Moving On

We posted the news last week on Facebook but I haven’t had much time to write anything here about it.  However, for posterity’s sake, here goes:

We’re leaving St. Louis…again

This time, however, it’s so I can (finally) begin my first “grown up” job as Assistant Professor of Biology at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, MO.  I am charged with teaching Anatomy & Physiology I and II, as well as Principles of Anatomy & Physiology.  That’s going to be 15 credit hours worth of teaching each semester, so I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me.  It will absolutely be challenging, but I’m looking forward to moving off the lab bench for awhile and instead focusing on getting students to appreciate, if not love, physiology as I do.

When we moved to Iowa, Brooke had to leave Bridges CSS and, unfortunately, it took awhile before she was able to find anything comparable (or even acceptable…) doing similar things up north.  Thankfully, unbeknownst to us, Bridges CSS was in the process of buying Bridges of Missouri, their sister company based in Sedalia, MO, which just so happens to be 30 min south of Marshall.  Thus, with a stroke of providence or blind luck, she gets to keep doing what she loves while I begin this new adventure.  She will return to St. Louis once or twice a month to help facilitate the connection between these two arms of the company, but she’s already got her work cut out for her in integrating the workings of the two companies.  She’s excited to mix up what she’s been doing, too!

We’re on a pretty short time table now.  We spent the last few weekends in Sedalia and Marshall investigating houses (more “grown up” things we’re finally doing…) and we think we’ve settled on one that we’re going to make an offer on shortly.  My position officially begins August 1st, but I technically don’t have to be on campus until August 18th (school starts August 25th).  There are all kinds of challenges with pulling that off in a limited period of time, but we think we’re moving in the right direction and can make it happen.

Still, we’ve got a lot of packing to do…

Review: X-Men – Days of Future Past


You could say the X-Men franchise has been “hit or miss.”  The first and second movies were quite good (though I don’t think the first one ages as well…I guess it did come out in 2000…).  The third one was a train wreck.  The spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was horrible.  The sequel, The Wolverine wasn’t too bad, and the 1960s era reboot, X-Men: First Class, was alright, but I wasn’t floored by it like some people were (despite having some big-name actors, including James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender).  Critically, the direction of the franchise was set with the first two movies, both directed by Bryan Singer.  He moved on after those two films and entrusted the franchise with other folks, many of which didn’t take the care he did with the story and characters.

Which brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past.  The fact that this movie exists at all is mind-boggling.  Singer returns (and even retains the music and similar opening title sequence he used in the earlier two movies), the cast from the original trilogy of movies returns (including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and more), and they merged this cast with the new “first class” from the 60s era reboot, as this film relies heavily on time travel.  With the effects and pedigree of actors (let alone sheer number of them, some without lines, even), it’s a wonder they did it in a $200 million budget.

I kinda wish they’d explained how they brought back Professor X from the dead after the third movie…but whatever…

The movie begins in the future, with the original X-Men cast fighting a losing battle against the Sentinels, oversized robots designed to seek and destroy mutants and mutant sympathizers.  It’s effectively a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as the Sentinels have destroyed much of civilization in their quest.  Knowing their end is near, they hatch a plan to use Kitty Pride’s powers to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to a pivotal moment in history, where they believe the Sentinal threat stemmed from.  As Wolverine doesn’t age like “normal” humans, it was a convenient way to have Jackman play both his older and younger self, bridging the gap between the old cast and new cast.  Wolverine does his best to “bring the band back together,” 10 years after the events of X-Men: First Class (so, now 1973), in order to prevent history from continuing on the course we saw in the beginning.

Overall, I thought it was a strong showing: definitely better than many of the other X-Men outings in the last 14 years (though probably not as good as the first two, in my book).  The action sequences were somewhat infrequent, the story slowed a bit in the middle, and I definitely had to suspend my brain from thinking too hard about the consequences of time-travel (…’cause, yeah…it don’t work that way…).  The acting and effects were all quite good, as expected, and I felt like all of the actors (and there were many) fit together remarkably well.  Granted, there were too many actors to keep track of, but I was in enough awe that I was seeing them all up on the same screen that I didn’t care.

Compared with previous X-Men movies, or even other comic book movies, this one got pretty dark at points.  Singer did his best to make “the future” seem bleak, and he succeeded.  Some of the original cast of X-Men were killed off by Sentinels in pretty gruesome ways.  It was just pretty shocking to see it happen time and again, especially after seeing many of these characters in movies for the past 14 years.  It was a bit unsettling, which I didn’t expect going in.

Finally, they ended the movie in such a way that it could serve as a good “swan song” for the original X-Men cast.  I highly doubt they’re going to let Hugh Jackman leave the Wolverine role (as, like Robert Downey, Jr and Iron Man, no one else can play that character), but many of the other actors are showing their age.  I love Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but they’re getting older and can’t pull these characters off for much longer.  This movie takes place “in the future,” so it was an easy sell this time.  I’m glad the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will focus on the younger cast, though I’ll miss the original crew.

Let’s put it this way: I’m glad that this is the last time I see Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, rather than X-Men 3.


Review: Godzilla



There’s something about classic monster movies that I like. Can’t really place it, to be honest.  They aren’t particularly scary (just a dude in a large rubber suit, frequently…), but for people at the time these movies were popular 60+ years ago, they were probably terrifying.  Godzilla is perhaps the most enduring of franchises, undergoing multiple evolutions and reinventions over the decades, for better or for worse.

This new interpretation of the franchise was set up to bring us into the summer’s blockbuster season: big cast, big effects, big destruction, the works.  It does a pretty good job of playing off the original movies, where nuclear testing in the South Pacific leads toward ancient monsters waking up from a slumber lasting millenia.  Brian Cranston stars as a scientist running a nuclear power plant in Japan back in 1999, one that is summarily destroyed when some “thing” causes a melt down.  He spends the intervening years between then and now working on his conspiracy theory of what was responsible.  His son, a survivor of the catastrophe, doesn’t believe him, but soon learns the truth as he and the rest of the military chase the beast(s) across the Pacific to San Francisco.  As the previews indicate, Godzilla is not the only monster the movie will deal with, and when they finally fight near the end of the film, the results are pretty spectacular.

Unfortunately, the focus of the film is on the humans and how they deal with the monsters.  The director, Gareth Edwards, is a relative newcomer, yet did a good job “teasing” the reveal of Godzilla until the latter portion of the film.  Though I appreciate that aspect of the movie, it also meant that it took a long time before we really saw Godzilla himself.  We saw the other monster, but not the one headlining the movie.  Once he finally showed up, we got to see monster-on-monster fighting that all too rarily shows up in major motion pictures (aside from the mostly great Pacific Rim last year).

In the end, I enjoyed the movie, but felt it dragged quite a bit in the middle.  It started off pretty good and really “stuck the landing” by the end, yet the middle tried going the route of “character drama” without having any truly compelling characters to care about.  They weren’t bad, per se: I just didn’t care.  So, it’s a good rental, for sure.  I’m not mad I spent money on it in theaters (though I thought the 3D was largely unnecessary…), but I could understand waiting a bit to see it.  Worth seeing, but not worth going out of your way.

Pandora Revisited

That's still straight-up CGI...

That’s still straight-up CGI…

We were cleaning out DVDs a few weeks ago, largely because we don’t watch as many as we used to, yet also because Meg is accumulating more, so we need the room.  Brooke pulled a few to get rid of, some of which I was fine with and others I had to put back.  For the most part, these were movies that I/we hadn’t watched in a long time, so they were good choices.

But I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of Avatar.  To be fair, I hadn’t watched it in a long time.  Perhaps years.  But it was a nice Bluray collector’s set and it didn’t seem right.  Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I took the opportunity to pop in Avatar again and see how it held up.

Avatar was released in late 2009.  At the time, I was pretty high on it, mostly from the tech perspective.  Having re-watched it, nearly five years later, I think it still holds up.  The CGI characters still look pretty good, though perhaps not as impressive as they did in theaters (though, bear in mind that I saw it in 3D, “as intended,” so it could never look that good again unless I watched it in 3D).  What really stands out to me is the world of Pandora itself.  Many, if not most, of the scenes in the film take place in the jungle, all of which was done on a green screen.  Like, literally all of it.  All that stuff, in my view, holds up quite well.  The characters still integrate perfectly into the background, looking as real as if they’d filmed in the Amazon.

Only a few CGI-centric movies age this well.  Jurassic Park comes to mind.  Perhaps even The Matrix (before CGI was over-used in the sequels, I’d argue).

So in large part, I still feel that Avatar is an important film.  One of those that may not necessarily have the greatest acting of our time, or the most involved story (as evidenced by the nominees and winners from the Oscars in 2010).  But the technology developed to make the movie in the first place changed film making.  Heck, the tech used in Avatar has been integral to some of the greatest video games of the last generation.  Motion capture certainly existed before Avatar, but not to the degree James Cameron took it.  In many respects, this movie that took 15 years to make, has touched all blockbusters that have come after it.  It’s a profound achievement.

That all said, it’s a long movie that I won’t be returning to all the time, perhaps for another few years.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Avengers close to 10 times in the last not-even-two-years now and I wouldn’t qualify it as “important” (however, it’s definitely more entertaining).  Yet a lot of the tech required to make The Avengers happen in the first place was developed in order to create Avatar.  Though one can absolutely enjoy other movies more, credit should be applied where it’s due.

It’ll be interesting to see how James Cameron does with the next three movies in the burgeoning Avatar franchise.  Somehow, I doubt they’ll be as revolutionary as the first film…

…which I intend to hold on to…

Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I was never a big Captain America fan.  It was a comic series that debuted in 1941, in a time far removed from anything I could relate to.  He was Marvel’s All-American Hero, able to both compete with DC’s Superman and serve as a rallying cry for America’s involvement in World War II.  Spider-man was a lot easier for me to identify with: a teenage superhero that was just as concerned with saving the city as he was with finishing his homework.

As such, I skipped this character’s first outing on the big screen, 2011′s Captain America: The First Avenger.  By most accounts, it was actually a pretty good movie.  Not great, but solid.  Having watched it twice since its release, it’s still kinda low on my totem pole of comic book films.  However, after a series of pretty impressive trailers, and The Avengers, I gave the new movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a shot.

In short?  It was good.  Really good.  Arguably The Dark Knight good.  When I make that particular comparison, I mean that the film transcends “comic book movie” tropes and instead offers a good film for a larger audience that doesn’t have to rely heavily on its comic book roots.  Winter Soldier is far closer to a movie like The Bourne Identity than anything else, with choreographed hand-to-hand action sequences, elaborate car chases, and a character evading capture from his own organization after it’s taken over from within.

The plot vacillates between a focus on the titular Winter Soldier character and the bulking up of S.H.E.I.L.D. to use predictive surveillance to eliminate threats before they emerge.  The latter has relevance to our current political climate and its handling of the NSA and other spy programs, and it’s interesting that they looked at this theme at all.  However, the movie ultimately descends into typical comic book fare, leaving the spy program focus somewhat hollow.  They never quite commit to either story line.  That isn’t to say the plot is bad, but that some additional focus, or a choice between the two themes, may have served it better.

The generally strong story is also held up in large part by the action set pieces.  If you were to watch Iron Man or Thor, you’d be looking at a green screen for the majority of the movie.  In The Winter Soldier, you’re mostly looking at Washington, D.C. and Cleveland (…made up to look like D.C…).  You don’t see Captain America flying through the sky, firing beams from his hands: he just punches and flips and throws dudes through the air.  Granted, with super strength and agility…but really, it’s closer to a martial arts film at parts than it is to a traditional comic book movie.  It makes for a nice change of pace from other recent endeavors.  That said, the end of the movie ends up going full-on comic book freak show, with lots of spectacle and a series of engineering decisions that could only possibly serve as a set-piece, rather than anything practical.  Also, I saw it in 3D and, while it didn’t detract from the experience, I didn’t feel it was really necessary.

Another thing worth mentioning is its integration with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. television series, currently airing on ABC.  The series itself was slow to start, but its most recent episode took place during Winter Soldier, so we see what else was happening at the same time, and also how it ties in with the events of the film somewhat directly.  It’s synergistic planning on Marvel’s part, but ratings for S.H.E.I.L.D. have been lacking and may not be renewed, yielding the potential for this unique feature of the Marvel Universe to be short-lived.

Ultimately, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was pretty great.  I think I’d still keep The Dark Knight up their above it as the best “mainstream” comic film (as it never quite embraced its comic book-ness like Winter Soldier eventually does), and The Avengers as my favorite comic movie of all time, but this one was quite strong.  Definitely worth a look.