Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Netflix Series Review: Stranger Things

The recently released Netflix series, Stranger Things, is available now for those who have the service. It's a sci-fi/horror series that borrows greatly from the movies of that type from the 80s while also weaving an elaborate and fascinating tale.

The series, set in Indiana in the early 1980's, involves the disappearance of a child, Will, in a small town. It focuses on several groups: mainly, it deals with the group of the Will's friends and their quest to find out where he went. In addition, it deals with Will's mom Joyce and Sheriff Jim Hopper (played by Winona Ryder, the only name in the cast, and David Harbour, who you probably recognize, respectively) and Will's older brother, Jonathan, and his relationship with Nancy. And finally add in the existence of Eleven, a mysterious child who seemingly has special powers. Each have their own unique methods to find Will, but more importantly in the age before cell phones they all act independently (and largely unknowingly) of each other as they uncover different bits of evidence and unravel the mystery.

It's hard to go too far into the plot without spoiling a lot of it, but suffice it to say there's an entity in the small town of Hawkins, and the local office of the Department of Energy probably has a lot to do with it. As encounters with the entity get more frequent and dangerous, the stakes get higher as it becomes increasingly clear how much trouble Will is truly in. 

Stranger Things is one of the most iconic series I have watched in a long time. It manages to be a remarkably solid homage to the 80s while not making a big deal about it--if it weren't for the wood paneling and the lack of helicopter parenting it would hardly be noticeable. One can almost telegraph the tropes--the reluctant authority figure who eventually finds the truth; the two-grades-higher bullies who pick on the kids; the hysterical mom who knows the truth but no one will listen to her; and yet it never comes across as trite. Even the more overt nods to 80s films (Eleven is basically E.T.) don't come across as such until you think about it well after viewing.

Of special mention should be the core cast of kids. Child actors tend to...well, not be good, but these kids are good. Noticeably, remarkably good. It's hard to have kids carry a movie, but these actors knocked it out of the park. But that's not to trivialize the rest of the cast--everyone does a standout job. Harbour in particular impressed me, but Charlie Heaton (the older brother Jonathan) managed as well.

In addition, there's a lot of mystery after it has been "solved." Not everything has an answer, and things aren't tied up in a tidy little bow; in fact, some of the so-called tropes I mention above get explicitly and satisfyingly averted in the resolution.

For the most part, don't let the 80s vibe turn you off. While the music, effects, and setting evoke a very specific time period and genre, you'll hardly notice it. This is a show infused with a certain kind of nostalgia that most definitely doesn't use it as its main driving force, even if it is something that legitimately sets it apart. Even if you're not a huge fan of sci fi or horror it's worth a shot--I would explicitly call it an adventure mystery with occasional sci fi moments.

I've been trying to scrape together something bad about the series, and I can't really say that I can. There's a few weird plot points and character act uncharacteristically dumb at times, but it's relatively minor and hardly worse than nearly anything else out there.

At a thin eight episodes, it doesn't drag on too long, although I'd have been perfectly fine watching an extra few episodes just because the writing is that good. In any case, it's a short investment in time and totally worth it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Go For The Gold!

The Olympics are almost over! Yay!

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am a born Olympian. Oh, sure, things like practice or drive or desire or ability or fitness or actually making an attempt stand in my way, but overcoming adversity is what makes a good Olympian story, no?

Greece is falling apart, and Rio, Vancouver, London, and Sochi are now barren cultural wastelands thanks to the international goodwill of the "regular" Olympics. Who needs the stress? I mean, really? And what's up with all these sports--running? Swimming? Who swims anymore? Is this the Fishalympics or what?

Which is why I'm now soliciting bids for the 2020 Crankalympics.

Here are my rules:

1) Competitions should be things that I could conceivably get a gold medal in.
2) The Crankalympic site must be within an hour's drive of my home.
3) Doping is allowed as long as I get some.
4) No out-of-pocket expenses for me.

I will gladly get corporate sponsors to name the events, so get ready for the Chik-Fil-A 500 Meter Dash or the Heinz Ketchup Badminton Tournament.

Well, no, because those won't be contests in my Olympics, because I can't do any of that stuff. The only thing I'm 500 meter dashing towards is the $5 20 piece McNugget special.

Here's my first thought about the events:
  • Freestyle Complaining About Economics On Reddit
  • 100 Meter Eventually Mosey On Down To The Post Office To Get Stamps Like I Should Have On Monday
  • Playing 500 Hours Of Civilization V (i.e., one game)
  • Playing 500 Hours Of Arkham Horror (i.e., one game)
  • Obscure Political Referencing
  • Excel Formatting
  • Nap And Field
  • Greco-Roman Wresting With The Source On The TV So I Can Watch The DVD Player
  • Posting More Than One Blog Post Per Week*
  • Dad Joking
  • Archery (i.e., knowing trivia about Archer on FXX)
  • Beach Smoring
  • Something with horses. I dunno, but the horse ends up dead, whatever it is.
  • Competitive Not-Giving-A-Shit-About-The-Real-Olympics 
I look forward to seeing the bids for the 2020 2024 2028 Crankalympics!

*On second thought, I'm not sure I can handle this.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

The much-anticipated next installment of the DC Expanded Universe opened this past weekend, to somewhat dismal reviews but decent box office numbers. I contributed to those numbers, and my verdict: A pretty good movie.

Warning: Mile spoilers ahead. But nothing particularly important or that you can't deduce from one of the three thousand trailers. 

Also, fair warning: I'm not familiar with the source material, here. If you're looking for an assessment of the fidelity to the cartoon or comics, you aren't going to find it here. Go to one of the thousands of comic-book fan wanks sites out there for that. Take this review as someone who has a tangential relationship, at best, with comics.

The plot is relatively basic, if a unique spin on the superhero movie. Intelligence agent Amanda Waller proposes creating a crack team of "metahumans" made up exclusively of bad guys. By being expendable, they can be sent on high-risk missions to combat other metahumans (sigh) with zero guilt, with the promise of a reduced sentence and not getting killed as incentives to do the mission.

The upper brass, skeptical at first, immediately approves the project after a violent disturbance wrecks most of downtown, and the Suicide Squad is activated. The group consists of mentally fragile Harley Quinn, high-end hitman Deadshot, the mysterious Enchantress, the pyro El Diablo, the cannibalistic Killer Croc, the master thief Captain Boomerang, and escape artist Slipknot. They are lead by Colonel Flagg (who has the detonator that will blow up any necks of members who try and escape) and joined by bodyguard Katana.

Where's Joker, you may ask? Well, the Joker is around, hatching a plot to get Harley Quinn out of the mission and into his arms. (OK, that might be a bit overly romantic for two crazypants villains, but you get the idea.) He shows up periodically to stop the squad with the singular mission of rescuing his girl, but otherwise isn't a member.

The Enchantress (spoiler, I guess) very quickly goes rogue and ends up being the very thing the Suicide Squad is fighting against. As the group inches its way towards the panic in the city, they endure internal strife, a few escape attempts, a little bit of self-reflection, but mostly shit gets blown up.

First things first: I liked this movie. I thing the mediocre reviews have some points, but the bad reviews seem to be out of a bit of spite. (We'll get to that in a moment.) The concept is nice, the acting is well done, everything works to its logical conclusion with just enough surprises to make things interesting, and the concept of "good" and "evil" are toyed with even if they aren't particularly deep.

Still, there are some valid criticisms. Overall, the movie clearly has some pacing and dialogue issues; rumors that it was hastily recut after the dismal reception of Batman v Superman, if true, clearly show. Characters arrive suddenly, some exposition is unnecessary and then completely ignored for other, more important things. None of it breaks the movie, but it's noticeable. 

One issue right off the bat is the character introductions--each of the first six villains are given introductions ranging from less than a minute to two or three minutes--add that up and that's 10-15 minutes of exposition right off the bat. It's a little overwhelming. And throughout the movie the constant reminders these are the bad guys gets a little tiring--as is the rather contradictory notion that at least Deadshot is a good guy, given the screen time they spend on his relationship with his daughter. It's not a bad idea, but it stands out to the one-dimensional characterization they give, say, Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang, both of whom are barely more than mild ethnic jokes.

The "surprise" of the Enchantress escaping and becoming the big bad is also a little forced--it would have flowed much easier had she just been the enemy from the beginning, and making the catalyst the releasing of her heart (just...never mind.)

But once the movie finds its groove, it flows pretty well--it certainly doesn't feel like its two hour length. Even when the Joker shows up (a plot thread that, in the end, contributes nothing to the overall story) is still fun; Jared Leto's performance is good enough that you don't really care.

The movie is carried, ultimately, by Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Both characters soak up the screen time, taking huge bites out of the scenery, and loving every minute of it. Their performances make you forget about the plot holes and the odd pacing, which is impressive. While Leto's appearances were fairly interesting, he just wasn't in it long enough (and ultimately incidental to the plot) that he's, in my mind, clearly third place, if even that.

All this ends with a movie that ends up being a solid B, maybe even a B+. The characters are interesting, the plot, while a little shaky, is pretty standard for comic book movies, and the performances are good enough. Tightening up the script and maybe re-editing the re-edit would have done wonders, but as is I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, after that assessment, we have to hold this movie up to the mirror of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel has done so well for so long that they've practically become the gold standard of the modern superhero movie--their only sin, as yet manifested, is oversaturation* When done, Suicide Squad pales quite a bit. When you see what could have been done, it's rather disappointing.

I have a ton of ideas that I think Marvel would have done better (mostly involving the Enchantress, whom we spent way too much time on for her to end up the villain and fleshing out the Joker), the big missed opportunity was waiting. For a movie like this, it would have infinitely been better had DC made a few movies first, introducing the third-tier roster of villains over time. They might not be more than cameos but they'd establish the characters (requiring less exposition) and also make people anticipate it more. I understand that the point of the Suicide Squad was that they weren't top-tier characters, but still--Marvel knows how to balance fidelity to the comics with making interesting movies.

In the end, I recommend it fairly heartily. My main gripes are generally of the "what might have been" category, and Suicide Squad is hardly the only movie guilty of that.

*and maybe Thor: The Dark World

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Meet The Meat

I occasionally make poor decisions.

Sometimes, if the anticipated payoff is great enough, it’s still worth it.

I exercised this maxim a week ago or so on the way home from work. Thanks to my home state’s policy of “always working on all roads all the time for every reason even though nothing ever seems fixed because we work on the same roads every single year,” I’ve been taking a different route for the way home, and each day I have passed a store that specializes in smoked meats.

Smoked meats, as should surprise no one, are my kryptonite. 

I don’t know what it is. There’s something strange about smoked meat. Like, it’s meat, only full of spices to hide the gross parts and then cooked so it’s tough and weird. Like, sure, you gain the benefit if having it be able to sit around for a while without cooking or refrigeration, but you lose not being able to use the same meat to make a steak or a hamburger or literally almost anything else. (Granted, I’m certain the meat they use in smoked meat is not the same meat you’d use for a steak or even ground beef—it’s probably the Z-grade scrapins they can form into a tube and fill with garlic powder and brown sugar. But that’s neither here nor there.)

And none of this matters, because it tastes so good. I’m never thinking “Man, forget that teriyaki meat stick, I’m savin’ myself for a good ole sirloin steak later.” I’m thinking “Can I get away with eating three of these meat sticks and also eating steak later?” (The answer is always yes.) And can I use the benefit of being able to keep a meat stick around for buying a few of them and eating them over the following week? Yes! Do I do that? No! Do I instead eat them all in one sitting and then lay on the carpet wondering what I am doing with my life and what happened to my sense of self-control? Of course!

So anyway, after resisting the siren call of the meat shack for over a month, I finally gave in to temptation.

I stop one temperate evening and walk into the shop. If you’ve never been inside a store that almost exclusively deals with cut meats, let me describe how eat and every one of them looks: it’s a small, very claustrophobic room that has a distinct smell, probably of cloves or formaldehyde. They make a valiant if futile effort to sell things that aren’t meat, like chips and drinks, but they all have long-abandoned logos from campaigns past, covered with a sickeningly nostalgic coat of dust. There’s a rack of do-it-yourself seasoning packs, a noble gesture for those outraged by the reasonable prices who believe they would rather hunt and dress a cow themselves in order to form weird tubes of meat in the comfort of their own garage.

I vastly prefer spicy meat snacks, so I asked for that. I was just sampling, so I turned down the clerk’s offer of a full pound; just two sticks, thank you. The clerk seemed mildly annoyed at having to stop her butchering of a cow just to ring up two dollars and change’s worth of product, but she did her job gamely (ha!).

So I get in my car and immediately dig in. I’m driving, a meat snack hanging out of my mouth like Tony’s cigar in the title sequence of The Sopranos. It is…OK. Only mildly spicy, like someone reached for the red pepper flakes but grabbed parsley flakes instead. Also a little fatty. Disappointingly, I finished the snack and mentally crossed the store off the list. Oh well, I thought, maybe next time.

But! I still had one stick left over, and the previous one literally left a bad taste in my mouth. So I took a bite.

It was spicy.

Like, really spicy.

Like, pull off the side of the road because I can’t see the road because tears are streaming down my face spicy.

Of course, I’m driving when this happens, and while it’s quick it’s still gradual. I am, at least fleetingly, a menace to the others on the road. Caught off guard, I start coughing. Two bites in and I can hardly breathe.

It was delicious. 

I get back on the road but my mouth is on fire. I limp along to the nearest gas station, where I grab a fountain soda. The workers there probably thought I was some weirdo, face wet with sweat and throat constantly clearing, trembling as I take furtive sips from my unpaid-for drink. Back in the car, I hit the road again, taking tiny bites while gulping down Coke Zero until it was gone.

I don’t know what was up with that first stick. Maybe they put twice as much spice in the second and none in the first. Maybe they put it in the wrong box instead of “mild, fatty flavor”.

Who knows? All I know is that I’ll be back and I have no self control. Because I have no self control.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Angry Birds

I am not skilled in the art of dead bird removal.

I found this out the extremely hard way last weekend when I had to remove a dead bird from my property.

A few weekends ago, it was late at night and I took my dogs out before bedtime. Dexter and Chloe are dachshunds, where in theory they are instinctually bred to be hound dogs, skilled with the innate ability to catch badgers. In reality, of course, the only thing they are instinctually bred to catch are Beggin' Strips and where we dropped a piece of macaroni on the floor and so the art of hunting is lost on them. In fact, the only time they are even close to hunting is when someone in our neighborhood has the nerve to ride past our house on a bicycle, which apparently is the dachshund equivalent of the Norman Invasion.

Anyway, I took the dogs out and walked out on our back porch, because both of my dogs are insufferably stubborn and even though they want to go to the bathroom and they know full well we've done the exact same thing every single day for the past five years, actually walking down the steps requires a pep talk and threats of negative sanctions. And so I did the same tonight, promptly them gently to please for the love of all that is holy take four steps down the stairs and vacate your bladder it's almost midnight and we all want to go to bed.

As I do so, I hear a noise. I turn around and there is a bird.

Bird flapping around on my porch at midnight is a rare sight, indeed, and so for a moment I was flummoxed. What was going on? I quickly realized that the bird was injured in some way and wasn't able to move. Unfortunately, I wasn't sure what to do about this--he couldn't stay on my porch, since it was between myself and the door, but as I looked around I had no Injured Bird Removal Apparatus handy to take care of the immediate issue.

And then I remembered there were dogs here.

The moment I realized this was the exact moment the dogs realized there was injured prey on the field. They immediately went into Full Dachshund Alert and tried to snatch the bird. Part of me wanted to see it happen, because I knew full well if my dog caught a bird they would have no idea what to do with it, but I figured that they would at least know how to snap its neck and I didn't really want to be a part of that particular CSI episode.

And thus I stuff, Jurassic-World-Style, two extended palms keeping the hunter and prey apart. (Why I was trying to keep a clearly immobile bird from moving, I don't know.) I had to think fast--there was no way to move the bird, but there was also no way to move my dogs, either--I had no where to put them. It was like that weird logic puzzle about the fox, the hen, and the corn across a river, only in this case someone ends up with the Zika virus.

All this time, the bird is reacting to two barking dogs by trying to move, and even got a few lift-off-the-air flaps out of his system, but he was also slowing down. The stress, no doubt, was making his condition worse. So I decided to take a chance--I would scoop up a dog and throw them in the house, and just hope that the other dog wouldn't seize the opportunity to snatch the bird--along with the very real possibility of the bird also flapping its way into the house, which would then add a cat into the equation. And throughout all this, I couldn't leave the door open very long because there was a chance that a bat would fly in the house, as had happened in the past, and there was a not-insignificant chance that I was going to spend the night dealing with two dogs, a cat, a bird, a bat, and rabies.

But this was all processed in a few seconds. I grabbed the closest dog--Chloe--and shoved her in the house. Dexter, thankfully, stayed at bay. I then scooped him up and did the same, and slammed the door. Crisis averted.

But I still had a bird on my porch. I ran to my basement and grabbed a snow shovel. Upon going back outside, however, the bird was no longer moving. He was dead. My only recourse was to move him off the property where he could be granted a proper burial by being eaten by the neighborhood stray cats.

Resigned, I took the shovel and scooped the bird up, which immediately prompted him to flap and flurry and make a scene. Not dead, then. I couldn't now carry him across the street to his final resting place, so the only thing I could do was drop him off the side of the porch, where he landed with a sickening plop.

Ugh. So, now, again, he was off the property and out of scope for the dogs, but it was pitch black. At this point, any further ceremonial burial would have to happen at daylight.

The next morning there was no bird. No evidence of a bird. However, I noticed a pile of feathers on the other side of the street. Had the bird managed to walk away, only to be murdered a hundred yards from where I left him? Who knows. There, the entire ordeal ended, mostly with me washing my hands a hundred thousand times.

A week later I noticed a bunch of flies in our yard. Investigation showed that there was a definitely dead bird in my yard again. I have no idea if it was the same bird or not. In any case, message received.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Fourth

Happy Independence Day!

With this hot mess of an election, it's important to reflect on America.

Those who know me know I'm a pretty big defender of "the system." And I think that's an important point, especially this year. It all may seem a bit esoteric, but the abstract concepts of democracy can be deceptively maddening, but I think those are all (thankfully) by design.

Our Founding Fathers weren't perfect, but they also knew exactly what they were doing.

Our political system frustrates a lot of people, but it's important to remember that it was designed to be frustrating. Democracy isn't (and shouldn't be) built to react quickly to problems; they're supposed to be deliberative. And our system not only has checks and balances (which slow things down) but also a written Constitution that explicitly sets limits (which can slow things down even more).

Remember, regardless of whether your issue is gay marriage or gun control or free trade or immigration, if you give, say, the President the power to flip a switch to make something legal, you also give the President the power to flip it off, too. By having a slow, frustrating process, we protect these issues just as much as we slow them from progressing. Doing it any other way risks giving way too much power to those who oppose it. Building up court cases, passing state-level laws, and allowing time for society to adapt is as much a part of the process as simply having the President say X and having X happen.

And as we've recently seen with referendums like Brexit in the UK, direct democracy isn't always the best policy. (Think about your own personal pet high-emotion social issue, and ask yourself if you're willing to risk putting that up to a popular vote. I didn't think so.)

In fact, I think that's the cornerstone for navigating through the political process--try very hard not to be a hypocrite. Think about your own side, and think about how you would want things to be if things were reversed. If your answer changes, you need to think about things a little more. This isn't unconditional--a lot of people's opinions are based on absolutes, and a little bit of that is perfectly fine. But if your entire worldview is nothing but absolutes, it's possible that democracy is not for you.

Our nation was built to reflect all of these dangers. Our federalist government, our separate but equal branches, our weird electoral college and bicameral legislature--these are all deliberate. Yes, it's frustrating. But it exists for a reason.

Democracies are also designed to handle opposition. There's no such think as a salient political issue that everyone agrees on--if there was an issue everyone agreed on, it would be passed and resolved and would no longer be an issue. If an issue has made it to the government, that means there is at least some valid claim by both sides that makes it worth debating over. And because of that, there's always going to be a set percentage of people who are mad at the government. And that's good. That means the system is working. Democracy means having the freedom to hate your politicians, and since every issue is going to anger about half the population no matter what, it's inherent in the system. 

This isn't an apologia for bad governance. The American system isn't perfect. We should look to reform and revise those things that need it, and we should hold people accountable. But the gut reaction of people is that the rich and powerful are keeping this slow, unresponsive government from addressing the needs of the people, but that's deliberately designed to protect those same people.

Remember, a government with 100% approval rating is called a dictatorship. And we took care of that centuries ago.