Sunday, May 20, 2018

Netflix & Chill #44: Valerian and The City of A Thousand Planets

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 2017
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevinge, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Krus Wu, Rutger Hauer
Rotten Tomatoes: 49%

By the 28th Century, the International Space Station has grown so large that it's had to be moved out of Earth's orbit and into deep space. Once safety away from Earth, it just keeps right on growing and growing and growing until it becomes Space Station Alpha, home to thousands of civilizations and millions of inhabitants, both human and alien.

Special Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) wakes up from a a dream about the planet Mul, where the inhabitants live in a low technology paradise. The pearls they fish for contain enormous amounts of energy and small, lizard like creatures replicate more pearls. In his dream, he sees wreckage begin plummeting from the sky and then there's an apocalyptic explosion and just before it reaches the young princess, she sends out a telepathic signal- and then, Valerian wakes up.

He is pretty shaken by his dream and an analysis indicates that he may have received a signal from across time and space. He and Special Agent Laureline (Cara Delevigne) learn that there mission is to retrieve the last of the Mul converters (the lizard like, pearl making creatures from the planet Mul he saw in his dream). Before they arrive at their mission, Valerian asks Laureline to marry him, but she brushes him off. She thinks he's too afraid of commitment and has many affairs with their female colleagues.

They travel to the extra dimensional bazaar called Big Market ,where they secure the converter and Valerian steals one of the pearls on the sly. Together, he and Laureline learn the origins of the pearl and the converter: the planet Mul, destroyed thirty years ago.

Returning to Alpha, they learn from their superior, Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) that there is an infection at the center of the station and it's growing. The two agents are tasked to protect the Commander while they host an interstation summit to figure out what's behind it, but Laureline defies his wishes to retain control of the converter. The humanoids who had also tried to purchase the converter in the Big Market attack and kidnap the commander.. Valerian pursues the kidnappers but Laureline loses track of him at the edge of zone at the center of the station.

Eventually, they uncover the truth: the Commander was responsible for the destruction of the Planet Mul and covered it up. The surviving inhabitants hid themselves away on the station and learned the technology to rebuild their home- all they need is the pearl and the converter. Laureline and Valerian confront the commander about his role in the genocide and after a brief fire fight with the robot soldiers he programmed to do his bidding, the survivors of Mul escape to restore their home and Valerian and Laureline survive in a working ancient Apollo-style module where, while waiting for rescue, Laureline finally accepts his marriage proposal.

Overall: I'm not entirely sure how to feel about this movie. As a mildly bonkers space opera, it's a solid science fiction outing that's worth watching at least once if science fiction space opera is your jam. Rihanna is in this movie, so it's got that going for it. I haven't read the original source material, so I don't know how faithful an adaptation this is, but The Fifth Element blew me away. Valerian just sort of comes across as sort of 'meh.' It promises so much and fails to deliver. My Grade: ** out of ****

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Albums2010 #100: Blood Sugar Sex Magik

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were always on the radio when I was in junior high and high school. There's a small collection of bands that just sort of throw me back to the days of Q103 and RHCP are for sure one of those bands. But it wasn't I saw Anthony Kledis induct the Talking Heads into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that I really sat up and took notice. Not long after, I think I purchased this album and enjoyed the hell out of it. It might still be lurking in my basement right now.

Released in 1991, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was their fifth studio album, which seems slightly ridiculous to me. I always assumed they were firmly a product of the 1990s, but in fact, they made their debut all the way back in 1984, only a year after my birth. (Their self-titled debut apparently was credited as the 'first release from the funk metal genre' and has also been described as 'the little spark that ignited the rap rock revolution'. So Red Hot Chili Peppers begat the likes of Linkin Park? And maybe Gorillaz? I'm okay with that.)

The album itself marked a turning point for the Chili Peppers that seemed to mark a major breakout for them to widespread commercial and artistic success- and to be honest. for an album that was released nearly thirty years ago, it holds up incredibly well. It might be a wee bit too soon to carve it into the Mount Rushmore of essential albums of the 1990s, but seeing it end up on a list of albums that defined a decade in much the same way that Fleetwood Mac's Rumors defined the 70s would seem absolutely reasonable to me. It's that good from top to bottom.

I'm really trying to think about it, but I think the ultimate appeal of this album and ultimately the band has to be the infusion of funk they bring to the table. I've always enjoyed funk. Not in that, 'I have every obscure P-Funk and George Clinton album ever made' kind of way, but in, 'damn right I'll listen to this' and 'if I wasn't white and balding, I'd totally want George Clinton's hair.' If I could pinpoint the moment where I fell into funk, it would probably have to be the movie PCU- but either way, that enjoyment of funk lends itself well to this album. As progenitors of funk metal, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are masters of their craft- as demonstrated by tracks like 'Funky Monks', 'Suck My Kiss', 'Blood Sugar Sex Magik' and 'If You Have To Ask.'

The well known tracks are like old friends to me...  weirdly enough, when I stumbled back onto the RHCP playlist on Spotify, I realized just how long it had been since I had listened to any of their music. I had sort of the same experience with Stone Temple Pilots. They were another band that seemed to stick in my head far more than Pearl Jam or Nirvana did- yet I just stopped listening to them for years and had the pleasure of rediscovering them all over again at some point post-college. Here, 'Under The Bridge' and 'Give It Away' are probably the tracks that resonate the most for me. But 'Breaking The Girl', 'Naked In The Rain' and 'The Power of Equality' also stand out for me.

Overall: This is one of the great albums of the 1990s and probably one of the best albums of the last 30 years. It holds up and delivers the good nearly thirty years after it's release and the week or so I spent exploring the outer limits of the discography of a band that resonated so much with my youth was one of the most enjoyable I've had in a long time. My Grade: **** out of ****

Friday, May 18, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #260

It's a special Friday edition of This Week In Vexillology and we're heading back into the Lost Archives of the Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment to take a look once more at the flags of the two Guineas: Guinea and Guinea-Bissau.

First up, we've got Guinea:
Adopted on November 10th, 1958 for national and civil usage Guinea followed Ghana (and I guess Ethiopia's lead) in using the pan-African colors of red,  yellow and green. The flag is modeled on the French Tricolor (since Guinea was a French Colony) and the colors are also taken from the RDA, the Rassemblement Democratique Africain, which was the dominant political movement at the time of independence. (Apparently Sekour Toure, the first President of Guinea was a close associate of Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana who's flag is remarkably similar to Guinea's.)

The color scheme is pretty simple: red symbolizes the sacrifice of the people, the yellow is for the sun and the riches of the earth and green is the country's vegetation. (The flag's wiki-page says red stands for the blood of martyrs who died from slavery and wars, so that's one alternate explanation.) If you think it looks pretty similar to a few other flags out there you're not wrong: reverse the colors (green-yellow-red) and you've got the flag of Mali. Add an 'R' and you've got the pre-2001 flag of Rwanda.

Next up, we've got Guinea-Bissau:
Right off the bat we've got an interesting little wrinkle: my reference book says that the flag was adopted for national and civil usage on September 24th, 1973 when the Portuguese territory achieved self-government. The flag's wiki-page dates the adopted from independence which was declared in 1974.

The pan-African colors are evident as is the influence of Ghana. Guinea-Bissau went a little further than it's next door neighbor and brought the black star along for the ride for it's flag. The colors (because apparently every country's independence movement used the same damn ones) are also taken from the flag of the Partido Africano para a Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) which is still a dominant party in the country today. (Weirdly: the flag of Cape Verde looks nothing like this. Which is kind of refreshing, really.)

The color scheme is once again, pretty simple: red is for the blood of martyrs/blood shed during the struggle for independence, green represents hope and the forests of the country and yellow stands for mineral wealth and the sun.

And those are the flags of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau! Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Look At The Whole Board

So, a recommendation for an episode of Pod Save The World floated past me on my Twitter feed and since it was about the Iran Deal (and President Trump's decision to withdraw from it), I thought I'd give it a listen and see what they had to say on the matter. It was... disappointing. Less an analysis on the pros and cons of the decision and more a twenty minute segment bemoaning the decision and rending their garments over the damage this disastrous decision is going to do to America's standing with our allies and in the world.

Now, don't get me wrong: all of that could be 100 percent true. Withdrawing from the Iran Deal could be a boneheaded, dumbass move that we could seriously regret at some point in the future. So their analysis isn't invalid, per say. It's just not the only school of thought out there. The whole time I'm listening to the episode, this clip from The West Wing kept running on a loop in my head. "Look at the whole board."

I'm not an expert on Iran and my analysis could be totally wrong here, but to me, Iran is something of a paper tiger. Or a volcano ready to explode. They've got one of the youngest countries in the region-as of 2012, half the population was under the age of 35- which at that time, meant that over half the population was born after the fall of the Shah and has absolutely no memory of that regime. What they do remember though is the Iran-Iraq War. They remember the 2009 Presidential Elections and the Green movement that followed. What they're unhappy about is an economy that even before we nixed the Iran deal wasn't doing all that great- which is part of what sparked the protests last year.

The Iranian Regime, meanwhile is fighting proxy wars against the Saudis in Yemen. They're hip deep in Syria and have been bankrolling Hezbollah in Lebanon for years now. All of these activities have accelerated post-2015, so the idea that Iran has overstretched itself is a valid one. With their economy- already rocky- now heading into potentially rockier territory withdrawing from the deal could force Iran to end their foreign adventures and come on home to fix things there. (And if they do that, then yes, the may well start trying to make nukes by the bucketload.) Or it has a real chance of accelerating their implosion.

War with Iran along the lines of what we did in Iraq would be a disaster beyond measure. The minute American troops cross the border, we've given the Islamic Republic a fifty year lease on life and complete retrenched their regime. (I also think we run this risk if we have to launch airstrikes against them as well.) What Iran has that Iraq lacked, however, is a vibrant civil society and the infrastructure of a democratic state. They have elections. Women can vote. Women can drive there. If the Iranian people want regime change, we should support their aspirations for self-determination. (Certainly more than the Obama Administration did in 2009.)

So yes, withdrawing from the Iran Deal could be a disaster. But if it forces Iran to end their involvement in various wars across the region, then that could ameliorate ongoing humanitarian disasters across the region, which would be a good thing. If it accelerates the Iranian Regime's implosion, then I'd call that a potential good thing.

It could also lead to war with Israel and an eruption of chaos the likes we haven't seen for decades. But decrying the decision to withdraw from the Deal solely because of the potential loss of standing with our allies isn't just a flawed analysis, it represents a failure to see the whole board.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Psephology Rocks: Four Elections You May Have Missed (And One You Didn't)

There have been plenty of elections since the last time I did a really deep dive into an election worth talking about- so many that I couldn't just pick one. Or if I did pick one, John Oliver would come along and do a far better job than I do and summing it all up. But the elections kept piling up and piling up and finally, it left with me no choice. Here are four elections you may have missed and one you (obviously) didn't:

1. Armenia: So, while the American media was obsessing over the President's lawyer, the porn star, his bowel movements and his latest Tweet, Armenia had a straight up people's revolution that got like zero coverage from any American news network that I could see.

So, what happened? Well, in March of 2018 members of the Republican Party of Armenia did not exclude the idea of nominating President Serzh Sargsyan for the post of Prime Minister. He for his part, had amended the constitution to abolish term limits which would have allowed him to continue in office for over a decade.

The Armenians didn't warm to the notion and took to the streets headed by opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan, first rejecting the nomination of Sargsyan to continue as Prime Minister and then calling for his ouster altogether. Pashinyan insisted on the protests being non-violent and his tactic worked, as the movement spiraled outward to include all areas of society.  There was a lot of dancing as well, so really, instead of a Velvet Revolution, perhaps Armenia could be the world's first Dance, Dance Revolution? Ultimately it worked and Sargsyan resigned and Pashinyan became the new Prime Minister of Armenia.

The groundwork for this Revolution (or at least for Sargsyan's attempted power grab) was sparked by a December 2015 referendum which changed Armenia's form of government from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary republic. The Presidency is becoming a more ceremonial head of state and a lot of the governing powers are going to be vested in the Prime Minister. The President can't be a member of any political party and is going to be limited to one, seven year term. (Hence, Sargysan's attempt to become Prime Minister.)

2. Malaysia: Okay, so Malaysia just had kind of a big election which saw former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sweep back to power at the ripe old age of 92 to become the world's oldest elected leader. What's special about his comeback? Well, he ran under a new party banner the Pakatan Harapan which ousted the Barisan Nasional (the National Front) coalition that's ran the country since 1957. What's interesting about Malaysia? Well, it's a federal constitutional elective monarchy- it's modeled closer on a Westminter-style British parliamentary democracy, but with a twist. The head of state is a monarch, but it's an elected monarch chosen from the nine hereditary rulers of the Malaysian states that have them. (The other four states have Governors.)

3. UK Local Elections: There wasn't really much of a story to tell here. On the local level, everyone kind of held serve, but that that Conservatives limited so many of their expected losses was largely due to the collapse of UKIP's vote on the national level. Not sure what, if anything the tea leaves foretell off of these results.

4. Karnataka: do a Google search and keep half an eye on the election results as they roll in over the next couple of days. This sizable southern Indian state is largely considered a bellwether for national elections that are set for early next year. If the ruling BJP doesn't do well, then that could be bad news for India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If, on the other hand, they do, then it'll probably be seen as a good sign of the BJP's strength heading into the national polls next year. (Here's a good article from The Economist give you the 4-1-1 on why it all matters.)

5. 'Merica!: This is pretty much all you need to know about the various state primaries that sprinkled early May. Just this.

(This guy lost, thankfully.) Were there any tea leaves worth talking about in this round of primaries? Not really. Except, I think that the media's obsession with impeachment and the Mueller investigation is crowding out any Democratic attempts to craft a cohesive message for the voters. I have no idea how much if anything can be read into generic Congressional ballots, but the Democratic advantage is down to 1.5% now. Doesn't bode well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Stop The World, I Want To Get Off

We're apparently all a little more anxious these days. That was a comforting article to read, because the world has seemed a dark and grim place indeed of late. I try to be as aware as possible of my own mental health and general well being and have been generally fortunate in that so far, I've had one serious bout of bad depression and that was toward the end of my undergraduate years.

But this... oh man. Suddenly, I just felt emotionally raw for some reason and I couldn't put my finger on why. Attempting to apply rationality to this stuff is always tricky, but I wanted too, because when you really step back and look at your situation, you tend to find that you don't have a lot to complain about in the grand scheme of things. And really, I don't. The vast majority of the world's population would probably trade places with me without hesitation. I have my health. I have a job. I have an amazing wife and three beautiful children. Could things be better? Sure. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the areas of my life that could use some improvement weren't really the underlying cause of all of this.

Don't get me wrong: the ol'student loans have been feeling especially oppressive of late. I'm holding out hope for a Public Service Loan Forgiveness that probably won't be there when my ten years is up. (I'm hopeful, but also expecting to be bent over and screwed.) But they've always been feeling oppressive. They've always sucked. They've always been a chain around my neck. The suckage where they are concerned is far from new.

So what is it then? I really think that I'm just sort of exhausted by the world in general. Since the election of the President, the news has gone to shit in a handbasket. I don't care what your ideological leanings are: if you can't acknowledge that the news these days is absolutely terrible then you're not paying attention. What's worse is that everything has to be dialed up to eleven. If someone's not screaming about the President's latest Tweet or bowel movement or whatever he said today, then they're screaming about something else. And months and months of being screamed at is bound to finally start to eat at your soul a little bit.

To think I was ready to make this post about Iowa's shiny new abortion law, as well. Though that didn't help my general feeling of malaise and darkness either. So many people my age seemed to be ready to give up on this state, shake the dust from their feet and move elsewhere. Part of me is sad about that but part of me also thinks it might be a rational response.

What am I going to do about it all? Here's my notions:

First, I'm going to kick some social media off of my phone. It's an incredible feeling knowing that you can hold the sum total of human knowledge in the palm of your hand. It gets real old when you develop a habit of grabbing your phone every five minutes to breathlessly check to see who said what on whatever social media platform. I want to get back into Duolingo. I want to stop saying, 'hey, I should learn how to code' and actually do it. If I'm going to have the sum total of human knowledge in my hand, I want to use it to improve myself and not as a useless time waster or a distraction.

Second, it occurs to me that in the great hamster wheel of life, either you turn the wheel or the wheel turns you and lately it seems to be latter far more than the former. While my job is stimulating enough, there's very little point to it if it doesn't allow you to carve out some time to enjoy life a little bit. I have no idea what that looks like, but I want to take this summer to try and find out.

Third, all these internet distractions are keeping me from focusing my creativity on where I want it to be: my writing. That has to change as well. (I've got 1/3 to a 1/2 of the next book done and I want to try and get it written and wrapped up by the fall. Which is an ambitious goal, but one I want to achieve!)

In short, it's time for a mental health break from the world for awhile. Not because I don't care, but because it's start to make me miserable a little bit and I have few, if any reasons to be miserable in this life of mine.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Squawk Box: Lost In Space

Netflix actually didn't hype their reboot of Lost In Space nearly as much as they hyped Altered Carbon, but there was enough in terms of teasers and trailers out there to get me interested enough to check it out and wow! I'm going to make an exceedingly bold statement, but hear me out: the potential for this show is very high indeed...  I would go so far as to say that if it fulfills it's potential, it may well end up being a better show than The Expanse (or even it's Netflix counterpart Altered Carbon.)

Lost In Space immediately distinguishes itself from it's big screen counterpart by flinging you into the middle of the action. It doesn't waste an episode mucking about starting the mission, instead, you open with the family strapped in and suited up as the Jupiter 2 is heading down toward a planet of unknown origins, about to crash. Crash, they do, onto a glacier bed where it begins to sink. They evacuate some supplies, but when the eldest Robinson child, Judy (Taylor Russell) goes back to try and get some more, she ends up getting trapped in the ice.

While the family bands together to figure out how to get Judy out of the ice, we find our more about the family. Mom is Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) who is the mission commander for their Jupiter and an aerospace engineer who is all set to start a new and better life with her family on Alpha Centauri. She's married to John Robinson (Toby Stephens) a former Navy SEAL and biological father to Will and Penny and stepdad to Judy, Maureen's child from her first marriage. There's a tense and interesting dynamic between the two of them from the get go, as we find out the two are separated and were heading for  a divorce before the family jumped aboard the Resolute (the colony mother ship) and headed to Alpha Centauri.

While trying to get Judy out of the ice, Will (Maxwell Jenkins) tells his Dad that the white fire they saw coming from the mountain was probably magnesium, which would be hot enough to free Judy from the ice, so the two set off to find some. Of course, they do, but Will get separated from his Dad and meets the Robot (Brian Steele), an alien mechanoid that bonds with him. 

The show then introduces Don West (Ignacio Serricchio) and Dr. Smith (Parker Posey) who crash land on another part of the planet. Dr. Smith, who is actually a stowaway/conperson named June Harris, who steals the identity of the actual Dr. Smith (played by Bill Mumy, the original Will Robinson from the 1960s Lost In Space, which I thought I was a nice touch) and together they band together to survive. (Though Smith ditches West at the first opportunity to get rescued by the Robinsons.) 

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I'll go ahead and short cut to the end: after finding the other survivors, the Robinson and company end up having to figure out how to get off the planet because it's about to get fried by a black hole. Unfortunately, there are eels that eating the fuel and the truth about Dr. Smith is eventually revealed along with the alien robot and why it attacked the colony mothership to begin with. (Turns out that humanity done stole some fancy technology that didn't belong to them- though that's a plot threat left dangling for a presumed season 2.) 

The family dynamics that the Robinsons have are just about perfect. Will carries a lot of the show on his shoulders and does so with ease and maturity far beyond what you'd expect from an actor of his age.  Penny (Mina Sundwall) also has her moments, trying to be a normal kid and attempting a teenage romance with a fellow survivor Vijay (Ajay Friese). I've seen a lot of complaints here and there online about Dr. Smith. It's an interesting direction for the character to take compared to Gary Oldman's scheming spy in the movie, but I think it works. I think if anyone other that Parker Posey was playing the role, that might be a different story. However, I think Posey walks the fine line between cheese and a good performance and seems to have an instinct to know how to say 'when' to stop the parmesan. (Weirdly, a lot of people complain about her character's motivations as well: seems pretty obvious from the get go: survival is her main motivation.)

The cliffhanger of the first (of what I hope will be many seasons) sets up the Robinson Family and company for some very interesting adventures indeed. If there's a fault to this show, it's that it does take a few episodes to get going, but once it does, it starts moving down the tracks with impressive speed and purpose. 

Overall: A brilliant update of the 60s classic, Lost In Space establishes a strong foundation for future success with a family that feels like a regular every day family struggling in extraordinary circumstances. I hope this show gets another season, because I really want to see where they go with this. My Grade: **** out of ****