Movie Review: Coco (2017)


Title: Coco
Release Date: November 22, 2017
Director: Lee Unkrich
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Coco is a delightful animated film by Pixar that weaves in the traditions of Día de los Muertos to a celebration of family and music. Miguel is boy in a family of shoemakers who loves the music of the local legend Ernesto de la Cruz, and wishes to pursue making music of his own.  The problem is that his family has banned music for several generations after his great-great-grandmother and his great-grandmother Coco (then a child) were left behind by great-great-grandfather seeking a music career. What follows is a wonderful adventure where Miguel accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead (depicted humorously as a bureaucratic parallel to our own world). with the help of a  bumbling skeleton named Hector, Miguel seeks to return to his own world and get his family’s blessing to play music, learning a lot about his family in the process.  There are some unexpectedly dark parts to this film – maybe not what would scare a young child in a movie full of skeletons – but nonetheless very serious material for a family film.  Visually it’s splendorous and I enjoy the wide ranges of expressions given to the skeleton’s bony faces.  Definitely another terrific addition to the Pixar catalog.

Rating: ****

Advertisements

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older


AuthorDaniel José Older 
TitleShadowshaper
NarratorAnika Noni Rose
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This young adult fantasy novel is set in Brooklyn and features a teenager named Sierra who discovers that her family is able to communicate with the spirit world through art.  And it is up to her to save her family and community from an anthropologist who has learned their secrets and is now turning the spirits against them.  The book is full of humor, truly sinister monsters, and believable world building.

It’s good in weaving traditional YA fantasy tropes in with Caribbean folklore and a young woman of color as the protagonist.  It also works as a metaphor for contemporary issues such as gentrification and cultural appropriation.

Favorite Passages:

“hipsters are basically yuppies with tighter pants and bigger glasses.”

Recommended booksHow It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Mama Day
by Gloria Naylor, The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, and Krik? Krak!
by Edwidge Danticat
Rating: ***

 

 

Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson


AuthorIsabel Wilkerson
Title: The Warmth of Other Suns
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2010.
Summary/Review:

The Great Migration occurred in the 20th century when millions of African Americans left the South seeking better futures for themselves and their children in the cities of the North and the West.  This migration is typically recorded in history as occurring during World War I and into the 1920s, but Wilkerson recognizes that the migration actually continued and increased in numbers into the 1970s.

The reasons for leaving the South are clear. Many Black Americans worked as sharecroppers where their labor was exploited and what little income they took in was taken away again in payments to the landowners leaving them in a state of debt peonage.  The system of segregation, formalized under the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s, prevented Southern Blacks from seeking to improve their station in life through education, jobs, or political action.  Intimidation and lynching forestalled attempts to challenge segregation. Starting in World War I, recruiters from Northern factories began to travel South to encourage African Americans to come North to work (often risking beatings or death from Southern Whites).

The promise of jobs and an escape from the segregated South encouraged many Blacks to make the journey North.  In addition to facing the challenges of finding the money and resources to leave their homes and families for the unknown, these migrants also risked threats from Southern Whites who, despite their prejudices, did not want their source of cheap labor to leave.  In addition to lynchings and beatings, Southern Whites would prevent Blacks from migrating by exaggerating or making up entirely criminal charges and debts to keep them tied to the South. The railroads were the main route of migration and the cities African American migrants ended up in were often the ones served by railroad routes that connected to their Southern communities.  In many cases, people from the same Southern towns and counties would end up living in the same neighborhoods in their Northern and Western cities.

Moving to the big cities provided African Americans with numerous opportunities – good jobs that paid well, better education, the opportunity to own property, the right to vote, and an escape from the strict caste system.  Nevertheless, these migrants found that the North and the South often had their own systems of segregation, a more genteel, unwritten code they referred to as “James Crow.” Seeking places to live, Black renters found themselves restricted to certain areas of the city and forced to pay higher rents than white people would pay for similar properties.  Immigrants from Europe resented that Black workers would take lower wages.  On the other hand, they showed little solidarity, and restricted Blacks from joining their unions.

African American migrants kept close ties to the South, acting as resources for future migrants, and helping newcomers get settled.  They also kept an eye on the growing Civil Rights Movement, supporting it from afar.  By the mid-1970s, the flow of the Great Migration ceased.  The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s began taking effect, meaning there were more opportunities for those remaining in the South.  At the same time, the fiscal decline of the big cities meant that good-paying jobs were no longer available and crime was on the rise.

Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three main characters who make their journey in three different decades.  Ida Mae Brandon Gladney and her husband George are sharecroppers in Mississippi who move to Chicago in the 1930s.  There she becomes a pillar of the working class African American community for several decades, yet never loses here Southern accent. George Swanson Starling is forced to leave college early to find work picking fruit in Florida.  During the labor shortages of WWII, George begins organizing the pickers for better pay and conditions, but eventually the threat of lynching forces him to flee to New York.  He spends 35 years working as a porter on the trains connecting Florida to New York.  Robert Joseph Pershing Foster is a highly-skilled physician and veteran who marries into one of the most prosperous and influential African American families of Atlanta.  Nevertheless, he feels that he will never achieve his potential in the segregated South, so in the 1950s he makes the journey to Los Angeles.  There he indeed becomes a wildly successful and prosperous physician (even mentioned in a song by one of his patients, Ray Charles).  But success comes at the cost of strained family relationships, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling.

Wilkerson tells the stories of her three main characters in a novelistic style.  Interweaved with these personal histories are more general demographic trends and anecdotes of other migrants’ experiences.  The style is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – itself a story about migrants – where the narrative of the Joad family alternates with vignettes of other people’s experiences. This is an important book about an under-recognized phenomenon in American history written in an engaging literary style.

Favorite Passages:

The Great Migration would not end until the 1970s, when the South began finally to change—the whites-only signs came down, the all-white schools opened up, and everyone could vote. By then nearly half of all black Americans—some forty-seven percent—would be living outside the South, compared to ten percent when the Migration began. “Oftentimes, just to go away,” wrote John Dollard, a Yale scholar studying the South in the 1930s, “is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put.”


What few people seemed to realize or perhaps dared admit was that the thick walls of the caste system kept everyone in prison. The rules that defined a group’s supremacy were so tightly wound as to put pressure on everyone trying to stay within the narrow confines of acceptability. It meant being a certain kind of Protestant, holding a particular occupation, having a respectable level of wealth or the appearance of it, and drawing the patronizingly appropriate lines between oneself and those of lower rank of either race in that world.


The arbitrary nature of grown people’s wrath gave colored children practice for life in the caste system, which is why parents, forced to train their children in the ways of subservience, treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.


The disparity in pay, reported without apology in the local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.


The people who lived in the cabins gave the best hours of their days to cotton, working until the sun went behind the trees and they couldn’t see their hands anymore.


On Wall Street, there were futures and commodities traders wagering on what the cotton she had yet to pick might go for next October. There were businessmen in Chicago needing oxford shirts, socialites in New York and Philadelphia wanting lace curtains and organdy evening gowns. Closer to home, closer than one dared to contemplate, there were Klansmen needing their white cotton robes and hoods.


Many years later, the people would stand up to water hoses and sheriffs’ dogs to be treated as equal. But for now the people resisted in silent, everyday rebellions that would build up to a storm at midcentury. Rocks stuffed into cotton sacks in Mississippi at weighing time. The COLORED ONLY signs pulled from the seat backs of public buses and converted into dartboards in dorm rooms in Georgia. Teenagers sneaking into coffee shops and swiveling on the soda fountain stools forbidden to colored people in Florida and then running out as fast as they’d come in before anybody could catch them. Each one fought in isolation and unbeknownst to the others, long before the marches and boycotts that were decades away.


Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns. This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run-down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.


The pickers had more money in their pockets than they were raised to think they had a right to, and times were the best they had ever been, which said more about how meager the past had been than how great the present was. There was a war going on, after all. They hated that there was a war, but they knew that it made them indispensable for once, and deep inside they wished it would never end.


The Great Migration in particular was not a seasonal, contained, or singular event. It was a statistically measurable demographic phenomenon marked by unabated outflows of black émigrés that lasted roughly from 1915 to 1975. It peaked during the war years, swept a good portion of all the black people alive in the United States at the time into a river that carried them to all points north and west.


Like other mass migrations, it was not a haphazard unfurling of lost souls but a calculable and fairly ordered resettlement of people along the most direct route to what they perceived as freedom, based on railroad and bus lines. The migration streams were so predictable that by the end of the Migration, and, to a lesser degree, even now, one can tell where a black northerner’s family was from just by the city the person grew up in—a good portion of blacks in Detroit, for instance, having roots in Tennessee, Alabama, western Georgia, or the Florida panhandle because the historic rail lines connected those places during the Migration years.


The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream, the one George Starling was about to embark upon, carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia up the eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and their satellites. A second current, Ida Mae’s, traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people like Pershing from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.


For a time in the 1920s, the ride to Chicago was interrupted after the train crossed the Ohio River into Cairo, as if the train were passing from Poland into the old Soviet Union during the Cold War. Once over the river and officially in the North, the colored cars had to be removed in a noisy and cumbersome uncoupling and the integrated cars attached in their place to adhere to the laws of Illinois. Colored passengers had to move, wait, reshuffle themselves, and haul their bags to the newly attached integrated cars. Going south, the ritual was reversed.


He had learned that fear when he was little and once passed the white people’s church. The kids came out of the church when they saw him. They threw rocks and bricks and called him the vilest names that could spring from a southern tongue. And he asked his grandparents, “What kind of god they got up inside that church?”


Contrary to modern-day assumptions, for much of the history of the United States—from the Draft Riots of the 1860s to the violence over desegregation a century later—riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival. Thus riots would become to the North what lynchings were to the South, each a display of uncontained rage by put-upon people directed toward the scapegoats of their condition. Nearly every big northern city experienced one or more during the twentieth century. Each outbreak pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.


By the time the Migration reached its conclusion, sociologists would have a name for that kind of hard-core racial division. They would call it hypersegregation, a kind of separation of the races that was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work. The top ten cities that would earn that designation after the 1980 census (the last census after the close of the Great Migration, which statistically ended in the 1970s) were, in order of severity of racial isolation from most segregated to least: (1) Chicago, (2) Detroit, (3) Cleveland, (4) Milwaukee, (5) Newark, (6) Gary, Indiana, (7) Philadelphia, (8) Los Angeles, (9) Baltimore, and (10) St. Louis—all of them receiving stations of the Great Migration.

Many years later, people would forget about the quiet successes of everyday people like Ida Mae. In the debates to come over welfare and pathology, America would overlook people like her in its fixation with the underclass, just as a teacher can get distracted by the two or three problem children at the expense

of the quiet, obedient ones. Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.


The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went. They incited greater fear and resentment in part because there was no ocean between them and the North as there was with many other immigrant groups. There was no way to stem the flow of blacks from the South, as the

authorities could and did by blocking immigration from China and Japan, for instance. Thus, blacks confronted hostilities more severe than most any other group (except perhaps Mexicans, who could also cross over by land), as it could not be known how many thousands more might come and pose a further threat to the preexisting world of the North.

Recommended books: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Rating: *****

Sponsor Us for the 2018 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon #BAT2018


It’s once again time to get back in the saddle for one of my favorite events of the year, the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon.

Bikes Not Bombs is a social justice organization based in Jamaica Plain, MA not far from where I live. Their goal is to use the bicycle as a vehicle for social change.  The accomplish this mission by:

  • collecting and renovating bicycles to ship to developing communities in Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. These bicycles help people meet crucial transportation needs with an easily maintained and environmentally friendly vehicle.
  • help Boston youth develop confidence and leadership skills through programs focusing on urban bicycle riding and bicycle repair.

I routinely get my bike repaired and by bicycle supplies at the Bikes Not Bombs shop in Jamaica Plain, and I’m always impressed by the positive impact they have in the community.  Especially when I see young people out on their Boston By Foot group rides.

Here’s how you can help:

This is our sixth time participating.  Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 201320152016, and 2017.

Movie Reviews: Doctor Strange (2016)


TitleDoctor Strange
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Director:  Scott Derrickson
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Since I seem to be watching all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies lately, I may as well watch Doctor Strange even though the concept looks … unpromising.

Here is my liveblog of Doctor Strange.:

  • Hey! His  name is “Strange” and he’s a doctor!
  • And Benedict Cumberbatch has an American accent!
  • He still acts just like Sherlock though. I guess they couldn’t find an American actor who can do extremely arrogant and extremely talented.
  • That physical therapist who gave away information in his former patient totally violated HIPPA.
  • So Kamar-Taj is in Kathmandu, but there are no Asian people there?
  • On the other hand it’s quite believable that Tilda Swinton holds all of the ancient knowledge.
  • Dr. Strange deserved to be punched out of his body for touching a woman without consent .
  • This trippy sequence in the astral plane should totally be adapted as Instagram filters.
  • WiFi password, ha-ha!
  • Ah, here’s an Asian person in Kamar-Taj, and it’s a severe librarian named Wong. I think I have a favorite character.
  • The Cloak is the real hero.
  • Okay, those are pretty cool visuals in that fight scene in the Rubik Cube version of New York.
  • Could he really just walk of the street and straight into the surgery at the ER?
  • The Ancient One is pretty dang preachy in her death scene.
  • So Strange and Mordo completely swap their opinions of the Ancient One and her connection to the Dark Dimension in a matter of minutes.  Maybe she should have preached to Mordo as well.
  • Ooooh, a backwards fight!
  • And now Doctor Strange must fight off the Giant Pollen Monster.
  • So who first came up with the idea of a repeating time loop to resolve the crisis: Doctor Strange or the Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent?”
  • Nice Infinity Stone name drop there, Wong.  Always good to promote upcoming crossover spectaculars.
  • Ha ha, the credits contain a warning about distracted driving.

So, it was an entertaining bit of fluff, although I don’t think it can overcome the racial issues of it’s source material, and many of the tropes used are overly familiar.

Rating: **1/2

Previously Reviewed:

 

 

Comic Book Reviews: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (2015-2016)


The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a character who has been around for a while but only recently began to get her own line of comic books. These comics are simultaneously a parody of superhero comic book conventions and also terrifically entertaining superhero stories.  Squirrel Girl may not always beat the villains in the way you’d expect, but the one thing that’s true is that she’s unbeatable.

Author:   Ryan North (Author), Erica Henderson (Illustrator)
Title:  The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

Doreen Green is a young woman just starting college, studying computer science, making friends, and signing up for clubs.  She also is a superhero with all the powers of a squirrel, the ability to talk with squirrels, and a long bushy tail.  She’s also unbeatable, in that she wins every fight, one way or another.  The premise sounds absurd and predictable but in practice it’s funny as hell and awesome.  Watch as she simultaneously stops a bank robbery with a suit of squirrels while also stopping Galactus from consuming the earth using stolen armor from Iron Man. Doreen is not drawn in the conventionally beautiful way of most women in comics, but is short-haired and curvy, and full of confidence and charm.  I have a little crush on her.

Rating: ****


Author: Ryan North (Author), Erica Henderson (Artist)
TitleThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 2: Squirrel You Know It’s True
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

Squirrel Girl returns and must face Ratatoskr, the Norse God of Squirrels, who has an evil plan for taking over the world.  But she has help in Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boi, two very familiar-looking superheroes, and her roommate Nancy, who has no powers but is the most sensible person around.  This volume also begins with hostages trapped in the Statue of Liberty telling stories of Squirrel Girl that are hilarious send-ups of classic Marvel superhero stories.
Rating: ****


Author:  Ryan North (Author), Erica Henderson (Illustrator)
TitleThe Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now
Publication Info: Marvel (2016)
Summary/Review:

Another terrific volume of Squirrel Girl sees our hero thrown back in time to the 1960s with several other Computer Science majors that she has no memory of meeting in class.  Of course, Doreen adapts her fashion to fit in seamlessly in the 1960s as she works to resolve the conundrum.  There’s also a crossover story with Howard the Duck in which Doreen and Howard are captured as part of a menagerie for a villain’s “most dangerous game” fantasy.  As someone who only knows Howard the Duck from the atrocious 1980s movie, I was quite impressed by this story.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 26


99% Invisible :: Curb Cuts

An important history of the disability rights movement and how curb cuts ended up benefiting society in a broader sense than originally intended.

WGBH News :: On ‘Melnea Cass Day,’ Remembering The Boston Civil Rights Activist And Her Legacy In Roxbury

A day for a great Bostonian.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Don’t Call Me Extinct

The story of rehabilitating the scimitar-horned oryx population.

Upon Further Review :: How Actor Jesse Eisenberg Doomed the Phoenix Suns

A funny story of how a young fan’s guilt over a letter to his favorite basketball player.

Movie Reviews: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


Title: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Director: John Watts
Production Company: Marvel Studio
Summary/Review:

The first Spider-Man solo film in the MCU dispenses with the origin story – praise be – especially since that was probably already covered in the 6 other Spider-Man movies this century. I can’t speak for those other movies since I never saw them, but I think Tom Holland does an excellent take on the dorky teen trying balance his every day life with exploring his new powers, and knowing that he’s capable of bigger things after being exposed to the Avengers.  Michael Keaton, decades after he was Batman, plays a compelling villain, a blue-collar worker who gets rich by illegally salvaging alien technology and is not too keen on Peter Parker getting in the way.  This movie has just the right balance of humor, heart, and action sequences, and I think it’s the best MCU movie alongside Black Panther. I hope in the next Spider-Man movie they further explore Peter’s Mets fandom and have him take on The Wall.

Rating: ****

Previously Reviewed:

Album Review: Tell Me How You Really Feel by Courtney Barnett


AlbumTell Me How You Really Feel
Artist: Courtney Barnett
Release Date: May 18, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Hopefulessness”
  • “Charity”
  • “Need a Little Time”
  • “Nameless, Faceless”
  • “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”
  • “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”

Thoughts:

Australian singer-songwriter Barnett’s second album contains crunching guitars and strong punk melodies over which Barnett’s world-weary voice sings quotidian lyrics of frustration and self-doubt, anger and tenderness, confrontation and ambivalence.  The 90s indie rock sound is aided by the guest appearance of Kim and Kelley Deal on “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence.” But this is not retro music, it’s fully-engaged in the cultural issues of our times, just not in an anthemic, speaking for everyone manner.  If I’d gotten around to making a best albums of 2015 list, Barnett’s debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit would’ve been a shoe-in, and Tell Me How You Really Feel builds and improves on that. I’m grateful to be alive at a time when I can hear an artist like Courtney Barnett coming into her own.

Rating: ****

Book Review: One Hot Summer by Rosemary Ashton


Author: Rosemary Ashton
TitleOne Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858
Narrator:  Corrie James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This historical work recounts the summer of 1858 in Great Britain, specifically London, during a time defined by unprecedented hot temperatures that exacerbated the foul stench of the polluted River Thames.  The Great Stink, as it became known, motivated political action in Houses of Parliament and at the municipal level to clean up the river.  Ashton’s work also focuses on the outcomes of other legislation that year such as the legalization of divorce, new regulations for credentialing medical practitioners, and changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.

The core of this book though focuses on the lives of three major figures of the era with alliterative names: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli.  In 1858, Darwin became aware that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also devised a theory of natural selection, prompting Darwin to stop dragging his feet and begin to write and publish On the Origin of Species.  Dickens, meanwhile, is in the midst of nasty split with his wife due to an affair, while also falling out with fellow writer Thackery.  Disraeli is in the best position to address the Great Stink and uses his power to push through the Thames Purification Act, as well as working on other legislation such as no longer requiring Jewish MPs to swear by a Christian God.

The book is a snapshot of a single period, but it feels like a jumble that lacks a coherent theme.  And the stories of the three main protagonist by necessity venture far into their lives well before and after 1858.  A lot of the text reads as being gossipy, yet delivered very dryly.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War (2018)


Title: Avengers: Infinity War
Release Date: April 27, 2018
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Avengers 3 or Marvel Cinematic Universe XIX is the big crossover spectacular you’d expect.  It brings together both factions of the Avengers with Doctor Strange, The Guardians of the Galaxy, and all of Wakanda (including Bucky, now known as The White Wolf) to attempt to prevent Thanos from acquiring all of the Infinity Stones and destroying half of all the life in the universe.

With 21 main protagonists plus villains and minor characters,  it’s impressive that filmmakers are able to streamline their overlapping storylines and give everyone adequate screentime (although this is not a movie you can watch with no previous knowledge of the MCU).  I particularly like how people from different groups are matched up to work together, such as Thor with Rocket and Groot, and Doctor Strange with Iron Man and Spider-Man (and latter those three work with the remaining Guardians and Nebula).  I feel there were moments in the movie where typically the camera would hold a shot for a heroic beat, but instead there’s a quick cut to another storyline, as if the editors are just trying to fit in everything possible.  And that’s okay, because it keeps the movie from feeling bloated.

The movie does a good job of showing a more tender side of Thanos, albeit I’m still unconvinced that he’s capable of love.  I also question if he’s really thought his plan through (see spoilerly thoughts below).  I’ve not seen Doctor Strange before, but I immediately loved him when he called Tony Stark a douchebag.  The character most poorly served in this movie is Vision, who I thought had terrific character development in Civil War, but seems to be reduced to a bland plot device here.  I love that they cast Peter Dinklage as a giant.  Thor, Spider-Man, and Groot steal every scene they’re in.  Despite the grim subject matter this movie is very funny. Except for the ending which is appropriately solemn.

Avengers: Infinity War is not a great movie, but it is a great action adventure blockbuster, which is all we can ask of it.

 

Some spoilerly thoughts and questions:

  • It’s convenient that the superheroes that survive Thanos’ plot are the same ones from the first Avengers movie. Presumably, Hawkeye also survives and will rejoin them. I suppose that will make that sequel a bit more focused, though.
  • Too bad Doctor Strange doesn’t survive since he choses to be vague about what he saw in the possible futures.  May have been better if he’d said nothing at all.
  • It’s kind of a cheap move that Thanos survives because first Peter Quill takes the bait and ruins the plan to take the gauntlet, and then Thor waits until it’s too late to use his Thanos’ killing ax.  Those kind of tricks don’t make for good storytelling.
  • Does Thanos really eradicate half of all the living things in the universe? Half of all the ducks, half of all the trees, half of all the paramecium? Or is it just half of all the bipedal, sentient humanoids?  The latter would make more sense because destroying half the food sources and disrupting ecosystems would be contrary to Thanos’ belief that he’s doing a mercy to stop starvation.  But where is the line drawn between species that are halved and those that are left untouched?
  • If the eradication is truly randomized, there’s a 50% chance that Thanos himself would be disintegrated.  For a moment, I thought that was actually going to happen, and Thanos, his mission accomplished,  would be content to see himself disappearing.  I think that would’ve been an amazing twist and would’ve set up the next movie to be less “Let’s fight Thanos for 2.5 hours” and more “OMG, Thanos is gone, how are we going to reverse this?”
  • Red Skull’s appearance seems kind of … random … but hey, when your squeezing in almost every character in the MCU, why hand out a bit part to an unknown?
  • If the heroes lost in Infinity War are brought back by Stark sacrificing himself, I’m good with that.
  • Are Natasha and Bruce going to be able to rekindle their romance?

Rating: ***

Previously Reviewed:

TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2018)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

The second year of this Netflix series adapts books five through nine.  As such, it suffers some of the problems as the books in the repetitiveness of the plots and the extreme frustration with the adult characters’ persistent obliviousness and casual cruelty.  Neil Patrick Harris’ hammy performance as Count Olaf has its moments but too often veers into just plain annoying (especially in The Vile Village when he’s disguised as Detective Dupin).

But this series is saved by the women.  In The Austere Academy, Kitana Turnbull as Carmelita Spats is absolutely hilarious as the evil, secretly cake-sniffing brat. Then in The Ersatz Elevator, Esme Squalor makes her debut as the most-stylish villain, wonderfully portrayed by Lucy Punch who basically steals the screen from Harris for the rest of the series (no small feet).  One of the biggest changes from the book is greatly expanding and changing the role of Olivia Caliban, played by Sara Rue, into a librarian at Prufrock Academy who becomes a VFD agent and delightful – if short-lived – ally of the Baudelaires.

Another great addition to the cast for this season is Nathan Fillion as Jacques Snicket which allows for a long-awaited reunion with Harris of rivals from Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  Isadora and Duncan Quagmire make their debut, although there part is smaller than I remember in the books (perhaps I’m conflating with later books in the series?). But the Baudelaires are what really makes this show succeed: Malina Weissman as Violet Baudelaire, Louis Hynes as Klaus Baudelaire, and the greatest toddler actor ever, Presley Smith as Sunny Baudelaire.  This season shows them grow as characters, becoming more confident in their abilities, and willingness to stand up against those cruel, clueless adults.

The show remains a visual treat and is full of more memorable gags than I can document here. This show was made to be GIF-ed on Tumblr.

 

Related Posts:

 

Podcasts of the Week for Two Weeks Ending May 19


I’m not doing well at getting these podcast recommendations up every week, but here’s a good crop of podcast for your listening pleasure.

HUB History :: The Battle of Jamaica Plain

There was a gang shootout right here in my own neighborhood over a 100 years ago that had international implications and ended up involving Winston Churchill, and I’d never heard of it?!?

Hidden Brain :: Baby Talk: Decoding the Secret Language of Babies

It’s been a long while since I’ve had a nice chat with a baby.

Planet Money :: The Land of Duty Free

The mass quantities of liquor, cigarettes, chocolate, and perfume sold in airports has always fascinated/perplexed me.  Here’s the story of how the duty free shop got started at Shannon Airport in Ireland.  It also confirms my suspicions that duty free shop purchases aren’t really bargains.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders

A live performance of LeVar Burton reading a hillarious/poignant story about a worldwide apocalypse, a genie in a bottle, theater criticism,  and the nature of wishes, complete with an interview with the author

BackStory :: Shock of the New

The history of World’s Fairs fascinates me and this episode commemorates the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with special focus on women’s and African American perspectives on the fair.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Cherokee Story Slam

The stories and life of the talented Robert Lewis.

More or Less: Behind the Stats :: Tulipmania mythology

The Dutch tulip bubble always makes a good story about economics and finance, but the truth of the story is not as dramatic as the myths, albeit more interesting in many ways.

 

Brand New Music Pages


Have you ever wanted find all of my music posts in one place?  I’ve created a new music page which you can find in the menu at the top of this blogs homepage.   The music has three sub-pages.

Album Reviews

Reviews of recently released albums.

All-Time Favorites

Lists of my favorite songs and albums.

Music Discoveries.

My attempts to learn more about a band or artist by listening to all or most of their back catalog.

 

Comic Book Reviews: Ms. Marvel (2014-2015)


I’ve heard good things about the Ms. Marvel comics and so I read the first four volumes of the collected comics.  Kamala Khan is a wonderful character who cares deeply and has a lot of humor and creativity, as well as being just plain adorable.  I also like the water color style of the comic art.

Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Adrian Alphona (Artist)
TitleMs. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal
Publication Info: Marvel (2014)
Summary/Review:
Rating: ***1/2

Kamala Khan is a teenager from Jersey City who writes fan fiction about her favorite superheroes (who in this universe really exist, not just in comic books), struggles with the strict upbringing of her immigrant Pakistani parents, and engaging with the wider American world as a Muslim girl.  On a night when Kamala sneaks out to go to a party, a mysterious fog envelopes the city and Kamala finds herself with the powers to morph her body and gain significant strength.  She adopts the persona of her hero Captain America – aka Carol Danvers – and begins protecting Jersey City from weird attacks and invaders.  This collection of the first five issues is not overly weighed down by origin story tropes as it depicts Kamala clumsily learning to use her powers while maintaining her ordinary life.


Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Jacob Wyatt (Illustrator), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
TitleMs. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review: ****

The second collection features Ms. Marvel coming face to face with her first archival, The Collector, a hybrid of a bird and a clone of Thomas Edison (a delightfully-weird villain).  Wolverine becomes Ms. Marvel’s mentor for a time and Kamala has to balance fangirling over one of her heroes with the reality that she is in better physical shape to handle their adventure.  She’s later paired up with Lockjaw, a large bulldog with teleportation powers.  The story of the Inventor kidnapping teenagers to use them for their energy cleverly plays on the stereotyping and disposability of Generation Y in our capitalist system.


 

Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Takeshi Miyazawa (Illustrator), Elmo Bondoc (Illustrator)
TitleMs. Marvel Vol. 3: Crushed
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

This collection includes another crossover story with a comical story about Loki ending up at Kamala’s school dance.  There’s also a crossover with S.H.I.E.L.D. as she teams up to save the school from alien infested cafeteria food.  The bigger story is that Kamala falls in love with a boy named Kamran, son of her parents friends, who not only shares a Muslim heritage and geeky interests with Kamala, but also has Inhuman powers.  It seems too good to be true, right?

Rating: ****


Author: G. Willow Wilson (Author), Adrian Alphona (Illustrator)
Title: Ms. Marvel Vol. 4: Last Days
Publication Info: Marvel (2015)
Summary/Review:

This is part of a larger Marvel story arc called “Last Days of the Universe” in which the big story is happening in Manhattan.  Kamala has to set up protection for Jersey City on her own while also trying to rescue her brother.  Then her biggest hero Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers arrives and they are able to spend some time working together.  It’s a bittersweet crossover as Danvers has little time to spare and Kamala has to recognize that there may be no tomorrow and reconcile with her family and friends.  My favorite part is when the people in the shelter Kamala sets up in her school decide that they will deal with the end of the universe in a purely New Jersey manner, with a dance party.

There’s also an issue of Spider-Man in which Ms. Marvel makes an appearance, which has nothing to do with the rest of this book, but it makes sense since Kamala Khan and Peter Parker have a lot in common.

Rating: ****

Favorite Passages:

“The young are seen as a political burden, a public nuisance. They are not considered worth educating or protecting.  They are called parasites, leeches, brats, spawn–

If you used the to describe any minority but children, it would quite understandably be considered hate speech.

We are simply taking this loathing to its logical conclusion.” – The Inventor

“Friendship is not a zone, you idiot! Friendship is something real and good and anybody who doesn’t understand that needs a dictionary.” – Bruno

“It’s always the same.

There’s always that one group of people who think that they have special permission to terrorize anybody who disagrees with them.

And then everyone who looks like them suffers.’

Movie Review: Inside Out


TitleInside Out
Release Date: June 19, 2015
Director: Pete Docter
Production Company:

The premise of Inside Out is well-established from all the promotion for the movie.  Inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley Anderson are five personified emotions – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, and Disgust.  When Riley and her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco and she has to leave behind her home, friends, and hockey team, and deal with moving into a creaky, little house, a late moving van, and her parents’ distraction, Riley faces new stresses that throw the organized world of her emotions into disarray.

The story goes in places I didn’t expect.  Joy and Sadness are separated from the “control center” of the mind to the “memory banks” and have to find their way back in what is essentially a buddy film.  Joy – the self-appointed leader of the emotions – has never understood the purpose of Sadness and as Riley goes through what is essentially a depressive episode, Joy realizes that they can’t resolve the problem until she lets Sadness take control and allow Riley to express her feelings.

It’s a complicated concept, but it’s done well with a lot of humor and creative illustrations of the inner workings of the mind. It has the gags that will make the kids laugh, and the moments that will make the parents weep (as I did both when Riley’s imaginary friend fades away and at the climax when Riley finally tells her parents how she’s feeling, which lead to my son shouting “hey, you’re crying!).  My son also noted that the emotions display a lot of – well, emotions – leading him to conclude that there must by five smaller emotions within their minds, and so on.

Summary/Review: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios

Rating: ****

Album Review: Roza Cruz by La Mecánica Popular


AlbumRoza Cruz
ArtistLa Mecánica Popular 
Release Date: April 13, 2018
Thoughts:

It’s hard to describe the music on La Mecánica Popular’s album Roza Cruz.  I think it sounds like psychedelic Latin jazz, NPR describes it as “Radical Afro-Latin Futurism,” and the band’s own website says they are a “Brooklyn-based Afro-Latin group” and that “their sound is steeped in 1970s’-era Salsa Dura, yet incorporates a heavy dose of modern gadgets – a unique blend of processed Peruvian-style guitar licks & experimental sounds, synths, and textures.”  However one describes it, the five instrumental tracks on this album are a treat for the ears.

Rating: ****

 

 

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)


TitleBlack Panther
Release Date: February 16, 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Black Panther is rightly celebrated for breaking ground in representation by depicting African and African Americans (and especially Black women) in a superhero/action adventure film.  That wouldn’t matter as much if also wasn’t an excellent superhero/action adventure film, certainly the best one I’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The all-star cast put in excellent performances that balances the challenge of providing great character development,  motivations, and relationships with butt-kicking, blowing stuff up, and witty dialogue. The world of Wakanda comes alive, providing a “what if” view of how an African country uninterrupted by colonialism could develop a technologically advanced society from architecture to clothing to rituals to freakin’ awesome battle rhinos.

Introducing T’Challa in Civil War means that Black Panther doesn’t get bogged down with “superhero origin story” tropes, even as it shows him facing the challenges of coming of age, ascending to kingship, and realizing the nuances of right and wrong in governance.  Chadwick Boseman does a great job at examining this uncertainty and loss of idealism. Michael B. Jordan steals the show as Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens whose character is so very American in contrast to the rest of the cast, and brings up uncomfortable questions about Wakanda’s responsibility to oppressed and colonized Black peoples worldwide. (SPOILER: I’m disappointed Kilmonger chooses to die because I think his character could make a great “frenemy” in future films, allying with T’Challa as Wakanda opens itself to the rest of the world.  But I suppose Marvel is already telling that kind of story with Wanda Maximof).  Like most everyone else, my favorite character is Shuri, the young tech wizard played Letitia Wright who needles her big brother T’Challa (while secretly hero-worshiping him) and says inappropriate things at formal occasions.

You probably don’t need me to say it, but this is an all around terrific movie and has something for everyone.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Previously Reviewed: