he doesn't have anything left for him in El Paso, and he does feel a strange connection to this young girl with powers so similar to his, so they set off on a road trip. What is the girl's story? And can they make it to the alleged refuge before the Reavers catch up to them?

This was a pretty good movie, but not for kids. With plenty of bad language and really bloody violence, it earns its R rating. For those who know Wolverine in the comics, think less John Byrne and more Frank Miller. So I can't exactly recommend it for kids, but for teens and adults, it's highly entertaining, well-scripted and well-acted. In my ranking system, it comes out as pretty good.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic movies, Black PantherCaptain America: Civil WarDr. StrangeGuardians of the Galaxy 2, the Man-ThingThor: Ragnarok, and Wonder Woman.


As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Logan (2017)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Black Panther
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men (1999)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Sunday, July 15, 2018

What I'm Reading: Conversations of Socrates

After his execution in 400 BC, lots of Socrates' friends and students wrote accounts of him, but the writings of only two of those authors survive today: Plato, with more than 20 dialogues "starring" his old teacher, and Xenophon, with four accounts (although Xenophon also has other surviving, but non-Socratic, works). (I've previously written on some of Plato's works here, here, and here.)

Xenophon's four accounts are collected in the book Conversations of Socrates. The first is the Defense of Socrates, which is the briefest one and consists of Xenophon defending the arrogant tone Socrates took at his trial. As Xenophon explains it, Socrates believed the gods had already ordained he should die following the trial, and moreover believed the best time for a man to die was at the very beginning of old age, as he was, when he has all the accomplishments of his life to look back on, but the infirmities of age have not yet occurred. So in Socrates' mind, there was no reason to mount a standard legal defense begging the jury for his life, but felt free to make a vigorous justification of his life and actions, no matter what impression on the jury his words might make.

His second account is the Memoirs, and is the largest part of the book. The Memoirs consists of four parts, each with about eight to ten chapters, each chapter containing a little anecdote about the life of Socrates or a conversation he had. Most of these anecdotes or conversations have something of a moral or instructive purpose--Socrates explaining how to be a good friend, or telling a young man how to become a good orator, or similar. I think my favorite is his conversation with his son, Lamprocles, who I suppose is ten or eleven, and has gotten in an argument with his mother. Rather than yelling at or chiding his son, Socrates leads him through one of his little questioning dialogues (i.e., the Socratic method), using his son's own answers to help him reach the conclusion that he should be respectful of his mother.

The third account is the Dinner-Party, about a boozy get-together Socrates took part in with a number of friends on a holiday where they discuss the meaning of love. This is similar enough to Plato's Symposium that they clearly describe the same evening, yet Xenophon's recounting includes a somewhat different cast of characters and the content of the conversations are fairly different as well. Moreover, though Xenophon claims to have been present (I believe Plato merely claims to have heard about the dinner second-hand), the cast of characters is such that he would have to have been a small child, and it seems unlikely the adults would have let him stay in the room for their drinking and sometimes bawdy conversation. But it's fairly entertaining, and at a couple points we get the rare spectacle of his friends making fun of Socrates for his questioning method of conversing--replying "Certainly" in unison to a string of his questions even when that answer doesn't make sense.

The final account is the Estate-Manager, which is in two parts: in the first, Critobulus discusses with his friend Socrates his plan to buy a farm and how he should run it, and in the second, Socrates recounts the time he spoke to Ischomachus, a wealthy man, about the best way to run a farm. The topic may sound a little dry, but it is actually fascinating for it tells the reader a lot about how Greeks lived their day to day lives. Especially interesting is that Ischomachus considers having a good wife to be the most important aspect of managing an estate, and explains how he and his wife divide up their duties in the house and decide, for instance, where to store excess grain or how to reward a slave who does a good job.

The translator of the book, Robin Waterfield, brings up a question that I would like to discuss a bit. He points out that Xenophon's Socrates is somewhat different than Plato's Socrates--less purely philosophical, more concerned with giving good advice to his friends than in considering abstract concepts, perhaps earthier in his vocabulary. He suggests three explanations for this. The first, and the one that a lot of critics have gone with, is that Xenophon is somehow "wrong" in his description of Socrates, and Plato is "right," and thus we can pretty much dismiss Xenophon.

The second explanation, and the one I prefer, is that Socrates was a sophisticated speaker who talked with different people in different ways. To a young, educated aristocrat like Plato, he would talk about the nature of reality or the definition of justice or similar things. To a veteran soldier and landowner like Xenophon, he would discuss more practical matters like managing a farm or running for office, and using a more down-to-earth conversational style. It's not like Plato and Xenophon describe a vastly different man--they clearly are both writing about the same person, who could adjust his style and subject-matter for his audience.

The final explanation is that these are works of fiction though using an actual historical figure, so if Plato writes him one way, and Xenophon another, it has nothing to do with the real person because they're just stories. Note how in the Dinner-Party Xenophon claimed to have been present though that would have been highly implausible, or that both Xenophon and Plato describe the same party but none of the details reconcile. Or note how in Plato's later writings, especially the Republic, Socrates makes smooth, elaborate, chapter-long arguments in speech that seem rather unlikely to have actually occurred. Waterfield also points that Aristotle, who knew Plato personally, classifies the various Socratic dialogues as fiction in his catalog of literature. I must admit, I rather dislike this final explanation. There may have been details that Xenophon and Plato adjusted to make for a better story, but I find it hard to believe that most of what they wrote about Socrates wasn't true in some sense. Even if the words that reach us aren't precisely the way he really spoke them, I do think that in the works of Xenophon and Plato, Socrates is speaking to us across the ages.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bleak Peanuts

It's been awhile since I've done a Bleak Peanuts feature, and like the last one, this one also features Spike.


This reminds me of those Garfield-without-Garfield strips that came out in book form several years ago, where we see what a sad, lonely life Jon leads when you take out Garfield's humorous commentary. Schultz doesn't need anybody else to do it for him, though--he's perfectly capable of showing us the pointlessness and despair of existence without help from anybody else, thank you very much.

Monday, June 18, 2018

What I'm Reading: Roundup

How to Be a Pirate We listened to this, the sequel to How to Train Your Dragon, on a recent car trip. It follows Hiccup, a Norse boy of around 9-10 years of age, who's rather sensitive and small for his age, and not at all the great Viking warrior his father, the chief of their tribe, envisions as his heir. Similarly, all the men and boys in the tribe have dragons, and Hiccup's dragon is Toothless, a wispy, cowardly, and not-at-all-fearsome creature--more of a winged lizard, really.

On this adventure, the Viking band comes across the coffin of their fearsome ancestor, Grimbeard the Ghastly, only for a character named Alvin to pop out of the coffin, claiming to have found a map with directions to Grimbeard's legendary treasure. If you guessed Alvin might not have the best of intentions at heart, you guessed correctly.

Actually, if you guessed anything about this book, you probably guessed correctly, because it's highly formulaic. I was not a fan of this. The humor was obvious and dumb, the characters flat, the plot paint-by-numbers. It's not just because I'm an adult and this is a book aimed at fifth graders--I recently reviewed The Reptile Room, a series book aimed at the same age, and found it full of sly humor with admirably-drawn characters.

If you are looking for a book for a late elementary-aged kid in your life, I recommend avoiding the How to Train Your Dragon series. Instead, if the child likes humor, try the Series of Unfortunate Events books, of which above-mentioned Reptile Room is the second, or the Incorrigible Children series. Or, if the child you have in mind prefers high adventure and for some reason won't read The Hobbit, even the Ranger's Apprentice series is better than this dreck.

Angelic On the other hand, this kid-appropriate graphic novel is one of my absolute favorite things lately. It follows Qora, a brave and curious pink monkey who lives in the ruins of a human city in a future world where humans no longer exist. Her band of monkeys speaks in a devolved English patois and follows a rigorous religious code that forbids exploration outside of their territory and requires girl monkeys of Qora's age to have their wings clipped and become good, obedient wives to a male they are assigned to.

Qora can't stand it! She's too curious, too smart, too full of life for that crap, and after an altercation when her antics get the tribe in a fight with their mortal enemies--robotic dolphins and bubble-encased flying manatees--she flees and finds herself paired with a fellow outcast from the manatee society. Together they search for a missing piece to the manatees' robotic god/leader so they can get some answers as to why their bizarre world is the way it is.

Written by Simon Spurrier and beautifully drawn by Caspar Wijngarrd, Angelic is a highly imaginative tale and Qora is a compelling (and adorable!) girlmonk who has too many asks to be anything but a naughtybutt. My son loved it and I have sent copies to a couple people I think would enjoy it, but really anyone who likes high-quality, all-ages fantasy should check out Angelic.


Monday, May 28, 2018

What I'm Reading: Where They Ain't

Where They Ain't, by Burt Solomon, is an excellent look at baseball in the immedate pre-modern era, from 1894 to 1902. It observes this era through the lens of the Baltimore Orioles, who invented a new style of baseball that made them the most successful team of the 1890s, and when they broke up, whose key players and manager formed the core of many of the most successful teams of the early 1900s.

Baseball in the 1880s was a leisurely affair of getting a man or two and base and waiting for a big home run to score (a lot like the 1950s--and to an extent, today's game as well). But after the 1892 season, the National League (the only league at the time) moved the pitcher's mound back to 60 feet, six inches, from its previous distance of 50 feet, and also required the pitcher to keep one foot on the pitching rubber when pitching. That may not seem like much of a change, but it was just enough. That extra split second the ball takes to get to the plate was just enough to give a quick player the time to judge what part of the field he could hit the ball to, allowing more precise hitting. It was just enough to make it that much harder for a pitcher to field a bunt. And it was just enough extra time for a sneaky base stealer to successfully make it to second or third before the catcher could throw him out.

The four main players on the Orioles--"Wee" Willie Keeler, John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley--along with their manager, "Foxy" Ned Hanlon, were the first to recognize the kind of baseball the change allowed: a scrappy, fast-paced, hitting and running type of game (similar to the 1970s-80s game) they called "scientific baseball." And they rode that recognition to first place finishes from 1894-96, and second place finishes in 1897-98, behind the Boston Beaneaters (later the Boston Braves), who had largely adopted their methods.

Unfortunately, the National League, and after 1901, the American League, used Baltimore as a pawn in fairly baroque baseball politics, and the result was that the Orioles after the 1902 season moved to New York and became the Highlanders (later named the Yankees), with the team's personnel spread across the major leagues. John McGraw, the diminutive but fiercely-willed third baseman for the Orioles, became the manager of the New York Giants in 1902 where he was known as the "Little Napoleon" for his controlling but winning style. He won 10 National League pennants and three World Series with the Giants and still holds the National League record for most wins.

From 1899 to 1905, Ned Hanlon managed the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers), bringing Willie Keeler, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley with him as the right fielder, shortstop, and pitcher, respectively. Hanlon, Keeler, Jennings, and Kelley led the Superbas to first place finishes in 1899-1900. Jennings also managed the Detroit Tigers from 1907-1920, where he coached Ty Cobb and led the Tigers to three American League champtionships and several other good seasons.

One idiosyncrasy of the book is that it adopts some of the conventions of the language and baseball lingo of the 1890s. For instance, at that time fans were known as "cranks" and pitchers were called "twirlers." Fine. I probably could have done without not capitalizing avenues and streets in street names, i.e. 21st street or Maryland avenue. But after a few pages, you get used to it, and it does help with the effect of placing you in the 1890s.

I really like the way Solomon interwove history and current events into the baseball story. For instance, he describes the way attendance dropped off in the 1898 season because of the Spanish-American War--who worried about baseball when American sons were fighting overseas? Or how in 1902, Willie Keeler went to St. Mary's Hospital in Brooklyn with a suspected shoulder fracture to take advantage of a brand new invention--an X-ray machine, which St. Mary's was one of the first hospitals in the world to possess.

And those are just two examples of many. It is for that reason that Where They Ain't receives one of my coveted Shortcuts to Smartness awards, for books that provide a whole education in and of themselves. (Congratulations, Burt Solomon!) In this book you learn not just about baseball history, but also American history, and the history of the cities of Baltimore and Brooklyn, and 1890s politics, and what makes a team work, and how to achieve success. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in any of those subjects.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ranking: Black Panther

Okay, I should've reviewed Black Panther weeks ago. I'm finally getting to it!

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil WarDr. StrangeGuardians of the Galaxy 2, the Man-Thing, Thor: Ragnarok, and Wonder Woman.

I have a friend who mentioned this was his favorite Marvel superhero movie so far because the setting is different. It's not set in New York or San Francisco, with fights taking place in the city streets. Rather, it takes place in the jungles, mountains, and waterfalls of Wakanda, a fictional African country that enjoys advanced technology that it has long hidden from the world.

I agree, the settings were a high point of this movie. The first time we saw the capital of Wakanda, with its Afrocentric skyscrapers drawing on traditional African building styles for its architectural themes, I almost gasped. It was beautifully done in a way we haven't seen in Marvel movies before--maybe to an extent with Asgard in the Thor movies, but really Asgard is kind of cheesy. This felt like an architectural style that really should exist in the world--why don't Lagos or Nairobi or Johannesburg have buildings like that?

Alas, the rest of the movie wasn't quite as good. I mean, the plot, with Black Panther having to take back the kingdom from his nephew, who's usurped it, was more than serviceable. But the movie sort of struck me strangely--it's message seemed to be that what an advanced African economy really needs as an enlightened king to be in charge? I mean, shouldn't the Black Panther be trying to make the country into a democracy, rather than just being the best king he can be?

I was also disappointed in Klaw, although probably for a reason most movie-goers won't share. It's because in the comics, Klaw is a villain with an awesome costume, who after he lost his arm, crafted a new arm for himself out of pure sound, and can use his arm to blast concentrated sound waves at heroes. In the movie, he's just a mercenary who lost his arm and replaced it with a metal one. Ho hum. Definitely would've benefited from following the comics more closely, in this case.

I know this one was highly regarded, but other than the settings, it didn't really strike me as terrible memorable. It falls into the Okay category, although near the top.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

_______________________________________________________________________________

Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Crumb
American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Avengers
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Ant-Man
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Black Panther
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men (1999)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
Thor
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Scary Movies: A Quiet Place

I'm not sure why, but for some reason my kids really wanted to see A Quiet Place, a horror movie that's recently been in theaters. Maybe other kids at school were talking about it, I don't know. After researching the movie a little bit, my wife and I decided we'd go ahead and take them.

Actually, for kids, this is a pretty good horror movie--very little actual violence or gore and no cursing (not much talking at all, actually, as I'll explain in a minute). Still, it was probably a little scarier than I would have wanted my kids, especially my daughter, to see. And yet, on balance, maybe it was worthwhile, because we discussed this movie a lot in the following days. It does a lot to raise interesting questions, always a sign of a good movie.

It follows the Abbott family, who live on a farm in upstate New York. Earth has been invaded by aliens, who are blind and hunt humans with their extremely sharp hearing. Any sound above a whisper can be deadly, bringing a ravenous insectoid alien leaping from out of the trees. The Abbotts, in a way, have an advantage, for their teenage daughter is deaf, and they are able to communicate with each other in sign language. They also have a son, maybe 11 or 12, and they used to have a young son, who got eaten in the first scene in the movie. Also the mother, Evelyn, is pregnant and almost due. I'm not real sure what the parents were thinking, getting pregnant under these circumstances, but it certainly makes for a lot of tension when Evelyn goes into labor.

I can't remember the last movie I saw that was as quiet as this. Everybody in the movie is trying to be as silent as possible, and it spills over to the audience, which at our showing was absolutely hushed. Small sounds--a leaf crunching, a spoon falling--take on huge significance. Maybe some of M. Night Shyamalan's movies had this sort of quiet intensity--and actually, this reminds me more than a little of his movie, Signs. But whereas I was disappointed with that movie's ending, this movie had a twist at the end that was completely satisfying.

A Quiet Place (2018)

Story/Plot/Characters--Really top-notch acting, characters are believable and rounded, plot is perfectly executed. (4 points)
Special Effects-- Not much of a special effects movie and the aliens themselves were nothing special. (1 point)
Scariness--My children were quite frightened in the theater! Not the scariest movie I've ever seen, but up there. (1.5 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--An isolated and lonely farmhouse in a beautiful but spare natural setting, absolutely separate from the rest of the world, with abandoned barns and tractors littering the nearby countryside: this was exactly what I'm looking for in a horror movie. (2 points)
Total=8.5 points (Excellent)

______________________________________________________________________________
Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Excellent
Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
A Quiet Place (2018)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Carrie (1976)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
Okay
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Avoid
Alien 3 (1992)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points