Sunday, October 22, 2017

Netflix & Chill #28: Wonder Woman

Watched On: Redbox
Released: 2017
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Pick: Mine

I've been wanting to see Wonder Woman ever since it was in the theaters over the summer, so once I saw that it had arrived on Redbox, I snatched up immediately to see for myself if it was as good as advertised. Turns out, the hype is real, the movie is excellent and I'll go one step further: this might be the best DC Comics movie yet.

The movie opens in present-day Paris, where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who works as an art restorer (which is a nice touch that I enjoyed) receives a photographic plate of herself and four men taken during World War I.  Looking at the photo, she remembers her past. She was raised on the hidden islands of Themyscira, home of the Amazons, who were created by Zeus to protect mankind. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) reveals the rest of their history- how Ares, son of Zeus, became jealous of humanity and tried to destroy it and when the gods attempted to stop him, he killed them all except Zeus, who wounded Ares* and forced his retreat. As a last weapon and protection against Ares, Zeus hides the Amazons and leaves them with a weapon, 'The Godkiller' to prepare them for the return of Ares.

Initially forbidding Diana to train as a warrior, Hippolyta eventually relents and lets her sister, Antiope (Robin Wright) to train Diana, but only if it's the more rigorous than that of any other warrior. In 1918, now grown into a young woman, the outside world finally intrudes upon the hidden island of the Amazons when an American pilot by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on the island and Diana saves him. A German cruiser follows him in hot pursuit and the Amazons kill the crew, but at the cost of Antiope, who sacrifices herself to save Diana.

Under interrogation from the Lasso of Hestia, Steve reveals that a war is consuming the outside world and he had stolen the book of a chemist, Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya) who was working General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) to create a more deadly version of mustard gas to be released at the Western Front. Believing the war to be the work of Ares, Diana arms herself with the Lasso and the Godkiller sword and leaves the island with Steve to track down Ares.

They get Maru's notebook to the Supreme War Council, where Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) is trying to negotiate an armistice. Initially opposed to them trying to destroy the gas, Sir Patrick gives Steve enough money to put together a team and head over to Germany to find the gas and confront Maru and Luddendorf, which, of course, they do and Ares reveals himself in the process. The final confrontation comes at a high price for Diana though and back in the present, she emails Bruce Wayne to thank him for the picture and reaffirms her mission to protect the world.

I loved this movie. This was a Super Hero origin done perfectly. They didn't fling gobs of mythology at you. They didn't leave you hanging for a sequel to finish the story. This was the complete story of how Wonder Woman came to be Wonder Woman and they could not have done a better job telling it. I love, love, loved their choice of World War I for the period. I think the carnage and destruction of the First World War really brings home the idea that Ares was loose in the world in a way that no other conflict could have- plus, you don't often see portrayals of American soldiers in The Great War, so that was a nice change of pace as well.

The Amazons of Themyscira felt fully formed and three dimensional- they were no tropes or cliches at work here. They were strong women, fully capable of kicking ass and taking names, which is exactly how they should be!

Overall: The introduction of Wonder Woman was probably one of the best parts- if not the best part of Batman vs Superman- Gal Gadot continues to shine in the role in her first solo outing as Wonder Woman. I'm not a huge DC Comics person...  other than Smallville and Supergirl, I just can't seem to get into Superman on a movie level. Batman has had some good outings on the silver screen over the years but neither of the other 'big three' have hit their movie debuts as far out of the park as Wonder Woman did. Mission very much accomplished and bring on the next movie! My Grade: **** out of ****

*I was a major mythology nerd when I was a kid, so this portrayal of Ares sort of bugs me. Especially the fact that he kills all the other Gods. I never found Ares to be all that sympathetic in Greek myths as a kid, but he never struck me as that much of a villain either- the same way that Disney butchers their Hercules by making Hades into the bad guy. Of all the movies and television shows out there, oddly enough it's Kevin Sorbo and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys that probably come close to getting it right, making Hera the great (and somewhat justifiable, given her husband's infidelities) villain. Just a minor, minor nitpick.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #234

I was going to look at the flag of Hesse this week, but decided it was kind of boring (there are multiple red over white horizontal bicolors out there. Even if it's defaced with the Coat of Arms, it's still kind of 'meh') so switched it up to take a look at the flag of Saarland instead!


Right off the bat this proved to be an interesting choice, because outside of the city-states of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg, Saarland is Germany's smallest state in both population and area. Historically, it's also something of an interesting anomaly, because prior to the aftermath of World War I, when it came into being as 'The Territory of the Saar Basin' it hadn't existed as an entity at all. Parts of it had been Bavarian, parts Prussian- but there had been no Saar before The League of Nations upped and created it.

The inhabitants voted (90.8% of them) to rejoined Germany in 1935, but post-World War II from 1947 until 1956, it was a French occupied territory distinct and separate from the rest of Germany. Between 1950 and 1956 it was a member of the Council of Europe and was actually offered independence in a 1955 referendum, but voters decided to rejoin West Germany instead and even then, they kept using their own currency for another three years. (The Saar franc).

Historically, their flag has undergone quite an evolution- starting as this, from 1919-1935:



And then after World War II, moving to this:


Before adopting it's current flag in 1957:  the Post-World War II flag has obvious connections to the flag of France, which had control over the place at the time. It's essentially the colors of the French flag split by a Scandanavian cross. The League of Nations era flag (1919-1935) is also interesting, because it bears a close resemblance to the current flag of Estonia- though the order of the colors is different and the Estonian shade of blue is decidedly lighter.

The current flag (seen above) is based on the flag of Germany, but defaced by the Coat of Arms of the Saarland- which, despite my lack of knowledge about heraldry (something I may want to remedy at some point) is actually pretty simple to break down. The first quarter of the shield (upper left) is the arms of Prince of Nassau-Saarbrucken, the second quarter (upper right) are the arts of the prince-elector and Archbishop of Trier, the third quarter (lower left) are the arms of the duchy of Lorraine and the final quarter (lower right) are the arms of the prince elector Palatinate. Together, they represent the four historical entities that had a chunk of Saarland back in the day.

And that's the unusual vexillological history of Germany's smallest state!

Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Bookshot #101: Hyperion

I had no idea what to expect when I picked up Hyperion. I had seen Dan Simmons books before- with interesting titles like Illium and Olympos they had always vaguely intrigued me, but I had no idea what to expect when I actually sat down and cracked open one of his books. Put it this way, if you've ever had that dangerous, snobbish thought that 'science fiction isn't real literature' well, you need to go and read Hyperion. Because it's not just good science fiction, it's genre bending, excellent literature, packed full of references to religion, classic literature, poetry- so many it made my head spin at various points. When I finished this, I almost, almost ran to Wikipedia to spoil the sequel for myself, but I turned away. I made myself wait. Because as with all good literature and great books,  I can't wait to see what happens next.

In the far future of the 27th Century, humanity has spread across the galaxy with a core of worlds being connected through a 'farcaster' network which permits instantaneous travel and other worlds, not connected to the main 'World Web' being reachable by spaceships and thus subjecting travelers to time dilation or 'time debts' that are accrued using this slower method of travel. Higher technology of the 'Hegemony of Man' is run by the TechnoCore, a group of AIs that live apart from humanity and (it is revealed) have obsessions and agendas of their own. Outside of both the Hegemony and the TechnoCore, you have the Ousters space based 'barbarians' that live at the fringes of explored space and have, over the centuries gone to war with the Hegemony.

Now, the galaxy stands at the brink of war once more- this time, everyone seems to be converging on the mysterious world of Hyperion where the inexplicable Time Tombs (which are moving backwards in time) stand and where the mysterious Shrike lives. There's a whole cult/church following of the Shrike and pilgrims in groups of prime numbers set out to seek audiences with the Shrike and, tradition states all but one of the pilgrims are slaughtered and the remaining one is granted a wish.

Now, one final journey has been granted before the war begins and seven strangers are thrust together. To pass the time on their journey from their space ship to their meeting with the Shrike, they each tell their story and one by one each reveals their reason for coming back to Hyperion and what they hope to learn from the Shrike. After the tales are told, the book ends with the reaching the valley where the Shrike lives and heading down to find out what happens next.

(I really don't want to spoil any of the tales of the pilgrims themselves. Needless to say, they all bring a piece of the puzzle to the table that gets put together in a fantastic ending that leaves you ready to throw the book across the room in frustration because you want to know what happens next...)

Looking into this book a little more, you find that Chaucer's Cantebury Tales and the Decameron were influences on the structure of the book (both have different tales from multiple travelers/characters that interlock to tell a story) but while that deals with the structure, each tale of the pilgrim also occupies a different genre/style of writing that makes reading this book an amazing experience. The first tale, 'The Man Who Cried God' is about the Priest, Lenar Hoyt and his journey to help his mentor, Father Paul Dure- that one seems to going one way and then turned and heads in the direction of horror. 'The War Lovers' feels like military science fiction, 'The Poet's Tale' is more autobiographical, 'The Scholar's Tale' is the story of a family dealing with a devastating disease, 'The Long Goodbye' feels like a hard bitten noir detective novel and 'Remembering Siri' feels like a tragedy/romance. It's amazing how effortless the tone of each tale shifts as you move through the book and the various tragedies and loves of each character feel incredibly real, despite the fact that you only really get to know them for one portion of the book.

I have no idea what happens next... I've got a few books I've got to get through before I get back to the library again, but when I do, I hope it'll be to pick up the sequel to this book, The Fall of Hyperion.

Overall: Not at all what I was expecting, the writing is amazingly good, the story and characters are beautifully formed and written and this is epic literature in every sense of the word. Don't ever let anyone tell you that science fiction can't be real literature ever again, because Hyperion is all of that and more. **** out of ****

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Albums2010 #94: Singles

I remember seeing Future Islands perform on Letterman a couple of years back and thinking to myself, 'man, I should check these dudes out' and three years and one Men In Blazers Pod Special later, here we are, finally sitting down to check out their 2014 album, Singles.

The first thing that jumps out at you about Future Islands is the music itself. It feels like synthpop, but a Wikipedia dive into the band's page reveals that prefer to consider themselves post-wave, which combines "the romanticism of new wave with the power and drive of post-punk" which actually sums up their music nicely. It feels like new wave- the lyrics are often sad and tinged with melancholy, but it's not happy boppy 80s style music either- it's got an edge and drive to it that makes it stand out immediately. They cite (again from their wiki-page) New Order, Joy Division, Kim Seal, The Cure and Smashing Pumpkins as influences, all of which I can see, but curiously absent from the list is Depeche Mode, whose new wave darkness seems like a distant cousin to what Future Islands is putting down here.

The vocals of lead singer Samuel T. Herring also stand out. I've always been a sucker for unique and different voices- Kate Bush, Tom Waits and the like and Herring jumps onto that list with his voice which manages to soar and growl and sound utterly unique. (Contributing factor, again- another interesting tidbit mined from their wiki-page, Herring was diagnosed with Reinke's edema in 2014. Which I guess meant that he was no longer able to hit high notes as well as he once could)

But what about the album itself?

Well, the lead off single is 'Seasons (Waiting On You)' which is certainly the song of their that I knew the best and is a genuinely awesome song, but don't think that the rest of the album is somehow a let down. Immediately, the second track, 'Spirit' grabs you immediately and in general, the front half of the album is amazing. (Well, really the whole album is amazing, but the songs that seem to be sticking in my brain the most: 'Back In The Tall Grass', 'Doves' and 'Sun In The Morning.')

Clocking in at 42 minutes, it's length feels just about perfect. There's none of the quick succession you'd expect from a punk album, but there's also none of the slow ponderous conceptual nonsense you can find on a lot of progressive rock/concept albums out there either.

Would I buy this album? Now, that to me as interesting question about all of this. I think I would, but the reason I started this whole series, two blogs and seven years ago now was to explore the idea that we just don't sit down and listen to albums anymore. I think iTunes sort of broke the concept of an album, but services like Spotify are restoring it to some degree. Most of the music I review now (which again, I'm not that good at, I know) I listen to on Spotify, which I think gives you the ability to listen to one album of an artist and the freedom to explore their entire discography if you really want too.

Overall: Excellent album. Will listen to more Future Islands and 10/10 would buy this album. My Grade: **** out of ****

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Netflix & Chill #27: No Reservations

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2007
Starring: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin, Patricia Clarkson, Bob Balaban
Rotten Tomatoes: 42%
Pick: Mine 

So, I watched Burnt last week and was sort of unimpressed with it but I kept seeing No Reservations float past me on the old Netflix app and I thought, why not give another food-based movie a go? So, we went old schoolish and fired it up.

Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as Kate Armstrong, the head chef of a trendy New York restaurant which Wikipedia informs is called 22 Bleecker Street and is in the West Village of New York. (Neither of which is all that relevant to the film itself, but Wikipedia thinks it is important.) Kate is driven, obsessed with making the most perfect food possible and runs her kitchen at a breakneck pace. She intimidates everyone around her, including her boss (Patricia Clarkson) who sends her to therapy (with her therapist, played by Bob Balaban.) Kate hates leaving the kitchen to take compliments, but is all too ready to leave the kitchen to deal with customers who insult her cooking.

All in all, she is very very good at her job, has a life she loves, all of which gets derailed her sister is killed in a car accident and her nine year old niece (Abigail Breslin) has to move in with her. Kate is devastated by her sister's death and is struggling to adjust with a nine year old in the house and to top it all off, her boss decided to hire a new sous chef, Nick (Aaron Eckhart) to help out while Kate is adjusting and getting her life back together.

Nick is the polar opposite of Kate. He loves food, he loves to listen to opera, he likes making people laugh and he is the kind of rising star that Kate immediately realizes could be running his own kitchen anywhere. Nick, however, insists that he wants to work with Kate because she's the best. A strange attraction grows between the two of them despite Kate's best efforts to resist it. They both love food and Nick develops a special bond with Zoe as well. All of it gets derailed when Kate's boss offers Nick her job and Kate's pride almost ruins everything until she realizes that she needs to overcome her pride and jump into something good with...  no reservations!

(See what I did there. You see it...  right?)

The movie ends with Nick and Kate happily in love and running their own bistro with Zoe.

I'm not sure I knew this, but apparently this is a remake of a German film called Mostly Martha, which I'm now curious about- I haven't done any digging yet to see if it's available on any streaming platforms, but if it is, you can be sure you'll see a review of it right here. As a movie, No Reservations comes up short. As a romantic comedy goes, it's not bad. It's a flavor of romantic comedy you've seen before and you can more or less predict how it's all going to work in the end. The food scenes are excellent, but the plot could use some work. Overall, I think if you like romantic comedies and haven't seen this one yet, then give it a watch. You'll be entertained enough- but as 'food movies' go, No Reservations comes up short. My Grade: ** out of ****

Saturday, October 14, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #233

Our tour of Germany continues this week and we're moving to the other end of the size spectrum by taking a look at the flag of Germany's smallest state- The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen.


So before we plunge into what's up with this cool looking flag, we've got to take a slight historical detour to talk about the Hanseatic League, since it's sort of relevant here. Basically, the Hanseatic League sort of emerged as a commercial and defensive confederation of Northern German cities in the 1100s and rose to be the chief commercial power in the Baltic for nearly three centuries before declining in the middle 1400s and petering out by 1669, when only nine members attended the last formal meeting of the League. Three cities remained as members until it's final demise in 1862 and those are the three cities that retain 'Hanseatic City' in their official titles: Lubeck, Hamburg and of course, Bremen.

The League has modern legacies in the German airline Lufthansa, F.C. Hansa Rostock and the Hansa Brewery in Bergen among many. Lubeck also gets big ups for resfusing let Hitler speak there during his 1932 election campaign. He ended up speaking in some place called Bad Schwartau on the outskirts of Lubeck and apparently afterward only ever referred to the Lubeck as "the small city close to Bad Schwartau."

Today, the state of Bremen consists of the city of Bremen and about forty minutes down the river Weser, the city of Bremerhaven- so it's technically two separate enclaves.

But finally, finally, we can talk about the flag of Bremen! There's not much I can find on the specific meaning of the flag- except that it's known as the Speckflagge, or the Bacon Flag. (Coolest. Flag. Ever.) It's got eight equal horizontal stripes of red alternating with white and it's checked at the hoist. There's a couple of other versions as well. The Staatsflagge has eight instead of twelve stripes as is defaced with the Coat of Arms of Bremen. The Dienstflagge der bremischen schiffahrt it's used on state buildings for shipping and navigation as well as the jack on Bremen's ships.

I don't know if or when I'll ever get over to Germany, but I think just the sheer amount of history as well as the geographical uniqueness of the area puts Bremen high on my list of places to visit when I do. Plus, it's the Bacon Flag! It can't get any better than that.

Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sportsyball!

Adopt-A-Team: Maybe I should stop following teams around...  it's too early to tell, but I either suck at picking teams at random or I just seem to select teams doomed to mid-table obscurity. But it's early in the season, so there's still time for Defensa Y Justicia to make some noise, but so far...  it's been kind of a rough start:

L to Temperley (Copa Argentina)
D with Gimnasia
W over Estudiantes
L to Union
L to Colon
D with Huracan
L to River Plate (Copa Argentina)

Not a rousing start to the season so far! 2 draws, 1 win and 2 losses. I did do a little more digging on my team though and found out that the club has been around since 1935- but in kind of a bummer bit of news, there's nothing out there about how the club got it's name. The colors of green and yellow were the colors of the bus line 'El Halcon', which belonged to a former club president- it's also where they get their nick name of 'The Hawks' or 'El Halcones' which is kind of cool I guess.

Black Tuesday: For the first time since 1986, the US Men's National Team failed to qualify for the World Cup. The post-mortems have been coming down all week, but I don't know what's worse. The fact that the Men's Team put itself in this position and thus was forced into a 'win or die' situation heading into the Hex that was just begging for a slip-up given their maddeningly inconsistent play during qualification. The game against Panama put us into a simple position. Win and you're in. Tie and you might be okay. But for cryin' out loud, don't lose...  and yet, that's exactly what we did against Trinidad and Tobago. Fair play to them. I didn't even watch the damn game, because Trinidad and Tobago were at the bottom of the group and after the victory over Panama, I figured there's no way, no way, that we would lose. Until we did.

So, we put ourselves in this situation. That was bad enough. The salt in the wound is this bullshit: the ball didn't fucking go in! HOW IS THERE NOT GOAL LINE TECHNOLOGY ALL OVER THE WORLD IN EVERY GAME? This also more or less sums it up.

I don't know how Bruce Arena still has a job. When England lost to Iceland in the Euros, Roy Hodgson had the decency to quit almost before they had even walked off the damn field. Arena should have resigned last night. Sunil Gulati, President of US Soccer? He's done bunches for the game, but he's gotta go too. We're not Germany. We're not Brazil. We're not Argentina. We're not England. We're not asking to WIN the World Cup every four years... but qualifying in our region should not be a difficult bar to clear. It's not an unreasonable ask, given the level of talent and the sheer number of athletes in this country. And if you can't get it done, then you gotta go.

I have no idea how I'm going to channel this depression into something useful, but I might officially join the American Outlaws. That seems like a decent idea to look into.

MLS Quest: I remain a terrible excuse for an MLS Fan... I will attempt to do better heading into the playoffs, but my tally is at:

FC Dallas
Minnesota United

Shout-out to the Missus, who liked the looks of these two teams the best. I'm going to consult the Elder Spawn to see which one he likes best and I think that might do it. (You'll find out soooooon!) In the meantime, in the wake of the USMNT crashing out of the World Cup, finding an MLS Team and making a concerted effort to care about the domestic league seems more important than ever.

COYG: Oddly enough, the ship has tentatively righted itself since the disaster at Liverpool. Since then, Arsenal's fortunes have looked like this:

W vs Bournemouth
W vs FC Koln
D vs Chelsea
W vs Doncaster
W vs West Brom
W vs Bate Borisov
W vs Brighton

I'll take it. They're currently sitting in 5th in the table, lurking behind Chelsea on goal differential. I'm sure that I should just enjoy this good feeling while it lasts, but I'm pleasantly surprised. Weirdly, I think the tactical challenge of balancing multiple competitions is actually bringing out the best in Wenger and Company so far. There's pitfalls ahead: Ozil and Sanchez are probably gone and for free as well, the ownership is still dreadful, while a draw against Chelsea is always nice, results against the top 4 are going to make or break the season. If they can start snatching a victory or two against the big boys, I'll move from 'tenatively righted' to 'cautious optimstic.' Until then, Come On You Gunners!!!!!

Hawkeye Football: So, we're 4-2 which is nothing to sneeze at, given we had a new starting quarterback heading into the season and lots of question marks all over the place. Despite the frustrations of the Michigan State loss, I don't think water is coming over the sides. The outlines of a really interesting offense are all there, it's just the execution is lacking. Stanley has the arm to toss balls down the field with accuracy and his misses so far seem to be a combination of overthrows and our receivers not catching them. One of these games, he's going to connect and that will be an interesting game indeed.

Our defense has been a pleasant surprise so far this season and their performance against Penn State was nothing short of legendary. I was honestly chewing my nails expecting them to get gassed by the end of that game, but in a weird twist, it seemed to be Penn State's offense that gassed out a little bit until that final drive put a dagger in our hearts. Here's how I see it the rest of the way:

at Northwestern: W
vs Minnesota, W
vs Ohio State L
at Wisconsin L
vs Purdue W
at Nebraska W

I guess this means I have them going 8-4 and heading to a decent bowl game. But I can also see 6-6 and 7-5 easily enough as well. (Northwestern on the road worries me, but it's the one victory I demand for my Christmas letter!) If this is a typical Ferentz era team and it starts to peak once we get into November, then I could see them snatching either a victory against Wisconsin or Ohio State but I could also see them losing both of those. Ohio State seems to be finding it's footing and looking more Ohio State-like after  a sleepy start versus Indiana and a loss against Oklahoma. Wisconsin is always tough on the road. Of course, if we beat one or both of those two, I can see us losing to Purdue as well. Just because that would be a very Iowa thing to do.

Knowing Iowa, I'm sure there are going to be maddening losses, agonizingly close wins and a sweet, sweet victory or two down the stretch. I would say that it would be a huge (yuuuuuuuge) disappointment not to get to 6 wins and a Bowl Game of some variety, but based on what we've seen so far, I think this team has more than 6 wins in it.