Monday, May 30, 2011

Movie Review: Thor (2011)

While hunting for meteorological disturbances in the New Mexico desert, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her research partners accidentally hit a disoriented man with their jeep. An extended flashback narrated by Odin, ruler of the realm of Asgard, explains how his son, Thor, god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth), ended up confused and powerless on Earth. Thor had been enraged by a small scale incursion of Asgard by the Frost Giants, a people with whom the Asgardians had an uneasy truce. In his anger, and contrary to his father's command, Thor took his brother, Loki, and four of his friends to the world of Jotunheim to confront the king of the Frost Giants. Although Thor was holding his own with the power of the magical hammer, Mjolnir, in the end the six Asgardians found themselves outnumbered and had to be rescued by Odin. With war rekindled between Asgard and Jotunheim, Odin declared Thor to be unworthy of kingship and exiled him to Earth. Odin then placed an incantation on Mjolnir, declaring that only one who is worthy will be able to wield the hammer and the power of Thor, and cast the weapon to Earth as well.

Now dependent on the physical strength of a mortal and the kindness of Jane Foster, Thor must learn to overcome his arrogance and to earn the right to wield Mjolnir again. Foster and her friends, who are searching for proof of the existence of wormholes (the path between Asgard and Earth just happens to be one), don't know just what to make of Thor. While the things he says seem crazy, events start to indicate that he's telling the truth. In the meanwhile, Agent Coulson (the SHIELD agent from the two Iron Man movies) and his team set up a research laboratory in the crater where the hammer lies. Not only is the ancient weapon slightly radioactive, but it can't be moved from its resting place by any natural means. Back in Asgard, Odin falls into the periodic "Odinsleep", but is in such a weakened condition this time that he may not wake up from it. Loki, who we discover to be a traitor (what did you expect from the trickster god?), thus takes the throne and plans the death of his exiled brother. Eventually, the friends of the newly humbled Thor head to Earth to warn him just as Loki's plans come to a head.

What's the point of being ruler of Asgard if the
throne doesn't come with a big screen TV?

When the post-credit sequence in Iron Man showed that Marvel Entertainment intended to make an Avengers movie, I knew that Thor was inevitable. My biggest concern was that Iron Man was as realistic as a superhero movie was going to get (the existence of powered armor is a lot easier to believe than any superpower) and that the fantastic and magical elements of a movie based on the The Mighty Thor comic book series would seem completely out of place in the world of the Iron Man franchise. However, the film ties itself closely to Iron Man by involving the appropriately bland Agent Coulson and by including a brief but hilarious exchange between SHIELD agents. When the Destroyer (a magical weapon that looks like a fire-filled suit of armor) appears outside of the New Mexico town where Thor and Foster's team are, we get this from the SHIELD agents:

Agent Cale: "Is that one of Stark's?"
Agent Coulson: "I don't know. That guy never tells me anything."

Additionally, Kenneth Branagh's Thor almost seamlessly blends the fantastic and the real-world elements. The scene shifts from a small town on Earth to the realm of Asgard (which can't even be said to exist on any sort of planet) aren't nearly as jarring as I would have expected. The film also goes out of its way to explain Asgard's magic as science that is so advanced that it simply appears to be magic. Arthur C. Clarke and his famous statement on the topic (i.e., "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") is even explicitly mentioned by Foster's research assistant.

"Is that one of Stark's?"

Thor only has a few weaknesses. First, I never really believed that Jane Foster would so quickly fall in love with Thor. The character is indeed physically fit, and he has a likeable personality when he's not being arrogant, but Foster's character as established earlier in the movie doesn't strike me as one who would be smitten so easily. Second, some of the Asgardian costumes are a little over the top and border on being silly. This was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the movie itself recognizes this. When Thor's friends arrive on Earth, the two SHIELD agents on surveillance duty debate over whether or not they should call it in to base, with one of them asking if there's a renaissance fair in town. When they finally radio it in, the agent says "we've got Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood here... oh, and some Lord of the Rings looking dude headed your way." This line was particularly funny for me since I had thought that Thor's female friend looked like Xena from the very beginning of the film.

Finally, when in possession of Mjolnir, Thor seems a little too powerful. The action scenes are certainly spectacular; there's something very satisfying about seeing a superhero smash things with a supernatural hammer, and they even managed to make Thor's ability to fly by spinning his hammer not seem ridiculous. But there are no clearly defined limits to his powers (to be fair, this is a problem that's inherent in the comic book itself). By making a superhero nearly omnipotent, a writer is forced to resort to increasingly absurd ways to challenge the character. This happened with Peter Petrelli in the first two seasons of the TV show Heroes. Petrelli had the ability to acquire and retain the superpowers of any nearby "specials". By the end of the second season it became apparent that the writers themselves couldn't remember the growing roster of Petrelli's abilities when they had him struggle to remove a vault door using his psychokinetic powers rather than have him simply walk through it using a power he had acquired earlier in the season.

No, I'm still not buying it

If the writers of The Avengers aren't careful, having Thor team up with Captain American, who's merely an enhanced human, or the armor-wearing Tony Stark will make as much sense as DC Comics' Justice League lineup. What's the point of keeping around heroes with limited superpowers (e.g., Aquaman, whose primary power is communicating with marine life) or no superpowers at all (e.g., Batman) when you have characters like Superman (who can fly, has super strength, has X-ray vision, etc.) or Green Lantern (who can conjure up just about anything he can think of with his power ring)? You'd think that whenever something really dangerous popped up, heroes like Thor or Superman would finally tell their comrades that they should just go back to the safe life of fighting muggers, mob bosses, and international terrorists and leave the Cosmic Threat To All Life In The Universe to the big boys.

Mjolnir: useful for those times when you have to drive a nail into granite

These flaws notwithstanding, Thor really is a fun film. My wife (i.e., the one who keeps giving chick flicks a chance but in the end seems to prefer movies like I, Robot (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), etc.) really enjoyed the movie and is now looking forward to Captain America.

Warhammer 40,000 and The Sixth Circle of Nerdom

On Friday night I played my second game of Warhammer 40,000. This time we played a 1,000 point game as opposed to the 350 point game we played the first time (each individual figure has a point value; higher numbers mean more figures and/or more powerful figures). This time around my friend didn't pull (too many) punches and gave himself what he called a "Godzilla" army of Tyranids (giant Xenomorph-like aliens that are very hard to kill). Of course he swept my Space Marines off the board, but I managed to take out 700 points of his army (not too bad for my second game). I would have done a lot better but I made a few serious tactical errors and I had a horrible run of dice throws at a crucial moment. However, the fact that I wasn't absolutely slaughtered was encouraging and I became even more committed to enhancing my nerd status.

Welcome to the Seventh Circle
There are, of course, several different levels of nerdom; like Dante's Inferno, you could probably divide it into seven circles. Playing role-playing games (RPGs) and games like 40K has to place one in at least the sixth circle (online versions don't count; it has to be live with cards, books, figures, and/or dice). I imagine the seventh circle is reserved for those who actually dress up as their favorite characters or wear costumes from their favorite franchises.

Anyway, having determined to fully enter the sixth circle, I went to the local gaming store on Saturday to check out their prices on 40K models, rulebooks, and painting supplies. The store was filled with several people playing various games, including two individuals who were enthusiastically involved in some sort of card- and dice-based fantasy game. The gaming store setting (which was as cluttered and musty smelling as you would expect) and the patrons' clothing, mannerisms, and banter proved two things to me: 1) that Big Bang Theory rarely exaggerates in its depiction of its characters and 2) that there exists at least one place in the world that can overwhelm even me with pure, unadulterated geekiness. I almost laughed when one player's cell phone rang. His ringtone? Duel of the Fates from Star Wars: Episode I.

Star Wars is well represented in the Seventh Circle

After determining that had better prices than the game store, I went to a nearby HobbyTown USA. While their selection of 40K models and books was minimal, their variety of paints, brushes, and other supplies was excellent. Once I get June's allowance (I've talked about our allowance system before) I'll probably buy the 40K starter set, complete with basic rulebook, dice, and a generous number of figures, on I can easily get the the paints and hobby supplies I need from HobbyTown. Unfortunately, it looks like the cost of getting into Warhammer 40,000 will initially be on par with that of collecting Lego Star Wars sets, although I expect it to taper off once I have the specialized rulebooks (a.k.a., codices) and a painted army or armies. I'll probably be enlarging my armies with special characters and vehicles over time, but the makers of 40K don't release new models at nearly the same rate that Lego does. Each addition or change to game pieces requires revision of the various codices, which would bring on the ire of the players.

This scene is roughly the same no matter where you go

Whenever I start to think that it's expensive to be a nerd these days, I remind myself that my more normal friends have motorcycles, over-sized trucks, and snowmobiles. I bet I could have a really awesome 40K army for the cost of a cheap motorcycle.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Warhammer 40,000

I really didn't need a new hobby. I really do collect enough things: superhero and Godzilla toys, Star Trek books, Star Wars books and comics, etc. And my computer is loaded with wallpapers, icons, and sound clips from more geeky franchises than is healthy.

Swords, battle axes, and hand cannons: it's The Future!

For the past six months or so, the coworker who built my current computer has been trying to get me interested in the sci-fi tabletop game Warhammer 40,000 (a.k.a., 40K). My friend has been playing the game for years, but has had a hard time finding someone else to play with. Last year he started very subtly by dropping hints about working on a "special Christmas present". Then, knowing that I'm an inveterate sci-fi fan, he started discussing the backstory of the game and of the various armies. This culminated in him lending me the specialized rulebook for the "Black Templars" Space Marine chapter. Along with descriptions of various playing pieces, the rulebook was filled with an elaborate history of the Black Templars. Finally, I agreed to play the game.

A Black Templar
40K originally started as an ornate tabletop strategy game in which players build and paint their own figures and assemble customized armies. The game doesn't have any sort of board; any tabletop will do. Movement and weapons range are limited only by distance, making the use of a tape measure necessary. Characters, vehicles, and weapons have certain point values that indicate accuracy and power, close-in fighting ability, armor strength, etc. The figures are all highly customizable by the player, meaning that no two armies will be exactly the same. During the game, players maneuver their armies into position. Once close enough to begin combat, dice are rolled repeatedly to determine whether one figure is able to shoot another, whether that hit actually damages the target figure, and whether or not the targeted figure is protected by its armor. The figures' point values are used to weight the results obtained with the dice (a relatively high Ballistics Skill value of four, for example, means that a roll of only three or higher on a six-sided die is needed to hit the target). This is a basic description of long-distance fighting; there are other rules for close-in fighting.

Yes, he's carrying a chainsaw that's used as a sword

Originally, I wasn't interested in playing the game. Despite the fact that I've been an irredeemable nerd for as long as I can remember, I've never been interested in complicated strategy games like 40K. I had never even played a role-playing game (RPG) until grad school when a fellow graduate student convinced me to participate in a Star Wars RPG (the three or four times we played were actually pretty fun). So, as I was driving to my friend's house last Saturday, I was trying to come up with a good way to say that I didn't think that the game was for me, although 40K's backstory was interesting to me as a sci-fi fan and that I might read some of the 40K novels. When I arrived, he had prepared a small army of Raven Guard Space Marines and another of the Tau (an alien race). He patiently walked me through the rules and explained the tactics. Because of how he arranged the armies (and due to a few tactical "errors" on his part), I absolutely clobbered him. Before I left, he showed me the hundreds of game figures he's built over the years and generously gave me an unpainted Black Templar army.

Dreadnoughts are operated by severely wounded
Space Marines and serve as their life support system

Now I'm cursing my friend's name for introducing me to Warhammer 40,000. Not only did I enjoy the game, but I discovered on Saturday that 40K seemed to be designed for me. I loved building model airplanes when I was young; now I look forward to building and painting Warhammer 40,000 armies. And the way that the game replicates real aspects of combat strategy is very appealing since I've long been a military history enthusiast. Finally, the 40K universe seems to be aimed at a subset of geeks of which I am a part; it has a dystopian future in which humanity views its own technology with superstitious reverence and awe (similar to Asimov's Foundation series), a pseudo-medieval human society that has revived the Gothic style and which even outfits its elite warriors in suits of armor that resemble the most ornate varieties produced during the Dark Ages (despite their ancient appearance, the suits are actually power armor similar to that found in military sci-fi stories like Heinlein's Starship Troopers), an elaborate backstory that is on par with the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Space Marines who have a Klingon-like zeal for war and honor, a variety of alien and corrupted human adversaries, and even a host of demonic creatures inhabiting 40K's equivalent of hyperspace that would seem familiar to any fan of the early sci-fi horror of H.P. Lovecraft.

A Space Marine army and an Ork army

I really didn't mean to end up with a new obsession. But my friend was really persuasive and the product he was pushing was very appealing...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Kids and Fantasy Violence

Yesterday afternoon I watched an episode of Mythbusters with my daughters. The episode tested the truth of the saying 'to slap some sense' into a person. They established their baseline by putting Grant through an obstacle course testing both cognitive abilities and reflexes and, later on, by putting Tory and Kari through a shooting range used for police training. After getting their baseline, they then impaired their performance by spending thirty minutes in a freezing room (Grant) or by combining sleep deprivation, fasting, and a thirty minute chill (Tory and Kari) and then repeating the test. Finally, they repeated the impaired test except that they slapped the person once across the face with a bungee-powered slapping machine beforehand. In all three cases the slap significantly compensated for the impairment, although they still fell short of their baseline. Apparently the slap initiated the fight-or-flight instinct that caused the improvement.

We got to see this over and over again in slow-motion

Later that evening, my older daughter and I watched Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In that particular episode, Anakin Skywalker's apprentice, Ahsoka, found herself and three other Jedi trainees being hunted by trandoshans (an intelligent reptilian species). The episode contained the typical amount of violence seen in the series: several characters were shot, the Jedi slammed trandoshans into boulders and bulkheads with the Force, characters kicked and punched each other, and two characters fell to their deaths (with one of them actually becoming impaled on a stalagmite).

Wookies and trandoshans have never gotten along

Later on I asked my daughter if she liked watching Mythbusters and if she thought it was funny when the mythbusters were being slapped by the machine. She thought about it for a moment and then said that the episode was okay but that she didn't like that Tory, Kari, and Grant were being hurt and that she had felt bad for them. When I asked if she liked the episode of The Clone Wars she got very excited and talked endlessly about how much she enjoyed it when the Jedi and the wookies were beating up the trandoshans. In fact, I believe that nearly all the trandoshans were dead by the end of the episode.

My daughter's reaction to the two different shows reminds me of a very interesting book I read several years ago called Killing Monsters. The book's subtitle declares that "children need fantasy, super heroes, and make-believe violence". The author, Gerard Jones, argues that children can generally distinguish between real violence and fantasy violence and that fantasy violence helps them to cope with the frightening things around them while also serving as an outlet for aggressive emotions. Jones goes even farther and suggests that children who are not allowed to relieve these emotions through make-believe violence may later seek out more realistic forms of it; e.g., extremely violent films and music, animal cruelty, or even by the infliction of it on their peers or family.

Several times I've seen parents or teachers get whipped into a panic because some preschool-aged boy pointed his finger at another child and said "bang, I shot you". Several cases of a "zero-tolerance policy" run amok have made nationwide news, with kids getting suspended from school for normal childhood behavior such as having a "simulated weapon" (this can include "finger guns" and inch long G.I. Joe action figure guns). It's as if these adults have completely forgotten that generations of children have pretended to shoot, stab, or bludgeon each other (some of the earliest identifiable toys were wooden swords used by Roman children) without becoming murderous psychopaths. One of Jones' strongest arguments is that the common presence of realistic toy guns among the baby-boomer generation didn't result in an epidemic of actual violence. And I think I can guarantee that the very adults responsible for many of these ridiculous zero-tolerance policies laughed years before when, as children watching Saturday morning cartoons, they saw Elmer Fudd blast Daffy Duck's beak off with a shotgun.

Although the mythbusters took the slaps in good humor, they obviously didn't enjoy them and my daughter didn't like watching real people get hurt. At the same time, she enjoyed the fantasy violence of Star Wars and later pretended that Son of Atomic Spud and I were Sith Lords and that she was slashing us up with a lightsaber. I wish that more adults were as mature about make-believe violence and as capable of distinguishing it from real violence as most children are.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Just to Show that I'm Not a Commercial Shill...

In my review of the Green Lantern toys, I said that I wanted to get a Hal Jordan Green Lantern figure. Well, the Green Lantern action figures finally arrived at our local Walmart and my wife picked up the figure I wanted. The next time I accompany her to the store, I might just check out the other ones. From the back of Hal Jordan's box, it looks like they've also released Sinestro in his Green Lantern outfit.

Supervillains always seem to have more fun

In the comics (and I assume in the film as well) Sinestro was Hal Jordan's mentor. Of course any comic book character named "Sinestro" is going to end up as a supervillain sooner or later. After he used his ring to inspire fear and was banished, Sinestro returned with a yellow power ring that was effectively immune from the Green Lanterns' green rings. I wonder if this is going to be shown in Green Lantern or if it's going to be saved for a sequel.

Will two Green Lantern figures really be enough?

I don't know if Mattel sold any more Green Lantern merchandise because of my blog post, but they at least got a few bucks from me.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Shakedown Socialism Was Right

Do you think that communism is dead? Do you think that Oleg Atbashian's fear that American unions are trying to veer our country towards communism is misplaced? Only a couple hours after posting my review of Atbashian's book, I came across this article: "SEIU drops mask, goes full commie".

Is this one even old enough to
know what real communism is?

That's right, a rally on May Day (i.e., the communist "International Worker's Day") in Los Angeles brought out the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the AFL-CIO, several teachers' unions, and organizations like the Communist Party, USA and the Young Communist League.

SEIU purple alongside communist red; seems about right to me

Did you know that the SEIU spent more money on Obama's 2008 election campaign than any other organization and that the SEIU president is a frequent visitor to the White House? If it's true that you can 'judge a man by the company he keeps', what does this say about Obama?

This assembly was not unusual; unions and socialist/communist organizations are often found walking side-by-side in such rallies.

(All photos from this link)

Book Review: Shakedown Socialism

Shakedown Socialism by Oleg Atbashian

I mentioned this book last year as the product of one of my favorite political satirists and founder of the website "The People's Cube". Although I purchased the book shortly after that blog entry, only recently have I had the chance to read it.

Much of the book's content and opinion is similar to the writings of many other conservatives. However, Shakedown Socialism has a unique angle in that its author was born and raised within the Soviet Union; his observations on what is currently happening in America are informed by what he saw in Soviet Ukraine. Thus, what might otherwise be guesses or theories on the part of the average conservative writer are actually Atbashian's personal experiences.

At 124 pages of actual text, the book reads like an extended article. The author is immensely straightforward and to the point; many authors nowadays would probably have taken 200 or more pages to say what Atbashian does. Shakedown Socialism focuses primarily on the negative effects of collectivism on personal and economic freedom, with an emphasis on the influence of unions (chapter 1 is named after a Vladimir Lenin quote: "Trade Unions are the School of Communism"). While leftists decry the greed and selfishness of managers, business owners, and other "enemies", the author points out that personal greed tends to be much more rational and less detrimental to others' liberties than collective greed, which is often tainted with a mob mentality. Atbashian recognizes that the vast majority of union members are decent people, but he deplores what is being done in their name and with their dues money.

The author's primary concern is that the collectivism demonstrated by trade unions, government unions, organizations like ACORN, and others will eventually lead to a situation similar to what happened in the Soviet Union. In the USSR, such unions initially colluded with the government and aided it in growing its power. Shortly thereafter, the newly totalitarian state declared the independent unions to be obsolete and absorbed them into the state apparatus. Once part of the state, conditions and wages tended to be forced down to pre-union levels, union organizers became representatives of the state rather than of the union members, and strikes made workers "enemies of the people" (with the attendant consequences).

Shakedown Socialism is a quick read and is livened up with photos and reproductions of Soviet agitprop. Also included are some of Atbashian's images that originally appeared on The People's Cube. The author, a talented artist, actually produced propaganda for a local Party committee in the USSR. And as is apparent from both his website as well as this book, Atbashian is also a talented writer. Not only are his arguments clear and logical, but his grammar, sentence structure, and spelling are excellent. I know that it seems petty to praise these later items, but it indicates a thoroughness and care on the part of the author and his editor(s) that is too often lacking in books printed by mainstream presses (and many small publishers and self-publishers are absolutely horrible in this regard).

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden Dead

It took nearly ten years, but they finally found and killed Osama Bin Laden. Apparently CIA intelligence found him hiding out in Pakistan and a team of SEALs was sent in after him. According to
The attack on the secret compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, was preceded by months of intelligence gathering and high-level meetings within the CIA. The agency discovered the compound in August while monitoring a trusted Al Qaeda courier. Nine months later, after rehearsing the raid for a week, a unit of specially trained SEALs stormed the compound and killed the Al Qaeda leader with a gunshot to the head.
It's a shame that, for their safety and that of their families, we'll probably never know those SEALs' names. I guess they'll have to be content with being the anonymous heroes for millions of Americans.

I hope those SEALs find a little extra in this month's paycheck

Given the circumstances, it was decided to bury Bin Laden's remains at sea. Since his burial place can't be turned into some perverse shrine or pilgrimage location, I think it's a great idea. At the same time, it seems absurd to me that President Obama found it necessary to insist that Bin Laden's body was being handled according to Islamic custom (wasn't Bin Laden's terrorism supposed to be considered "anti-Islamic activity" now?). Honestly, why was this even being emphasized? Are we afraid of reprisals or something? Al Qaeda was already killing Americans before we killed Bin Laden; are we afraid that now they're really going to try to kill Americans? I'm tired of Obama pandering to our enemies.

As it is, the burial at sea has plenty of Muslin clerics questioning it. One cleric, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb, said that the method of burial "runs contrary to the principles of Islamic laws, religious values and humanitarian customs." So, was Bin Laden's murder of thousands of civilians according to "the principles of Islamic laws, religious values and humanitarian customs"? Others say that the burial at sea disrespects the Muslim practice of pointing a body's head towards Mecca. What about the 9/11 hijackers or Bin Laden's suicide bombers? Those methods of death don't exactly leave one's corpse in the position to be pointing in any particular direction. Is it just me or do these radical clerics seem to be outraged by the wrong things? I think it's a safe bet that millions of Americans and Muslims who don't want Bin Laden to be associated with their religion don't really care how the murder's corpse was dispositioned.

One final thought: although Bin Laden's death is good news for the sane people of the world, anyone who thinks that this marks the end of terrorism by Al Qaeda or its ilk is hopelessly naive. That kind of fanaticism and hatred has existed since mankind was capable of expressing it and will certainly last until the Apocalypse.

The End


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