2013年3月9日 星期六

"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" by Arthur Conan Doyle

"My dear fellow," said Sherlock Holmes, as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings on Baker Street, "Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.  We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence.  If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."

"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is a collection of stories that first appeared in 1892.  Doyle wrote many other Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, the most famous being "Hound of the Baskervilles."  He wrote books centered on other characters as well, and his Professor Challenger stories were also quite popular during his lifetime.

I'm not a big fan of detective novels, but these stories are all good.  Sherlock Holmes is an absorbing character, and it is easy to understand his enduring popularity.  None of these stories are especially deep, but most of them are very, very clever.

2013年3月7日 星期四

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (As of March 2013)

I can't very well talk about the DC films, can I?  Right now the only thing definite is this summer's "Man of Steel," and all of those "Justice League in 2015!" rumors have fallen by the wayside.  We'll see, we'll see...

1. Iron Man 3 (May 2013)

Early reports on this movie liken it to a superhero version of "Patriot Games."  The trailer looks promising, and it will be good to finally see The Mandarin (what?  No Fin Fang Foom?).  This movie looks darker than the first two films, and they seem to have amped up the drama.

There is speculation to the effect that Tony will be suiting up and traveling into space at the end of this one, and once there encountering The Guardians of the Galaxy.  There is also speculation that Wasp will make an appearance in the film, or that it will be Ant-Man instead of The Guardians at the end.  I would prefer Ant-Man.

2. Thor: the Dark World (November 2013)

This movie, like "Iron Man 3" has concluded filming.  Still no trailer yet, but many on-set photos have surfaced on the Net.  In this installment, Thor travels around the Nine Realms and squares off against Melekith, Kurse, and the Enchantress.  Too early to say what the end credits might reveal, but I would love it if Beta Ray Bill's ship showed up somewhere.  That, or Surtur's presence was hinted at.  I didn't like the first "Thor" all that much, even though it was better than I expected.  I think this one will be good.

3. Captain America: the Winter Soldier (April 2014)

Kevin Feige has described this as a "70's political thriller masquerading as a superhero movie," so I imagine the tone will be quite different from "Captain America: The First Avenger."  The title suggests that Bucky, his sidekick from the first film, will return from the dead as an assassin.  The Falcon is also in this one, as is Crossbones.  Many of the supporting characters from The Avengers also reappear.

I can't understand why they wanted to include The Falcon in this movie.  Yeah, I realize that he has a long history with Captain America, but he's got to be one of the gayest black superheroes ever.  Seriously, The Falcon?  The guy that talks to birds?

4. Guardians of the Galaxy (August 2014)

There are still very few details available, though some promotional art has been released.  The Guardians are Drax the Destroyer, Groot, Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, and Gamora.  James Gunn is directing, and it begins filming in June 2013.  No one has been officially cast as yet.

Kevin Feige has stated that this film and "Thor: The Dark World" will take the brunt of the cosmic events in the MCU, so perhaps the two films will tie together.  As Thanos appeared at the end of "The Avengers," and The Guardians are known for their battles with Thanos, it seems likely that Thanos will also appear in this movie.

I'm still not sure how this film is going to work.  It does, after all, feature a talking raccoon (anyone remember "Howard the Duck"?).  It could be that it is aimed more at kids.

5. The Avengers 2 (May 2015)

The first "Avengers" was the third highest-grossing film of ALL TIME, and set numerous other records.  This said, the sequel is inevitable.  Even if Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Scarlet Johannson ALL died in a plane crash tomorrow, you can be certain that we would see CGI versions of them bantering their way through "Avengers 2."

No news on the plot yet.  Still too early to say.  I'm assuming Thanos will be the villain, though I would love it if the Red Skull found his way back through that wormhole.

6. Ant-Man (November 2015)

This movie has taken its sweet time, but it seems more likely now than it has ever been.  Edgar Wright will direct, and the film will feature both Scott Lang and Henry Pym.  Test footage has been shot, the release date has been set, so one would assume that Ant-Man will indeed kick off Marvel's "Phase Three" in 2015.

7. And Later On....?

Kevin Feige keeps dropping hints that a Doctor Strange movie is in the works.  I would freaking love to see Doctor Strange.  I am tempted to think that after focusing on the cosmic stuff in "Phase Two," the more magic-oriented characters will get their day in "Phase Three."  Not, of course, that an Asgardian thunder god is scientific in any sense of the word.

But beyond Strange, what other characters might we see?  I'm hoping that "Phase Three" won't be too sequel-heavy, and a few of the untried, less recognizable characters will get their own films.  I could do without "Iron Man 4," "Thor 3," and "Captain America 3."  Marvel needs to give other heroes a chance.

As a comic book character, Spider Woman has considerable assets.

More minority and/or female superheroes would be a welcome change from the usual run of white males.  I'd like to see a Spider Woman film, even though that seems unlikely and there may also be issues with Sony over the use of the word "Spider".  Luke Cage would make a great movie, and Ms. Marvel could be interesting.  The Black Panther would be my first choice among the "second tier" heroes, both because he is, well, black, and also because his backstory is significantly different from heroes we've seen already. 

Despite what I said about sequels above, I would like to see another Hulk movie.  Ed Norton's Hulk is still my favorite of the Marvel films, and the Hulk is my favorite Marvel character bar none.  "The Incredible Hulk" set up the Leader as his next adversary, and they could truly go places with that idea.  

The Most Annoying Song in the World?

The most annoying song in the world has to be "Knocked Up" by the Kings of Leon.  I've had that (fucking) "She's gonna have my baaaaaby!" lyric stuck in my head for days now.  WHY were they allowed to record this song?

I do like other Kings of Leon songs, but this is definitely not one of them.  The album that this is from, "Because of the Times" was their breakthrough album, and the more "rock-oriented" songs on this album are pretty good.  Unfortunately, for every one of their songs that ROCKS, the Kings of Leon feel obliged to write an anthemic, radio-friendly number like "Knocked Up."  The result is a series of albums that are about 60% good and 40% annoying.

2013年3月6日 星期三

Movies I've Seen Lately

None of the movies listed below are especially new.  The biggest reason for this is the fact that I live in Taiwan, and there is a considerable gap between when lower-budget movies are released in the States and when they are released over here.  Big budget movies like "The Avengers" come out - give or take a day - the same time worldwide, but smaller movies like "Argo" often appear in Taiwan weeks or even months after their release date in the US.  Some movies, like "The Master," are never even released here.

1. Argo

Ben Affleck directed and starred in this movie about a hostage situation in Iran.  This film also won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  I thought it was a great movie, and it deserved the award.  A bit strange, however, that Affleck wasn't nominated for Best Director as well.

2. Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino won the Academy Award for the screenplay.  Why?  I thought it was a terrible movie, and it didn't even make any sense towards the end.  Yes, Christopher Waltz, DiCaprio, and Foxx were all great, but the story was a mess.  I still can't figure out why Django and his partner didn't just sneak into the plantation and steal his wife back.

I am a big fan of Tarantino's movies up to and including "Kill Bill," but I really don't understand the hype this film and "Inglorious Basterds" have generated.  Both movies featured novel concepts and great performances, but both were also long on style and very, very short on logic.

3. Lincoln

This is the most boringest movie ever.  Really it is.

4. Silver Linings Playbook

Not only is Jennifer Lawrence smokin' hot, but she deserved the Oscar for Best Actress.  I thought this movie was quite good, even if I didn't buy the ending.  As a coworker pointed out, the two halves presented here wouldn't necessarily make a whole.

5. Searching for Sugar man

A documentary about Rodriquez, the Detroit musician relegated to a life of obscurity until his "rediscovery" by a South African years later.  This film won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and since I haven't seen any of the other films nominated, I can't comment on the Academy's choice.  I like Rodriguez's music a lot, but this documentary seemed a bit misleading.

6. Skyfall

Daniel Craig returns for his third Bond film, with Sam Mendes directing.  Adele's "Skyfall" won the Oscar for Best Song.  Javier Bardem was all over this movie, and the minute he showed up I could have cared less about Craig's performance (not that it wasn't good).  If there was an Oscar for "Best Evil Dude" they'd have to give it to Bardem.

7. The Matrix Revolutions

Yes, I know this movie is old as fuck, but I watched The Matrix Reloaded a week ago and started wondering if the third one was really as bad as everyone said it was.  I thought it was OK, and I sympathize with the Wachowskis in this matter.  The Matrix Trilogy was never going to be an easy thing to complete.

8. Promised Land

Matt Damon stars as a scout for a natural gas company, trying to lease land in a small farming community.  Gus Van Sant directed, and I don't think it was nominated for any Oscars.  Maybe it is too recent?  The film has a nice twist at the end, and Frances McDormand is great as his coworker.  Then again, she's great in everything.

9. The Master

A veiled look at Scientology's early years.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays "L. Ron Hubbard," and Joaquin Phoenix plays his would-be protege.  I believe Phoenix was nominated for Best Actor, and he should have won.  The performance he gives in this movie is amazing.  Of all the movies here, this one has to be my favorite.

Now if someone would just make a movie with Joaquin Phoenix, Ben Affleck, and Javier Bardem it would probably sweep next year's Academy Awards.  That's my opinion, anyway.

2013年3月4日 星期一

"The Metamorphosis and Other Stories" by Franz Kafka

"What could one write to such a man, a man who had obviously gone astray and who was certainly to be pitied but could not be helped?"

Franz Kafka wrote these stories between 1913 and his death of tuberculosis in 1924.  He is known for his surreal style of writing, and from his name we derive the term "Kafkaesque."  He was born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, and his family did not fare well under the Nazis.

None of the stories in this collection are long enough to grow tiresome, though after reading them I have little desire to read Kafka's novels.  Having read these stories, I can now say that yes, I have read Kafka, and that no, I wasn't that impressed.

I wouldn't say that his stories are surreal in the modern sense of the word.  Yes, many of them follow a peculiar kind of dream-logic, but the majority of his stories just don't seem to go anywhere, or build to a satisfying conclusion.  A few of them aren't even stories, but rather extended descriptions of social interactions and phenomena.

"The Metamorphosis" is by far the most famous of Kafka's works, and I couldn't understand what the big deal was.  It is as advertised - a story about a man who wakes up as an insect - and little else happens after that.  He scurries around his room, his family takes care of him, and that's about all there is to it.

I did like two of the other stories, "The Judgment" and "In the Penal Colony."  "The Judgment" has a nice twist at the end, and "In the Penal Colony" offers an interesting look at the criminal justice system.  I won't bother explaining them any further, because they are very short.

Those looking for something truly strange will probably find Kafka disappointing.  Modern authors have really upped the ante when it comes to strangeness.  Likewise, those looking for something intellectually challenging might also wonder whether his reputation is truly deserved.  It may be that his novels are much weightier, but I have no desire to find out.  

Kafka is light reading compared to authors like Nietzsche, Hesse, or Mann, though it is interesting to speculate on what he might have done if he had lived longer.  He was a writer of unquestionable talent, but he, like many of the characters in his stories, seemed unsure about which way to turn.

2013年3月2日 星期六

"Hard Times" by Charles Dickens

"The next morning was too bright a morning for sleep, and James Harthouse rose early, and sat in the pleasant bay window of his dressing-room, smoking the rare tobacco that had had so wholesome an influence on his young friend.  Reposing in the sunlight, with the fragrance of his eastern pipe about him, and the dreamy smoke vanishing into the air, so rich and soft with summer odours, he reckoned up his advantages as an idle winner might count his gains.  He was not at all bored for the time, and could give his mind to it."

Charles Dickens wrote "Hard Times" in 1854, when he was 42 years old.  One of the motivations for his writing it was the falling sales of his magazine, which he sought to boost by including an original story in this periodical.  "Hard Times" is one of his later works, written 16 years before his death in 1870.

The plot revolves around the Gradgrinds - of whom the patriarch, Tom Gradgrind, is both an educational reformer and a member of Parliament - and their relationship with Josiah Bounderby, a self-professed, self-made man who wields power as a banker in the fictional Coketown.  Tom Grandgrind encourages his daughter Louisa to marry Bounderby as a way of cementing their relations, though the robbery of Bounderby's bank complicates matters considerably.

"Hard Times" is among the preachiest of Dickens' books.  Dickens uses this novel as a platform from which to rail against the evils of a greedy, soulless, corrupt society.  This in itself isn't a bad thing, though I had trouble defining what it was exactly that Dickens was railing against.  In the beginning of the novel, he seems to be railing against the educational system, and possibly also the philosophy of Utilitarianism, while in the middle he seems to be railing against the greed of industrialists like Bounderby.  The end of this book is a foregone conclusion, without a clear purpose or dramatic effect.

I really wanted to like "Hard Times," but it was a real chore to get through.  Those looking for a better side of Dickens might seek out "Oliver Twist" if they haven't read it already.  Even "Great Expectations" and "David Copperfield," with all their improbabilities, were much better.