Friday, August 26, 2011

neutral milk hotel

Yipee! Jeff Mangum has been working on a new website for Neutral Milk Hotel. For sale is a preorder of a vinyl-only boxed set of the NMH catalogue including 2 previously unreleased songs. You will also be able to buy those songs on the pay what you wish plan. And one-of-a-kind drawings by Jeff are available for $15 a piece. All in all, great news capped off by the fact that he's announced a few more solo tour dates.

I've already pre-ordered my copy of the vinyl boxed set. Have you?

top 5 for the week of 26 august 2011

I've decided to move the top 5 feature to Fridays. Now with spotify, I have the opportunity and can afford to hear a lot more new music each week and share it with you. The I Break Horses LP just dropped this week and what I've heard so far I like. A lot. Trying to get through the newest The Weeknd mixtape 'Thursday' this weekend, too.

1. santigold - lights out

2. holy ghost! (feat. Michael McDonald) - some children

3. craft spells - your tomb

4. brothertiger - lovers (casa del mirto remix)

5. i break horses - hearts

Monday, August 15, 2011

vacation 10 to 21 august 2011

Just so you know, the mullet is on vacation until 21 August so don't expect any updates from me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

top 5 for the week of 8 august 2011

I went to see Wong-kar Wai's In the Mood for Love last week in the courtyard of the Somerset house. I've seen it well over a dozen times by now. It's one of my favorite films and viewing it forms part of my Valentine's Day ritual along with Casablanca.

So many factors collide to make it a near perfect film. In the Mood for Love is genuinely a masterpiece and a worldwide classic. Music, the score for a film, can often make or break it. The soundtrack for In the Mood for Love is pitch perfect, setting the scene of two strangers meeting, coping with betrayal, falling in love, and heartache. "Yumeji's Theme" by Shigeru Umebayashi is so exquisitely evocative of the film's mood that it's repeated, often accompanied by slo-mo shots of Su Li-shen (played by the gorgeous Maggie Cheung) or Chow Mo-wan (the always dapper Tony Leung) walking. Usually in rain.

Another example is the Harry and Hermione dance scene in "The Deathly Hallows part 1" (you can hear the full version of Nick Cave's "O' Children" here). So much of the characters' pain is expressed not in their words but in their posture, the way they look at each, and the mournful sound of Nick Cave's voice and the chorus singing 'children'. It's a very moving scene in a powerful movie about growing up and facing the adult world. That whole loss of innocence trope. But it's also mourning the passing of a cultural phenomenon. So many kids literally grew up with Harry Potter over the past decade. And this song addresses that sense of loss that accompanies the ending of something so integrally linked to the childhood of a generation.

Music, in other words, can make the film.

Here are 5 more songs from movies and series that set the tone.

1. nat king cole - quizás quizás quizás (in the mood for love)

2. claire littley - fly me to the moon (neon genesis evangelion outro)

3. yoko kanno & seatbelts - tank! (cowboy bebop intro)

4. radiohead - paranoid android (outro to ergo proxy)

5. yeong-wook jo - kiss me deadly (from oldboy)

You can read a countdown of the best tracks from the Oldboy soundtrack along with the scenes in which they appear in this article.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

portal ninjas

What happens when you cross two mainstays of internet geekdom into one action packed video? Ask Yung Lee, the director of this video who also stars as male ninja. Female ninja is played by gymnast Tori Lee. See them combine the martial arts prowess of ninjas with portal guns to attack each other in interesting ways using momentum and also move around the battlefield. The video is short at 1:13 but well worth a view.

Friday, August 5, 2011

fun fun fun fest 2011

This year's fun fun fun fest lineup is EPIC!!! Definitely befitting the 6th anniversary of the little festival that could. For the last 5 years, it's been squeezed into Waterloo Park in the middle of Austin. This year, it's so huge they've had to move to Auditorium Shores and I'm not even sure beside Lake Austin is enough space to contain this much awesome.

I've been to a few (including the first way back in 2006 to see Austin's own Black Angels). It's a well-organized weekend of music and comedy with plenty of local food and beverages. Definitely one of America's best kept music secrets so far. And with bands like this coming, there's reason you shouldn't either.

human trafficking case dismissed in hawaii

Yesterday U.S. Chief District Judge Susan Oki Mollway dismissed all charges against Alec and Mike Sou of Aloun Farms in Hawaii at the request of federal prosecutors. The brothers were accused of trafficking 44 laborers from Thailand and forcing them to work on their Hawaii farm. A number of issues arose with the indictments that would have made it difficult for the prosecution to carry its burden of proof. The U.S. Department of Justice supervisor on the case recommended dropping the charges after an earlier ruling by the judge, failure to utilize witness testimony effectively, and other issues made it unlikely the State could prove its case.

Prosecutor Susan French conceded federal law in 2004 did not make it illegal to charge laborers recruiting fees when the brothers recruited and brought the 44 Thai workers to Hawaii. Each worker was charged between US $16,000 and $20,000 for the chance to work on the Aloun farm. Mollway's ruling Tuesday meant prosecutors couldn't claim in court that the recruiting fees were illegal. The law was changed in 2009 to make charging such recruiting fees illegal.

Federal prosecutors also failed to effectively use the witness testimony of Mattee Chowsanitphon to demonstrate a different violation of federal law. Under federal guest worker rules, employers are required to pay for plane tickets. However, it's alleged the recruitment fees paid by the Thai workers were being used to purchase their plane tickets to Hawaii. But the government didn't connect the dots clearly enough during the 3 days of testimony before a jury. Clare Hanusz, an immigration attorney representing many of the Thai workers said:
The government never really connected the dots to show that was the workers' money and that was illegal... There were things that were done that were clearly in violation of the law. I guess because of procedural issues with a number of issues in the indictment, everything got thrown out.
The workers paid the recruitment fee in exchange for a guarantee of US $9.60 hour wages for three years and the Sou brothers were supposed to take care of securing their guest worker visas. Neither promise turned out to be true. The workers were paid much less than $9.60 an hour. The Sous and their attorney claim hefty deductions were made for taxes. And they blame the government for the not renewing the visas after the first few months. The Thai workers would not have been able to earn money to repay their recruitment and travel debts without valid visas, but the Sous maintain that's not their fault.

While I'm certainly not an expert on the legal problems of this trial nor am I claiming that Mike and Alec Sou are human traffickers, I do want to address the comments of one of the jurors. He said:
The government didn't prove that they were being caged and prevented from seeing anybody... They had freedom to move around, they had their passports, they were being fed, and the only thing that prevented them from working was rain.
This juror's comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of human trafficking and modern slavery. Modern slavery doesn't rely on shackles and the lash like in the Biblical story of Pharaoh and the Jews to keep people imprisoned. It utilizes less overt forms of control. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has identified several modern forms of slavery, including:
  • Chattel slavery, where the enslaver has complete power over the life and liberty of the slave;
  • Debt bondage, where migrant workers used as forced labour as a form of repayment for a loan;
  • Human trafficking, which involves transporting people away from their home and coercing them into work via deception or violence;
  • Serfdom, where serfs labour under landowners in exchange for the right to work on the fields of the landowners;
  • Child labour and servitude, where underage children are forced to work in contravention of the law for little or no pay;
  • Forced labour, where people are  illegally recruited to work under threat of violence; and
  • Forced marriage, when women are forced into lives of indentured servitude and live in fear of violence and aggression.
The human trafficking and slavery case being made against the Sous looks like debt bondage. Retaining a passport and apparent freedom to move (not being held in a cage) don't disprove that the Thai workers were being held by an ever mounting debt created by the Sous that the could never pay off. It started with the incredibly high recruitment fee (many of the workers mortgaged their homes and properties to pay the fees; the others likely borrowed the money, possibly from the Sous, their associates, or other organized crime groups connected with human trafficking). The workers were no doubt enticed by the promise of high wages ($9.60 hour guaranteed for 3 years) and stability (employment for 3 years, employer handle the worker visas).

But those wages and legal guarantees turned out to be false. I doubt taxes were ever mentioned by the recruiters. Neither was the possibility that their work visas might lapse, trapping them with their employer. Prosecutors stated the workers were threatened with deportation by the employer if they complained about their low pay or living conditions. These are the hallmarks of debt bondage slavery.

The juror points out the workers were being fed even when they couldn't work because of weather. I wouldn't be surprised if it was by the employer, the Sou brothers and Aloun Farms, who was very likely not doing it out of the goodness of his heart but adding the costs to Thai workers' debts - most likely by deducting it from future wages. It's not mentioned directly where the workers were housed but the implication is in housing owned by the employer. In many cases similar to this, workers are housed by the employer and living expenses are deducted from their wages.

The purpose is to trap the workers under a mountain of growing debt. Costs continue to mount while pay is much less than promised or perhaps none at all if employer-generated expenses eat up all the wage. Interest can compound the problem, preventing the worker from ever paying down the principal. Or, as the prosecutors described it, debt bondage slavery economically entraps and manipulates the laborers through debt. It's not iron bars but dignity, honor, obligation and the perceived actions of law that prevent the laborer from leaving. Although none where mentioned in this case, threats of physical violence against the laborer's family back home can be used to persuade him / her to stay when these softer methods don't work.

Huge initial debt, lies about wages in the new country, illegal migration, growing debt for employer-provided living expenses and housing, and threats based on that illegal status and debt leveled at the worker and his/her family are the tools of psychological manipulation used in debt bondage slavery. It doesn't require cages and chains to imprison the individual. Clearly, governments and NGOs committed to fighting human trafficking and modern slavery aren't doing enough to educate people about what the modern face of slavery looks like.

Several of the Thai workers have received a T visa, a special government visa granted to trafficking victims, to remain in the US. They are continuing to seek compensation from the Sous in civil lawsuits. If they win, it will be interesting to see how the courts handle the issue of debts owed to the Sous and Aloun Farms. Will they be declared illegal or nullified on some other grounds? Or will the remedy include repayment plus damages?

With an increased focus on stopping human trafficking both in the United States and globally, cases like this one are important. Win or loss, each court battle demonstrates the structural and procedural hurdles in the law that must be changed and the attitudinal barriers that must be overcome in order to finally wipe human trafficking and slavery from the face of the planet.

Obviously, making sure the law you're charging in the indictments was on the books at the time the alleged crime happened is important. As is putting together solid witness testimony to link together the steps of the crime. These were failures by this prosecution team. Its dismissal unfortunately doesn't give us any insight into the more subtle problems that can arise in a human trafficking case. Issues around burden of proof, for instance, and the elements required to prove each of the 12 charges federal prosecutors filed against the Sous weren't addressed. This dismissal shouldn't be interpreted as dooming similar cases.

But what did emerge from this story is the perception gap. People, jurors, don't want to believe it's slavery unless it's in its most egregious form. No cages, no beatings, no crime. That's an important factor to keep in mind when prosecutors write their indictments and prepare their cases. It's also important for legislators to consider when they draft and amend trafficking laws.

Human trafficking is perceived by organized crime as a low risk and high profit activity. It has recently moved past arms trafficking to be the second most profitable activity for organized crime behind drug smuggling. Actions by the government and third sector must focus on reversing the balance so that trafficking is high risk with little to zero profit. Routine criminal convictions and seizure of assets are critical pieces of that strategy.

Ryu VS Ken 龍與肯

I've previously featured the stop motion genius of counter656 on this blog with Sephiroth The World's Enemy. Well, the one man animation studio is back, this time with a 3 round battle between Street Fighter karate rivals Ryu and Ken.

I'm certainly looking forward to his next video with the evocative title "The Sexy Killer" previewed at the end of this video.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

jens lekman announces fall 2011 tour & new EP

The darling of Sweden Jens Lekman recently announced a spate of fall 2011 tour dates. His scheduled appearances so far stretch from the end of September until October and land on both the American and European continents. No Atlanta date announced so far.

Sept 28 - Los Angeles, CA - Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Sept 29 - San Francisco, CA - California Academy of Sciences
Oct 1 - Seattle, WA - Columbia
Oct 3 - Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall
Oct 5 - Washington DC - Sixth & I Historic Synagogue
Oct 6 - Philadelphia, PA - Philadelphia Ethical Society
Oct 7 - Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg
Oct 8 - Boston, MA - Somerville Armory
Oct 9 - Brooklyn, NY - Music Hall of Williamsburg
14 oct - Nijmegen, NL - The Vereniging
15 oct - Düsseldorf, DE - Schumannsaal Düsseldorf
17 oct - London, UK - Heaven
19 oct - Manchester, UK - Band on the Wall
22 oct - Stockholm, SE - Södra Teatern
24 oct - Köpenhamn. DK - Jazzhouse
27 oct - Milano, IT - Salumeria della Musica
29 oct - Paris, FR - Pitchfork Music Festival

He's announced a new EP will be released in September. I suspect he'll be touring to support it. You can listen to a track off the EP, title "An Argument with Myself" and download it here.

twin shadow remixes "heart in your heartbreak"

Two of my favorite artists together again like chocolate and peanut butter. George Lewis Jr., aka Twin Shadow, a new wave delight has remixed the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's single "Heart in Your Heartbreak." And you can download it for free.

race & the comic book movie

I had originally intended to write this post simply about the interesting history lesson the Howling Commandos of the recent Captain America: The First Avenger could play in discussions of WWII and also to tackle the controversy (or non) of race swap casting illustrated earlier this summer by Idris Elba playing Heimdall in the Thor movie. The counterpoint would have been the dearth of murmurs when Samuel L. Jackson first showed up on screen as Nick Fury. But then came recent announcement that Laurence Fishburne, best known for his portrayal of Morpheus in the Matrix trilogy, has signed on to play Daily Planet editor in chief Perry White in the Zack Snyder directed, Christopher Nolan produced reboot of the Superman franchise. The 2013 film is to be titled Man of Steel. Now we have a non-controversy, a controversy, and an expected hullabaloo.

The interwebs is already predicting a row over the choice to cast Lawrence Fishburne, by all accounts an African American male, in the role of Perry White. White has always been portrayed by white actors since his introduction in the serials of the 1940s and 50s. He was later incorporated into the comics as a white man. There's expected to be backlash similar to one following Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in this summer's Thor. While most critics and movie-goers alike enjoyed Elba's turn as the god who guards the Bifrost bridge, in some (outright racist) quarters, the casting choice was decried as leftist, communist attacks on the "white race" and America itself. The attacks against Elba echoed the same vile, crude, racist and jingoist outcry when Superman renounced his American citizenship in Action Comics 900.

Here's the strange thing. Getting past the fact that Elba is more than a competent actor, why does it matter what race Heimdall is? Because the Vikings envisioned he looked like them? Because that's how Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby decided to depict him in 1962? I guess it doesn't matter than this Heimdall and all the Asgardians aren't actually Norse gods but a race of aliens who just happen to take human shape. Thor: The Mighty Avenger already broke this race ground by depicting Heimdall as a black shapeshifter.

Which takes us to the other major race swap in comic book films. Nick Fury, who has long be portrayed as this white guy in the comics, also went through a race swap in all the Marvel films setting up the Avengers movie (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America) except for the Incredible Hulk reboot (Fury didn't appear) and is slated to reprise his role in the 2012 Avengers movie and in a 2014 Nick Fury film. Perhaps it's because the Ultimates universe, a re-imagined Marvel that's grittier, contemporary, and intersects with topical events and people, cast Nick Fury as a black man back in 2001. By 2002, he was even re-tooled to look like Samuel L. Jackson with the actor's permission.

Is the difference in attitude between a black Nick Fury and a black Heimdall simply because the public had 7 years to adjust to the cultural change on the printed page before he showed up in Iron Man (2008)? Or are certain segments of the population more comfortable attacking Idris Elba than Samuel L. Jackson? Perhaps a shift in American politics is responsible. Not only did we see a major rise in the Tea Party just prior and after the election of Barack Obama, America's first black President, but also a barely contained vitriol against minorities generally. The racial animus would have been too obvious circling back to criticize the Nick Fury swap after the fact but Idris Elba became a new face to attack as the symbol of a creeping leftist (integrationist) agenda.

It's the belief the racial animus has not diminished which leads the interwebs to predict a backlash against Laurence Fishburne stepping into the shoes of Perry White. But I'm eager to see what Morpheus can bring to the role. And while the Matrix may be his most well-known role, Fishburne has legitimate acting chops. He's been nominated for numerous awards for his work on television, film and stage, including a 1994 Best Actor in a Leading Role nod for his performance as Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do with It? He was amazing as Furious Styles in Boyz n the Hood, single father to Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), and it would be interesting to see Fishburne bring that kind of tough but fair paternalism to the role of the Daily Planet's editor in chief.

It will be interesting to see if black Perry White makes it into the upcoming DC universe reboot. That would be akin to the black Nick Fury showing up in the Marvel's Ultimates universe, not withstanding the Ultimates takes place in a separate universe from the main Earth-616 continuity.[1] DC Comics co-publisher Dan DiDio (with Jim Lee[2]) described the reboot as:
We really want to inject new life in our characters and line... This was a chance to start, not at the beginning, but at a point where our characters are younger and the stories are being told for today's audience.
It sounds to me like the DC publishers have seen the success of the Ultimates imprint and want to copy it for their own universe.[3] Some of the planned character changes are more popular than others. The ginger lesbian Batwoman is popular, mixed feelings about the new Catwoman costume, and absolute, near universal loathing towards the new Harley Quinn costume. I'm not a huge fan of Wonder Woman's new costume but that's besides the point. Changes to her formula have twice the in the past year garnered major outcries. After a controversial costume reboot in 2010 (OMG! she's wearing pants! and a jacket! I will not stand for this!), NBC decided to pull the plug on its Wonder Woman TV series due to a series of costume flubs earlier in the spring without even airing the pilot. Wonder Woman has long been a feminist icon and diva to gay men everywhere. It will be interesting to see what kind of attitude Amazonian princess Diana emerges from Themyscira with in the comics reboot.

But this isn't an article about gender & comic book movies or even that promised discussion of gender & comic books (or anime).[4] But one last brief comment before we get back to race in comic book movies. Why do all the Avengers prequels require a love interest? Actually, it's just Natalie Portman's character in Thor that bothered me. Tony Stark's philandering ways are just part of the character, as is Bruce Banner's undying love for Betty Ross. For Steve Rogers, his attraction to Agent Carter reveals his respectful nature (he's not a complete sexist) growing confidence in himself. It may, if the Avengers movie follows the blueprint of the Ultimates, help illuminate Rogers' sense of being a man out of time. But why Jane Foster?[5] Thor isn't put into the body of Donald Blake. I know that having a love interest is the formula for these movies as well as putting more butts in seats by casting an attractive female lead, but it's also kind of weird. So if, for instance, the astrophysicist who first found the de-powered Thor on Earth wasn't as hot as Natalie Portman, Thor wouldn't have learned his lessons and all of us Midgard denizens would be screwed? Plus, it makes including Darcy Lewis, played by Kat Dennings[6], unnecessarily redundant.

Back to race.

In Captain America, Steve Rogers' rescues members of the US Army 107th and other units from Red Skull's Hydra base in Italy. He choses his Howling Commandos / Invaders squad from among them. He selects Bucky Barnes (American), Montgomery Falsworth (British), Dum Dum Dugan (American but enlisted in British armed forces), Jim Morita (Japanese American), and Gabriel Jones (African American). His team, in other words, is international and multiracial in composition. I admit I was a little disappointed that Nick Fury wasn't amongst the ranks. In the Earth-616 continuity, Fury is a WWII vet still active in the present day thanks to the Infinity Formula that has drastically slowed his aging. Rogers seeing a familiar face after escaping the SHIELD facility in the modern day would have been an interesting twist. It would have been a wink and nod to the Earth-616 continuity in the movie world that draws heavily from the Ultimates universe (including the Samuel L. Jackson Nick Fury). But I suspect Jackson's acting card was probably too full to support such a lengthy appearance in the film.

Dum Dum Dugan gives Morita a questioning look when Cap breaks them out of their Hydra prison. Morita retorts gruffly "I'm from Fresno, pal!" The point being that the Japanese were currently part of the Axis and enemies of the Allied nations. His presence on the Howling Commandos references the role that Japanese Americans, particularly Nisei (born in America), played in the War. Most Japanese in America were rounded up and sent to internment camps for the duration of the War. President George H. W. Bush apologized for the dark episode in American history in 1991. But many Japanese Americans fought for the Americans during WWII in segregated units such as the 442nd Infantry Regiment. It is the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in the entire history of the US armed forces. Ever. They earned 21 Medals of Honor and 9,486 Purple Hearts including the rescue of the "Lost Battalion." They were real American heroes in ever sense of the word at a time when their families were being treated like terror suspects at home. The presence of Morita in Captain America: The First Avenger opens up a dialogue with this often overlooked and forgotten role of Japanese Americans in the so-called "Greatest Generation" of Americans.

Gabriel Jones presents a similar window for discussion on the role of African American soldiers during WWII and prior. African Americans, like their Japanese brethren, served in segregated, single race units. African American army units (including the 2nd Calvary Division, 93rd Infantry Division, 92nd Infantry Division, and 25th Infantry Regiment ) were nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers. African Americans also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps (precursor to the US Air Force) as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Too often WWII dramas gloss over the critical contributions made by members of America's Greatest Generation who were not white. By including diverse faces on the Howling Commandos, Captain America: The First Avenger acknowledges the role of all American soldiers, regardless of color, during the War. And let's be honest. This is a summer blockbuster that lots and lots of children are going to see. It provides a fantastic bridge for parents, guardians, older siblings, grandparents, and even school teachers to talk to kids about contributions made by veterans of all colors and nationalities.

One thing unites these two issues about race in the recent comic book movies: representation. Electing to cast outstanding black actors to play comic book characters traditionally depicted as white (Nick Fury, Heimdall, Perry White) speaks to the higher profile and respected competence of African Americans in modern American culture.[7] A black man can be a general, a powerful god, or even the head of an American daily paper. And we should no longer overlook the important contributions that minority men and women made in the past, not as minorities but as Americans. We need to make sure to represent in our national re-telling of history the contributions of every American - white, black, and yellow.

We should no longer be bound to prevailing attitudes towards race of the 40s, 50s, and 60s when these characters were created. These are our stories, our mythology. It is fundamental that that mythology represent all the American people and not just the faces of some of them if we are to truly survive as one nation.

And I still want to see this Luke Cage movie made. Power Man is one of my favorite characters in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.

To everyone who wanted me to talk about more subtle racial issues in the movies, how race itself is represented in comic book movies, please feel free to open the topic in the comments section. I'll make it a priority if there's enough interest in the topic. Otherwise, it may remain in the ether just like the female anime tropes article and the discussion of Wonder Woman. Or these anime and movie reviews I've got queued.

Until then, Excelsior!

UPDATE: 5 August 2011

Speaking of race swapping in the Ultimates universe, it looks like Ultimate Peter Parker, aka Ultimate Spider-Man, is dead. The new person to pull on the mantle of the spider is Miles Morales, a half-black half-hispanic teenager instead of lily white like Peter Parker. You can see the face of the new Ultimate Spider-Man here and glimpse his costume redesign here.

The other interesting thing about this story is the way the Daily Mail misread Sara Pichelli's comments (she's the artist) about a day when a black or gay superhero wouldn't be a big deal and ran with the headline "Marvel Comics reveals new Spider Man is black - and he could be gay in the future". If race swapping is controversial, it seems becoming homosexual is still absolutely verboten territory for some.

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to observe the public reaction (fallout?) from the decision to alter such a high profile character such as Spider Man even if it is only in the Ultimates (i.e. not main, alternate) continuity. Previous modifications have been to minor or peripheral characters (Nick Fury, Heimdall, Perry White) but Spider-Man has long been one of Marvel's cash cows along with Wolverine. That was true even during the lean times following the comic market collapse post-glut in the 90s. Why else do you think Spider-Man and the X-Men made it to the big screen first for Marvel? Want more proof? Look at how many incarnations of Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons there have been stretching all the way back into the 1960s.

And if this Spider-Man experiment doesn't work? They'll just resurrect Peter Parker. He wouldn't be the first superhero to come back from the dead. Heck, Jean Grey does it ever year or so. I think it's written in her contract as annual non-vacation time off or something.

[1] Yes, indeed, I did just go that deep into the geek on you.
[2] Jim Lee is one of my favorite comic book artists ever. His run on the Uncanny X-Men and then on the new X-Men series with Chris Claremont in 1991 was at the height of my comic book reading days. He left Marvel in 1992 with 6 other artists to form Image Comics, an experiment in artist owned comic publishing. He founded Wildstorm Productions and birthed WildC.A.T.S., Stormwatch, Deathblow, and Gen13 in a shared universe. Many of these comics had a connection to Team 7 which was a modern-day cynical approach to America creating super-soldiers. Whilce Portacio's Wetworks, also in the Wildstorm universe, explored similar themes but threw the characters into a secret vampire-werewolf war. Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics in 1998 and moved over to focus on work as an artist instead of as publisher. His collaboration with writer Jeph Loeb in 2003 spawned the runaway successful Batman story "Hush". Here's a few examples of why I love the man's work: [here] [here] [here] [here] [here] [here] and [here]. Seriously, you can blame my adolescent crush the Kwannon Psylocke directly on this man's pencils.
[3] DC has had a ton of universe reboots including Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985), Zero Hour (1994), and Infinite Crisis (2005) / 52 (2006). You can read about them here.
[4] Sorry, dear readers.
[5] As it stands, the only confirmed Avenger without romantic entanglements in the movie universe is Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton. And that's probably because he's only had about 30 seconds of screen time in another guy's (Thor) movie so far. There's sexual tension between Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Tony Stark as last seen in Iron Man 2 where she appeared. Nick Fury doesn't have an introduced love interest yet but he's more of the guy behind the scenes getting people together rather than an Avenger per se.
[6] Yum.
[7] No, I don't think America is "post-racial" just because we've elected a black president. The fact that we have to make such a big deal out of that simple fact should be proof enough that race is still an issue in America. But I definitely believe the Civil Rights movement and continuing efforts since then have pushed towards equality. We are still far from achieving it.

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EmJayBee Designs

My friend just started up an online store called EmJayBee Designs. She sells her handmade fashion items and does take requests for some items. Right now she sells tutus and University of Texas at Austin headband. But I've seen her industrious work ethic and creativity over the years. I fully expect new items (maybe her handmade jewelry boxes) to arrive in the shop regularly. She's a very talented young lady. You can also browse her photography gallery and check out some of her paintings.

Definitely take a look. Includes items for folks who bleed orange & white like me.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

captain america - the first avenger


Just saw Captain America: The First Avenger today. I opted not to see it in 3D because I haven't heard great things about the 3D effects. When I saw Thor earlier this year in IMAX 3D, I wasn't overly wow'd by the illusion of a 3rd dimension. You may have read my woes with 3D glasses before. Even without the 3D glasses, the war posters during the end credits did give a nice 3D effect. But enough about the format...

This is the big one, folks. The last Marvel superhero movie before the Avengers film.
Captain America is a cheesy character. You can't get around it; no if's, and's, or but's will change the fact that he's a good, decent guy even before getting super powers. In fact, it's that innate decency that causes Dr. Erskine to choose Steve Rogers for Project: Rebirth. And he loves America so much he's dressed up in the flag. Where Joe Johnston, the director of Captain America, gets it right is playing this straight. Captain America is a patriot without a touch of irony. And it works.

Long story short: Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no stranger to playing Marvel superheroes after two turns as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four films) really wants to enlist for WWII but he's just too scrawny and asthmatic. He's been rejected no fewer than 5 times. His buddy Bucky Barnes sets up a double date at the World Expo and while Barnes' date is clearly happy to be with a tall, muscular soldier in Army green, Steve's girl is much less enthused to be with him. Eavesdropping on a conversation between Steve and Barnes, Dr. Erskine intervenes to approve the scrappy Rogers when he tries his luck again at the recruitment booth at the Expo.[1]

Though weak in body, Steve demonstrates both cleverness (releasing pins to drop a flag pole instead of trying to climb it) and bravery (diving on a dummy grenade) to match his innate goodness. His weak body, instead of being a hindrance for the project, actually is a strength; a strong man takes his power for granted but a weak man knows the value of strength, or so Dr. Erskine tells him.

Erskine and Howard Stark succeed in transforming Steve into the American super soldier but a Hydra spy who has infiltrated the Brooklyn base of the Strategic Science Research arm of the US military shoots and kills Erskine, taking knowledge of the super soldier serum to the grave.

Running down Erskine's killer in the middle of NYC turns Steve into a media sensation and he's initially deployed as Captain America, spokesman for war bonds and USO entertainer, instead of a soldier on the battlefield. But that all changes when the 107th and Bucky is captured by Hydra in Italy. Going AWOL from his USO troupe, Steve, Agent Carter (played sexily by Hayley Atwell)[2], and pilot Howard Carter drop Steve on Hydra's doorstep to single-handedly liberate 400 Allied POWs.

This is Steve's first encounter with Johann Schmidt (aka Red Skull) and Arnim Zola. Schmidt is the leader of Hydra, the Nazi's experimental weapons research group, and Dr. Erskine's first super soldier serum subject. Schmidt and Zola get away but Steve also gets a peek at a map showing where Hydra's secret bases are located throughout Europe.

The remainder of the movie is Steve and his handpicked Howling Commandos, an international collection of soldiers he rescued from the Hydra including Steve's pal Barnes, infiltrating and destroying Hydra's bases. The hand to hand combat in these sequences involving judicious use of the trademark red, white, and blue circular shield as a melee weapon and missile are some of the best fight sequences I've seen in a superhero movie so far. It's visceral and brutal without being the extreme close-up, shaky cam mess of the recent Batman reboots.[3]

Schmidt has laid his hands upon the Tesseract[4], a mythical maguffin mentioned earlier this summer as being stolen from Odin's treasure vault in Valhalla in Thor and last seen in Nick Fury's possession after Thor's credits rolled, in Norway. With Zola's tech genius, Hydra has harnessed the Tesseract's energies to power their futuristic war machines. These include disintegration guns that come in sizes from Luger P08 designs to rifles to cannons mounted on tanks and an immense flying wing fortress. These gadgets give the movie a 1940s sci-fi pulp quality that's visually interesting. It also contrasts starkly with the Asgardian future tech seen in Thor and Tony Stark's bleeding edge gear in the two Iron Man films. The aesthetic of the Hydra troopers and Zola's inventions evokes Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Doc Savage and even 2004's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

In a daring raid on a moving train via ziplines to capture Zola, Bucky dies. I guess there's a recent renaissance in the train robbery trope (see Sucker Punch, Spider-Man 3, Wanted) but I'm not complaining. Zola in custody sets up the final battle in the last secret Hydra base hidden in the Alps. A one-man frontal assault by Captain America on the mountain fortress leads the Howling Commandos to enter the windows through ziplines (yay! ziplines) and the SSR forces, led by Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), to storm the base to destroy Hydra once and for all.

Schmidt escapes in the flying wing fortress but thanks to Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter in Schmidt's suped up Mercedes-Benz roadster, he doesn't leave Captain America behind. Hydra's most nefarious scheme is to deliver on Hitler's dream of flying bombers across the Atlantic and attacking American cities directly. There are even bombs neatly printed with the names of intended targets, including Boston and Steve's home of New York City.

Unsurprisingly, Captain America triumphs, damaging the device used to harness and contain the power of the Tesseract. Schmidt seizes the energy-spewing cube as it opens up what appears to be a gate to Asgard before he is consumed by its power. Mimicking Roger's heroics from the 1960s Avenger's re-boot, Captain America pilots the crippled flying wing into the icy Arctic rather than letting it rain destruction on American soil. He and Carter make a date to go dancing both know he'll never make right before the plane crashes, leaving only radio static. Cut to a scene of Howard Stark recovering the Tesseract at the bottom of the ocean in a small submarine on his quest to find Captain America.[5]

Right before the credits roll, Rogers awakes in a 1940s New York apartment to the sounds of a Brooklyn Dodgers v. Philadelphia baseball game playing on the radio. But he knows it's not right. He was at that game in 1941. He escapes into modern day New York City where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the single thread that's tied all these franchise films together so far for the upcoming Avengers team-up in 2012, arrives on the scene.

Roll credits.

It's surprising how many people in the theater got up and left at this point. It's like they haven't been clued in after 2 Iron Man movies, the Hulk reboot, and Thor that this is where Marvel sets up the next film in the line towards the Avengers movie. Except this is the last movie in that line. The brief clip after the credits is a trailer for the May 2012 Avengers film.

We see Steve punching a boxing bag furiously before Fury arrives. Steve asks if it's another mission to try to get him into the modern world. Fury replies that it's a mission to save the world. Through the jump cuts, we see Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), the Hulk (Edward Norton), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, very briefly glanced earlier this summer in Thor when the thunder god attempts to reclaim Mjolnir from SHIELD agents in the desert) joining Captain America to form the Avengers. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) makes an appearance in the trailer as the major baddie the Earth's Mightiest Heroes have to team-up to stop. Presumably the Tesseract will play some role as Loki shows interest in it at the end of Thor.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a great summer popcorn adventure. The un-ironic tone of the film, accepting Steve Rogers / Captain America as the boy scout he is without giving him a modern edgy coat, works and works well. Along with the pulp, raygun serial visual aesthetic of the film created through Tesseract-fueled super tech and a general sepia colorization, Joe Johnston manages to transport the audience into the sprawling epic of Marvel's WWII of superheroes and super-villains more villainous than Hitler and the Nazis. For 124 minutes you manage to cast off modern cynicism and accept a world of genuinely good guys battling sinister masterminds plotting world domination.

And then there are the fights and action sequences. The fight choreography is amazing. It's like they invented a new martial art for fighting with a shield. And the action is high tension. Guns, broken glass, fire, explosions, fast cars, trains, airplanes, and high speed chases all combine to keep you on the edge of your seat once the plot gets roaring along. It's definitely high adventure of a much more adrenaline-rushing, white-knuckle type than Thor.

But the film's not perfect. The ending in particular felt overly contrived. If the flying wing was in good enough shape for Steve to pilot it down towards the ground, why couldn't he turn it left, right, or even straight up? And it's a freaking fortress! Surely there had to be an escape pod. Evil geniuses always include escape pods. Or at least a parachute. Why not one of those piloted bombs intended for American cities?

The reasons are clear from the perspective of theme and narrative. Thematically, Rogers mirrored the lesson that Barnes' death taught him (through Agent Carter): that choosing to sacrifice yourself for someone or something you believe in is good and noble. It's the double, the repeated lesson, the hero learning something from his sidekick. Captain America doesn't experience the traditional character arc of standard superhero movies. He isn't chosen and resists the call. He doesn't overcome any personal failings or character flaw to save the day. He's a good man when he's the scrawny kid from Brooklyn and he still possesses those some values and attributes when he's the super soldier with the shield. But in this way, Rogers does learn something. He wanted to join the Army and fight so badly when he was just a skinny guy from Brooklyn. Arriving on the front lines with the USO and seeing the remnants of the 107th return, he gets a taste of the reality of war. He was willing to dive on the grenade to save others in basic training. Now he knows what it means to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. He leaves behind Carter for whom he has been carrying a torch all throughout the war.

Narratively, Cap has to sink into the ice so that he can be cryogenically preserved for 70 years. He can't escape because he will be found and revived in the 21st century to lead a team of superheroes against an unstoppable evil. But here, the comic makes more sense. Cap leaps onto a rocket aimed at America to disarm it. When that fails, he hangs on to divert it off course. There are no escape pods or parachutes installed on this instrument of destruction. A rocket is on a one-way trip. His sacrifice wouldn't have felt so contrived if he had to actively force the plane down by battling the flaps mechanism or blowing up some of the remaining bombs to cause the plane to rapidly plummet. Yes, this would no touching last conversation between Rogers and Carter. Oh, wait, super tech. Steve could have found a "futuristic" wireless headset device at the Red Skull's captain's chair.

Oh yeah, and the CGI that put Chris Evans' head on a skinny body to play pre-serum Steve Rogers was both effective and kind of creepy.

The one burning question I'm left with is: what will Steve Rogers be like in the Avengers? In the normal Marvel timeline, he plays out like a boy scout, still supporting American values if not always the government. But the important feature is that he manages to adjust to the present. In the alternate Ultimates universe, Steve Rogers is played much more as a fish out of water in modern America with its modern values. His way of speaking to women and superiors is frozen in the 1940s along with his body. His ideas about recreation and fun, his tastes, are of a 1940s man. This out-of-time element makes him both appealing in his chivalry and frustrating by his old-timiness.

Which Steve Rogers will we get in 2012? We see him viciously beating the punching bag in the trailer for the Avengers. Will we see a 3rd option, a bitter and angry Steve Rogers, a man who loves his country but can't accept his personal losses and what his country has become? We only have 276 more days until we find out.

[1] I wasn't able to read the display, but in the glass case at the World Expo is none other than the original Human Torch. Not only is it a brilliant nod to the wider Marvel universe but also a wink and nod to the audience; Chris Evans played the second Human Torch, Johnny Storm, in Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007).
[2] Here's a few pics of Hayley Atwell out of uniform. Don't say I never give you fan service. Here Here and Here. For those of you coming here for her cup size, she's listed as a 36C. And just to be fair, here's Chris Evans with his shirt off.
[3] Let me be clear: I love the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and eagerly look forward to Batman Rises. But the fighting sequences are confusing in the Batman films. Yes, it gives the audience a sense of the chaos and tunnel vision that being in a real fight brings. But that doesn't necessarily make it the best or the only satisfying way to film a fight.
[4] aka the Cosmic Cube
[5] Assembling a timeline for the Tesseract from its appearances in the Marvel films so far means that it must have been stolen from Odin's vault as mentioned in Thor long before the 1940s since it's stored in the temple in Norway at the beginning of Captain America. It's in Hydra's possession until the end of Captain America, when Howard Stark recovers it from the bottom of the ocean. At the end of Thor, Nick Fury has the Tesseract as revealed in the post-credits scene with Dr. Selvig (who is either possessed by Loki or Loki in disguise). Does it make any other appearances in the Marvel movies?

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Monday, August 1, 2011

top 5 for the week of 1 august 2011

1. beach house - take care

2. shins - girl inform me

3. dirty beaches - sweet 17

4. the strokes - the modern age

5. lcd soundsystem - get innocuous