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Captain America The Winter Soldier

Captain America was never my favorite Marvel hero, but he is an archetype, and there is something endearing about a guy who still runs around wearing a flag. Still, he hasn't aged well. He's an eternal Boy Scout, like Superman (who also used to be much more blatantly pro-America), and his costume is almost as embarrassing as Wonder Woman's.

In the comics, that is. In the movies, damned if they didn't manage to pull off just the right combination of earnest, sincere heroism and bad-assitude. Cap looks like a soldier, acts like a soldier, and being frozen since the 40s, manages to act like a man out of time while being savvy and smart enough to do his best to catch up. The first Captain America was my second favorite among all the recent Marvel movies, just behind The Avengers and narrowly edging out Iron Man and Thor. I like heroes who are genuinely heroic without being saps (something several Superman movies have failed to pull off). And yeah, I like harkening back to an era when you could be patriotic without ambivalence.

So anyway, The Winter Soldier did not disappoint. Although the true identity of the main villain should have surprised no one over the age of 10, and there were some rather silly Tropish moments that didn't execute as well on film as they do in comics (seriously, the Villanous Monologue where the super-smart evil genius tells you all his plans before he gon' blow you up, 'cause that always works? Or packing an elevator with a bunch of thugs to beat up Captain fucking America, because yeah, that will totally work too), it was gloriously full of city-razing special effects and high-speed superhuman martial arts smackdowns, and a plot no more silly than anything else based on a comic book. It's not a character-redefining movie, nor did it have the genius and the humor of The Avengers, but it was satisfying, and it managed to keep Captain America believably heroic without either ignoring or denying his essential Americanness.

That said, one cannot help noticing how very global the movie is, heroes and villains alike. This is the post-9/11 era, and it's hard to pull off unironic patriotism, especially of the "America, fuck yeah!" variety. Especially when foreign box office makes up so much of a movie's receipts. Hence while Captain America is still Captain America, he really doesn't talk a lot about America per se, except in a rather wistful past tense. S.H.I.E.L.D. is apparently an international organization (despite pretty much every S.H.I.E.L.D. agent we've seen being an American) taking its orders from the "World Security Council."

I enjoyed Winter Soldier quite a bit, and am happy that they've been able to update Cap (as well as a few other B-listers).

Cap and the Falcon


I did catch the namedropping of Stephen Strange, though, which makes me wonder when Dr. Strange will get his own movie?

Book Review: Speaks the Nightbird, by Robert McCammon

A clerk tries to save an accused witch in a very grimy, grisly tale of Colonial America.

Speaks the Nightbird

Simon and Schuster, 2002, 816 pages

The Carolinas, 1699: The citizens of Fount Royal believe a witch has cursed their town with inexplicable tragedies - and they demand that beautiful widow Rachel Howarth be tried and executed for witchcraft. Presiding over the trial is traveling magistrate Issac Woodward, aided by his astute young clerk, Matthew Corbett. Believing in Rachel's innocence, Matthew will soon confront the true evil at work in Fount Royal....

Freaks, injuns, witch-burnings, and horse-buggeryCollapse )

Verdict: Robert McCammon is not a fantastic writer — he drops the perverse and the implausible all over the place, and his prose borders on purplish at times. But like Swan Song, his big, fat post-apocalyptic novel, Speaks the Nightbird is a big, fat, entertaining book with lots of story, and a good read for fans of slightly schlocky historical fiction.

Also by Robert McCammon: My review of Swan Song.

My complete list of book reviews.

Movie Review: The Act of Killing

Movie Review: The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

This Academy Award-nominated film was strange, surreal, deeply disturbing, and hard to watch. Synopses do not do it justice, but you can watch it on Netflix, or free on YouTube.

It's a documentary about the 1965-66 "purge" of communists in Indonesia, in which somewhere between half a million and a million people were slaughtered by death squads.

Obviously, there is a lot of historical and political baggage surrounding this (the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, has explicitly called out Western governments for their role in the slaughter), but The Act of Killing is not really a study of geopolitics or ideology. "Communists" was just shorthand for "Anyone in our way" (many of the victims were ethnic Chinese, targeted for that fact alone), and this is quite evident in listening to the former killers talk about them.

Indeed, this is what I found most fascinating about the film. Oppenheimer got former death squad leaders and current government officials to talk, on camera, about what happened. The main figures are Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, who rose from two-bit gangsters to the most feared men in Indonesia. It's chilling just how blase they and their compatriots are about their crimes — there is no equivocating, moralizing, or tempering. They killed "communists" even though it's clear that they didn't really care whether or not anyone was actually a communist. They speak gleefully, even pridefully, about their killing methods, about their brutality, about profiting. One former gangster talks wistfully about how much he enjoyed finding 14-year-old girls among the villagers to be tortured/killed for being "communists." This provokes spontaneous, knowing sighs of camaraderie around the room from the other men.

As you can see in the above trailer, The Act of Killing is by turns chilling, grotesque, and comical. Horrible men are filmed saying the most horrible things, without remorse. There is another scene where they cruise through the markets and extort money from the Chinese shop owners, bluntly demanding they simply hand over cash from their tills while joking with them as if they are buddies. The frozen smiles on the faces of the shopkeepers, as they are filmed being forced to make nice with murderous thugs, was perhaps not as disturbing as the lurid, loving accounts of rapes and beheadings, but it was the same banal, rapacious evil, displayed with the same proud swagger.

Watching them, I was most interested in trying to determine whether these were men literally without a conscience — psychopaths — or men living under a vastly different moral code in atrocities are justified. It's a question that repeatedly fascinates me — what is "evil"?

Congo, in contrast with Zulkadry, seemed to care about his legacy and whether he would be judged righteous by history. There is a final scene in which he rather melodramatically appears to come to the startling realization that his victims suffered, that maybe, possibly, the things he did were... wrong. o..O

And yet, how can one believe that after all these years, this crisis of conscience was a genuine revelation brought about by thoughts he'd never had before? Does he truly have such a compartmentalized mind? Are we watching cogitive dissonance overwhelm him? Is he an old man now realizing he has regrets? Or is it an act, staged like all his other moments? I'm genuinely unsure, though my cynicism tends to be strong here - there are too many other scenes in the film where he treats the blood on his hands as a matter of pride, or fodder for humor. My suspicion is that we're watching someone as evil as Saddam or Stalin, but who thinks now he can craft his public image for the better without denying or apologizing for anything. But his psychology fascinates me.

To really appreciate the over-the-top batshit surrealism of this documentary, I recommend you watch the culmination of Anwar Congo's "artistic vision." This scene, choreographed to the soundtrack "Born Free," was his idea. Unfortunately this was the only YouTube clip I could find and the subtitles aren't in English, but the two actors playing guillotined victims of Congo are thanking him for killing them and sending them to heaven...

This film is full of images, people, and statements that will mess with your head.

Book Review: The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, by Jon Ronson

Psychopaths and the crazy, neurotic people who study them.

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry

Riverhead, 2011, 288 pages

The Psychopath Testt is a fascinating journey through the minds of madness. Jon Ronson's exploration of a potential hoax being played on the world's top neurologists takes him, unexpectedly, into the heart of the madness industry. An influential psychologist who is convinced that many important CEOs and politicians are, in fact, psychopaths, teaches Ronson how to spot these high-flying individuals by looking out for little telltale verbal and nonverbal clues. And so Ronson, armed with his new psychopath-spotting abilities, enters the corridors of power.

He spends time with a death-squad leader institutionalized for mortgage fraud in Coxsackie, New York; a legendary CEO whose psychopathy has been speculated about in the press; and a patient in an asylum for the criminally insane who insists he's sane and certainly not a psychopath. Ronson not only solves the mystery of the hoax but also discovers, disturbingly, that sometimes the personalities at the helm of the madness industry are, with their drives and obsessions, as mad in their own way as those they study. And that relatively ordinary people are, more and more, defined by their maddest edges.

Scientologists, CEOs, and psychopaths, oh my.Collapse )

Verdict: An interesting if somewhat meandering trip into the perilous world of diagnosing psychopaths, The Psychopath Test is not exactly a weighty, heavily-researched book, but it will be of interest to anyone who has an, ahem, clinical interest in psychopaths.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: The Engines of God, by Jack McDevitt

Ancient astronauts and the end of worlds.

The Engines of God

Ace Books, 1995, 419 pages

Humans call them Monument-Makers. An unknown race, they left stunning alien statues scattered on distant planets throughout the galaxy, encoded with strange inscriptions that defy translation. Searching for clues about the Monument-Makers, teams of 23rd century linguists, historians, engineers and archaeologists have been excavating the enigmatic alien ruins on a number of planets, uncovering strange, massive false cities made of solid rock. But their time is running out.

Earth's ravaged environment is quickly making it unlivable, and colonizers want to begin terraforming these abandoned worlds for human habitation. Only interstellar archaeologist Richard Wald and starship pilot Priscilla Hutchins are convinced that uncovering the secrets of the monuments may hold the key to survival for the entire human race.

Not quite hard, not quite soft SFCollapse )

Verdict: The Engines of God is a perfectly good SF story, it's just not a very new or thrilling one. It was a decent read but did not hook me on the series; the Monument-Makers are too much like every other instance of this trope I've seen, and the scientist main characters were bright and heroic but flat.

Also by Jack McDevitt: My review of Going Interstellar.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: At the Mountains of Madness, by H. P. Lovecraft

The classic pulp horror tale of the Old Ones and the awful truth about penguins.

At the Mountains of Madness

Astounding Stories, 1936, 128 pages

A master of terror and nightmarish visions, H.P. Lovecraft solidified his place at the top of the horror genre with this macabre supernatural tale.

When a geologist leads an expedition to the Antarctic plateau, his aim is to find rock and plant specimens from deep within the continent. The barren landscape offers no evidence of any life form - until they stumble upon the ruins of a lost civilization. Strange fossils of creatures unknown to man lead the team deeper, where they find carved stones dating back millions of years. But it is their discovery of the terrifying city of the Old Ones that leads them to an encounter with an untold menace.

Deliberately told and increasingly chilling, At the Mountains of Madness is a must-have for every fan of classic terror.

Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!Collapse )

Verdict: At the Mountains of Madness is a great classic tale of pulp horror and the origin of many tropes that have been repeated ever since. (Lovecraft did not actually invent most of these tropes, he just popularized them.) It will make you want to run a Call of Cthulhu adventure, and shudder when you watch Happy Feet.

My complete list of book reviews.

Book Review: Going Home, by A. American

A prepper primer in novel form. Yes, seriously, "A. American." Subtle.

Going Home

Plume, 2012, 480 pages

If society collapsed, could you survive?

When Morgan Carter's car breaks down 250 miles from his home, he figures his weekend plans are ruined. But things are about to get much, much worse: The country's power grid has collapsed. There is no electricity, no running water, no Internet, and no way to know when normalcy will be restored - if it ever will be.

An avid survivalist, Morgan takes to the road with his prepper pack on his back. During the grueling trek from Tallahassee to his home in Lake County, chaos threatens his every step but Morgan is hell-bent on getting home to his wife and daughters - and he'll do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Fans of James Wesley Rawles, William R. Forstchen's One Second After, and The End by G. Michael Hopf will revel in A. American's apocalyptic tale.


Verdict: An interesting read, if you don't mind your fiction laced with prepper fearmongering. Going Home is part survivalist fantasy, mildly educational, and definitely written with an agenda, but as a story it's inferior to the better TEOTWAWKI novels out there.

My complete list of book reviews.


Alexandra Quick: Map of the Confederation

Constance Pritchard
You have probably noticed that my posting has been more sporadic than usual lately, and alas, so has my writing. Not to worry - everything is fine, and I am still working on AQATWA.

Since I haven't been doing any AQ reread posts lately and have nothing really new to update you with, here is a present I've been saving for you most patient of fans — a semi-official map of the Confederation.

("Semi-official" means it's more or less canon in my head, but I reserve the right to change anything that hasn't actually appeared in the books yet. ;))

View The Confederation in a larger map

But they only need to sell one...

Omas Limited Edition Phoenix Plated Fountain Pen With Diamonds

Phoenix Pen

The enamel Phoenix, elegant and proud, which dominates the reservoir of the Omas fountain pen "The Trip of the Phoenix" copies this faithfully. The body of the pen too, which comes in four versions, offers four of these colours. However, the metal for the finishings changes: the yellow enamel is combined with platinum, the red with gold, the blue, silver, and the white, bronze. On the top there is a beautiful jade of an intense green which recalls the green of the plumage. The highly original clip is inspired by movement and harmony. The Phoenix flies from Greece to China, from the Parthenon skilfully reproduced on the cap, to the Summer Palace, symbolically miniaturized on the nib, bringing together for the Olympics two great civilisations whose influence has been fundamental to the development of humanity. Though geographically distant, they have both given the world wisdom, philosophy, art and innovation. This small masterpiece comes in a precious wood case, and its production has been entrusted, as always, to craftsmen and artists with unquestioned experience over many long years.

"FREE SHIPPING"? For that price, a phoenix had better fly straight to my fucking house to deliver this pen personally.

As usual, the reviews are the best part.

Book Review: Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling

SCAers and wiccans take over the world in a low-tech post-apocalypse.

Dies the Fire

Roc, 2004, 496 pages

Michael Havel was flying over Idaho en route to the holiday home of his passengers when the plane's engines inexplicably died, forcing a less than perfect landing in the wilderness. And, as Michael leads his charges to safety, he begins to realize that the engine failure was not an isolated incident.

Juniper Mackenzie was singing and playing guitar in a pub when her small Oregon town was thrust into darkness. Cars refused to start. Phones were silent. And when an airliner crashed, no sirens sounded and no fire trucks arrived. Now, taking refuge in her family's cabin with her daughter and a growing circle of friends, Juniper is determined to create a farming community to benefit the survivors of this crisis.

But even as people band together to help one another, others are building armies for conquest.

Aliens give SCAers a chance to try out those Pennsic War tactics for real.Collapse )

My complete list of book reviews.

My Book Reviews



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