Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger; He's Waited Long Enough

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

As I explained here, I've been looking forward to Captain America's advent for some time. On opening day (this past Friday), I got to see the movie twice in 3D thanks to the generosity of my in-laws. Then, on the following Wednesday, I saw it again in a regular screening. I've not seen a movie at this rate since The Return of the King, so you can bet that I've got a lot to say about this fun film. Out of respect for this review coming out within the film's first week, I won't be spoiling anything past the first half of the movie. That said, much of the plot is true enough to the Marvel books that if you're familiar with them, you'll know the basics of the plot from the first scene on.

Expectations 'Odor': As Captain America: The First Avenger neared its release date, one of the things that continually impressed me about the film was the quality casting. Iron ManHulk, and Thor all displayed progressively star-studded casts, and Captain America was the culmination of that trend. With Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hugo Weaving all playing critical supporting roles (or, in Weaving's case, Cap's arch-enemy), it was shaping up to be a fine piece of drama in the most under-realized genre today: period superhero stories. Even Neal McDonough (whom, you might recall, was my choice to portray Steve Rogers once upon a time) got in the film as Dum Dum Dugan, and JJ Feild played a charismatic James Montgomery Falsworth (as opposed to the well-realized rat-turd Thax he played in Centurion). I knew that this was going to be special from the start, but I wasn't expecting to have so many great performers to divide my focus. Indeed, each of my three viewings over the past week were distinctly different, but all wonderful.

Appreciation 'Beef': There's just so much to say about Captain America: The First Avenger, so many things to take in that it'll be an effort to keep this blog post at a manageable length. I could promise to be brief--but meh, it's me. The movie features an awesome cast that plays their roles with a straight-faced and earnest dramatic realism that pleasantly contrasts the slightly exaggerated plot and gargantuan vehicles. The pacing of the film is much more restrained than other action movies--distinctly different from Transformers or Battle: Los Angeles, for instance--with a marvelously nested structure that pays better homage to comic book story-telling than any other film I've yet seen. The script is pristine, with expressions and attitudes that hint at the period's rich language while still staying firmly in four-color territory. The action and plot are both a balance of power and grit that makes Captain America a relatable, human hero even when deflecting disintegration beams with his indestructible shield.

Each actor in the movie really plays their role to the hilt, giving you a sense that if only they'd been given the serum, they too could have been the film's main character. That's not to diminish Chris Evans' work as Steve Rogers/Captain America--he's a fantastically believable 90 pound waif before being given the serum, and he sells the awkward transition of trying to acclimatize to his new powers post-serum with knowing presence and swagger. The earnestness of his delivery is key, but it's by no means a flat performance. Between this and his role in Sunshine, I'm becoming a fan of Evans. Watching his first scene, where the dry-mouthed shrimp tries to convince a recruiter to accept him, lets you feel the dedication the un-sung actor poured into the role, and you get to see that same commitment to the part throughout the film's entirety. His romantic foil, Peggy Carter played by Hayley Atwell, is stunning in her role, and gives a similarly stellar effort. As a British attache to Erskine's project, she's introduced as a critical, slightly imperious woman who reacts severely to the crude recruits on either side of Rogers. She warms to the affable wimp's demeanor though, and the chemistry between them is achingly palpable for a movie where they get nothing more than a quick kiss. Given the unenviable task of playing the perfect romance that never was, Atwell soars past that and succeeds at being plot-critical, endearing despite (or because of) her hard edges, and an amazing stunner to boot. It's one thing to look good in 1940s fashions, it's another thing to make one wish that all women of child-bearing age everywhere adopted similar sensibilities.

"I could promise to be brief--but meh, it's me."

But two of the biggest scene-stealers in this movie are Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips and Stanley Tucci as Doctor Abraham Erskine. Col. Phillips is a sour doubter in Rogers' potential as a super-soldier, and right away he strikes you with deadpan humor that is awesomely grim and clearly inspired by a less fabulous interpretation of General George Patton. When he first begins giving a briefing on the goals of the Stragetic Scientific Reserve (SSR), he shudders at scrawny Rogers as he hollowly brags, "We're going to win because we have the" His tone throughout the film is a spot-on contrast to the exhuberance and energy of the other characters. Dr. Erskine, for instance, is the feebly congenial German scientist responsible for the super-soldier serum. He watches the frail Rogers struggle through training and the biases of the other burly candidates with a paternal congeniality that beams off the screen, and has some fantastic lines that betray the depth of the ill-fated character. "Everyone forgets that the first country the Nazis invaded was their own," he lisps in a perfect Aus-German accent to Steve the night before his transformation, reminding him that hating a cause or a flag doesn't mean hating the people trapped under its banner. Both of these characters are critical to the story, and the veteran actors set a very high standard for their younger counterparts to play against.

The rest of the supporting actors were similarly perfect for their roles. Sebastian Stan played James 'Bucky' Barnes with a grin and potency that established him as a very ordinary hero to play counter to Captain America's larger-than-life persona in the second and third acts. Some (pedantic) fans might object to him being cast as an adult and even idol to pre-serum Rogers, but it's a creative decision that makes the world feel more grounded than a thirteen year-old knife-fighter riding Cap's coattails into combat. As it is, Bucky helped to anchor the audience to someone who was exceptional but still mundane--a common theme in the Captain America comics. And Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark managed to perfectly fill that eccentric niche needed for the film, playing up the four-color confidence and clean-yet-crass attitude you want from a comic book womanizer in World War Two. In a bizarre way, Howard Stark is the spitting image of his son, right down to echoing his stage presence in his first scene.

"It's one thing to look good in 1940s fashions, it's another thing to make one wish that all women of child-bearing age everywhere adopted similar sensibilities."

The villains also found themselves ideally cast. Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull was a whole other kind of antagonist from what has been portrayed in movie supervillains. Decried as a flat character, Weaving still gives the Red Skull a fierce, insane megalomania that evokes Hitler--who never actually appears in the film--and he also pulls out a calculating, almost diplomatic tone to his ultimatums and rants. The first scene where he threatens a Norse priest is wonderfully sinister, and he keeps up the energy throughout the film to make a villain that is quite possibly more fun than Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy. Toby Jones does a similarly great job as evil inventor Dr. Arnim Zola, playing neither a minion nor a larger-than-life villain waiting to take over the world--he's a reasonable and believable shill for Hydra that plays well off of Red Skull's grandeur.

The film has a more distinct structure than any other movie in the drama. Those who say the film had a third act problem or pacing issues clearly can't count to nine. Rather than merely having three acts--a beginning, middle, and end--Captain America: The Last Avenger nests that common structure in a way that is very theatrical. The first act has a beginning, middle, and end, as does the second, as does the third. The first act is Steve Rogers origin story, ending after his first scuffle with the Third Reich. The second act is Captain America's origin story--featuring the proto-hero as he struggles to find his own agency in his new life. And the third act, of course, is the inevitable showdown as the meta-plot of the movie becomes a deeply personal vendetta for Captain America. I'd excuse reviewers who missed this bit of embedded artifice if it weren't for the fact that two montages clearly separate each of the three acts, making this structure gloriously apparent and signaling the nature of the following act.

The script for Captain America: The First Avenger is really tight and evocative of the setting. The language is mild and has a mix of Wertham Code-approved PG expressions delivered with such seriousness that you might forget the profanities that would probably be realistically inserted into the tense scenes. More than that, though, the script is rich with dense lines that unpack to glorify the characters and showcase how well the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely knew their subjects. You get perfect capsules for Steve Rogers early on, for instance: "there are men laying down their lives. I got no right to do anything less." Col. Phillips also gets some great lines that inject surgically prescribed humor into the film's tension to keep the audience in a properly light-hearted attitude.

"The first scene where [Johan Schmidt] threatens a Norse priest is wonderfully sinister, and he keeps up the energy throughout the film to make a villain that is quite possibly more fun than Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy."

The action in the movie manages to keep everything crisply easy to follow while still keeping a fevered amount of activity onscreen so you never lose the war-torn feeling of the action. The fight set-pieces throughout the film keep you roughly apprised of combatants' positions (a common complaint against the Michael Bay-style of action directing), and there's no god-complex to Captain America as he fights through the enemy's minions--he hits hard and fast regardless of whether it's a redshirt he's fighting or not. This is supported by the depiction early on that this superhero is not bulletproof--his ribs are grazed by a bullet in the first action scene. The realistic temper of the combat contrasts the elements of many of the fights, though: Red Skull's Hydra minions sport ray guns powered by the Cosmic Cube, and they deploy a tank that would make a Baneblade feel deeply inadequate.

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I adore Captain America: The First Avenger. As a superhero fan and a geek for Captain America and the modern nobility he represents, this film hit all the right notes for me. It's not quite perfect--there are a few things I was hoping to get that they passed on or represented differently--but it is a masterpiece of the genre nonetheless, and I hope it will later become a vanguard of its World War Two sub-genre.

Ever since I first saw The Incredible Hulk, I started geeking out over the potential of watching Cap duke it out on the big screen. When the juicing pre-Abomination Blonski charged into close quarters with Hulk, flipping around and shooting him with a brutal sort of grace, I couldn't wait to see Captain America do likewise. I was not disappointed. Just watching the recently empowered Steve Rogers rundown the traitor Heinz Kruger was a nerd-thrill beyond anything I'd seen in theaters in quite some time. At one point in that sequence, Steve hurdles over a ten foot fence in a single bound. To depict that, the camera drops to a low angle looking up at him as one leg thrusts forward and his arms spread wide in an eagle-like pose--that's a classic pose from vintage comics, and is distinctly reminiscent of several pieces of Kirby's work. The rest of the combat does a similarly good job of both invoking the source material while also keeping the action purely cinematic and fluid.

"Red Skull's Hydra minions sport ray guns powered by the Cosmic Cube, and they deploy a tank that would make a Baneblade feel deeply inadequate."

In addition to the finely crafted action, the characters were absolutely lovely. Only Tommy Lee Jones can do deadpan and farce, understated and overplayed, all at the same moment, and he does so with each of his scenes. Howard Stark was a background character that was delightful everytime he turned up--including the moment of dry humor where he stands over Steve immediately before his operation. Weeks before, Steve watched a confident Howard's hovercar take a stutter-drop at the World's Fair, and now he hears the eccentric inventor shrug, "We're we'll ever be." The beat of awkward anticipation after that moment is delicately easy to miss, but it is pricelessly fun and well-played.

I mentioned the film's nested structure above, and that decision (and the two montages especially) really hit the mark for me, though I imagine it might be a little jarring to those looking for a typical movie two-or-three act progression. Having the detailed and carefully oriented plot split up this way helped me to appreciate the passage of time--while other superhero movies have taken place over weeks of time, Captain America occurs over the course of nearly three years. It also evokes the feeling of reading a comic book mini-series, as though the movie was adapted from a three issue story arc revolving around his first combat with his nemesis. I also loved the montage separating the first and second acts--a musical montage depicting Captain America's USO bond drive across the United States. Not only is the music terribly fun and catchy (I've been heard saying "Every bond you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy's gun," several times this week), but it also is a new wrinkle to the character that is pitch-perfect. In the comics, Steve Rogers does a one page transition into his Nazi-fighting super-soldier role, which somewhat implies that he didn't need to grow into his powers and all he needed was to get them to become a war hero. The movie adaptation, though, makes it clear that Captain America had to struggle to get a chance to fight, just like Rogers had to struggle to get enlisted in the first place. Plus, the USO sequence captures the decadent extravaganza that was the American propaganda and morale machine. Even though the country was at war and under severe rationing, a lot of those specials at home were about taking people's minds off of the hamstrung economy and dire news from the front. Americans would get a show and feel like their country's greatness was linked with success in the war, and nobody is better to link to that than Captain America. It's also an elegant way to show that Cap doesn't just want to make a difference: he wants to do everything he can. The distinction is critical and well-realized.

"Just watching the recently empowered Steve Rogers rundown the traitor Heinz Kruger was a nerd-thrill beyond anything I'd seen in theaters in quite some time."

One of the few notes of minor disappointment for me might be a bigger issue for others--Captain America features a stylized World War Two in which not only are the weapons not very accurate to the period, but the villains are four-color. This was something I expected: in a super-hero treatment of the war, I doubted that the Nazis were going to be the true threat or that Hitler would be allowed to mastermind the villain plots. Indeed, Hydra starts out as a Nazi program in the film, but once Red Skull gets his super-weapons he quickly decides to break off independently from Nazi Germany, killing the Nazi officers looking over his shoulder. There's no real consequence to this in the film other than you see virtually no swastikas and the ultimate threat is one insane super-villain rather than an entire country's military. This is about cultural sensitivity, I suppose. Once you have a villain who looks like an iteration of Satan to be universally reviled, it's better to lift him from political and cultural reality altogether. Still, it would've been nice if Captain America did a little bit more Nazi-stomping.

A note about the 3D experience: I don't buy into the 3D craze. The last 3D movie I saw in theaters was the Captain Eo movie in 1989 at Disneyland. I'd seen a couple of movies in home 3D since then, but nothing on a large scope this millennium. So the first two viewings were an especially fun treat for me as I got to view the final result of years of waiting with bated breath for Captain America to charge into theaters. The 3D effects were well done and very well integrated into the film. More often than not they added a subtle depth to the film's contents, and when the effects did jump out at you it was a dynamic part of the action's story-telling as opposed to a cheap gimmick to make you jump--although that didn't stop my wife or my brother-in-law from ducking away from Cap's shield.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': Captain America: The First Avenger is being hailed as the best super-hero film of the year. It is the most distinct superhero film yet made, invoking vintage comics alongside modern action sequences and sensibilities. If you're a Marvel fan, you've already seen this movie and loved it. If you've enjoyed most of the Marvel movies made to date, this one should not only entertain you but give you a genuinely unique film-going experience. Even if you don't normally like the Marvel movies except for maybe Iron Man, appreciating high drama more than anything, you should still be able to appreciate the crunch of the actors' fine performances in this cogent, slick film. Captain America: The First Avenger has plenty of feel good, inspiring moments without cheapening the characters, and the action is easy and fun to watch, often getting you caught up in its kinetic but deliberate tempo.

If you are requiring a fully sober experience with no comedic relief, realistic war elements including weapons and vehicles, or are turned off by playful cheesiness or elegant campiness, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.

It's okay. I forgive you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Things That Should Be In Mass Effect 3, But Probably Won't Be (Part Five)

I love Mass Effect. The third and final installment--with little more than one teaser trailer and one gameplay trailer released so far--already has me grabbed by the wrinklies, and I'm certain it's going to be a truly epic end to a great saga of heroism and hard choices. But there are a few things that I'd really love to see--that I think are very possible for the Bioware team to make--that I'm fairly certain won't make the cut. These are things that should be in Mass Effect 3, but probably won't be:

I want to have some direct sway over the inevitable epic space battle's action.
Why I want it: In the climax of the first Mass Effect game, you had the opportunity to tell the Earth Alliance fleet to either rush into the final battle, trying to help the embattled Citadel fleet, or to bide their time and wait for the enemy fleet to present a better opportunity to catch them off guard. It was a fun--but all too small--chance to exercise a little tactical control over a space battle that in the end just slightly modified the final cut-scene and whether or not the Citadel Council survived. In Mass Effect 2, the final space battle cut-scene was determined by which upgrades you had bought for the Normandy, if any, and that in turn affected which crew and party members might get injured in the fight. Both of these elegant teasers were well-executed, but they weren't very ambitious. ME 3 should give the player a chance to direct the final space battle with the Reapers in progress--along with a few Paragon and Renegade options that only unlock if you maxed your alignment by the end of the game. This, of course, supposes that this sort of massive fleet combat, composed of the Reapers on one side and a rag-tag assortment of all species' ships on the other, will be the immediate prelude to Shepard's final struggle to wipe out the machine overlords.

Picture this: Joker jumps the Normandy into Earth-space well within the lunar orbit, with a smattering of Migrant Fleet destroyers, turian dreadnoughts, batarian raiders, and volus gunships following in close formation. After a moment's delay, the viewscreen fills up with hundreds of Reapers as they lift off the planet to intercept the allied fleet in low Earth orbit. Immediately, the volus commander begins to freak out--because that's what space-bankers do when galactic poop-storms show up on their viewscreen. Shepard can tell the volus commander to retreat, fall back into a support formation, or to go into a flanking surprise attack. A renegade Shepard can threaten the volus, telling him that there's always time to blow up a retreating gunship, or a paragon Shepard can appeal to his sense of honor and outrage: "These things wiped out your homeworld, they're here to enslave you all, and you want to retreat?" At which point the volus will shout something humorously overblown and charge his vanguard into the center of the Reaper blockade.

Imagine getting several meaty choices like this in the course of an epic space battle leading up to whatever the game's climax will be. Really, nothing less would fit the galactic scale that is the Mass Effect universe, and making it so thoroughly interactive will engage players to a new ridiculous degree that will make them want to play the game's climax over and over to experience all the permutations of the battle. And having the conversations tree direct the course of the battle would be an awesome recognition of this scope and Shepard's authority as Big Damn Hero over the forces involved.

Why I won't get it: This is mostly pessimism, really. There are very few good space battles depicted in video games. Most of the time you're shown the bare minimum to accomplish a sense of urgency. The most common iteration along these lines is a randomly exploding internal corridor if you're on a ship, or a lot of orange bubbles bursting in the night sky if you're on the ground. Bioware really impressed me with the battle at the end of Mass Effect, and though it was smaller scale and shorter, the ME 2 ship battle was also engaging if simplistic. I have a feeling that Shepard's method of fighting the Reapers in ME 3 will be something more innocuous than a space battle, but it's possible that they will need to break a Reaper blockade or something in order to deploy the anti-cthulhu-bot super-weapon effectively. But Bioware will probably downplay the interactivity to reflecting a few prior choices in the game and at most two choices at the moment. Given that the space battle in ME 2 was fully rendered--a resource-consuming process--I'm certain they won't want to eat a lot of development hours and disc space with all of the set piece shots they'd need to make an interactive space battle. If they made the space battle based on the engine like in Mass Effect, though, then ME 3 should be able to accomplish something like this without too much technical overhead.

I want more Spaceship porn.
Why I want it: Over the course of Mass Effect, players become intimately familiar with Shepard's ship the SSV Normandy. Like Serenity, fans easily memorize the layout as they live in the space between their adventures, and memorizing how the specific spaces of the ship lead to beloved characters makes that connection a much more real, emotional tie to a fictional inanimate object. In the prologue to Mass Effect 2, fans wept as the beloved spacecraft died a hard death, particle-beamed to pieces, puffing smoke, with secondary explosions ripping through exposed bulkheads as it tumbled into a planet's atmosphere.

Then, at the close of the game's first act, we were treated to this--the unveiling of the Normandy SR2. That's finest piece of sci-fi hull-plating I've ever seen. It's an utterly decadent indulgence in the cool design and emotional attachment players feel to the character of the ship and the crew to which she's home. Beats the pants off any car commercial or Michael Bay money-shot I can think of at the moment. I love it and want more of it. There was a whiff of this effect when players first saw the Destiny Ascension in Mass Effect, but the moment doesn't compare. When those cargo bay doors opened for the shot of the ship leaving port, I was a drooling mess, soon to be mumbling "I have to load my last save so I can watch that again." As a game developer, if your players want to load-save to experience the same content over again immediately after first witnessing it, you're doing something right.

Why I won't get it: I actually think I've got a good chance of getting this one. In Mass Effect 3 Shepard will once more be operating outside of Cerberus' control, so it's a reasonable assumption that there might be a Normandy SR3 money-shot in the works. Of course, it'd be great to get some shots like this of other ships in the Mass Effect universe. The Reapers are a shoo-in for this kind of treatment, but in a more kinetic, I'm-vaporizing-the-Eiffel-Tower-and-looking-oh-so-sexy kind of way. And when the cavalry fleet arrives and the player gets to take cursory control over the proceedings, there ought to be a glorious passby for the flagship and a handful of the notable combatants.

So come on, Bioware. Polish up those hulls, prime that starport's lighting, tune those lens flares, and get started with the spaceship porn. And Normandy, I don't care what anyone says, you can still move it with the best of them, even if you have put on a little weight. Work those canards, baby.

Well, that's it for Things That Should Be In Mass Effect 3, But Probably Won't. Barring any startling revelations I just have to blog about, I'll clap my trap shut on this topic and wait for the game's release.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon Slagging Good

Nerdview: A good review is hard to find. A good review--that is, a quality review, not a positive review--seems to be even more rare amongst professionals and dedicated reviewers. Fortunately, the nerdery is helmed by a literary nut. Each review, whether it is a game, movie, book, or television series, will have the four elements: bias, appreciation, personal enjoyment, and general enjoyment. Put in food terms, these are odor, beef, gravy, and cheese.

A few weeks ago, I saw the newest in Michael Bay's Transformers series of movies--Transformers: Dark of the Moon. As anyone familiar with the critical track record might guess, it didn't fare too well amongst professional critics. As anyone familiar with me or my blog can guess, I have quite a bit to say about it. There will be light spoilers in the following review.

Expectations 'Odor': I loved the first Transformers movie. It spanned a large geographic footprint, diverse characters, and a scale of combat that vividly defined the immensity of the transformers as separate from the fuzzier dimensions of the original cartoons. Josh Duhamel and Shia LaBeouf really sold their two snapshots of the human element, too. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen went a little wide of that mark. It had better action that cemented Optimus Prime as an interstellar bolt-kicker, but the plot was much more contrived and the human elements were painfully unforgettable--especially in the scenes where energetic Shia LaBeouf had to play off of the tired, uninspired Megan Fox.

Now, with the third installation out, there's a conflict within me. On the one hand, I didn't want more of the second one, even though it had some gem scenes and action sequences. On the other hand, the early trailers of Transformers: Dark of the Moon really emphasized a mysterious plot connection to the American Apollo space program. I loved the ads for the first movie which portrayed the Mars rover getting squashed by a Decpticon, and so this new ad style appealed to me as it looked like another way of integrating real space exploration with the heights of sci-fi fantasy. I started getting excited for a song. And then Megan Fox--who offered little to the first movie and nothing to the second other than a great intro shot--got panned from the film and replaced with a British unknown. That could only be an improvement, right? Finally, the concept of this movie encompassing an outright invasion sounded really solid. And so I went in genuinely looking forward to a Transformers flick that had the biggest scope yet, incorporated a mythological space race tie-in, and traded Megan Fox for a blonde Briton.

Appreciation 'Beef': As with the previous two installments, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a big film. It was long, featuring both a lot of plot twists and extensive action set pieces, and it did more on a bigger scale than anything yet seen. And I'm inclined to say that, should there be a fourth in the franchise, I don't want the next movie to try to get any bigger--it'd be too much. But Dark of the Moon worked it out well. And the most powerful thing about it was how the symbolism of the story really meshes well with the actors. Yes, it had symbolism. It was fairly subtle (for a Michael Bay movie), potent, and well done. Every review I've seen of the movie fails to mention it, of course. And the new actors fit their roles perfectly, with a bit of fat-cutting from unnecessary elements in the second film helping to make this one immensely more enjoyable.

The primary element in these movies is so matter-of-factly excellent it is easy to forget about when reviewing the film: the special effects. From the first movie on, the giant robots were physical, chunky, and real, and that remains true with the latest installment. The VFX also grow into more interactions with the live action world. In the film's beginning, for instance, as the space race is summarized as part of a shadow war for access to alien tech we get to see JFK inserted into a couple of scenes with actors. It is fluid and really flirts with the uncanny valley--partly because there are few famous dead guys in America that are so readily recognized on television--but it comes off well and really impressed me in an off-sides manner. Later, when Chicago is obliterated by an army of invading Decepticons, I was leveled by the thorough believability of the destruction of a city I know fairly well.

"It was fairly subtle (for a Michael Bay movie), potent, and well done. Every review I've seen of the movie fails to mention it, of course."

Transformers: Dark of the Moon continues the tradition of having the highly kinetic, almost purely action plot of the alien robots interlaced with a more mundane and personal plot involving the squishy Sam Witwicky. In the first movie, the human sub-plot was a basic coming-of-age story with a theme of bravery in the face of personal sacrifice. The second movie was about the parents needing to let go so their son could bloom as initiated by the terrible thread of Sam going to college and culminating in him being accepted by the council of silhouettes to stab the Shiny of Resurrection into Optimus Prime's chest. Dark of the Moon, however, is about young people who've accomplished and sacrificed more than their years would indicate going into the working world and finding their achievements dumped on. Sam starts the film looking for a job, and repeatedly complains that he's saved the world and been honored by the president but still can't get a career started several months after college. In one interview, the elegant beauty of the theme comes to the front when Sam heatedly explains to a potential boss: "I've saved your life and done a bunch of other things you'll never even know about, and now all I want is a job." LaBeouf sells the anguish marvelously, and in so doing it becomes clear that Sam is a representative for returning veterans. Like Sam, a lot of veterans returning to civilian life today and in the past have found themselves having to beg for employment after doing jobs that were more fulfilling and helped people in greater ways. It makes it all the more poignant when Sam is given a menial job and understandably complains, "I just want to matter." I had a lot of different expectations for this movie, but when I caught that theme and recognized the sense and honor woven into it I was more impressed than at any other moment in the movie. This, coupled with the emasculatingly realistic romance makes Sam feel like a more vibrant hero struggling against genuine personal trials in addition to the forty-foot humanoid trash compactors.

The actors employed in this film are perfectly suited to their roles, which is expected of those who've been in the previous movies, but the newcomers are also facile additions to the eccentric actioner's world. The prominent four names added to the Transformers cast are Patrick Dempsey, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Huntington-Whiteley plays Carly Spencer, and though her understated and partly antagonistic role will likely not be appreciated by some, she does a good job of being innocently cruel to boyfriend Sam without making you feel that they don't belong together--something that you couldn't really say for Megan Fox's Mikaela in the first two movies. Unlike Mikaela in the climax of Revenge of the Fallen, Carly actually has something to contribute in the climax other than just doing the Baywatch slo-mo run. Patrick Dempsey play Dylan--Carly's boss and romantic competitor to Sam--and steps out of his rom-com shoes into a role that dynamically devolves as the plot progresses. Dylan starts out as a gregarious snob--not too big a stretch from many of his romantic roles--then moves into a petty, rich d-bag before graduating to Prince of Darkness as the final act begins. Dempsey pulls it off quite well, making it easy to hate him throughout the film but especially at the end when his loyalty to the villains proceeds unflinching in the face of mass slaughter. John Malkovich is Bruce Brazos, Sam's eccentric nightmare of a boss who all but disappears halfway through the film for no apparent reason other than there are too many squishy humans to keep track of. And Wash--er, Alan Tudyk--plays Dutch, fabulous lisping butler and bodyguard to John Turturro's Simmons. Dutch's character starts out awkwardly in the film, joining in only in the later part of the film, but he quickly steals his scenes and when he gets his moment to shine he too disappears from the plot. At least he doesn't get kacked in the middle of a punchline (3:10 to Yuma and Serenity).

Personal Enjoyment 'Gravy': I loved Transformers: Dark of the Moon. It had the right amount of awe and let the humans continue to be active allies to the Autobots who still get to land most of the critical blows to the bad guys. With one notable exception, I had no moments of wondering why they included this or that character in the movie, and almost no moments or characters got on my nerves. The suspension of physical laws is still a rampant part of the setting, but if I wasn't braced for that when the first movie had Scorponok burrowing through the sand like a frakking land shark I sure wouldn't have come this far. The series still maintains that a certain amount of the plot and conflict requires some time be devoted to a love story, obnoxious family moments, and battling government bureaucrats.

The combat between humans and Transformers has really been stepped up to a new level, and I love. One of my favorite moments in Revenge of the Fallen is when the big combination Decepticreep got face-shot by a naval rail gun. The Autobot on Decepticon action is, of course, the point of these movies, but I love the uphill struggle Captain Lennox and the other human soldiers face when they have to combat the giant robots on their own. Dark of the Moon delivers in spades in this field. The human weapons and tactics have continued to refine themselves over the years between this movie and the second, with the first act of the movie emphasizing that Nest has become a critically capable defense group--especially in regards to deploying Transformer scanners around important buildings across the country. That sense of progress on a tactical and logistical scale gratifies the part of me that always double-checked the population counter during Battlestar Galactica's credits.

In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, there were a lot of annoying characters and moments. The parents were in that field for me, though they were important to the cliche theme of the son going off to college prompting parental separation anxiety (and stupidity). Leo, Skids, and Mudflap were all shrilly annoying and not that enjoyable in most of their scenes. Skids and Mudflap in particular were so overly obnoxious representations of 'cabron culture' that I wasn't sure if it was meant to pander to or parody that demographic. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, however, reduces all of those elements. Leo is missing entirely with no one really stepping into the role of annoying tag-along human. Skids and Mudflap have vanished from the story, though there is a pair of mush-mouthed Autobots called Wreckers that aren't allowed off the base because they're a-holes. The Wreckers are funnier and much less prominent than Skids or Mudflap, though, so they really aren't a detriment to the film. The parents are an unnecessary five-to-ten minute distraction in the movie. They were great fun in the first film, and an annoying but thematically essential in the second, but with Sam grown up and struggling to find his place in the wide world they really offer nothing to the movie and are an unfunny after-thought. The most annoying character was this guy named Wang who embodied almost all of the obnoxious sexual humor of the entire movie. He didn't last long, but he was so over-the-top and annoying that I felt my body tensing up the longer he was on the screen.

"...if I wasn't braced for that when the first movie had Scorponok burrowing through the sand like a frakking land shark I sure wouldn't have come this far."

The new characters, however, were great fun. I was worried that Dutch was going to be more annoying, but in the end he was endearing--and the brief moment where he got to kick some butt and scare Russian mafiosos was too much fun for a VFX movie. When John Malkovich showed up as Bruce Brazos, I groaned: Malkovich? He always plays the same weird guy lately. I hope he doesn't last long. And while Bruce was weird, I ended up liking him anyway and really wanted him to feature in the third act as a rich good guy to stand opposite Dylan. Carly, despite being played off by most as a piece of eye-candy to replace the stale Mikaela, was genuinely important to the film. She pretty much saves the day, in fact, but not in an over-the-top melodramatic fashion. Besides that, though, her character's relationship with Sam is much more real and mature than the equivalents in the previous films. That's not to say the relationship is nicer, though. Early on she ribs him about not having a job, and it's pretty clear that she doesn't appreciate his past heroics in a real sense at first. It's mean in a friendly kind of way, and helps to reinforce the desperation to be important that drives Sam's development throughout the movie. It makes the climactic "I love you" moment all the more special that Sam's been petty in the past and that Carly's been insensitive to his history and struggles.

But there were some profoundly deep thrills I got from the film. A small example came early in the film where Buzz Aldrin, as himself, greeted Optimus Prime as 'a fellow space-explorer' and intoned "It's an honor to meet you." Optimus replied, "The honor is all mine." Big Blue isn't being facetious to the primitive human; to the sensitive and charismatic Big Bot, being brave enough to step out into the void and accomplish a dangerous mission no other human has done before is an awe-inspiring achievement. You can hear it in Peter Cullen's voice, and I found it to add a tender beauty to that simple exchange.

"...[Carly's] relationship with Sam is much more real and mature than the equivalents in the previous films. That's not to say the relationship is nicer, though."

Watching Chicago die was another wonderfully affecting element for me. I do not like Chicago. I've grown up in the suburbs north of the city, visiting Chicago on a regular basis, and as I've gotten older I've become increasingly ashamed of it. It is the embodiment of the corruption, vanity, racism, and mass selfishness of which I want to see America purged. But watching the Decepticon fleets descend on the city, destroying buildings and killing people by the thousand, recognizing intersections and buildings from field trips and family outings, it struck me how great a loss was being depicted. The corruption, pettiness, and crass vanity of the city paled in comparison to the realization that this was just twenty miles from where I sat, a city reduced to rubble. Much the effect for which I'm sure Michael Bay was aiming, I felt the impact of each missile in a definitively personal way that made the climax a gut-punching catharsis.

General Enjoyment 'Cheese': If you enjoyed the second movie at all, there should be nothing holding you back from seeing Dark of the Moon. It's got the same flaws as the other films, but does some damage control on the annoying elements of the second film to make this one much more bearable. The pointless and crass slapstick is sharply reduced compared to the Revenge of the Fallen, and the script--while still rough in places--does contribute to some cinematic tension when it gets out of its own way. This one actually has quite a bit more to say about virtue, sacrifice, and doing what's right no matter who or how many benefit from atrocity. If you can purge yourself of the popular bile most critics try to encourage against Michael Bay's movies, leave your mind open to the new depth of theme, and you should be pleasantly surprised if not outright amazed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Jim Caviezel

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Jim Caviezel: Man of Fire

Movie: Outlander (Own it)

Jim Caviezel stars as the titular character in Outlander. In a movie where the rest of the cast is a bunch of raiding vikings, Caviezel's character Kainan has to operate in dual roles. As a member of a refined sci-fi society, he has to be disgusted and out of his element around the primitive Norse. But as a soldier of the civilization that seeded earth with the first proto-vikings, he has to have an internal fire that puts him on superior footing with the vikings even after his swank tech is stripped away. So unlike Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan in The Thirteenth Warrior, he has to be confused by his crude hosts while still constantly impressing them. Caviezel does a good job of this, combining his trademark steel with a wounded emotional sensitivity. It's central to his character, as Kainan is himself remorseful over actions that the vikings wouldn't bat an eye at doing even though the scale of the atrocity is centuries beyond their ability. The fact that Kainan's guilt is compounded by over-identifying with the murderous antagonist makes it a very intriguing twist on the source epic, where Grendel is frequently invoked as a kin-killer. Also, it's a fun note that the monster is called a son of Cain or Cain's kin in the poem, which I'm sure informed the movie's writers to name the protagonist Kainain.

One of the other things that Kainan brings to Outlander is a unique take on the Schlub. You might recall me mentioning previously that a Schlub is a character that through ignorance or charisma finds it necessary to initiate exposition dumps for the audience. Kainan is a sort of anti-schlub in the movie--everyone else is ignorant of the sci-fi trappings of the setting, but he refrains from trying to convince them of it in absolute terms. Instead, he describes the alien monster, his nuke-wielding dropship, and his interstellar origins in primitive terms as a dragon, boats, and an island to the north, respectively. When the vikings first interrogate him for his suspicious behavior, he sticks to his story even amidst a light beating:

It's an interesting dynamic, and gives the audience a fun bit of juxtaposition later in the movie where we see literal visuals of the sci-fi backstory narrated with his dumbed-down-viking-friendly version of events. And Jim Caviezel's fierce delivery of the narration also evokes the emotion that makes him reluctant to share any of his history with the earthlings, allowing you to feel like that moment has three simultaneous levels of story-telling.

Movie: The Count of Monte Cristo (Own it) Light Spoilers

Alexander Dumas' prolific work is timeless because of the conflict built into its content and structure. On one level, it's a story of enlightening one's behavior and trappings to improve your station--a bit of My Fair Lady, really. On another, it's a story of the universality of brutish, selfish behavior regardless of social class--a little Les Miserables. And finally, it's a story about one man pursuing poetically damning revenge to thoroughly crush his enemies in an ironically appropriate manner--a whole lot of Hamlet. Appropriately enough, Caviezel as the star Edmond Dantes has to put on a lot of acting hats to pull off this nuanced plot. First, he plays a hubristically naive and innocent young man, then a wounded and confused victim. He turns into a driven, blood-thirsty avenger, but that is later softened into an investigative rogue. Each of these facets are well-realized and makes for a dynamic story that helps to remind you that it occurs over a seventeen year span of time. When Edmond makes it to the climax of the film and finally confronts Fernand, the weight of the movie is clearly carried on his shoulders throughout the charged scene, which begins with him ominously stage-whispering:

Caviezel's delivery of the line underscores the tension in the moment. Edmond is tremblingly close to the all-but-inevitable execution of his vengeance, and he has to force an expression of glee he doesn't seem to feel at this point. Given that all his loved ones have tried to warn him off this path, it's a great piece of drama in a movie that offers a wonderful combination of that sort of high-minded acting, action, dry wit, and precious historicity.

Movie: Frequency (Own it) Light Spoilers

A combination father-son drama and thriller, Frequency co-stars Jim Caviezel as John Sullivan, a cop drinking himself to oblivion when he discovers that the once-in-a-lifetime solar activity bombarding the area has linked his dad's old ham radio to the same unit thirty years prior. As John uses the link to the past to save his father--a Boston fireman--from a fire that was supposed to kill him, he has to deal with the unexpected consequences as a serial killer's spree in the sixties increases by ten more bodies. It's a fun bit of A Sound of Thunder and, like The Count of Monte Cristo, it gives Caviezel an opportunity to walk a lot of dramatic ground. At the film's start, he's a wreck that can't seem to care when his long-term girlfriend walks out on him, and as the butterfly effect worsens, he quickly becomes violently enraged that his mother--who was alive before the chronology was warped--became one of the serial killer's victims. As he tries to suss out the cold case that is all too fresh to his time-tripping sensibilities, John Sullivan lays into a suspect:

One of the major elements of the movie is how easy it is to screw up your life and how hard it is to fix. When John first makes contact with his father, he's clearly embarrassed to admit he's in his mid 30s and still unattached. His mother (before getting time-aborted) is quietly ashamed that he let his girlfriend get away. His long-time mentor and superior in the precinct identifies him as having a history of disrespecting himself and others. And it falls to his goof-ball best friend, who is married and a father, to be largely responsible for holding his melancholic pal together. All of this is sort of a spiral that began with growing up as a fatherless child, and Caviezel's character clearly recognizes it but isn't prepared to do anything about it now. So when a sci-fi-lite macguffin allows him to try to correct things at the start, it is no surprise either that he tries to right his life or that it ends up being more difficult than expected. As John gets closer to fixing his own mistake, he becomes violently attached to what little control he can exert over his world. It's an engaging film that doesn't let the silly bit of non-science-fiction get in the way of neat drama, good cinematography, and a convincing story that takes place in two concurrent times a generation apart.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Anticipating the Captain America movie...

...or "Why America the world still needs Captain America"

In 1940, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were worried. A pair of American comic book makers, they were looking to create a lasting, iconic new superhero property. But unlike the creation of many other heroes, they began with the hero's arch-nemesis: Hitler. Creating a hero who was empowering to pre-war Americans but nowhere near as haughtily indestructible as Superman, they made Captain America--a kid who was in many ways typical of his idealistic, naive generation. Even in 1940, though, Hitler and Nazi Germany weren't quite considered the universal bad guys we judge them today. A lot of Americans were still insisting on neutrality in the mounting European war, and a minority wanted to side with Germany at the time. If you looked at most other American comic books at the time, many of them were ignoring the war in a move that seemed to be hedging their bets when it came to popular opinion. Many celebrities and companies were quietly investing in German companies, either actively supporting the Axis powers or operating on the assumption that it would be good to invest in them should they win.

Simon and Kirby's creation, however, stood staunchly against Nazi Germany, and its tremendous patriotism made it a hit as the war consumed American headlines and consciousness. But it's critical to understand that when Captain America was released there was still no mass understanding of the atrocities the Nazis were committing--in December of 1940, most Americans still identified Germany as yet another European belligerent, however more aggressive they may have been. Heck, the first issue of the comic is predicated on the concept that high-level Americans were actively supporting Germany. Captain America as a comic wasn't just about sucker-punching an easy real-life villain. It was about actively coming down on a side with an unequivocal moral judgment when most other Americans were trying to 'wait and see'.

This weekend, millions of people around the world are going to see Captain America: The First Avenger. I'll be one of them, and it will be the first time I've seen a movie on its opening weekend in years. If you spot a scruffy nerd wearing a Thor and Captain America t-shirt in a Midwest theater getting teary-eyed entirely too early on in the film, that might be me. But there's already a bitter rind of complaint that I've seen floating around the net about how this is "just another superhero movie", "a movie-length ad for the Avengers movie", or "Captain America doesn't matter anymore." This article is a big inappropriate gesture to all of those depressing pariahs of enthusiasm. Captain America is all kinds of relevant--largely for the role he plays in reminding us of the virtues our fathers and grandfathers esteemed that hardly factor into modern sensibilities.

I've intimated my own anticipation of the film in the past, but I'll elaborate further here. Because that's how the Nerdery rolls--elucidation upon elucidation.

"If you spot a scruffy nerd wearing a Thor and Captain America t-shirt in a Midwest theater getting teary-eyed entirely too early on in the film, that might be me."

Captain America is the sum and total of almost all of the best qualities of this country, and to say he's no longer relevant is to say that America doesn't need virtue anymore. There are a lot of people in America who clearly feel that way--who posit that concepts of justice and social responsibility are archaic concepts in a pragmatic world-- but I don't know any who'd come out and say it in those stringent terms. Steve Rogers, who would become Captain America, represents a kid who wants to do what's right regardless of his ability to succeed. Scrawny and sickly, the universal opinion that joining the military at the war's start would equate to suicide doesn't phase him, despite the constant reminders from those around him and his own personal history of getting regularly beaten up. Captain America is determined that one's inability to produce change should never sway one's concept of right and wrong. He knows in his heart what is right and would follow through with it even without the benefit of the super soldier serum, which is regularly invoked as the reason why he is worthy of that power.

This is important. This is true. Thousands of young American men who joined the armed services during the war did so under false pretenses--especially in regards to age. The draft board might hold that under eighteen was too young, but many Americans found their way around those guidelines to ensure that they weren't left behind when their friends and brothers went to war. Audie Murphy, one of the most widely decorated heroes of the war, joined and served under a false birth-date. As did my grandfather, a marine in the Pacific Theater. And, if the testimony of every documentary I've ever seen or read is any indication, so did a multitude of others across the nation. No one wanted to stay home and wait for their birthday when they could be out there helping put a collective boot on the Axis' throat.

"Captain America is all kinds of relevant--largely for the role he plays in reminding us of the virtues our fathers and grandfathers esteemed that hardly factor into modern sensibilities."

Today is another matter entirely. We're victims of skepticism, pragmatism, and bean-counting. A war today isn't worthwhile if it costs too much in terms of money and life--but mostly in terms of money. The pundits that try to manipulate public opinion and its rationale would tell us that today there is no Nazi Germany, no evil nations or mad dictators trying to wipe out innocent people or ruthlessly invade their neighbors. That's why we don't rush to aid other countries. But deep down, we know that isn't true. Not even the first world can claim ignorance of the genocides and atrocities being committed on small and large scales around the world. But we don't do anything about it. Because the cost of righting wrongs would be too much, and the rigor required to proactively be involved in world affairs would be too high. Shame on us.

The accepting, fraternal nature of Captain America the comic book is part of its great appeal and effectiveness as a symbol of America, as well. Despite the tendency of its contemporaries, Simon and Kirby's work didn't paint the Nazis as an ethnicity--there were Germans amongst the protagonists as well, clearly outlining a standard of acceptance with the fact that the serum's creator was himself German. Add to that the offhanded congeniality of the down-to-earth hero and the international relations he displays with America's allies throughout the war plots of his comic, and you can see that Cap represents the pinnacle of American involvement and the nature of America as an alliance-making coordinator on nearly every front around the globe.

And Captain America, unlike other heroes of his day and today, has always been a team player. While other heroes slide in and out of publisher's 'team-ups', he fights alongside his fellows. In the war era, Cap led the way as troops stormed beaches and cleared out military bunkers. Later, he defined a revival of the Avengers as a premier title, stepping into a key role of leadership and accountability as a voice from a more honest time in our history. When the Marvel universe split in Civil War, he served as a dynamic leader of the conscientious objectors/rebels. This characteristic emphasizes the cooperative frailty of Captain America--no matter how powerful he may be, his greatest strength is in his ability to rally like-minded heroes, whether they have powers or not.

"Captain America is determined that one's inability to produce change should never sway one's concept of right and wrong."

This isn't a war-mongering post. It's a recognition that today when we feel ire over injustice, we still fail to act. I think Captain America is just what we need to get a little conviction over our collective sense of passive entitlement. And the movie looks like it's going to be true to those themes. Just look at these pictures. The first is the cover of Captain America #1, which went on sale in December 1940. The second is a limited edition poster given out to the cast of the most recent movie.

Just look at that, appreciate the sense of history and the honor given to the source material, right down to giving der FΓΌhrer a right hook in a recreation of the original cover's pose. Only this weekend will tell whether the movie lives up to the legacy of the world's greatest superhero, but all indications so far look good that Captain America will be making a strong return to Americans' collective consciousness.

A hero of ambition, determination, and moral certainty that fights alongside others, not on his own in a far-off plane. Because he has a lot to teach us, to remind us, and to show us. Because we need him.

Nerd Pic: Nerds Unlimited

The king is dead: long live the king.

With the space shuttle program shuddering through its last breaths over the past week, I felt a melancholic draw to remind ourselves as a collective of jaded modernists that there is still wonder in the world, there are still great things to be done, and at the forefront of many of those wonders are a bunch of nerds that just won't quit.

Perhaps part of this somber draw to highlight the grandeur of human achievement over the past few decades is the inclusion of part of JFK's 1961 moon speech to congress in Transformers Dark of the Moon. I'll be talking about that movie later, but I think that the lunar landing itself is a grand, romantic spectacle driven by nerds and supported by a proud nation. I don't like John F. Kennedy as a president. He made blunders in foreign policy due to cultural ignorance regarding the Soviet Union that we'd never excuse of a political leader who wasn't completely over-idealized. The economics of many of his spending plans were fanciful to say the least, spending more while claiming to be trying to tax less--especially on the high end of the tax bracket, where he seemed to be protecting the east coast aristocracy from which he sprung. But the way he championed a special interest that was more about the prestige of a jaded nation is the definition of inspiration. And the words he used to accomplish that feat were timeless. A sampling of JFK's famous 1962 moon speech at Rice University:
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.
The above quote was immediately following an analysis of the absurd costs of JFK's space program. Over five billion dollars by his estimates, and with the costs only going up as the years progressed, the president lauded this as a virtue. Boldness. Or audacity. He wasn't talking about making outrageous claims, or circumventing logic in the blind pursuit of a self-serving goal despite the advice of concerned advisors. The boldness--the audacity--JFK was exhorting a nation towards was a sense of wonder, and achievement at the expense of luxuries Americans had come to consider necessities.

As individuals and as a nation, there are times when you should make painful, practical judgments about what is worth your time, your money, and the investment of your spirit. When you do that, though, you must double count the edification of the activity. For instance, a two dollar soda--which will be urine in a matter of hours--is not worth half as much as a four dollar book--which might take hours to read and years to forget. As a nation, the cost of a rocket is incomparable to the inspiration and thrill of pride passed on through the legacy of our space program. JFK explained that in his closing comments to Rice University:
Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."
Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.
Thank you.
Today America is in a time of depression, and I'm not referring to the economy. I mean in the optimism and the ability of our leadership to get people excited about something truly constructive. In 1961, JFK pushed a huge space budget down Congress' throat in the pursuit of a nerdy vision that had no foreseeable immediate benefits. And the country followed suit. Today, the space shuttle is being mothballed--and not to be replaced any time soon--out of concern for the budget. Our nation is collectively giving up on its dreams, and for the next few decades all American astronauts will be hitch-hiking another nation's rockets. I don't mean to get too political, but the fact is there is very little hope for the American space program right now, and even if you don't blame the leadership, we certainly aren't getting any rousing speeches designed to unite the country under a common banner of greatness for the sake of aristeia.

Aristeia is a greek word that roughly means 'excellence'. In ancient Greece, it was the central factor in 'good art', whether through their epic poems or their sculptures. It's a picture of poise and beauty, where the tenuous balance of forces exemplifies the control and the educated ambition of those who define that moment of aristeia. It isn't about perfection, as being flawless is an indication of too much caution or not enough hunger for greatness. The key is in the balance, when one falls completely under extreme forces and finds balance in a combination of strength, will, and grace. When one nation pushed itself past vested self-interest to put footprints on a sphere a quarter million miles away, they were achieving a moment of that carefully balanced excellence. The forces of economic recession, of international scandal and global pressure, and of heart-breaking accidents at home all pitted themselves against the public will. A public will that long-suffering perseverance would see a better future through dedication, reason, cooperation, and naive dreams.

"...the cost of a rocket is incomparable to the inspiration and thrill of pride passed on through the legacy of our space program."

And so today I insist that nerds are responsible for helping our society, our age, and this country break the bounds of nature's most formidable limits. This isn't a self-affirming award, but an undying belief that the modern world needs whimsy to be bearable. And a nerd is worthless if he has no whimsy. That is the quality that powers the drive we have to constantly expound upon our interests, our hopes for the future near and far, and to gather our enthusiasms together even when those same activities ostracize ourselves from those intimidated by our vision or put off by our excitement. Because a real nerd knows that a full, personal commitment to their hobbies is worth it when there's a chance that one day we'll be given the tools to once again rub out the line that separates our dreams from reality.

The picture above has several iconic images combined into one. In Buzz Aldrin's visor, there is an image of a fighter breaking the sound barrier--generally believed to have first been broken by Chuck Yeager in the X-1 prototype when he reached Mach 1.07 on October 14, 1947. Featured center in the visor is a picture from the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, with Buzz Aldrin saluting the flag in front of the landing module. And on the right part of the visor is Oscar Pistorius, a South African dual amputee who lost both legs before his first birthday. Today he is a champion sprinter who rivals competitors with both legs, and he's been in the news lately as the Olympic commission has refused to allow him to compete due to his situation. All of these people are tremendous individuals who won victories in fields pioneered, planned, and directed by nerds. And so, just over the horizon, there is the USS Enterprise. One of the most recognizable flagships of nerdery around, for better or worse. It is by design emblematic of warp and FTL (faster-than-light) technology in general. Exceeding the speed of light--what I term the light barrier to invoke the fragile sound barrier we once called impassable--is today considered unreachable. But one day it will be defeated by a nerd. Someone with a fantastic, unrealistic vision of a world that might be, and an unabashed enthusiasm for bringing that whimsy to the world around him.

After thirty years of discovery and achievement, the space shuttle program is no more. This administration has panned the development of a successor, virtually ensuring that our generation will not be responsible for building the next great spacecraft, but one day another reusable re-entry vehicle will be sent into our planet's orbit and beyond. Maybe it won't have an American flag--though I hope it will. But it will have a nerd's signature on every support and running through its fuel lines.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Day in the Nerdery: Parent Wardrobe

A Day in the Nerdery: Being a nerd is fun. There's a peculiar level of joy that can only be enjoyed by someone who knows how to properly visualize 'power armor-shattering pelvic thrusts', 'brace-for-impact bathroom breaks', or 'thing-foot'. I'm here to share that joy, whether you like it or not.

A free bit of advice to all new parents: wear shirts that are one size bigger than to which you're normally accustomed.

Several days ago, I was at home with the boy while my wife was at work. Normally, any time my beloved son and I are alone for an extended period of time and our only car is unaccessible, he takes it as an opportunity to throw an unrighteous fit. This particular time, however, he was being surprisingly pleasant.

That would have warned off a wiser man.

Now, a big part of being a father for me is that I constantly forget how delightfully cute and amazing my son is. As I stayed at home with him and turned on an episode of Battlestar Galactica, I reveled in the chance to cuddle with my offspring as he gurgled along with his father who was mouthing the words of the series pilot in perfect rhythm with the tv. The eighteen pounder snuggled against me, chomping his gums into my collar bone and moving in delightfully spastic motions that put me in mind of Yoda curling up for his dirt nap in Return of the Jedi. It was a supremely endearing moment, despite all that would follow.

Now, another big part of being a father for me is that I constantly forget how disgustingly vindictive and gross my son can be. As I stood up to go get a snack before Lee read Tigh the riot act, my son ejected a steamy mass of approximately four ounces of second-stage breast milk and stomach acid directly onto his father's chest.

To his credit, the projecticle biohazard didn't touch himself--he'd managed to place the entire mess squarely on me, and he kept leaning forward such that the sticky mash that proceeded from his cry-hole created a flow of vomit going down my front. Not wanting to get the bilious mass on the apartment floor, I grabbed the hem of my t-shirt and lifted it up and away so that the putrid mess could pool in the trough created.

Relatively speaking, this was an extremely manageable mess. I was holding my son in my left arm, leaning him against my armpit and the side of my chest. My right hand was holding my shirt hem to contain the gut-spill. If I put my son down and changed my shirt, it wouldn't be all that bad.

Again, that would've warned off a wiser man.

The darling baby then decided that was an excellent time to stretch. When my son stretches, he emulates some of the ragdoll physics you might see a falling deceased character use in your average video game--his elbow stiffens as he positions his arm at full extension, followed by a backward shrug that turns into a quick forward rotation that resembles a lifeless flop.

This arm-flop led directly into the river of regurgitation slickly plastered to my shirt. And the awkward extension of his arm evenly distributed the effluvium from his doughboy shoulder to his pudgy wrist. He stiffened and slowly contemplated the strange sensation of the cooling mass of ejected material before deciding upon his course of action: a seizing wail accompanied by the all-too-familiar Winston Churchill face-of-rage-and-discontent.

At that point, my son had instituted a time limit on my solution to his problem. I had until my ears started bleeding to make my boy happy or he'd move on to more devastating tactics. With careful sideways contorting, I lifted the barf-skin bag that once was my shirt to wipe off my son's arm. Unfortunately, there's no known off switch for my boy's moods, and he continued to rave as I gingerly put him down on his play mat to take off my shirt. Curling the bottom of the shirt up to trap the puddle of puke in a roll of wretched cloth, I couldn't get it off without dragging it across my face. Sneering and trying to get it over with as soon as possible, I tug the shirt off and over my head, a snout-full of vomit depositing itself through the soaked cloth to my nose and upper lip.

My son got to hear me wail a bit at that point.

So, bottom line: when handling my darling progeny, I need to wear shirts one size larger in the future. And if you have infants I recommend you do likewise.