Mixed media, Sunday 9 June 2019

Books:

  • ⭐ Squirrel Girl vol 9: Squirrels Fall Like Dominoes by Ryan North, Derek Charm, et al: I like Kraven in this series. If I were to cosplay a Marvel character…
  •  Squirrel Girl vol 10: Life Is Too Short by Ryan North, Derek Charm, et al.: Squirrel Girl will remain defined by Erica Henderson’s designs, but I’m really enjoying Derek Charm’s art now.
  • Velvet vol 3: The Man Who Stole The World by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser: Gorgeous art, tidy finale to this spy thriller.
  • Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads: I’m not steeped in the DC New Gods lore, and don’t have any attachment to Scott Free and Big Barda. So I’m probably the wrong audience for this book. I picked it up because of rave reviews, and because I like King and Gerads’ other work. I can see how other people would love this, but I found it boring.
  • In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin: Hmm. Rebus by the numbers.
  • Ms Marvel vol 10: Time and Again by G. Willow Wilson, Nico Leon, et al.: It’s fine.
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch: Extremely fast-moving parallel worlds sci-fi thriller about a man trying to get back to his wife and family. Reminiscent of Bob Shaw’s The Two Timers.
  • The Truth About Burnout by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter: Like Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, this book felt transformational to me. It feels like a lot of my reading and interestes over the last few years have touched on psychology, and organizational psychology in particular. Christina Maslach has been publishing research on burnout for 40 years. This book from 1997 is a landmark summary of what occupational burnout is, and the measured factors of its contributing factors in the workplace. This isn’t about relaxation exercises or positive thinking; this is hard research and case studies. It’s eye-opening and in many ways blindingly obvious. If you want to get a taste without reading the whole book, watch Maslach’s video below.

Films:

  • ⭐ Free Solo: Podcasts I listened to have consistently pointed out how poorly Alex Honnold behaves towards his girlfriend in this film. Are they right? I think so. Is it still a good documentary? Yes.
  • ⭐ Us: Superbly tense and subtle at the same time.
  • ⭐ Shazam: Fantastically fun and funny. Best DC superhero film since Nolan’s Batman.
  • 💩 Little: Fiona and I went to see this because we used to be in the habit of watching garbage films together, and we hadn’t done it for ages. This is garbage penned by someone who has never worked in a “company” and has never attended a “school”.
  • Wreck It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet: It’s fine. Occasional moments of brilliance, but mostly just fine.
  • ⭐ Widows: Densely textured thriller with an emphasis on drama rather than action.
  • Creed 2: Creed was never not going to have a sequel. It’s decent, but predictable and lacking the intensity of its predecessor.
  • 💩 Tomb Raider: This was never not going to happen. This was never going to be good.
  • The Silence: Stanley Tucci is always a joy to watch. But can I even remember how this ends? No.
  • ⭐ Happy Death Day: Highly satisfying Groundhog Day time-loop slasher. Funny and exciting.
  • Man On Wire: I was unexpectedly disappointed by this. It’s a competent documentary, but a lot more matter-of-fact than I’d expected.
  • ⭐ Avengers: Endgame: They stuck the landing. After watching it in the cinema twice in a week, my main impression was how very long it is. Good, yes! But I hope we can get back to some short and snappy Marvel movies.
  • 💩💩 Transformers: The Last Knight: Hoo boy.
  • 💩 Beyond Skyline: Someone had told me this was surprisingly watchable. Their standards are clearly lower than mine, and subsequent recommendations will be weighted accordingly.
  • ⭐ Baantjer: Het Begin (Amsterdam Vice): Gritty Dutch police thriller, set against a backdrop of drugs and squatters’ rights riots in the week before Beatrix’s coronation in 1980. I don’t watch many native Dutch films; I was super impressed by this.
  • ⭐ Detective Pikachu: Brilliant. If you’re happy to buy in to the world of Pokémon and cartoonish battles and stereotypical bad guys, this is utterly charming and mischievous.
  • ⭐ John Wick 3: Parabellum: This is more of a ballet or a Gene Kelly musical than a movie. The fight scenes are choreographed and filmed with stunning precision and grace. The plot and characters are just filler to join the action scenes together, but even so they’re done with a crisp, dry wit.
  • X-Men: Dark Phoenix: This is just okay, which puts it miles above Apocalypse.

TV:

  • ⭐ Little Big Lies season 1: Loved this.
  • 7 Days Out: Netflix documentary series about the immediate build-up to big events, and the people who take part in them. Variable.
  • Luther season 5: I wasn’t really feeling this. Alice Morgan was brought back too unseriously; the villains were overplayed.
  • ⭐ Star Trek Discovery season 2: This is high quality Trek, with great characters and drama, but you really have to work hard to ignore any “science” or “numbers” they throw out. Perhaps a drinking game would add value here.
  • ⭐ Game of Thrones (the whole thing, s1-8): After watching season 1 years ago, and knowing that this was an entire story designed to have an ending rather than continue indefinitely, I decided to wait until the whole thing was done. (I don’t have a great memory for plot and character details if I have to wait a year between instalments.) Fiona and I started binge-watching it just before the first episode of season 8 hit screens, and timed it so that the last episode would be available by the time we caught up. It meant we had to spend some effort avoiding spoilers, but I think it was worth it overall. It’s an amazing cinematic achievement. But it’s hard to disagree with people who thought the last episode was a betrayal. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone when you bring a big story like that to a close. The finale was an equal opportunities middle finger to everyone who had invested in their favourite characters.

Mixed Media, Sunday 24 March 2019

Films:

Dawn Wall movie poster
  • ⭐ Dawn Wall: gripping documentary (no pun intended) about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen’s 2015 ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite.
  • Captain Marvel: there was no chance I wasn’t going to love this. I’m a big fan of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s reinvention of Captain Marvel in the early 2010s.
  • Velvet Buzzsaw: a darkly stylish satire of snobbery and pretentiousness in the Los Angeles art world, grafted onto a weak but nasty supernatural revenge story. Amusingly flamboyant performances from a host of big names don’t save it.
  • 💩 The Predator: this is a very bad film. Toothless dialogue, poorly choreographed action, daft plot, zero suspense.
  • Hotel Artemis: the trailer made it look more fun. Flat characters, very little interesting funny or snappy dialog, and the near future setting was entirely pointless. An hour and fifteen minutes of setup for a couple of mediocre action fight scenes. Even if there had been a decent payoff, there’s not enough here that would have made me care about it.

TV:

  • ⭐⭐ Sharp Objects: I watched all eight episodes of this on Saturday while I was under the weather with a cold. I only paused for getting food for myself and others. This was amazingly tense and subtle. Apart from the abrupt flashback cut-aways, the background is full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of protagonist Camille Preaker’s subconscious leaking into the the world. It’s not actually a ghost story, but it’s almost presented as one.
  • Love, Death, and Robots: Netflix’s “adult” anthology series of short animated films is an impressive collection, but it is very…male. Out of eighteen episodes, only two are based on stories by women, which is not how the fantasy/horror/SF genres skew these days. Of the episodes where women take a leading role, most are still rooted in violence and gore. Helping Hand is a welcome exception, and I’m not just saying that because a friend of mine worked on it 🙂
  • The Escape Artist: tense legal thriller with David Tennant.
  • Broadchurch seasons 2 & 3: I wasn’t sure where the creators would go with this after season 1 wrapped up. Once I was well into season 2 it felt like a vital and necessary follow-up. Season 3 almost felt tacked-on: same characters, new crime! But they weave in the aftermath of the first two seasons as the B-story, and allow the familiar characters to find whatever measure of peace they’re going to get.
  • The Umbrella Academy: These character archetypes have all been done better elsewhere.
  • Secret City season 2: Not as a good as season 1, but still a high-quality political investigative thriller.

Books

  • Team of Teams by Stanley McChrystal et al.: I ran a book club at work to read through this and discuss it over the course of a month and a half. It touches on the same themes of complexity in modern organizations that Atul Gawande talks about in The Checklist Manifesto. Very interesting.
  • The Wild Storm vol 3, by Warren Ellis and John Davis-Hunt: Hmmmm…I’d been enjoying how Ellis was evolving the conflict between the characters in the first two volumes, but in this volume he seems to take a pause from the story arc to introduce a bunch of new characters and then…kill them all? Or at least most of them. It didn’t feel as vital as the first two books.
  • Nova by Abnett & Lanning: The Complete Collection vol 1: Lovely art, but the storylines were getting a bit repetitive by the end of the book.

Mixed Media, Sunday 10 February 2019

Films:

High Flying Bird movie poster
  • High Flying Bird: Soderbergh at his best, with a powerful script about race, wealth, sport and passion. Compelling and subtle.
  • How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World: lovely cap on the trilogy. The bad guy was kinda meh, and the comedy more subdued, but it makes up for it with gorgeous animation and a sweet, emotionally resonant story.
  • Thoroughbreds: Deadpan murder girls. Not a comedy, more of a Hitchcockian tension-building thriller. Anyone with a teenage daughter should be suitably wary.

Books:

  • ⭐⭐ Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker: potentially life-changing, as previously mentioned
  • 💩 Gathering Prey by John Sandford: dull. The last 200 pages are essentially a single shootout scene. The “Prey” books are at their best when protagonist Lucas Davenport is investigating and executing political manoeuvres. This has practically nothing of either. The only redeeming factor is that Davenport’s daughter Letty gets some good protagonist time. She needs her own spin-off series.
  • All-new Inhumans vol 1 (Global Outreach) and vol2 (Skyspears) by James Asmus, Charles Soule, André Araujo, et al: lovely art, but the characters failed to ignite my attention.

“TV”:

  • The Blacklist seasons 2,3,4,5: I kinda went on a binge during January, and finished the remaining seasons I could hoover up from Netflix. Feels like that was almost the only thing I did in my spare time in January. I continued to enjoy it, apart from the first part of season 5, in which they briefly tried to turn it into a weird buddy comedy heist show. There are some shockingly good episodes of TV in here, though, with “Requiem” in season 4 as my standout favourite (the one where we see how Mr. Kaplan became Mr. Kaplan.) They wrapped up a lot of plot threads at the end of season 5. Although there was a notional “cliffhanger” ending in which the next volume of secrets was teased, I’d be okay if I didn’t see any more. The show takes a lot of moral liberties for the sake of story, and the compromises the characters make don’t land with enough impact.
  • The Punisher season 2: follows the standard Netflix Marvel show template. Sincerely made but unremarkable. It may be superfluous to say that it’s “very violent”, but, well. I keep thinking I don’t need more shows like this in my life, and then I keep watching them.
  • The Good Place season 3: continues to be adorable, fast-paced, witty, and continues to drive the premise further and further.
  • Russian Doll: This is straight up amazing. Takes the time loop of Groundhog Day and twists it. You may think you know where this is going to go, but you’re wrong. (Or are you?) Hilariously funny — I laughed out loud while watching this through headphones and my iPhone on an airplane, with a stranger sitting next to me — and moving. Natasha Lyonne is a cranky whirlwind, and a sheer joy.

Podcasting:

  • The Dream season 1 was a fascinating deep dive into multi-level marketing, and the people who take part in it.
  • The most recent episode of Willa Paskin’s Decoder Ring, The Grifter has some nice parallels with Jason Scott’s recent instalment about Robert Hoquim. In it he refers to an old (2015) episode of Reply All, The Man In The FBI Hat. These three episodes make for a fascinating look at con artists, and why they make for such engaging stories.

Mixed Media, Monday 31 December 2018

Book cover for Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen

Books:

  •  Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen could not be any further up my alley. Kangaroo is a wise-cracking spy with a unique and completely unexplainable superpower: the ability to open a hole to a pocket universe where he can store all sorts of convenient tools and gadgets. His last mission didn’t go so well, the secret intelligence department he works for is being audited, and they want him out of the way for a while, so they send him on a vacation cruise to Mars. Of course, the cruise doesn’t go as expected, and Kangaroo gets pulled into a web of deceit, murder, and romance. It’s fabulous, and I loved every page. Even better: there’s a sequel!
  • Turn The Ship Around by L. David Marquet is a management book that tells how the author took the submarine he was put in command of from the bottom of its group rankings to the top, by pushing authority and decision-making power as far down the traditional pyramid hierarchy as possible. I happen to work in an industry and organization where some of the lessons in the book are the norm already, but there is still a lot to learn from here.
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells — first novella in the “Murderbot Diaries” series about a security robot who has hacked its own behaviour governor so that it can spend more time watching TV shows. It’s fun, though not as comical as the premise might suggest. We have the rest of the series in ebook, and I plan to read more.
  • Domino vol 1: Killer Instinct by Gail Simone, David Baldeon et al. I like the art. The story is okay, but it jumps around a bit too much, and doesn’t land the thematic punches very cleanly.

Films:

  • Mortal Engines Meh
  • Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Meh
  • 💩The Meg Sometimes you just find yourself in the mood for a Jason Statham film. Skip this one.
  • Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse Awesome! Want more of this.

TV:

  • Travelers season 3: Oh wow. They actually ended it. Wrapped up. Three seasons and done, with an ending that might not be what we want, but that makes narrative and emotional sense. I’m sad that it’s over, because I love these characters and would gladly watch more of their stories. But too many shows feel like they draw out their main arc with filler episodes that don’t lead anywhere. Travelers doesn’t have room for much of that.
  • The Blacklist season 1: Case in point. I actually do rather like this, but it’s really obvious that it’s going to be a never-ending race to peel layers off an infinite onion. How (or if) the characters evolve will determine whether I stick with it for longer.
  • Colony season 2: Feels like it’s treading water at times, but by the end of the season the cast has been through a wringer. I understand that it got canceled after season 3, but I don’t know if the writers were able to wrap it up in the final episodes. Hmm.

Sound and vision

Not long after we moved house in 2008 I bought a lovely big screen TV: a 46″ Panasonic TH-46PZ85EA plasma that has made me very happy. (At the time it seemed (was) enormous, but over time I’ve come to think that I could have gone a liiiittle bit bigger. With the smaller bezels on TVs these days a 50″ model would probably take up less space, and maybe a 60″ wouldn’t look out of place. Until OLED displays get better and cheaper, I still prefer plasma to LCD. Panasonic are going to stop making plasma screens, maybe 3D is just a fad, and I really don’t want a “smart” TV. I just want a dumb monitor with awesome picture I can plug smart things into. So maybe the time is coming to upgrade while I still can…)

What has been lacking from this lovely viewing experience is sound. The layout of our living room doesn’t allow for a surround sound setup. A good set of stereo speakers would fit, though, and that would also allow me to play music downstairs on something other than tinny iPod/iPad plug-ins. So just before Christmas I went on the hunt for some speakers, which inevitably led me to a search for an AV receiver, which turned out to be the trickier problem. The cabinet on which our TV stands has slots that are tall enough for a game console or a cable STB, but full-size AV receivers are enormous. I had to look for a “slim” model, which immediately cut back on choice.

I’m not an audiophile. I knew that anything I chose would sound an order of magnitude better than the Panasonic’s unremarkable built-in speakers. (A bit like getting an SSD to replace a spinning metal hard disk.) So although I read a whole bunch of reviews, my selection eventually came down to price and features. At least 5 HDMI inputs was a hard requirement, because I’m anticipating hooking up at least a PS4, XBox One, cable box, and an Apple TV over the next few years, and every now and then I’ll probably want to plug in my laptop or something else as well. YPbPr component video input was also a must-have, because we haven’t moved up to an XBox One quite yet, and I still need to hook up the 360. And we still have a Wii, so a legacy composite video input was also necessary.

Built-in wi-fi and Airplay streaming were unnecessary, because I had a spare Airport Express that would bridge the house wireless network to wired ethernet, and I’d be plugging in an Apple TV for Airplay. The aforementioned room layout meant that 7.1 channels instead of 5.1 and various high-end Dolby Pro Logic features were not selling points for me. I can’t see me getting a 4K TV any time in the next few years, so 4K support was also irrelevant. On the other hand, upconversion (as opposed to upscaling) from SD analog to HD digital was something I realy wanted, because I liked the idea of running a single HDMI cable from the receiver to the TV, not a different set of wires for each type of video.

When price is a consideration, it definitely makes sense to look at previous years’ models, because the receiver I eventually settled on was the Marantz NR1603, rather than the more recent NR1604. The NR1603 doesn’t have 4K like the NR1604, and only has 5 rear HDMI inputs instead of 6 (both with 1 front HDMI), but because it’s older it’s also significantly cheaper. For speakers, I got a pair of Wharfedale Diamond 122s. The Marantz doesn’t have the outputs for bi-wiring them, but they fill the room with a sweet enough sound anyway (not an audiophile, remember).

The first time I plugged it all together and played a movie through the new setup, my reaction was: “Wow! Stereo separation!” The receiver’s on-screen UI is fiddly, the remote control is ridiculous, and the iOS app for controlling it remotely just flat-out sucks ass, but once everything is configured it’s great. Games and video are much richer experiences with good sound; toggling from the stereo speakers to the TV’s built-ins shows what a difference it makes. I’m looking forward to enjoying this new arrangement for many years to come.