Mixed Media, Saturday 23 November 2019

So when my cough didn’t go away or improve at all after a couple of weeks, I went back to see my doctor, and almost collapsed in a coughing fit at his feet. “Ohhhh,” he said. “I recognize that. You’ve got whooping cough.” Huh.

Because I’d been suffering for a few weeks already, I was beyond the point where antibiotics would have made a difference, and also beyond the main point of contagion (good). My doctor ordered some blood tests and a chest X-ray to rule out further infections (they were clear), but the prognosis and his recommended treatment was the same as for bronchitis: rest, plenty of fluids, paracetamol and/or ibuprofen for any fever or pain.

I held off on travelling for a few weeks, but figured I was “well enough” to go back over to Edinburgh for a few days at the beginning of November. This was a mistake. I was still having coughing fits where something (a tickle in my throat, a laugh, a deep breath) would trigger me and I’d spend the next thirty seconds evacuating my lungs and gasping for air while my ears rang and my vision closed in from lack of oxygen. I tried to be unobtrusive about it, but my colleagues picked up on it anyway. Slack channels started featuring subtle messages of gentle concern like, “will people who are sick please go home and not infect the rest of us.”

On the Thursday afternoon I pulled a muscle in my belly during one fit, and found it painful to breathe and move for the rest of the day. That was the last straw. Rather than struggling through Friday like I had something to prove, I headed out to the airport in the morning to get the early flight home…only to find out it was full and I couldn’t get a seat. This is where a lounge pass comes in handy.

Edinburgh Airport – Lounge Life

“But I’m a knowledge worker!” I kept thinking. I just sit in a chair all day and type and talk to people on video calls. It’s not like I’m lifting bricks or climbing scaffolding. Turns out there’s a link between mind and body, though. And when I’m coughing so hard that I’m pulling muscles in my neck, back, belly, and chest (and once even in my eye), even sitting upright a nicely ergonomic chair all day long isn’t quite the medical definition of “rest”.

So I’ve taken some more time off work, and I think it’s working. I woke up yesterday morning not feeling like my lungs were about to ambush me. I’m still coughing hard, and I still ache all over with sore muscles, but I haven’t any uncontrollable fits for a few days now. My resting heart rate is down by 10% from a peak in October. It feels like I’m in control of the cough now, rather than it being in control of me.

Films

  • 💩 Olympus Has Fallen Die Hard in the White House, but with no sense of humour.
  • 💩 London Has Fallen The producers abandoned movie-making for this sequel in favour of videogames. It’s basically a tactical shooter, split between cut-scenes, elaborately staged quick time events, and run-and-gun sequences. Watch it with a game controller in your hands!
  • Mindhorn Comedy about a washed-up actor who played the TV show detective Mindhorn in the 1980s, who gets involved in a real case when a deluded criminal thinks it was all real. Given the premise, I was surprised and impressed by how deftly this came off. The film doesn’t rely on slapstick and cringe-worthy moments, and is much more subtle and in the end much more empathic than I’d anticipated.
  • I, Tonya Strong script! Weak special effects. The face replacement they did for the skating scenes was really bad. Didn’t even make it all the way down into the uncanny valley.
  • Parker For all the detective fiction I’ve read, I’ve never read any of Richard Stark’s Parker series, so I went into this film without any preconceptions about the protagonist. I just wanted to watch some Jason Statham. And it was really good! Where’s the sequel?
  • Ad Astra Grrr. Such mixed feelings about this. Lovingly filmed; moody, mysterious, seat-grippingly exciting in parts… But every fantastically realistic element (the washed out colours and stark atmosphere-free shadows on the moon) was let down by an equal and opposite and element of physical implausibility (Earth gravity on the moon when they’re not involved in a vehicle chase). The filmmakers set themselves such high standards that I can’t forgive them their failures.
  • The Laundromat Steven Soderbergh’s stab at the Panama Papers. Ends with a fabulous single-take Meryl Streep monologue, but the rest of the film is more of a series of (amusing) vignettes than a coherent story. Alex Winters’ The Panama Papers is a better film (documentary) about the journalists who revealed the story. I’m looking for a better documentary about the underlying fraud.
  • Zombieland Fun zom-com.
  • Terminator: Dark Fate I thought this was a lot better than people gave it credit for. It’s not a great film – but what it sets out to do, it achieves. T2 took the hunt & chase elements from the original, and added a time-bending element that allowed the humans a chance to strike back. Dark Fate goes back to a simple hunt & chase. The victory condition is nothing more than escape and survive. The action sequences are amazing, and it’s great to pick up with Sarah Connor again. Ultimately it’s “just” a good action movie, though.
  • Maleficent Excellent, sweet fairy tale retelling.
  • 💩💩 Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Way more murder, genocide, and holocaust imagery than you expect to see in an all-ages Disney fairytale film. (There’s a literal gas chamber sequence.) And some of those scenes showing the brutality and horror of war are genuinely weighty and impactful. What kills the film stone dead, though, is how little it cares about about the consequences of its own actions. Moments after the humans fall short of brutally wiping out their neighbours, everyone is holding hands and singing songs. It’s shockingly ugly, reeking of whitewashing propaganda to deny the events that just occurred under everyone’s noses. Or is that the real message of this film? Fiona and I saw this at the cinema, and I walked out feeling legit shook.

TV

  • Breaking Bad seasons 3-5 Finally caught up on this! It’s really good.
  • Better Call Saul seasons 1-4 Enjoying this as well. Masterful manipulation of sympathies. Everyone is compromised.

Mixed Media, Wednesday 9 October 2019

I’ve been sick with my old nemesis, bronchitis, for the last week or so. I went to the doctor the other day to get a salbutamol inhaler, which is helping, but recovery is slow. Feeling my age. Being 32 sucks.

It it looks like I’ve spent a lot of time watching TV and films between now and the last Mixed Media post, chalk it up to a lot of travel time in September (New York, London, Edinburgh), and most of October so far lying in bed with barely enough breath to flick through Netflix for anything better.

Films:

  • Black Mass Dull film about horrible people doing horrible crimes
  • The Panama Papers Fascinating documentary directed by Alex Winters (yes, he of Bill & Ted fame)
  • Hellboy (2019) Entirely forgettable
  • Crazy Rich Asians Fun romantic comedy!
  • The Informant! Quirky true-story comedy drama about deception heaped upon incompetence.
  • 💩The Hummingbird Project Seeing the trailer, I’d thought this was going to be quirky like The Informant!, but based on the world of high-frequency trading infrastructure Michael Lewis described in Flash Boys. It could have been, if they’d remembered to shoot the third act. Instead, the film just cuts off mid-way through some pointless scene in a barn. And the only really sequence of real wit is the one where Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård) dances down a hotel hallway to the Beastie Boys’ Do It in his dressing gown. Other than that: great cast, wasted.
  • Bad Times At The El Royale Style over substance, with a weird religious redemption message at the end
  • Dora The Explorer Surprisingly good! Okay, it’s not going to win any Oscars, but it was good clean fun, with a lot of knowing winks to the parents and older kids in the audience.
  • Brawl In Cell Block 99 I didn’t buy Vince Vaughn as a mobster in season 2 of True Detective, but he shines here as a weary but hard-as-nails force of nature. The violence in this film is viscerally brutal, and not for the faint-hearted.
  • Dragged Across Concrete Similar in tone to Brawl, S. Craig Zahler seems to have a very distinct feel for his films. Very deliberate. He likes to take his time with each scene, and lets you soak in the inevitability of the horrible situations into which he puts his characters. Gripping, but fatalistic.
  • The Equalizer I remember watching the Equalizer TV show when I was younger. I thought I remembered that the Robert McCall character (then played by Edward Woodward) had a gimmick that he didn’t like to use guns, and so relied on his wits and other weapons. Doing some cursory internet “reasearch” shows that not to be the case, so, eh. In any case, the new Robert McCall played by Denzel Washington doesn’t use guns (in this first film), unless you count nail guns. It’s a solid reluctant hero action thriller.
  • In The Shadow Of The Moon I went into this looking for a serial killer crime thriller, but turns out to be a time travel serial killer crime thriller. I’ll allow it.
  • The Equalizer 2 Not as good as the first. Shouldn’t have killed Melissa Leo’s “control” character!
  • K-12 Long music video promo thing (“emotion picture“?) Good music & choreography, terrible connecting storyline, dialogue, and acting.
  • The Great Wall Also surprisingly good! Amazing visuals and action sequences. The dialogue and themes (collectivism) feels like they came from a different (Chinese) film-making tradition, but I’m down with that.
  • The Losers Have I seen this film before? I’m sure I’ve seen this film before. I didn’t have a sense of full-blown déja vu throughout it, just an overwhelming sense of familiarity. Chris Evans (after Fantastic Four and the underrated Push, but before Captain America) in his pink T-shirt, playing both with and against his tough hero type. Zoe Saldana playing the Zoe Saldana character. The comic book graphics of the title and credit sequences… I’m sure I’ve seen this before. Maybe I’ll see it again in another 10 years and ask myself the same question.
  • Escape plan 2 Sure
  • Escape plan 3 Okay
  • 💩 The Other Guys There’s actually a good comedy in here, but it’s obliterated by the weight of misogynistic and homophobic jokes. Has not aged well since 2010.
  • 💩 Law Abiding Citizen Violent sociopath goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his family.
  • 💩 Taken 2 Violent sociopath goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his family.
  • 💩 Taken 3 Violent sociopath goes on a killing spree to avenge the death of his family. Don’t judge me, I was sick.
  • Bastille Day Idris Elba
  • Close Bodyguard thriller with all-female leads. Felt cheap, somehow. Might have just been the acting.
  • Triple Frontier Modern parable about the evil of greed and the dangers of sunk-cost reasoning.

Overall Pedro Pascal Moustache rating: 2 out of 3. (The Great Wall and Triple Frontier, but not The Equalizer 2)

Pedro Pascal and his Moustache

TV:

  • Dark season 1: German mystery series, involving serial killer(s), broken families, and time travel. With some teen characters. Felt a little Stranger-Things-ish at the beginning, but takes its sense of dread in a whole different direction. A bit slow and heavy-handed, and too many characters to keep track of in the various timelines. But good! Do not watch the dubbed version. Use subtitles like a normal human being.
  • True Detective season 3: And boom, it’s back. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff have a great dynamic together. The pattern of following the same characters through the ages probably doesn’t need a third outing, though. Just imagine season 2 doesn’t exist, and everything’s fine.
  • Mindhunter season 2: Where Season 1 belonged to Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), the emotional centre of season 2 is Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). It’s very good, but some of the plot threads felt out of balance. Wendy Carr’s storyline peters out part-way through the season, and doesn’t feature in the last episodes at all. As does whatsisname Gregg who stays back at the basement. I suppose they wanted to stick close to the real-life events of the Atlanta child murders maybe?
  • Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D season 5: Not their best season, but I liked it just fine.
  • Criminal: United Kingdom: A tight little police procedural drama – the gimmick being that the whole thing is set in a single location: an interrogation in a police station “somewhere”, the observation room next door, and the hallway outside them. Three short stand-alone episodes, each covering a different crime, linked by some lightweight drama between the police characters. A nice set-up, good for quick snacking. They re-used the same set for a Spanish, German, and French version as well – I’ll be watching them soon.

Books:

  • Principles of Applied Research Methods – Jackson, McDowall, Mackenzie-Davey, Whiting (eds). Now I know what “epistemology” means.

Cats!

Luck, coincidence, black swans

David Roberts in Vox: “The radical moral implications of luck in human life”:

How much moral credit are we due for where we end up in life, and for who we end up?Conversely, how much responsibility or blame do we deserve? I don’t just mean Kylie Jenner or Donald Trump — all of us. Anyone.

How you answer these questions reveals a great deal about your moral worldview. To a first approximation, the more credit/responsibility you believe we are due, the more you will be inclined to accept default (often cruel and inequitable) social and economic outcomes. People basically get what they deserve. 

The less credit/responsibility you believe we are due, the more you believe our trajectories are shaped by forces outside our control (and sheer chance), the more compassionate you will be toward failure and the more you will expect back from the fortunate. When luck is recognized, softening its harsh effects becomes the basic moral project.

Sonia Sodha in The Guardian: “We know life is a game of chance, so why not draw lots to see who gets the job?”:

Random selection embodies a very different conception of fairness to meritocracy. But if we accept that what we call meritocracy is predominantly a way for advantage to self-replicate, why not at least experiment with lotteries instead? Big graduate recruiters or Oxbridge courses could set “on paper” entry criteria, select candidates who meet them at random and test whether there are any differences with candidates selected by interview.

I am willing to bet that, as observed in Texas, they would do no worse. And that there would be other benefits: diversity of thought as well as diversity of demography. Quotas are often criticised for their potential to undermine those individuals who benefit from positive discrimination; everyone knows they are there not purely on merit, or so the argument goes. An element of random selection might engender a bit more humility on the part of white, middle-class men; it goes alongside being honest that meritocracy is a convenient mask for privilege.

My friend Barbara Sharp broke her back 5 years ago:

This whole experience had given me a different perspective on my life. 

I look back at the woman I was 5 years ago with a fondness and familiarity that will never go away. I loved who I was then, but I’m not the same person now. 

Luck, coincidence, black swans events. They’ve played a huge part in my life, and in shaping who I am. There’s no way Abi and I could have predicted 25 years ago what our lives would be like now. We had privilege back then, but didn’t realize it. Over time, we’ve had even more fortune happen to us, and we’ve been able to take certain life gambles that happened to pay off (quitting and taking certain jobs, having kids, moving countries). We’ve been able to put ourselves in the way of good fortune, and we’ve capitalized on the opportunities that arose.

We have even more privilege now, and we do realize it. We try to use it for good. I try to make tiny changes to earth. I haven’t read Toni Morrison’a books, but there’s a quote of hers that resonates with me:

I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’

Categories
Mixed Media

Mixed media, 11 August 2019

TV

  • ⭐⭐ Bron | Broen (The Bridge): One of the best detective thrillers I’ve seen. The plotting is exquisite: over the course of each season the show follows a ton of characters that don’t seem significant at first, but are later revealed to be part of the puzzle, like keys for a sequence of interconnected locks. The crimes and the perpetrators are extreme and byzantine, but the police investigating them are grounded and vulnerable a way that British and American TV police often aren’t. (They’re also not buff and beautiful. They feel like real humans.) Sofia Helin is brilliant as protagonist Saga Norén. There’s a scene early in season 4 where she’s shown getting dressed in her iconic leather trousers, zip-up sweater and overcoat, and driving off in her classic Porsche 911. It was like watching a superhero do their first “suit up” scene in a Marvel movie. It also made me want to watch more European detective shows.
  • Jessica Jones season 3: Good. Sad we won’t be seeing more.
  • Stranger Things season 3: Hmm. In the episode “Bouncing Back From Rejection” of his WorkLife podcast, Adam Grant interviews M. Night Shyamalan about his successes and failures. Shyamalan talks about how he likes shifting genres during a film, and how he has learned that it’s better to shift from a genre of lower emotional intensity to one of higher intensity. (Like going from a family drama to a supernatural horror in The 6th Sense.) You have to raise the stakes. This season of Stranger Things didn’t do that. We’ve got supernatural comedy/horror all the way through, but it went from dread in the first four episodes to caper in the final four. My expectations weren’t fulfilled.
  • ⭐ 💩True Detective seasons 1 and 2: Season 1: brilliant. Season 2: exactly as bad as season 1 was good. Like Star Wars prequels vs. original trilogy bad. Could the characters be any more stereotyped? Could their dialogue have been any more awkward and implausible? Was George Lucas called in as a script doctor? So much mis-casting, so much faux noir.
  • 💩💩 Another Life season 1: Cool-looking trailer, but the first episode is utter garbage. Hot, sweaty garbage. Angry “give me that hour of my life back, you bastards” garbage. Offspring of Interstellar and Arrival, stabbed in the back, and corpse left in a Dumpster to rot for three weeks in the middle of a post-apocalyptic heatwave garbage.

Books:

  • The Mighty Thor vol 1: Thunder In Her Veins, by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, et al.: Excellent
  • The Mighty Thor vol 2: Lords of Midgard, by Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, et al.: Also excellent

Films:

  • MIB International: It’s fine. Not great, but not as bad as some critics made out.
  • Rim of the World: War of The Worlds meets summer camp.
  • See You Yesterday: Starts as a lightweight kids-do-time-travel-for-science-fair, but takes a tragic and impactful turn to explore the impact of gun violence and biased policing.
  • Lego Movie 2: Fun
  • Glass: Brilliant first two acts, but stalls for the climax. Tries to open up an expanded universe; fails.
  • Prospect: Low budget science fiction drama about a girl and her prospector father looking for the one dig that will allow them to pay off their debts. It all goes wrong, and she has to team up with one of the bandits who ambushes them to fight for survival. Terrific script, fantastic drama.
  • Spider-Man Far From Home: Very cool, very fun.
  • Happy Death Day 2 U: Fun sequel! Heavier on the zany, lighter on the slasher thriller tension, and with some surprisingly deft emotional touches sprinkled throughout.
  • Fast and Furious presents: Hobbs and Shaw: Can you make a good blockbuster action movie based just on the ridiculous charisma of Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, and the (played for laughs) over-the-top hyper-masculine chemistry between them? Yes. Yes, you can.

Podcasts:

  • ⭐⭐ Against the Rules by Michael Lewis: Michael Lewis is my favourite author of non-fiction. This podcast, about “the decline of the human referee in American life and what that’s doing to our idea of fairness” is just as entertaining and insightful as his books. He’s talking not just about sports referees, but “referees” in every sense of the word: regulators, judges, arbitrators – supposedly neutral parties of every kind. It’s a fascinating blend of psychology, politics, and justice both legal and social. Highly recommended.

Cat

It seems strange that it’s such a short time, but we’ve had Rocky and Solo for three weeks now! They’re very good bois.

Rocky
Solo

They’re also not very bright.