Saturday, 27 August 2016

Coming around to the Fast and the Furious saga

Like many bien-pensant movie fans, I've spent the last fifteen years laughing derisively whenever the subject of The Fast and The Furious came up. They featured some not particularly excellent actors, and seemed with each installment to add yet another action star, Expendables-style, to the roster, and another dumb variation on the original name (2Fast 2Furious! Fast 5! Furious 7!).

Graphs like this didn't help, frankly

And yet...

I recently broke down, since I saw that Netflix had the first three movies on streaming. I'd actually seen parts of the original movie on TV a few years ago, and part of the seventh on the plane last year, so I was curious about a number of things, like how they'd gone from that original film to the set-pieces and exotic locales of the latest. And I was curious how they would see of Paul Walker's character, following the actor's death in 2013 while Furious 7 was in production.

I can also blame my youngest sister, who revealed to me when Furious 7 came out that she'd seen and loved all of the movies. Since she has a master's degree in English from Oxford, how can I argue with an endorsement like that?

So yeah, not only did I mainline (heh) the first three movies, I then rented the fourth through sixth movies on Amazon and caught the seventh on HBO Go. This all took me about ten days, with my lunch breaks devoted to watching a bit at a time, and then catching a bit more while watching dinner after work.

It was kind of tough going at times, I'll admit. 2Fast 2Furious, to me, is easily the worst of the bunch, badly acted and poorly scripted, with holes in logic large enough to drive a fleet of Skylines through. There were similar problems with the third installment, Tokyo Drift, but I actually liked that one a lot.

The problem with criticizing those aspects, though, is that the movies are just so damn fun. The first one starts with a truck-jacking run by three souped-up Civics, and the filmmakers double down on the car-related capers in each film, to the point that by Fast & Furious, the confusingly named fourth installment (and the start of FF's imperial phase), you can't help but laugh with joy at what they're doing. It could be Walker and Diesel dragging a safe through the streets of Rio, or it could be Dwayne Johnson knocking out a military chopper with nothing but a gatling gun ripped from a downed predator drone, but it makes you happy.

Yes, this is The Rock firing a gatling gun at a helicopter. What's your point?

Another thing that sets these movies apart from other recent action movies is the relationships between all the characters. The first traces Paul Walker's undercover cop being drawn in by Vin Diesel's "family", composed of siblings, lovers, neighbors - all folks united by their love of ten-second cars. By the end Walker and other actors collected over the course of the saga (like Ludacris and Dwayne Johnson) are also part of the family, joking around with each other in ways you rarely see in ensemble flicks - the Avengers movies are dour and dysfunctional in comparison with this crew.

Related is the fact that each movie does a good job of showing its characters' joy. Weak as it is, Tokyo Drift is the first film where I put my finger on this aspect - there's a scene late in the second act, where Lucas Black is driving with his love interest along a mountain road at night. They're relaxed, talking about their childhoods, while the wide shots have a convoy of sports cars drifting left and right along the road's hairpin turns, in such perfect unison that they look like a single organism.

But even as early as the first movie you can see this joyfulness. Paul Walker's just lost his first race against Vin Diesel, and badly, but he's in the mob of fans congratulating Diesel on his win, and despite losing his car Walker's got this broad, goofy grin on his face - I once heard Walker referred to as "possibly the worst actor of his generation", but it's hard to see it in that single scene. And it carries on through the seventh movie, where you have the entire crew joking and teasing as they prepare to parachute their cars out the back of a plane over a remote mountain pass in Azerbaijan (of all places).

It was also nice that they gave Paul Walker's character a decent send-off at the end of Furious 7, almost breaking the fourth wall for us to share in celebrating what the actor meant to them as characters and us as viewers. I'm curious what they plan to do with the character, if anything, in the forthcoming eighth installment; the best would be leaving him out of further adventures, rather than using the character's death as an inciting incident to set Vin Diesel and the others on their latest quest, but we'll see.

I will, anyway - in the theaters. Probably not on opening day, but hopefully with my sister in tow, a new set of silly films for us to bond over.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Naturalism of Stranger Things

Like pretty much everybody else in America, I've now finished watching Stranger Things on Netflix (or rather, binged watched it over the course of three days). I'm not really looking to discuss the plot, but I'd also like to be able to talk about whatever I want, so here's your warning:

Anyway, how about all that 80s goodness? I guess I should admit up top here that I'm actually kind of nuts for stuff from that decade - I've recently been looking (not always successfully) for action movies from the 80s on Netflix, after having caught Rambo II and III in close succession, and watched The Running Man not long after that. Also, Back to the Future is one of the few movies I own, and it's hard to get more 80s than that.

So it was fun to see something that looked a lot like my childhood, and did so without (to my mind) being excessive. Sure, I did think when they introduced Sheriff Hopper that they were taking the Stephen King references a little too far by casting someone for the role who looked way too much like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but David Harbour actually managed to do so much with the role that by the end of Day One of my viewing (when I was wrapping up the fourth episode) I'd forgotten about that association.

It's also true that sometimes the visual references back to other shows or movies could be distracting - when Mike and the gang are walking along the tracks looking for the gate, I want to be thinking about what's happening, rather than thinking, "Oh, right, Stand By Me." But I suppose that's the danger in creating something that unashamedly parades its influences for the audience.

In my opinion, that's why the show was so successful - people will usually respond favorably to things that are a melange of stuff they know, as long as the mixing is done well and doesn't follow the source material too slavishly. It's why Super 8, JJ Abrams's attempt at a similar homage to the 80s and to Steven Spielberg, was less successful - Abrams made everything look and feel too much like The Goonies mixed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and didn't end up having the space to make the audience care about the characters.

Another reason is that Stranger Things also feels like an artifact of its time. Much like Drive, which felt like a lost 80s Michael Mann film of the type you might find randomly channel-surfing on a Sunday afternoon, Stranger Things looks and sounds and feels like a story that's been sitting around since 1984, which we've only just noticed now.

No matter the fact that they hired the super-recognizable Winona Ryder as the put-upon single mom (another 80s sci-fi archetype, btw), or that most of the cast hadn't been born yet - the kids' faces are of the type that you'd have seen back then, and they're engaging in behaviors that would get modern-day parents sent up the river by child services (like, you know, swearing and riding bikes on their own).

That casting is extremely important, incidentally. I noticed it while I was watching (and it's one of the things that Super 8 got mostly right too), but the changes in casting policy for kids didn't hit home for me until just a few days later, when I watched The Amazing Spiderman, the 2012 reboot featuring Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.

Andrew Garfield doesn't look or sound 17 in Spiderman, and the reason for that is that he was 29 when it came out. Even Emma Stone was 24 despite playing Peter's classmate Gwen Stacy. There are probably advantages to casting older actors, but I found myself being pulled out of the movie at times when Peter smiled and looked like a guy well past drinking age.

Although that's the nature of film-making now, isn't it? Verisimilitude isn't as important as getting butts in seats, and if it takes name stars who are 12 years older than the characters they play, then studios are probably happy to do it.

But I'm getting off topic. The casting was one of things that the Duffer Brothers got so, so right, along with the music and dialogue and references, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens in Season 2.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Second Season Syndrome

Just finished Season 2 of Daredevil, and over the last 13 episodes, I've been struck by the odd idea that second seasons of shows are typically the best of all.

It shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it's something that had never occurred to me before. In this specific case, Season 1 of Daredevil was focused on setting the scene, with Matt Murdock not donning the red suit until the very end of the season finale. This led to a lot of stuff that we saw play out in Season 2, like the Hand and more of the Kingpin's machinations, but whereas getting through Season 1 was kind of a slog, I couldn't get enough of Season 2 - to the point that I've been watching two episodes a day this week.

I can think of a few other examples, like the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek: TOS, Justified or (more controversially) the Wire. I can also think of a few counter-examples, notably Heroes, which apparently turned into a real stinker in its second season.

But thinking about it, I believe that improving in the second season or iteration is a lot more common for TV shows than other media. The "difficult second album" or "shitty sequel" is almost axiomatic for music and movies - in the case of the latter, a band or artist that's emerged with a singular vision that they developed over years is suddenly expected to hit it big again in vastly different circumstances, while for movies a sequel is usually driven by similar dynamics in that the studios and financiers want more of the same.

Where TV shows have the edge, I believe, is that by being serialized they're expected to continue, and lead on to bigger and better. A hit CD or movie or novel, as I said, emerges from nowhere and makes everyone fall in love with it, but generally speaking stands on its own. JRR Tolkien took so long to write The Lord of the Rings because he probably never expected The Hobbit to be so resonant (and yeah, WWII-related paper shortages and bombings likely also helped).

A TV show, by contrast, has the time (unless it's a real stinker from the start) to figure out its strengths and weaknesses, and calibrate accordingly, both across a single season and across multiple seasons. To cite the Big Bang Theory again, the first couple episodes are pretty painful to watch, thanks to some weird gender politics and treatment of socially awkward types. But as the relationships fleshed out, the season ended strongly, and when it came back for Season 2, the show fired on all cylinders until about the middle of Season 3, when Penny dumped Leonard.

Or, in the case of a show that starts well, the second season allows the writers to expand on the universe. This is the case with Justified, where the Crowder storyline from the first season expands out to include other characters from Harlan County, like the Bennett Clan, who insinuate themselves into proceedings for the rest of the show (or at least, through to Season 5, which is as far as I've gotten).

Similarly with the Wire, the second season allowed the creators to show that it wasn't simply about cops and drug dealers, by showing how the decay and hopelessness of the West Baltimore projects was mirrored in the destruction of the dockworkers' livelihood.

Of course, not all shows improve in the second season - Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't get good until Season 3, and Grimm, as I've said, plodded along as a kind of guilty pleasure until the end of Season 4 when the writers decided to throw everything out the window and go apeshit. Others, like the aforementioned Heroes, are so perfect in the first season that they can never live up to that early promise - or they write themselves into a corner with an overarching plot that gets too convoluted to ever resolve.

Daredevil, pleasingly, managed to open out its universe in ways that felt right, and if the overall plot was more disjointed than in Season 1, it just all felt much more assured. What I'm a little concerned about is Season 2 of Mr. Robot - the first season felt so perfectly done, and went to such interesting places, that I have trouble imagining how they top it.

Because that's what you're meant to do in creative endeavors - or really anything. Doing a great job at first is wonderful, but once you show what you can do you're held to that standard for ever after. Satisfying customers is simple, but not easy, because it involves doing the same thing, but better. So I'll be checking out reviews and ratings for this new season of Mr. Robot - fingers crossed.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Euro 2016 and the End of History

So, my title this week may be a little melodramatic, but that phrase has been bouncing around in my mental space a lot recently (interestingly enough in the context of the Brexit vote at the end of June, which I'm still processing). In any case, another European Championships has come and gone, and we've added a new nation to the club of winners.

Ronaldo's tears

Call me sentimental, but there's something ineffable somehow of seeing a player universally acknowledged as one of the best of the game, but who never wins anything with his country. In an odd way, I'm sad to see Cristiano Ronaldo taken off this list.

It's not so much that I dislike him, because disliking Cristiano Ronaldo is frankly a bit cliche. Everybody hates him, and part of the fun of hating him is acknowledging that he really is one of the best in the world (though I still think Messi's better overall). But when you've got a player who's that good on the field, and that arrogant off it, it seems a little unfair that he should also get to win the second-biggest prize in football.

On the other hand... part of me really did feel for him today when he had to limp off with his knee-knack. We're so used to Ronaldo's theatrics that when he's genuinely hurt and fighting to stay on, you do feel a little remorse for him. And even I found it hard not to be moved by his expression when the game ended and his team had won.


There was a lot of talk this year about the Golden Generation of the late 90s and early 2000s, the last representative of which is Ricardo Quaresma, as there is at every tournament. I think there's been a sense for a long time that Portugal has been not as good as it was in those years, and a sense of injustice that Ronaldo should come along after those older players had faded away. But now, somewhat improbably, Ronaldo's guided and inspired his nation to sporting glory, twelve years after they had it snatched from them by a Greece team that played very similarly to how Portugal played this year.

How good was the tournament, really?

There's been a lot of talk lately about how bad Euro 2016 has been. Even at the end of today's game, Steve MacManaman was parping on ESPN about what a terrible winner Portugal was, and certainly the pundits at the Guardian have been complaining about the cagey football engendered by the expanded format.

Thinking about it, though, I'm not so sure. That is to say, of course there have been some bad teams, and some cagey games - and it's hard to argue with the point that there's been a dearth of goals this year. Somebody noted on Thursday, when France was beating Germany, that there hasn't even been a hat-trick in the tournament.

But how much fun would it have been if every team had done as well as people had expected? We'd have missed out on Iceland's run (and England's implosion would have been less spectacular if it had come at the hands of any other team, frankly). At the very least, the knockout stages would have been a bit more balanced and so the final would likely have been contested by two of the same old teams - perhaps even Germany and Spain.

No, the football may not have been as scintillating as Mexico 1970, and the expanded format, with its weird rules for qualifying and for the group stage, may not be that successful. But any tournament that can give us surprises like Iceland, Wales and, at the very end, Portugal - well, we probably shouldn't discount the value of upsets and shock results.

So what's next?

And, as imperfect as the 24-team European Championships are, they'll still be better than the next two World Cups - which will take place in Russia and Qatar, respectively. If nothing else, we know that the European Championships actually get awarded to good venues, regardless of how much bribery and backhanders are going on.

And to be honest, though some are already sniffing at the 2020 format, which will be played in multiple cities across Europe to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the European Championships, I think it'll actually be great. The great advantage that Europe has over other regions is the existing infrastructure and fanbase, not to mention the relative ease of getting between venues (erm, excluding Baku, Azerbaijan, of course). Sure, there'll be some grumbling about last-minute plane or train tickets, but it actually seems nice that for once the entire continent gets to join in the fun.

I don't know where I'll be in four years, but it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility that I could get over to one of the countries hosting matches. And it'd be great to experience, once again, that feeling of watching a game and knowing that the entire city around you is doing the same. The last time I experienced that was the 1996 semi-final between England and Germany, and I think we could have it again in 2020.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Euro 2016: Some Talking Points

Four years on from the last one, two years on from Brazil 2014, I'm happy to report that the European Championships are back - I haven't been able to do a day-by-day rundown of what's happened, since I work and the matches are all broadcast early. One of the unfortunate things about watching a European tournament from the West Coast, I guess.

In any case, here are some thoughts about the tournament so far, with each team having played twice in the group stage:

Too much football
Well, it doesn't really feel that way, because I haven't been watching Copa America, but in another way, it totally feels like there's too much football on to follow. I understand it's the Copa America Centenario, but it's a little unfortunate that they decided to schedule it against the Euros. And yet, it's been entertaining seeing the results from a little closer to home (including a pretty spectacular crash-and-burn from Brazil). Also, a small part of me regrets that the African Cup of Nations isn't also on...

Goals, goals, goals?
So I was trying to decide if there had been a lot of goals scored so far, or if it's been a cagey affair. Because I'm a research analyst, and I'm trained to look at numbers and see what stories they tell, I can now report that there's actually been fewer goals per game than the past two tournaments. Euro 2016 has seen an average 1.96 goals per game, compared with 2.9 at Brazil 2014 and a whopping 3.8 at Euro 2012. There have been two 0-0 draws so far in the group stage, compared with three in 2014 and none at all (!) in 2012.

It FELT like there'd been a decent amount of goals, though, because we didn't start getting scoreless draws until just a couple of days ago, but on the whole, the games have been low-scoring. On Matchday 1 there were only three games won by a margin of more than one goal, and none in which either team scored more than two (or in which the total number of goals in a game was more than 3). As of Matchday 2 there have been a couple of 3-0 games, and a 2-2 draw, balanced out by two 0-0 results.

I haven't seen anyone refer to the number of goals yet, but some comments I've read or heard on podcasts might shed some light on why it's been so low. One issue might be the expanded format - we've gone this year from 16 teams to 24, which entails all kinds of weird permutations to determine who goes through as a third-place finisher. The extra teams means that worse teams are participating - the likes of Hungary, Iceland and Albania have been held up as teams that wouldn't have qualified under the old system. And yet... Hungary shocked everyone by beating Austria 2-0 in their first game, and Iceland have nicked a pair of 1-1 draws, playing entertainingly if not always fluidly.

The existence of third place finishing might have something to do with it too, as it appears to reward playing cagily and not conceding too many goals. And the field is still quite open, as any of the third-place teams as of now could win and go through, while only one team (Ukraine) has been definitely eliminated.

Another possible cause is the dearth of good strikers, apparently. I haven't looked at it systematically, but some of the big powers - Italy, Spain, Germany, France - don't really have any good options up front. The only big team that does have a good strike force is England, with Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy (who incidentally were the first English top-scorers in the Premier League since 1999-2000). Spain and Germany, in fact, have pretty much done away with the need for strikers, though Alvaro Morata did manage to bag two against Turkey this morning. It would be interesting to see if this holds true across all teams, and if so why, but it's Saturday night and I don't know if I have the time to go looking myself. But watch this space!

Thank gosh for streaming
The other noteworthy thing, at least for me, is that this is the first tournament I've watched exclusively on streaming. I did have to nick a Comcast profile off a friend, because my mom's moved away from the Bay Area and I can't use hers, and I also did have to get my home internet upgraded (although that's more because I'm working from home more regularly now).

In 2014 I managed to watch a lot of the games for free on through Univision's website, but they've wised up, and anyway aren't showing the tournament themselves - slightly less interest if the Copa America's on, I suppose. But it's interesting that with some strategically deployed technology and cannily downloaded apps, I can stream games to my TV and watch as normal - or log into my phone or laptop and watch them there.

Thinking back, four years ago, in England, it doesn't even seem like it would have been an option, or at least not for all matches. Even further back, in 2002, I remember having to slip unnoticed to a colleague's desk to watch Italy get knocked out on a portable TV - now I can just sign into whatever device I want and watch there. It's maybe not the most earth-shattering use case, but it does sometimes feel like all this tech isn't a bad thing.

Anyway, those are my thoughts for now - I'll be back after the group stage ends, and hopefully before the knockout round begins with some more. Or at the latest, on July 6th to think about the tournament as a whole...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Argentina Hoy

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but when I go somewhere I don't read up on it a whole lot. I try and get a sense of stuff to do there, of course, but I don't try to become an expert before I arrive. Part of it is probably the malign influence of Paul Theroux, who claims in his travel books not to read about places before he visits, so he can explore them on his own terms. It was in this spirit that I went to Argentina a couple of weeks ago.

Central Buenos Aires, day one

Why Argentina? A number of reasons - the most immediate being that my friend Sita, who writes her own blog "Buenos Aires - Life on the Edge (of a Continent)", has been living there for over a year and invited me down to visit. More generally I've also been fascinated by the place for a long time, since it's where a lot of European (and especially Italian) migration to the New World ended up, and my own grandfather ended up there after World War II, as part of the general Turkish-Armenian diaspora following the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Buenos Aires was pretty different from any other place I've been... though at the same time, parts of it looked a lot like places that I do know. Some neighborhoods looked like any part of Europe, while others were clearly Latin America. It's a country that boasts a history of immigration and diversity, a real melting pot, though the only language I heard on the street other than Spanish was Chinese (and that was only once).

I suppose the first thing that caught me off guard was the sharp division between rich and poor that exists there. This was because, on the cab ride from the airport to Sita's house in Quilmes, the first thing we passed through on leaving the freeway was a pretty wretched-looking slum. I learned that this was the villa (pronounced vee-zha, because of the weird Argentine accent), and it's Argentina's answer to Brazil's favelas - Sita and her husband Alistair said they'd heard gunshots at night once or twice, coming from the villa.

On the other hand, I have a work colleague who lives in the center of town, and her neighborhood might as well have been in Italy. Next door to her building, in fact, was a store that sold artisanal pasta and olive oil. That part of town has the stores and chains you'd recognize, as well as ones that are local, and was mostly peopled by residents who wouldn't look out of place in Turin or London.

The other interesting thing about the city was how artistic it is. The connections to Latin American writers are well-known, with Borges being referenced all over - a cafe across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery has a pretty unnerving fiberglass statue of him at one of the tables - and with poems or extracts from stories about Buenos Aires on the sidewalks in some parts of town.

The view in Recoleta

There's also a number of great museums, of which I caught one of the most famous, the Bellas Artes. It has a great collection of European works dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, and a great gallery of Argentine art as well.

Probably the most distinctive thing I experienced, though - apart from rounding a corner in a cafe on my first day and seeing a couple dancing the tango - was the Palacio Barolo, on my last night in town. It's a skyscraper named for and financed by an Italian businessman who'd come to Argentina in the 1920s, and is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The number of floors reflects the lines in each canto, and it's divided into sections of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, while also claiming to hold the mortal remains of Dante himself, removed from Italy during World War II. Everything about the place was creepy and evocative though, as we were led on our tour through its darkened corridors by a guide who'd periodically point out a sinister red-robed figure positioned at certain spots in the building.

The other thing I wasn't really expecting was the Armenian community. As I said, I knew that my grandfather had ended up there after the war, and though I didn't manage to discover where he'd been living, my colleague, Sonia, did find an Armenian school and cultural center that does weekly dinners to raise money for class trips to Armenia. It was right across the street from a theater that has the same name as my mom (Siranush), and featured home-cooked Armenian food.

So Buenos Aires, difficult though it could be (for example, trying to find a bus home to Quilmes or determining which streets were safe for me to walk around), was also an excellent introduction to South America. By the end of the week I was navigating the transit between Quilmes and Capital, and within the city proper, without undue problems, and managed to avoid getting caught by muggers or by strikers. And I got to see a little bit outside of town too, when I went to Tigre, a town on the Parana that serves as the summer getaway for Buenos Aires.

Tigre; clearly where Fitzcarraldo ended up

It might not be top of everybody's list of places to visit, but it's good to experience it for yourself - it's a bit schizophrenic but that tension of European and Latin American cultures makes it fascinating. And as Sita can attest, it's even (mostly) safe for vegetarians - though I did have a couple of decent steaks, because it's the thing you do when you go there.
Pretty damn balanced meal, no?

Thursday, 26 May 2016

RIP Darwyn Cooke

I know this comes a little late, but thought I'd share some thoughts on Darwyn Cooke's passing nearly two weeks ago. I didn't know much of his work, but what I did know was DC: The New Frontier, which I picked up a few years ago, on a whim, during a period of my life in which I wasn't really reading comics.

I'd known about it for a while, as I'd heard people mention it in the same breath as The Golden Age, another of my favorite comics stories, so when I got the opportunity to check it out, I was blown away. For a start, the art was gorgeous - Cooke's style was classic and clean, and therefore well-suited to the setting spanning from the 1940s to the 1960s.

And in terms of story, it had everything. It sat kind of within and beside canon, which gave Cooke a lot of room to play with all of the characters that he used - most heartbreakingly in the case of "John Henry", who we later see as an inspiration for John Henry Irons, the kid who grew up to become Steel. But my favorite part of the story was the way it placed each of DC's Silver Age characters in chronological order, so that Barry Allen in his story becomes the new Flash three years before Hal Jordan becomes the new Green Lantern.

For me, The New Frontier works as the middle book in a trilogy of The Golden Age and Kingdom Come, as all three deal with epochal changes affecting every character in the DC Universe. It's not as dark as those two other stories, but too much darkness wouldn't have fit with those characters and that setting - and yet I can think of no higher compliment than to rank a story among them.

More recently, I was pleased to see his name featured among the artists who worked on Batman: The Animated Series. I didn't know who Cooke was in the 1990s, when I was watching the show, and I didn't know about the connection when I read The New Frontier, but it feels right, given Bruce Timm's devotion to classic Batman adventures.

Darwyn Cooke will be sorely missed - and I look forward both to rereading The New Frontier, as well as checking out his work on books like Solo and Catwoman.