Thursday, May 7, 2015

Age of Ultron: Human Visions, Second Chances and Filled Gaps

The Avengers have invaded your local theaters - and the public consciousness.  Critics like it and audiences love it. It passed the $700million dollar mark only eight days after its release. A spokesperson for Disney said it should pass the $1.5 billion that the first movie brought in. That billion, with a 'b'. The next Avenger movie is several years away, but between now and then you will see plenty of TV shows and movies preparing the way.

I'm not going to rehash all the (appropriately) congratulatory things others are saying about the quality of the film. If we can grant that Joss Whedon knows what he's doing, we can move on to issues that go beyond the artistic merits of Age of Ultron.

Comic books are today's mythology without the religious devotion. All of the Avengers are reminiscent of these more-than-human heroes. Thor is the only demi-god in the classic mythological sense; Captain America and the Hulk have been made superhuman through science; Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were crafted through genetic and supernatural influence. They are all some version of Heracles, a blend of humanity and something greater that makes them so much more. 

Iron Man, Black Widow and Hawkeye are merely human, but Natasha and Clint’s gifts and training along with Tony’s technological genius have left them all with abilities that qualify them as “super.” They are Hector, Ajax, or Aegea, blessed by the nature and nurture gods to be bigger than life. 

As with any story that involves super folks, both the best and the worst of humanity will arise. These stories are not meant to present simplistic heroes and villains. They are meant to tales of horror and hope, cautionary and encouraging in a way that helps us better understand or navigate life.  Of course, everyone who tells a story - director, singer, author - approaches it from a particular worldview. What is the problem of humanity? Where is our salvation? Do our histories define us, or can we choose who we want to be? Age of Ultron is no exception. Whedon has crafted a movie that focuses our attention on the best and worst in the world - and in us.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Undivided (The Unwind Series)

If you aren't reading Neil Shusterman, you should be. His Unwind series may be one of the best current YA stories addressing significant moral and social issues in a way that leads readers toward the truth. This review will cover the final book, Undivided. If you are not familiar with the series, it may be helpful to read some observations about the previous books.

"Unwind is compelling. It’s disturbing. It makes the moral heart of our culture’s debate about the aforementioned issues unavoidable. It's one thing to write academic papers about post-birth abortion; it's quite another to vicariously experience the murder of innocent people deemed unworthy of life. The reader can't help but cringe at the empty deception in defense of Unwinding while cheering those who fight to stop it. Though Shusterman intended to take a neutral approach by highlighting hypocrisy on all sides, the story sends a clear message about the value of human life." 

"There was far more to UnWholly than its discussion of the soul and personal identity. Risa and Conner show maturity and respect in their relationship. An ongoing story about rescued Tithes gives plenty of opportunity to analyze both the proper use and improper abuse of religion. And there is an achingly beautiful moment of forgiveness between two teens who have been horribly damaged by life. It may have been the best moment in a great book.But as much as I like his series for all those things, I am more impressed with Shusterman's ability to starkly reveal the implications of living in a culture that has forgotten what it means to be human."

Once again, Mr. Shusterman has reminded us of a number of issues that are just too important to ignore.  When does life begin? What does it means to be human? What happens when we view people as property or things? Are we just parts, or is there a unifying soulishness to our nature? Should scientists do things just because they can, or is there a should that needs to be part of the discussion? In a world that increasingly traffics in flesh (in areas such as pornography, the sex slave tradesavior siblings, and medical experiments on aborted babies), any reminder of the value of humanity is a good one." 

In Undivided, Mr. Shusterman brings this series to a close. Once again, he addresses serious issues in a thought-provoking and accessible way.

Monday, April 20, 2015

It Follows

It Follows is the most recent horror movie darling of critics and audiences alike. The plot is relatively simple: a girl (Jay) sleeps with her questionable boyfriend, and in so doing becomes the target of It, an undefined monster that wants to kill her. The only way she can get rid of its relentless stalking is to have sex with someone else who will then become the target - unless he gets killed, which will then make her the target again. 

Even the director acknowledges that the plot sounds silly on paper. Apparently, seeing it does the trick. It's been getting great press from critics and fans alike for its artistic merit, and it's garnered the dubious distinction of becoming what The Daily Beast called “an STD panic nightmare.” Considering how many have noted the movie's innovation as well as its  relevance to current social issues, It Follows piqued my interest.

It Follows creates a remarkably tense atmosphere through anticipation rather than gore. The artistic accolades are well deserved: David Robert Mitchell has made a truly frightening movie with a minimal amount of violence.* However, I want to push back against what many are saying about the message. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Saint Odd

Odd Thomas has become perhaps the iconic name associated with Dean Koontz. The series has sold over ten million print copies and 900,000 ebooks just in the United States. There are also three graphic novel prequels, a couple novellas, and a movie based on the first book.

Odd Thomas deserves the popularity – and the acclaim. Odd is a genuinely good guy, devoted to doing the right thing even when he knows it may cost him everything. The recently released Saint Odd wraps up this series in a way that provides an appropriate finale to an exceptional story.

A number of themes have stood out to me over the course of this series, and particularly in the final book.

1) Odd doesn't wait for injustice or evil to come to him – he tracks it down and engages it. Some people have noted that while many of today's literary heroes step up admirably when something is forced upon them, few actively seek for battles to fight. Odd Thomas is one of the few. He has a gift that shows him supernatural realities in ways others cannot see. Because of this, both Odd and the evil he seeks to combat are drawn to each other. He notes,
A gift like mine seemed to come from some higher power, and whatever the source— whether God or space aliens or wizards living in a parallel Earth where magic worked— it must be a benign higher power, because I was motivated to help the innocent and afflict the guilty.
He could have withdrawn - after all, most of the fights don't immediately effect him (thought the ones that do are of the utmost importance). Instead, Odd once prayed to God, "Spare me so that I may serve." Odd has been spared many times, and his service takes him around the world and into the heart of evil. His friend Ozzie notes that he was"a young man who would give his life to save a friend or even an innocent stranger, and who, in giving it, would think he had not done enough."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

From Terminus to Alexandria (The Walking Dead, Season 5)

Season 5 of The Walking Dead continued to dominate the ratings for cable TV shows. It also continued to offer a thought-provoking storyline that wrestles with the complexity of life and death.  Rick's group finally finds a city that offers safety, but not all of them are able to settle back into civilized life. They have spent a lot of time in a Darwinian wilderness. Abraham notes, "It's gotten to the point where everyone alive is strong now. We have to be. You're either strong and they can help you so you help them or you're strong and they can kill ya. So you gotta kill them. You gotta kill them and... I want to say it's never easy. That's not the truth. It's the easiest thing in the world now."

Daryl believes that "the longer [people are] out there, the more they become what they really are." If that's true, then life among the Dead has brought out the best in Michonne and Daryl. When Carol asks a formerly renegade Daryl if he's "starting over" since the plague hit, he responds, "I'm trying." That's something of an understatement. Michonne has gone from being the psycho who kept pet walkers to the moral compass of the group.

On the other hand, Rick and Carol have not fared so well. "We do what we need to do, and then we live," Rick says, and that includes a willingness to slit human throats and conquer peaceful towns if needed. Carol has become frighteningly good at being whoever she needs to be to survive. Yes, I want them on my side in a fight. No, I don't want them as neighbors. Season 5 began with "No Sanctuary," an episode that suggested no place was safe for them. By the time "Conquered" wrapped up the season, it appears that no one is safe from them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Golden Son (Red Rising)

 “I hate how my body shivers at the idea of glory. There’s something deep in man that hungers for this. But I think it weakness, not strength, to abandon decency for that strange darker spirit.” 

Golden Son, the second book in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, is garnering even better reviews than its excellent predecessor. Mr. Brown deftly blends Greek and Roman mythology, sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian fiction (you can see the influences of Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Lord of the Flies, and Game of Thrones) into a vast, mesmerizing story of revenge, power, love and betrayal. Mr. Brown noted in an interview with Science Fiction and Fantasy:
"Put simply, Red Rising is a story of rebellion. It is set seven hundred years from now, in an age when humanity has terraformed the planets and moons of our Solar System. The story follows Darrow, a young Red (the bottom tier of this futuristic society) as he attempts to bring to justice the rulers of his society, the Golds, who have enslaved his people for half a millennium. Even if he has to infiltrate their ranks to do it... Golden Son begins several years after the events in Red Rising as Darrow continues in his quest to undermine Gold rule and pave the way for a Red revolution. While Red Rising stayed on Mars, Golden Son explores the far reaches of the Gold empire."
In my review of Red Rising, I noted that I wanted my boys to read about Darrow because of his compelling nobility. He wasn't perfect, but he embodied commitment, faithfulness, love, justice, and a righteous anger that he always managed to aim in the right direction (even if it took a while).

I don’t feel that way about the Darrow in Golden Son. That's not to say I have discouraged my sons from reading it. After all, one can learn the importance of living well by appreciating the reward of virtue or the destruction of vice. Red Rising shows what happens when purpose, character, and nobility bring a stabilizing moral center into a chaotic world; Golden Son shows what happens when that center does not hold.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

“Can you make a modern-day fairy tale in the way you can make a modern-day science fiction story… Can you capture that sort of playfulness again?” - The Wachowskis in an interview with Buzzfeed 

Jupiter Ascending has taken a pounding in terms of art of filmmaking, and rightly so. It's incoherent at times; it's poorly paced; it's both silly and weird; the dialogue is at times woefully lacking; there are two brief scene of entirely gratuitous immodesty and nudity (PG-13); it borrows constantly from other movies (though some of that is meant to be an homage to classic directors or films); the plot holes are monumentally large; and Sean Bean's character inexplicably does NOT die, so that threw me off, too.

Having said that, I found Jupiter Ascending to be strangely endearing in spite of all its inadequacies. Somewhere within the beautifully epic and entirely implausible mishmash of space opera, reincarnation, beekeeping, manga homage and dinosaur evolution, there lurks a story - or at least part of a story - that resonated with me.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Last Man On Earth: Becoming The Person We Hope We Can Be

I decided to watch The Last Man on Earth after some of my friends commented how much they liked the show. A little online research revealed that critics and audience alike had quite a few good things to say about it.* Thanks to Hulu, I recently caught up on this quietly ascending show. 

The Last Man on Earth is precisely and appropriately named (the creators cite Life After People, The Omega Man, I Am Legend, and 28 Days Later as source material for the idea). After two years of searching, Phil Miller (Will Forte) concludes that he is entirely alone on earth. He drives to Tuscon, moves into a mansion, and resigns himself to an ever diminishing life of porn, booze, junk food and innovative demolition. 

He is given what some would think is the ultimate freedom – all the virtual women and real alcohol you want, with all the time in the world to make the adolescent inanity of Jackass into a reality. We (thankfully) don’t see the porn he uses – we just see how it cannot take the place of real people. We see all the alcohol he consumes – and it’s clear he is numbing the pain. This is the existential collapse of man. Phil’s painfully honest prayers and clever attempts at killing time alternate between poignant and amusing, but his inner life is falling apart as badly as his home. It's Ecclesiastes 1: "“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'” When he acknowledges that he is giving up on life, we get it.