Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Review: Captain America - The First Avenger

Just got back from seeing "Captain America" with dad.  All I can say is that, if the point of these Marvel movies is to get me excited for "The Avengers," they're failing miserably.  For all the positive hype and reviews it has received, "Captain America" is really no better than "Thor."  It's campy and really never takes itself seriously enough to, itself, be taken seriously by the audience.  When all is said and done, we've seen almost all of this movie before . . . right down to the hero's love interest walking in on home just as some no-name damsel forces a kiss on him.  And while that love interest, Haley Atwell, is gorgeous (reminding me a lot of Rosamund Pike, who I adore) and does well with the role she is given, she is, again, nothing we haven't seen before.  In her first scene on camera, she lays out a soldier much bigger than her with one punch.  And I thought Steve Rogers was supposed to be the super soldier!

I've seen Chris Evans praised for his title role, but I'm not really sure why.  He has the look and nails a couple great lines but, other than that, fails miserably at creating a character with whom the audience has any connection.  In two distinct scenes, one where he is supposed to feel shame and one where he is supposed to feel grief, he comes off as utterly stoic . . . and not by design.  Tommy Lee Jones is equally hollow in the commanding officer role, utilized to provide a few instances of comic relief more than anything.  I'm not sure what to make of Hugo Weaving as the villain, Red Skull.  Part of me thinks this was just poor casting.  Weaving's two biggest roles were as intelligent, authoritative, yet emotionless characters, playing Lord Elrond in the Lord of the Rings and Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy.  In that sense, he comes off as miscast here playing the fanatical Red Skull, and in what has become typical fashion of most comic book movies, his villain character isn't really developed at all.

Ultimately, I'm left underwhelmed by the prospects of "The Avengers" movie, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury doesn't really help much.  The long saving grace thus far is that Joss Whedon is writing and directing.  But, while he is known for his ability to provide depth to his characters, how much can he do in a movie featuring so many larger-than-life superheroes?  Only time will tell.  But, as of right now, my excitement will remain focused on Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," which I blogged about below.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Violence, Technology, & the Supposed Decline of Civilization

This is just an amazing story.

Sixteen preschool-aged children participated in the Virtual Summer Bridges Academy, a pilot program that used iPads along with traditional teaching methods to help build vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.
The program was aimed at children whose families didn’t qualify for a state-run preschool or weren’t able to afford private preschool. Most of the children involved in the program were learning English as a second language.
During the four weeks of instruction, the reading comprehension of the Calistoga preschoolers increased from 58.5 percent to 76.4 percent, said Eugene Narciso, COO of Footsteps 2 Brilliance, which offered the interactive reading and vocabulary iPad program.
When the iPad first came out, I knew it was going to be a game changer (perhaps not the boldest of assertions but it certainly had its critics when it was first released). One of the reasons I was sure of this was the education aspects of the "tablet." The idea that students could have their entire library of textbooks on such a small piece of interactive machinery seemed like a clear glimpse into the future.  More than anything, it just seemed practical. But this story . . . this is the real future. We're starting to get our first look at a new era of education and, more importantly, early childhood education. Study after study suggests that this is the crucial period in a child's development. It's just amazing to think how profoundly these students' lives may change thanks to this program.

All this reminded me of two books.  The first is "Everything Bad is Good for You" by Steven Johnson. The second, yet to come out, is "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker. Both authors, it can be said, are the anti-crotchety old man. They take the approach that things are progressively getting better, even when we're convinced they're not. It's a welcome change from the pessimism and cynicism so common these days. And stories like the above only reenforce that notion in my mind.

The Aftermath of the Women's World Cup

Fox Soccer brought in Dr. Jennifer Doyle, a professor and feminist blogger, to cover the Women's World Cup, which just ended in a heartbreaking (and yet heartwarming) loss by the U.S. to Japan. First, let me just say, if you weren't watching this World Cup, you missed out on some fantastic games. The U.S. win over Brazil in the quarterfinals was perhaps the most exciting sports match I have ever seen. I've included Abby Wambach's goal in the last minute of the game to send it into extra time at the end of the post. Back to Dr. Doyle. She has written a very interesting piece about the implications of the World Cup on women's sports in general and the Women's Professional Soccer league here in the States.

When a female player enters a “man’s game,” she steps onto a field of low expectations.

Everyone is pleasantly surprised when she completes a pass, takes a reasonable shot. She gets easy praise for the display of the most rudimentary skills. She knows better than to take such patronizing comments seriously, because those attitudes are usually temporary.

Unmarked because underestimated, she picks off a weak pass, takes the ball around a couple guys, and sends in a sweet cross — and the whole tenor of things changes. This is when she enters the game, really, not as “the girl” but as a player like any other.

If she’s a good player, guys will remember this. They’ll give her the ball, run into space for the pass and ping it back to her, knowing that one-touch give-and-go is her thing.

Even better, expectations are raised: People are surprised if she flubs an easy pass. They tease her when she sends a shot ridiculously high, sarcastically cheer a ludicrous volley. They know: She’s a solid player and can take a ribbing.

In other words, in a regular pick-up game, once people see a woman play well, the fact that she does becomes the new normal.

Kind of an odd analogy, though the point about the institutional, as opposed to individual, hurdles that women face in the sporting world is very on point.

It is understandable that in 1999 very few newspapers planned to send reporters to cover the Women’s World Cup. But, according to sportswriter Grant Wahl, this year there were only three US print journalists at the media session two days before the US match against Brazil: himself, Nancy Armour from The Associated Press and David Leon Moore of USA Today. (However, there were more American new media and television journalists.)

Given all the stories out there in the women’s game, it’s high time we all raised our expectations and welcomed women’s soccer into the sports world, with its own glories and its own dramas. And as is the case with any other sport, we expect to see it covered — not only when the national team is in the World Cup final, but also when the national team players go home, change into their club kits and put their shoulders to the tough work of building a league.

Almost every single player on the US women’s roster will be playing this weekend in Women's Professional Soccer. A good number of other stars from the tournament, like Marta, are already back on the field in the US playing in the league. We need to hear a lot more about what is going on in our domestic league. We need to pressure media outlets and show them we care by turning out in numbers for the league games.

Here, I couldn't agree more. When the WPS began, I was really excited about its prospects. Admittedly, I haven't watched it as much as I would have liked. But part of that problem gets back to what Dr. Doyle discusses above. There's little coverage, both in terms of reporting and the broadcasting of games. But is there a tipping point for this? Will the excitement and popularity of the World Cup spill over to the WPS? Grant Wahl, mentioned above, tweeted this earlier:

WPS bump from WWC? Flash-MagicJack game (Wambach, Solo, Marta, Morgan, Sinclair, Rampone) sold out, now on FSC, Wed at 7:30 pm ET.

Of course, not everyone gets FSC, but it's a start. While I'm living in Atlanta, I'm going to try to catch a few Beat games. Hope Solo had been playing for the team but has since moved on. The Beat do feature two players from the World Cup squad in Carli Lloyd and Heather Mitts. I have heard great things about their new facility up at Kennesaw State University.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, I give you one of the most exciting goals in U.S. soccer history:

Is "Elizabeth Warren for Senate" a good idea?

I've long been a fan of Elizabeth Warren and am delighted to see that my dream of her running for Ted Kennedy's Senate seat looks like it might actually happen. Ives Smith offers the cynical progressive policy wonk counterargument in what I can only assume is a deliberate attempt to burst my bubble:

What little remains of the left seems to be rallying around Elizabeth Warren, which given the dearth of prominent figures who are serious about standing up for middle class Americans, as opposed to pandering to them and then selling them out, isn’t a bad impulse per se. But they are deploying their energies in quixotic missions or worse, falling completely in line with the Administration’s plans, which has been to subject Warren to a high end version of the veal pen treatment, to box her in and render her incapable of independent operation. And in case you wonder what I am talking about, I mean the plan, concocted by the Democratic party hackocracy, for her to run for the Senate seat now occupied by Scott Brown.

The savagery of the bank-led attack on Warren and the CFPB (couched in nauseatingly transparent efforts to make it seem more reasonable than it was), was met by remarkable silence by the Administration. Not only did they apparently prevent Warren from responding directly, but they offered no support when Warren was undermined, not only by Republican attacks, but by fire from the OCC (and probably others in the Administration).

The key message to Warren is that Obama and the Democratic party are decidedly not on her side, and she has deluded herself if she now believes otherwise. To wed her star to theirs is not an enhancement but a diminution. We’ve written in past posts why a Senate bid would not advance her aims. In the pay to play system, she’d not raise enough money (due to a certain dearth of heavyweight corporate contributions) to get on any interesting committees. And most important, she’d still have to back a party and a President whose vision is in large measure at odds with hers.

I can't quite get to the level of cynicism required to believe that sending someone to the Senate is a means of marginalizing them. I think Al Franken will have done some very good work when his six years come to a close. Regardless of whether the deck is stacked against them, giving progressives in Congress another ally in the form of Warren can only help.  I do recommend reading the entire piece though, as it has some great background information on Warren and her work at the CFPB up to this point.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Dark Knight Rises Teaser Trailer

For those that did not see Harry Potter this weekend (or those who saw it on certain IMAX screenings), here is The Dark Knight Rises teaser trailer that was attached to it:

Not a lot to go on, but I guess it's more than the first teaser for The Dark Knight, which just had the Michael Caine voiceover talking about the Joker, ending with a shot of a burning playing card.

The first thing to take note of is the use of Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Ghul voiceover.  We heard a few months ago that Josh Pence, from The Social Network, had been brought on board to play a young Ra's in flashback scenes. Out of this rose rumors that Liam Neeson would be returning as Ra's (whether in flashbacks or present day) and that Marion Cotillard, from Inception, who had been cast in the film but whose role had remained a mystery, would play his daughter, Talia. With respect to the latter, Warner Bros announced that Cotillard would be playing a new character, Miranda Tate, who serves on the board of Wayne Enterprises.  Of course, this could still be a cover for Talia. Either way, it seems clear that The Dark Knight Rises will tie in heavily with the storyline from Batman Begins, perhaps with even The League of Shadows playing a major role.

The voice in the hospital talking to Gordon is a bit ambiguous, but I think it's Wayne and not Batman. The context of the conversation seems to support that. It would seem odd for Gordon to reference "the Batman" if he was talking directly to him. That suggests that Gordon might discover Batman's true identity (unless Wayne were to wear a mask during that conversation, as he did during their first conversation in Batman Begins). Is he in the hospital because Bane roughed him up? The fact that he looks so banged up might have implications for the role of Joseph Gordon Levitt, who is playing a new cop on Gordon's task force to catch Batman but is rumored to be a new ally. Maybe he takes over for Gordon?

Bane looks huge at the end when he's fighting Batman, who looks physically exhausted. There is a figure in the background of that fight, watching from a distance. Hard to tell anything about them, but it almost looks like Batman is attempting to prevent Bane from passing.  I had long thought that Bane would be an enforcer for Talia as The League of Shadows returns to finish the job that Ra's had started in Batman Begins (e.g. the destruction of Gotham). Of course, Gordon references a "new evil" rising. Is that consistent with the idea of Bane being a part of The League?

What we did not see, thankfully, was Selina Kyle or Catwoman. I have to admit that her inclusion in the film worries me. I trust Christopher Nolan to do this well, but I hope she plays a minimal part. Gordon talks about Batman having been gone, which would suggest that maybe a new vigilante had risen in his place, albeit on a smaller scale. I think having Catwoman feud with a revitalized mob could be done on a small scale while the larger plot involving Bane and Batman develops. Selina Kyle's prostitution origins would tie in well there. Whatever happens, I don't see Catwoman being a villain or even having that large of a role in the story.

In non-trailer news, it's been reported that Alon Aboutboul has been signed on to play a "mad scientist." While some are speculating this could be Hugo Strange, I'm more inclined to think it's tied to Bane and his venom, the enhanced steroid serum he uses. As with my theories on Catwoman, I have no reason to think this other than a fear of "villain exhaustion."

The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 broke The Dark Knight's opening weekend box office record. One can only wonder if The Dark Knight Rises will reclaim the throne for Batman and Nolan. It is scheduled for release in July of 2012.