Spoiler-free Avengers 2: Age of Ultron


I’ll make this brief because the family is heading off to see a Georgia O’Keefe show this morning.

Last night was date night, so I did what I usually wouldn’t: went to the sneak preview with my wife. Sadly, my brilliant idea for dinner beforehand was ruined when we discovered the shawarma place was closed for remodeling. Instead, we ate at an Australian/New Zealand pub, in honor of the Australian actors we were about to see.

It’s a good movie but not a great one, even by the standards of a blockbuster action movies. The whole thing feels like it’s been stuffed to the breaking point: you get the six main Avengers, plus the Maximoff twins, plus the Vision, just as the trailers suggest. What they held back from the publicity is that the movie is also full of the supporting characters from the previous individual movies. As it should be, really.

And considering how full the movie feels, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to give the leads their own (tiny but effective) story lines, sandwiched between huge, destructive action set pieces. And there are so many great actors in this thing that they actually manage to sell the personal crises and miniscule human moments, even while wearing, say, a skin-tight black suit. And Bettany is excellent as The Vision.

There are some unfortunate choices, too, mostly around Ultron. Who’s idea was it that his metal lips would move when he talked? I don’t want to say much more, because spoilers. There were also several scenes that made me think That would make no sense to anyone who missed the first movie.

Still, the pieces seem to be much larger than the whole. I remember leaving the first Avengers movie feeling wow-ed by what they accomplished. This time, I loved all the individual sequences but they didn’t feel as though they added up to a truly satisfying whole. However, I plan to see it again, hopefully with my son. We’ll see how I feel about it then.

Added later: I forgot to mention that there’s a single mid-credits scene but nothing at the very end, so you don’t have to sit through the whole endless scroll of digital artists or whatever.

Randomness for 4/23


1) The day Hank Aaron’s bodyguard didn’t shoot.

2) Onlookers mistake fallen construction crane at Dallas Museum of Art as an art installation.

3) Yelp reviews of new-born babies.

4) A person is creating 3d printing templates for every creature in the Monster Manual.

5) The simple brilliance of David Aja. This dude is half of the reason that the Hawkeye comic has been so amazing. I really love the design sense that artists bring to comics now. They’re so much more interesting than they used to be.

6) Why don’t our brains explode when we see movie cuts? (What a sensible way to phrase that question.)

7) Pictures of food that very little kids “can’t eat” and why.

Randomness for 4/9


1) A map of all the places mentioned in Tom Waits songs.

2) An autobiographical webcomic imagining Conan the Barbarian as a spirit guide.

3) Reader, I LOL-ed. Reaction Table: High Level Cleric of Law Asked to Raise Dead Associate(s).

4) Every Frame a Painting on film editing, video essays, and creating narrative. Video.

5) When Nerf Modding goes too far.

6) Understanding Art: The Death of Socrates. Video. Interesting to see a tool as simple as masking in Photoshop used to such good effect.

7) Risky Date: a lesson in a webcomic.

Randomness for 3/15


1) Movie posters redesigned using only circles.

2) Completely amazing: All the silences in an episode of Dr. Phil. Video.

3) An analysis of one of The Dark Knight’s action sequences, to examine why so many people found it incoherent. Video.

4) Concepts With Which Boys at Parties Have Asked Me if I’m Familiar: a Spreadsheet

5) Best OKCupid profile ever.

6) A brand new thirteen-story apartment building in Shanghai tipped over. Only one death, because the building was so new it was unoccupied.

7) Ten “Things You Didn’t Know” about Led Zeppelin IV.

Randomness for 1/10


1) A random comic generator. NSFW.

2) Things said by and to a two-year-old, as graphic design posters.

3) Was 2014 the Year of the Video Essay? Who knew? How to make a great video essay: Video (naturally)

4) A long run down a concrete luge in New Zealand. Video.

5) Artist adds cute illustrations to photos on Instagram. So cool.

6) Google maps for fantasy spaces. Cute.

7) Questions posed to librarians before the internet.

Randomness for 12/21


1) Get your rage on with this complete ranking over every Star Trek episode ever.

2) 22 pictures that prove we live in the future.

3) There’s an “atmospheric river” flooding California.

4) What colour is it? The time of day expressed as a hexidecimal color.

5) Pixel art illustrations that tell a personal story.

6) The relationship between coffee and mesmerism, and the importance of morning rituals. Video.

7) Unused audio commentary by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomnsky, recorded summer 2002, for the Fellowship of the Ring (extended edition) DVD.

Authorized Fan Fiction: Watching THE HOBBIT Movie Marathon


As I mentioned before, I think, I’ve been working from wake to sleep on Kickstarter stuff, and I needed a break. Luckily, there was a movie marathon of all three Hobbit movies yesterday, so I slipped away for an afternoon and evening to see them all in one go.

I’d deliberately decided to skip the first two movies when they were released, figuring I’d have an opportunity to see them all at once. I’m sorta glad I was right, but only sorta.

(Spoilers for the first two films)

Here’s the truth: the movies don’t work. It’s obvious they’re meant to be seen together, and while that unity helped, I can’t imagine sitting down for part one, knowing part two was a year away and part three a year after that, and being content with that endless dinner scene. I could bear it because I knew I was seeing a seven(ish)-hour movie, but wow, those scenes were slack. Really slack. And they weren’t alone.

And the dialog… Okay, the Lord of the Rings movies had plenty of shitty dialog in it, but it also had amazing dialog, too. These two examples are pasted right out of imdb:

Theoden: Simbelmyne. Ever has it grown on the tombs of my forebears. Now it shall cover the grave of my son. Alas, that these evil days should be mine. The young perish and the old linger. That I should live to see that last days of my house.

Elrond: If Aragorn survives this war, you will still be parted. If Sauron is defeated and Aragorn made king and all that you hope for comes true you will still have to taste the bitterness of mortality. Whether by the sword or the slow decay of time, Aragorn will die. And there will be no comfort for you, no comfort to ease the pain of his passing. He will come to death an image of the splendor of the kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world. But you, my daughter, you will linger on in darkness and in doubt as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Here you will dwell bound to your grief under the fading trees until all the world is changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent.

Quibble with that if you want, but even if you don’t like that sort of dialog, it’s head and shoulders above “Do not think I won’t kill you, dwarf!” or “I am fire! I am… DEATH!” or

Thranduil: [to Thorin] Where does your journey end? A quest to reclaim a homeland, and slay a dragon!… I suspect something more prosaic. Attempted burglary, or something of that kind. You seek that which would bestow upon you the right to rule: the Arkenstone!

Which… ugh. Lee Pace is great in the role of Thranduil, giving him a complexity that the other characters desperately needed. And that’s the odd thing about this adaptation: So much stuff has been added to the story, and very little of it serves to make the characters interesting. (Sidenote to the woman in the row in front of me: I actually liked the love story Jackson et al added to the films).

And it’s all this added bullshit that people have hated about the films, and it’s easy to see why. The Hobbit, as a book, is a children’s story set in the same world as LOTR. It’s a prequel, too, but the tone and the language are very different.

With these movies, Jackson is trying to create a prequel trilogy that matches the tone and style of the first movies. If you were hoping for a children’s movie version of a children’s book, you’re not getting it.

So, the company of dwarves can’t be hapless regular folk who cower before every enemy, they have to be high-level PCs who plow through orc mooks. And, obviously, we need an extended scene where Thorin et al make a serious effort to defeat the dragon with his golden not-jaeger. (I swear I thought that thing was going to open its eyes, and I would have been really disappointed. I mean, even more disappointed than I already was.)

Not that this fits with the dragon’s decision to *run away* from those dwarves and burn Laketown, but the new stuff has to be shoe-horned in, right?

And the dwarves can’t just be sealed in barrels and floated away, complaining about being cramped and bruised. Instead, there has to be a running battle with orcs on the shore, with weapons flawlessly passed between them like the dishes in Bilbo’s kitchen. In other words, they have to be exceptional.

And there’s all those scenes at Dol Guldur. From overhearing other audience members, I guess they came from unfinished stories. They would have been enjoyable enough, if only they hadn’t been filled with all these Tolkien characters. Those were the parts (along with the forges and molten gold) that felt like fan fiction: characters we recognize but creative choices we don’t, as though someone wanted to play with Tolkien’s stuff and fill in all the blank spaces.

The thing is, whether or not you like Tolkien, his work was heavily informed by epic grandeur. He would never have created a conflict scene that played like a Rube Goldberg machine that so many modern movies expect us to watch. They’re like amusement park rides or video game levels: the toppling stone stairs of FELLOWSHIP have been transformed into ledges on the body of a giant in the midst of a fight. Jump here, grab this, cut this rope, swing here, now push this fucking wheelbarrow into the stream of molten gold and ride it to the waterfall, then jump onto the come on, people. Come on.

There’s an undeniably visceral excitement that comes from this shit. The music, the camera swooping past a dizzying height… one a very basic level the body responds to this stuff. But when it’s over, the feelings don’t stick with you. It’s like riding a roller coaster without even the feel of the wind on your face. It certainly doesn’t match the scenes where the people in Helm’s Deep prepare for a fight no one thinks they can win. It’s not enough for characters to bash a shitload of mo-capped cgi monsters. It has to mean something more.

Worse, the parts of the children’s book that remain unchanged (like the amazing survival rate of the dwarves) just didn’t mesh with the new tone and design. Why is it so hard to write decent dialog for a dragon? And why did they add so many extra scenes but cut a bunch of Bilbo’s riddle contest with Gollum?

The first movie was not good. The second was even worse. The last one was the best of the bunch, and I’m reasonably glad I stuck with it. Thorin’s dragon sickness was portrayed very well, and since there are a few characters who don’t survive the final war, the violence finally carries a sense of risk to it.

Plus, there’s much less Rube Goldberg bullshit.

Here’s a shocker: adding genuine mistrust within Thorin’s circle, terror and tragedy for the people of Laketown, and Thranduil’s grief-driven reluctance to lose his own people in war, actually turned the third movie into a story I cared about.

There were definitely low spots and a prequel-ish urge to fill in back story, but it mostly worked. Of course, maybe it just looks good because it came on the heels of Desolation of Smaug.

Let me just say one thing, though: On my birthday, I took a day to watch all three extended editions of LOTR, and for weeks afterward I had the urge to watch them again. For all their flaws, they’re terrific movies. I had no urge to watch the Hobbit movies again. At all.

A two-hour movie from a 32-page picture book???


For the past several years I’ve been listening to people griping/mocking/whatever about the The Hobbit being turned into three movies. Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous.

Shrek is a 32-page picture book that was turned into a two-hour movie. See also Where the Wild Things Are and The Iron Man (which became The Iron Giant).

The next Captain America movie will adapt Marvel’s Civil War crossover story, but how are they going to fit everything from dozens of issues into one movie?

Did you know that the screenwriter of the KULL THE CONQUEROR movie took advantage of his contractual right to create a novel version of the movie, which was closer to his original script? I haven’t read it, but he says he never wrote the stupid stuff about Kull being terrible with a sword, and he included the reason for the “madness” that drove the king to murder his children, along with other complexities cut from the film?

In other words, yeah, people adapt things. They condense them. They expand them. They change them significantly. They put happy endings on the end of Romeo & Juliet. They turn Stephen King’s vampire into a wordless nosferatu. Works high and low are altered in the adaptation, and I’m tired of hearing the same old gripes about Jackson’s Hobbit films.

Yeah, there’s profit-seeking in it (says the guy about to release a fantasy trilogy of his own) and can I say that I’m shocked, shocked, to find gambling going on in this establishment. Of course, the only way to stop movie-makers from splitting adaptations into more than one film is to turn them into flops. Having just taken my son to see MOCKINGJAY PART ONE, I’m not holding my breath.

Me, I haven’t seen any of THE HOBBIT films yet. Maybe they suck. Maybe they’re fine and people are shit-mouthing them because they feel ripped off.

In any event, I have a ticket to see all three films, in a marathon, on an IMAX screen, this Monday afternoon. It’s going to be a nine-hour event, starting at 1pm (watching all three LOTR films on my birthday took 13 hours) and I’m going to be there for the duration. Unfortunately, my wife and son aren’t bit on movie marathons, the poor dears, so I’m having a Me-day.

(Seattle-area folks: is anyone else going? Drop me a note on Twitter at @byharryconnolly and maybe we can arrange to meet up)

Certainly, some parts will be dumb, some will be entertaining, some will be both. I last read the book a few years back, when my kid was young enough that we could subject him to family read-aloud time, so I won’t notice minor changes and won’t care about large ones. In other words, fuck Tom Bombadil. I expect that the worst thing about it will be eating meals out of the concession stand.

If I get a shit ton of work done this weekend, I’ll even be ready to sign and mail out the paperbacks when they arrive the next day.

Seriously, though: if you’re going and want to meet up, let me know.

Randomness for 12/10


1) Man mounts paper coffee cup on his car, tweets people’s responses.

2) How does a 150 ft oil drilling rig disappear into a lake that’s only ten feet deep? h/t @CEMurphy

3) Is everything good about Minecraft gone? This piece echoes my earlier post about buying my son an Xbox, and I agree that Minecraft has changed as third parties set up their own servers. My son plays a game that’s a lot like The Hunger Games, and doesn’t build nearly as much as he used to. He still builds, but there’s a lot of PvP, too.

4) Typeset in the Future: ALIEN edition.

5) Dutch real estate broker installs mini-rollercoaster into home to give prospective buyers a tour. Video. As stunts go, this one is terrific.

6) Ugly Christmas sweaters are the new thing, so why not turn them into men’s suits? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

7) Ben Edelman, Harvard Business School Professor, Goes to War Over $4 Worth of Chinese Food. You can be very very wrong while being right.

The Dr. Strange Movie


Yesterday, Marvel announced their upcoming Phase 3 movies, and the earliest new character is going to be Dr. Strange. They’ve even announced that they offered the role to Benedict Cumberbatch.

For those who aren’t familiar with the character, he’s basically the superhero wizard of the Marvel Universe. Origin in brief: Arrogant surgeon injures his hands in car accident. In seeking a cure so he can go back to being his old self, he stumbles upon a world of magic spells, extra-dimensional demons, and fetishized orientalism. He becomes apprenticed to a sorcerer, then takes the role of the Sorcerer Supreme (the magical protector of his reality).

Basically, he faces magical bad guys, extradimensional weirdness, and fights with magic items and spells. And back in the Steve Ditko days, we got art like this:

Note to Disney: get that shit in the movies.

However, it seems that the MCU will continue to run away from the idea of actual magic. In the upcoming movie, Strange’s spells let him “tap into the supernatural, which involves everything from quantum mechanics to string theory, all of which you can manipulate with your hands and your thoughts.” Which makes no sense, really, but if you’re afraid of driving off any segment of your audience, you change Thor into an alien (and turn his story lines into sword and planet adventures) and base Dr. Strange’s spells on “string theory.”

Which… whatever. It’s just a different kind of hand-waving, and I seriously doubt it will satisfy hardcore “Harry Potter recruits for Satan!” types. The truth is, I’m hoping this movie works. Dr. Strange has always been better in the concept than the execution–although I wish Marvel would hire Chris Bird to write the book. His ideas are more interesting than the usual stuff Marvel runs with.

How I think it should be done:

    Skip the origin. Just to show it’s possible.
    At least three Ditko-esque acid trip landscapes.
    Keep Cleo, but without the creepy student/teacher romance.
    Keep Wong, but make him more than a kung fu manservant. Better roles for POC > fewer
    Lose the costume.
    Get a better costume. The big cape is cool, but change the look.
    Keep magic spells
    Lose rhymes required to chant them.
    Lose the magician swears. “By the Vishanti!” Seriously.

Villain: Mordo, with Dormammu lurking in the background.

As for the casting of Cumberbatch (if they’re correct) I don’t really have an opinion about him. I’ve seen him on Sherlock and Star Trek, and was underwhelmed both times. Maybe his performance in THE IMITATION GAME will surprise me, since I thought ST was boring and wanted to walk out of the room when Sherlock was on. We’ll see.