May 2012
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Assembling

Quite a busy Memorial Day weekend we had.

OSH was having their we-pay-the-sales-tax weekend, so we went over and bought a bunch of stuff. The big items were a patio furniture set (replacing our nearing-the-end chairs that came from the townhouse), and a small shed. That meant I spent a bunch of the day putting stuff together, but it’s all done now. We also picked up an umbrella for the patio, so now it’s looking pretty spiffy. Plus we bought some cheap solar lights to accent the back yard.

We tried putting together a couple of events this weekend, a poker game on Friday night, and a barbecue today, but didn’t get enough responses in time for either one. On the other hand, we did host dinner with four of our neighbors on Saturday, which was a lot of fun. Though we ended up with way too much food as usual during these parties.

Besides that, Friday night we went out to Indian food for dinner, had brunch in Campbell and did some shopping there. Plus we’ve watched the two Iron Man films which we hadn’t seen before. Good stuff – I’ll probably write more about them this week.

I’m pretty tired now, and I still have some work to do up in the study, but it’s a good tired. We got a lot done this weekend, and had fun, too.

The Avengers

If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).

Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.

The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).

He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.

The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).

The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.

You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)

I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)

I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.

I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.

Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.

Daytripper

I made the mistake of staying up late last night to read Daytripper, the graphic novel by twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. I only say “mistake” because Daytripper is a poignant, at times heart-wrenching story of a man’s life, so I was pretty wrung out by the time I finished it.

The man in question is Brás de Oliva Domingos, who is introduced to us as a 32-year-old obituary writer. This first chapter is very much the midpoint of Brás’ life: He has a girlfriend he loves very much, a best friend he hangs out with at and after work, and he’s the apple of his mother’s eye, but he also lives in the shadow of his father – a famous writer, and an emotionally distant man – and he’s struggling to find purpose in his own life. Each of the ten chapters of the book takes us into the past or the future from this point, to show us significant events in Brás’ life.

The structural conceit of the book is that each chapter ends with Brás’ death, and a brief obituary written about him. I found this to be the weakest part of the book, as it seemed to cheapen the emotions of what had gone before in the chapter, making it seem a little too sentimental, making each chapter feel needlessly tragic. Moreover, reading into the book I often wondered how Brás’ life as he lived it to the final chapter diverged from some of the situations where he died. Sometimes he dies through mere circumstance, but other times he or someone else makes decisions which must have gone differently for him to live to other chapters. Most significantly, what happens to his best friend Jorge, which chapter has a powerful conclusion, but which I doubt Brás could have left alone in the world where he survived, but he seems to have dropped it. Filling in the alternatives to those events would have at least given the gimmick more meaning.

That detail aside, the book’s strength is in fleshing out Brás’ life chapter by chapter, starting with his age 32, backing up to show what sort of a man he was to get to that point, and then stumbling forward into how he matures (with a brief aside to his childhood). While Daytripper has some overtones of magical realism, the story overall is more grounded, and the brothers do a wonderful job of painting a picture of the characters and their emotions. In particular we see Brás going from a wide-eyed innocent to a world-weary, almost defeated young man, to a more mature man shaping his own life. But we see all the frustration and joy he experiences along the way, and that’s where the book’s magic really comes from.

(His friend Jorge has a story arc which plays off of Brás’ own story, and which is nearly as powerful, considering he has much less screen time.)

But as with any story which follows a person’s life all the way through, the ending is melancholy (and punctuated with a moment of similar sadness at the end of each chapter). Though it’s to the creators’ credit that they build a character that we’re invested enough in for it to have so much of an impact. Especially when staying up late at night.

I’ve seen Moon and Bá’s art from time to time (notably on Matt Fraction’s Casanova, and Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy), but their work here is far better than I’ve seen before: The art is more detailed, the faces more individual, and the expressions more nuanced than I’ve seen from them before. (Their art styles are so similar I can’t tell who draws which story, and they’re only credited jointly.) Maybe they’ve just become better artists since that earlier work, or maybe they just put their all into this project of theirs.

While Daytripper left me feeling melancholy, and I thought it did have some storytelling flaws, it’s still a terrific graphic novel, and well worth your time and money.

Newton & Blackjack Update

Since I know people are interested, here’s the latest news on Newton and Blackjack:

Newton went in for a blood test yesterday, a month after his last one. I got the call from the vet this afternoon and she says all his blood work is basically the same as last month, which is good! His indicators are all in the normal range or very close to it. She wants him to continue on his current regimen of drugs and subcutaneous fluids (which is a bit of a bummer since I’d hoped we could cut back on a few of them) and we’ll re-check him in 3 months if he remains stable.

He’s also gained 0.4 lbs since last time, which means he’s up at least a pound since he had his hospital stay (to about 6.5 lbs). He’s also generally happy and has some more energy lately. On the downside, he threw up this morning and didn’t want to eat his wet cat food (which he gets to give him one of his drugs in powder form), but I’m hoping it’s just a bit of an upset tummy and nothing serious. (He wolfed down the food last night.)

Blackjack has been diagnosed by his vet as having Horner’s Syndrome, and has shown the first three symptoms on that page (Small pupil size, protrusion of the third eyelid, drooping of the upper eyelid) in his right eye. I’m pretty sure he can still see out of that eye, but I’m not an expert. Right now, the third eyelid is rarely protruding, which makes us feel a little better because it looks really weird. But the eye is half-closed most of the time, and he doesn’t seem able to fully close it, so it waters a lot sometimes (he shakes his head and tears fly around).

I think he’s a little frustrated by it, but he seems to be in pretty good spirits otherwise. He’s back to taking his steroid (prednisolone) every day now, I think to try to suppress whatever’s affecting the nerves to his eye. His body doesn’t seem to have gotten any worse, and he’s been more inquisitive and even more talkative over the last week. So we don’t really know how things will progress, but at least he’s stable and happy for now.

I guess it’s not fair to talk about Newton and Blackjack without mentioning Roulette. She’s been high-energy lately, running around the house and meowing as if she has spring fever or something. She’s delighted to have the windows open and the sun streaming in in the mornings. But I think she misses having someone to play with, since neither Newton nor Blackjack is really capable anymore (though Blackjack is occasionally interested and follows her around at a slower pace).

So we’re starting to think about getting some kittens. Going to five cats in our household seems like a lot – well, we used to have four, so it is a lot – but not knowing how much longer Blackjack and Newton will be around, we wonder whether we should get some playmates (and snooze-mates) for Roulette while she’s still young enough to adjust to them (and, as Debbi says, she kind of deserves it, given the hard sell she put Jefferson and Newton through to get them to accept her). We don’t have any immediate plans, but we’re thinking about it.

Impromptu Weekend

We had a pretty busy weekend lined up this past one, and then it got even busier with some sudden plans (“sudden plans”? Is that a thing?) that came up.

Saturday morning Debbi had an appointment with the hair stylist (on Saturday morning as the result of her schedule getting jumbled up during the previous week), so I spent the morning finishing up some work on the study (okay, mostly I was filing Magic cards, but also paying bills).

When she got back we went to lunch and then to the hardware store.

See, a couple of weeks ago I inadvertently fertilized part of the lawn. (Well, I was planting some new seed, with a mix that included mulch and fertilizer.) I noticed last week that that patch of lawn was growing much better than the rest of the lawn – which has gotten a bit brown despite all the rain – so I determined to fertilize the rest of it. I bought a fertilizing machine from OSH and spent some time on Saturday doing the lawn. I had to run back to OSH for more fertilizer, having probably over-fertilized part of the lawn (but it probably needed it). Whee! Now I’m trying to keep from checking the lawn every morning and night to see if it’s looking greener and lusher. 🙂

We also picked up some new solar lights, and a new hose and a box for it. Home improvement! Well, yard improvement.

(Wait until I buy a shed and see how much I write about that!)

As I was finishing up, I got a call from my friend Syd, who was in town for one night and was inviting some of his friends out for dinner. So on fairly short notice Debbi and I got our act together and joined them. It was good to see him, as I’ve missed him since he left.

This was in lieu of our usual Saturday plans of going to Cafe Borrone. We’ve been down on Borrone lately because the variety, prices and portion sizes of their entrees have all been going in the wrong directions, and they’ve eliminated some of our favorite desserts. So going elsewhere wasn’t unwelcome (we’d planned to have dinner elsewhere anyway). One of the desserts they’ve eliminated was the chocolate rum cake from The Prolific Oven, so after dinner we went to that establishment and got a couple of slices of cake. In theory I guess we could consider hanging out there on Saturday evening from time to time. (We’ve tried the coffee chops in downtown Mountain View, but they all tend to have bands on the weekend nights, which puts a damper on our desire for a quiet reading evening.)

Friday night we got an invitation from our friends Chad and Camille to visit on Sunday for swimming and a barbecue. So Sunday morning we went to the grocery store and Debbi made potato salad to bring. Chad and me and the kids spent, what, an hour or two? swimming in their pool, and then we had dinner. We hadn’t seen much of them since last year, since we’ve all been busy, and we had a great time. Camille tells us that their daughter has upgraded us from “friends of their parents” to “cousins”. 🙂

Monday was my and Debbi’s 11th dating anniversary, and we went out for our usual anniversary dinner. Where have the years gone?

Since then I’d like to say things have been quieter since then, but yesterday I biked to work for the first time this year, and boy did my butt hurt afterwards!