The restoration of a tarnished icon
Even though it features a couple of big names in the cast, the film has the feeling of an indie production, albeit a very good one.
Bringing the X-Men back to life
X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the most satisfying fantasy action movies I’ve seen in years. Director Bryan Singer has managed to build upon the storylines of many previous X-Men movies and generally maintain narrative consistency (except where it would limit his artistic freedom) in order to create what many critics consider the best entry so far in the successful X-Men franchise.
Godzilla is great eye candy, but not much of a story
Feel free to call Godzilla (2014) — by far and without contention — the best Godzilla movie ever made after the 1950s. The reference to the 1950s should spare you the thorny task of comparing this new work with the first Gojira (1954), and its American remake, Godzilla, King of Monsters! (1956), which are now well-established classics. So, if you are a Godzilla groupie, this is a five-star movie for you.
Ceci n’est pas une interview
There are known unknowns — that is, things that you know you don’t know. Back in 2003, Robert McNamara was for me, an unknown when I saw him standing awkwardly in a khaki raincoat on the poster for The Fog of War. I had at best a very vague idea of who he was, and I had never even heard of Errol Morris, the film’s director.
The return of the blue macaw
If you liked Rio, you absolutely have to watch Rio 2. The first movie was great, but its sequel is nothing short of extraordinary. Honestly, I do not think an animated comedy — when constrained to have a blue macaw as its main character — can get any better than this. I took my whole family to see it, and we had a blast!
A formal challenge to myths about atheism
Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk have written a volume discussing a selection of fifty “myths” about atheism that they say are commonly held by the public. I will comment on the substance of their efforts below, but first I have a huge bone to pick with the cover someone designed for this book. Why the radioactive violet background? Do you really need seven colors to spell the word “atheism”? Now on to the important stuff!
One chess champion per laptop
Search in YouTube for “too weak, too slow” and you will find a video of two young men sitting across from each other at a small table, frantically moving carved tokens on a wooden grid and slapping a clock mercilessly. They are fighting each other to the death, with bravado and gusto, in one of the oldest battlefields known to the human mind: the chessboard. The cocky guy in the green shirt, with the looks of a Viking and the nose of a boxer, is a 22-year-old chap named Magnus Carlsen, who happens to be the strongest chess player to ever walk the earth. The other guy, at the receiving end of Magnus’ Muhammad Ali-esque taunts (“Too weak, too slow! C’mon! What, you wanna play?”) is his close friend and sparring partner, Grandmaster Laurent Fressinet.
The Passion of the Capt’n
In case you have not seen the trailer — because if you have, you already know the whole plot — Captain Phillips is a movie about how Captain Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks) sailed a U.S.-flagged merchant ship, Maersk Alabama, too close to the coast of Somalia, and was hijacked by four Somali pirates with machine guns. The pirates were not too competent in the operation and had to abandon the ship, but not without taking the good Captain with them as a hostage. A few days later, the pirates were killed, and the Captain was rescued by a team of Navy SEALs. That’s it.
You know the plot; you’ve seen every twist before
I have a feeling that Robert Luketic, the director of Paranoia, may be feeling a bit paranoid himself lately, after his movie was mauled mercilessly by the critics. You know you are not bound for the Oscars when your Rotten Tomatoes score is lower than that of The Adventures of Pluto Nash. I will grant Luketic this much: there is nothing grotesquely bad about Paranoia. Unfortunately, there is nothing good about it either. And this may be his sin: we were expecting something, a saving grace. When you have Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman in the cast, and build anticipation by — as I heard — multiple postponed release dates, great expectations are created.
This ain’t no District 9
Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 cinematic debut, District 9, took the world by surprise. I, for one, was blow out of my socks by the crispness and realism of the special effects that this young director managed to conjure, and by the originality and the depth — nay, the poetry — of the story he had written. It remains one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time, and I can’t wait for the sequel, District 10. But with Elysium, Blomkamp has committed the same sin of his godfather, Peter Jackson, who followed the triumph of his filmmaking career, The Return of the King, with the painfully vacuous King Kong: letting ego and ambition get in the way of artistic integrity, and failing to see that a story — even one from his own pen — can be cheesy and unworthy of being made into a film.
Portrait of the master as a young man
Ip Man, the legendary martial arts master that popularized the wing chun style of kung fu and mentored Bruce Lee as a child, has been the subject of several biopics before. The two directed by Herman Yau, Ip Man: The Legend is Born (2010), didn’t make much noise on this side of the world; its continuation, Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013), will be released next month. The two directed by Wilson Yip, with a serene and solid Donnie Yen in the main role, Ip Man (2010) and Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster (2011), were warmly received by the public and critics alike. With these still warm from the oven, we are presented with yet another take on the life of the master. Written, directed and produced by Wong Kar Wai, The Grandmaster (2013) is an artistic retelling of the already familiar story, with familiar faces in the main roles: Tony Leung (Hero; Lust, Caution; Red Cliff) plays Ip Man, and Ziyi Zhang, (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; House of Flying Daggers; Hero) plays Gong Er, his fierce antagonist and platonic love interest.
See Denzel and Mark have fun with guns
Even though its A-list cast of Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg made me anticipate something along the lines of Man on Fire or Three Kings, it was clear five minutes into 2 Guns that, even though it would have lots of action and a maybe a pinch of drama, this movie was — plain and simple — a laugh-out loud comedy. So I quickly adapted my expectations accordingly, and I am happy to report that I had more fun watching it than any other movie I’ve seen in a long time. 2 Guns is a blast! It’s so honestly funny and packed with good, old action that I’d pay to see it again.
Just what it says on the tin
I convinced myself to go see Pacific Rim with the excuse that I’m a fan of its director, Guillermo del Toro. Both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth blew me out of the water, so I said to myself, “I have to go see this.” But I think somewhere inside me I already knew that this movie would turn out to be what the banners and trailers advertised: a WWZ-like fighting fest of giant robots vs. giant monsters. Alas, my gut feeling was right.
Of orcas and corporations
Blackfish is, by far, the best documentary I have seen this year, and — I would say — it is in the top 10 best documentaries I’ve ever seen in my life. If you think I saying this because I am some sort of activist, think again. The reason I would recommend that you watch Blackfish has nothing to do with the any activism like saving the whales: it has to do with the truth, with the need that we as a society have for the truth, and with how interests converge to keep you away from this truth, in darkness.
I don’t really care who you are
I love Jason Sudeikis. He’s one of my favorites in the SNL cast: I think he does a great Romney impression, and his Joe Biden is hilarious. I like Jennifer Aniston, too (I really do). And I like comedy movies (Meet the Parents killed me) and movies about drug trafficking (Traffic is among my favorite movies ever). So I was expecting to like We’re the Millers. You could even say I wanted to like it. But I didn’t. I am sorry to say, but I did not like it. Yes, I laughed a few times, but as a whole, as a package, the movie just didn’t fly for me.
On how Logan got his groove back
Within the X-Men universe Logan/Wolverine enjoys a privileged sort of position, comparable to that of Iron Man in The Avengers universe. After multiple X-Men movies with the whole cast, Hugh Jackman was itching to make a movie or two about Wolverine. On his own. And the promise, the potential, of grandeur was there. This potential has only been partly satisfied.
Superman: the man, the hero — and the genre
Man of Steel is a Superman movie. I don’t mean just with regards to its subject, but as a definition of the genre. And, even though it is a good movie, the self-imposed constraints it followed to fall square within that genre make it a good-enough movie, when it could have been — or at least I was hoping it would be — a great movie. The plot of the movie suffices to keep it afloat, although I do think the city-wrecking fighting went on for too long. The special effects are well-executed, even if the shaky-camera trick may have been overused.
The East is a movie for our times. It grounds its narrative in the complexity of the two ubiquitous evils of our capitalist societies. The first is negative externalities — power companies make more money if they skimp on environmental measures, thus polluting the water you have to drink. The other is moral hazards — a pharmaceutical company downplays the side effects of a drug in order to boost its sales.
More of the same
The latest big-screen installment of the Star Trek franchise is great news for all Star Wars fans (“Wait, wait... what?” In a minute.) Although as an action movie it may appeal to a broader audience, Into Darkness is designed to delight Trekkies, the more hardcore they are the better. It is the perfect Star Trek movie, with all the familiar trimmings of the old-school classics we have come to love.
Fool me please
Now You See Me is the story of four small-caliber magicians that pop out of nowhere to form a magic troupe called “The Four Horsemen” and pull off a jaw-dropping magic trick: robbing millions of euros from the vault of a Parisian bank without ever leaving their stage in Las Vegas. The heist gets them the attention of the media, the public, and — since they promises even bigger acts in the near future — even the FBI and Interpol.
The bee and the chimp in you and me
Have you ever felt like other people must be crazy — or at least be hypocrites — to hold certain views that you consider profoundly immoral? Some people defend the Iraq War to this day, while others opposed it from day one. Some people want to ban abortion, while others want to ban guns. “What is wrong with these people? What are they thinking?” you may ask in despair.
Oblivion is the kind of movie that you would rather see without knowing anything about it. But why would you go see something unless you know it is good?
Remember “Don’t Worry Be Happy”?
Bobby McFerrin is a virtuoso, and his instrument is his own windpipe and chest. He is not a powerful singer, but he is a beautiful singer. Although he practices many forms of music (directing classics, singing duets with Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, etc.), he truly excels at just a few of them. The same can be said about his most recent concert in Boston. As part of a multi-city tour for his upcoming album “spirityouall”, and through the felicitous auspices of the Celebrity Series of Boston, Bobby McFerrin paid a visit to Beantown last Sunday, and treated a full Symphony Hall to an afternoon of good music.
America’s first black Major League player
After watching the masterful biopic 42, about the struggles of Jackie Robinson, his wife, and his team’s owner, during Jackie’s first year in the Major Leagues, the truth in Alonzo Bodden’s bit called “First Black Anything” becomes clear: “If you are the first black anything, you can’t be good. Your ass better be miraculous. You have to be unbelievable.” Bodden bemoans — in a hilarious manner — the uphill battle that non-whites face to earn recognition when entering any new field. Even though he gets to the subject apropos of Barack Obama’s presidency, Bodden illustrates the point invoking Jackie Robinson, “the first black player in the Mayor Leagues.”
Olympus: Disappointing to its genre
With spring break around the corner, many of you may be wondering whether there are any good movies to catch. Featured prominently in recent advertisements is Olympus Has Fallen, so you may be tempted to give it a try.
The resurrection as a case study in evidence versus faith
In his recent book Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew McCormick, a professor of philosophy at CSU Sacramento, takes issue with the most fundamental claim of Christianity: Jesus came back to life after being dead for three days.
Maps of the world, in print
There are several reasons why it is handy, at least for me, to have an atlas. First, as part of my work at MIT I get to interact with people from all over the world, and I like to see on a map the exact place they call home. Second, as part of my role as father of a very curious four-year-old girl, I get to answer many questions about places I visit (“Where is Germany?”), places where her favorite animals live (“Where are the lions?”) and places where we have loved ones (“Where is abuelita’s house?”). Finally, sometimes I just need to know where a place is, either because something is happening there (e.g., South Sudan) or because I heard about it and realized I had no clue where it is.
Remembering the days the abyss gazed back
When a reporter mentioned the Cuban missile crisis during a White House briefing, then-press secretary Dana Perino “panicked a bit” because she didn’t know what it was. “It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure,” she ventured. One day in particular, Oct. 26, 1962 (exactly 50 years ago) was arguably the single most dangerous moment in human history, with the United States and the Soviet Union on the verge of unleashing upon each other thermonuclear Armageddon. Ms. Perino’s candid admission is often depicted as a funny, self-deprecating anecdote. Call me paranoid, but it gave me goose bumps: I think such a pivotal event, and the lessons it taught us, should not be forgotten.
A magnificent visual guide to the universe
The new edition of Universe is nothing short of what it promises. Edited by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and published for the Smithsonian Institution by DK, the book is a comprehensive, up-to-date, and visually mesmerizing guide to the cosmos and what we know of it. Its 500 pages are divided into three sections: astronomy in general, the cosmos, and the night sky.
You know the dull wall of Building E38 (pink, cream, whatever) that runs between MIT Press and Cosi? The other day somebody had the audacity (dare I say, the good heart) to spray-paint two machine guns with barrels curved together in the shape of a heart. When I saw this act of vandalism, I smiled and nodded. For I have learned to appreciate this kind of art. Street art. And it’s thanks to Banksy.
Engineering miracles and unsung heroes: A guide to Mars exploration
By now you must have heard about Curiosity, NASA’s latest robotic ambassador to Mars. It has been making headlines for weeks, first with its nail-biting landing sequence, fit for a sci-fi movie, and more recently with its discovery of evidence of streaming water in the Martian past. Curiosity is the stuff geeks dream about: a largely autonomous laboratory on wheels, the size of a small car and loaded to the brim with the most sophisticated science equipment ever sent to another world.
On the pillars of our craft
If you are reading The Tech, there is a good chance you have learned the basics of engineering at MIT. In which case, an invitation to read a book called Engineering: A Very Short Introduction might strike you as — mildly put — unnecessary. If you are the cocky type, you may even be tempted to declare, with a smile and a zinger (“Why don’t you go ask the College of Cardinals to attend Sunday school?”), that this book is not for you. But you would be wrong.
Fifty shades of ignorance (rebutted one by one)
Guy Harrison, one of the standard-bearers of the new skepticism movement, has written a book carefully classifying and then mercilessly shredding 50 very popular — and very wrong — beliefs. Ranging in topic from UFOs to the concept of biological races, this compendium of beliefs may very well be a “who’s who” (make that a “what’s what”) of some things some people get wrong. All the usual suspects are there — faked moon landings, Roswell, Area 51, Bigfoot, Nessie — as well as many religious ideas.
When the human-machine boundary began to blur
MIT Professor David A. Mindell PhD ’96 feels equally passionate about engineering and literature, and has the degrees from Yale to prove it. His obsession with the detailed study of the evolution of technology, though, is evident in Between Human and Machine, a twist-by-twist account of the personal, managerial, institutional, military and even political forces behind the field that came to be known as cybernetics, the modern fruits of which — including computers — have become the cornerstone of our technology and an inextricable part of our lives.
The art of war, in charcoal and watercolor
Two days after the charter incorporating MIT was signed in April 1861, Confederate forces attacked a military installation in South Carolina. It was the first in a series of battles that would last four bloody years and decide the fate of a nation. Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, Bull Run and Gettysburg are now the stuff of history, names that to this day evoke deep wounds — physical, psychological, moral — in the very fabric of America, many of which are still open. But there was a time when citizens on all sides of the war followed these names for breaking news, which often took the form of written and graphical reports in printed newspapers.
Religious writings, as poetry
I remember the exact moment when I realized some of Jesus’ utterances only made sense as poetry. The time was an evening in early January 1994. The place was the public square in Chitré, a small city in Panama’s countryside. While hundreds of youngsters rode their new Christmas bikes in the tropical summer breeze, I — at the time an 18-year-old devout Christian — sat quietly inside my father’s car, reading my Bible under a dim yellowish light. The version was Nácar-Colunga’s direct translation from the original Greek and Hebrew into my native Spanish. I remember the exact passage I was trying to assimilate: Matthew 6:25-34. “Do not worry about your life,” said the Lord. “Look at the birds of the air … Consider the lilies of the field.” And then the inspired prescription: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow.”
A titanic failure of management and policy
The horrifying image of a muddy column of oil rushing incessantly from the earth’s guts into the deep blue waters of the Gulf is forever branded in my memory. As I watched in disbelief the live video feed from the bottom of the sea, showing the Macondo well vomiting poison into the ocean, week after week, impervious to the incompetent attempts of BP to kill it, there was one question that kept bouncing in my head: how on earth did this happen?
Enjoy life: skip the latter half of The Atheist’s Guide
The advice not to judge a book by its cover proves wise in the case of Alex Rosenberg’s latest tome. A fetching title and subtitle, which seem to fly out of the page from a Big-Bangish burst of white over the background of a colorful deep-space image, promise hours of thoughtful and imaginative reading about how freethinkers can enjoy life without resort to nonsense. It’s a beautiful, exciting cover, for what turns out to be a rather dull and overall underwhelming book. The book starts strong, by boldly stating its goal, namely answering the “unavoidable questions” in life. It also demarcates its audience: “This is a book for atheists,” we are told, for “people who are comfortable with the truth about reality.” It is certainly not for “people who believe in religion,” not even for “just doubters and agnostics” that are still undecided. No. It’s solely for those who “have moved past that point” and know for certain that “belief in God is on par with belief in Santa Claus.”
Putting the horse in front of the cart
A front page for The Onion dated November 22, 1963 reads: “Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Freemasons.” I’d bet you a nickel that many people find that headline funny. I know it made me laugh. Although the assassination of John F. Kennedy is one of the most traumatic events in American history, the joke works because the reader is familiar with the barrage of wildly speculative and imaginative conspiracy theories that followed the tragedy, regarding the identity and motives of the killer. Yet most, if not all, of the parties mentioned above in jest have been proposed in all seriousness at some point as conspirators in Kennedy’s assassination in hundreds of books and documentaries. Such is the level of ridicule to which assassination theories have sunk in their efforts to seek closure to what is obviously still an unanswered question, and an open wound.
“Just don’t be so silly”
Victor Stenger has written a wickedly powerful book, so sharp and heretical that had it been published four centuries ago, the author would have been extra-crispy by the time the nearest bishop was done reading the preface. God and the Folly of Faith, with its straightforward argumentation and encyclopedic scope, is a veritable handbook on the fundamental incompatibility of modern science and religion. In the context of the new atheism movement, Stenger’s book serves as the prosecutor’s closing argument in their collective case against religion. The book’s ambitious agenda, with the simultaneous grinding of many axes (from near death experiences and quantum consciousness to intelligent design and cosmic fine-tuning), takes a toll on the reader. The dissection of the multiple arguments and counterarguments that are currently used to support and refute faith makes this no light reading for a lazy spring afternoon. Albeit peppered with zingers, the work as a whole comes across as what it is: a thick and serious discourse on one of the most important intellectual conflicts in history, very much alive to this day.
Catching up with the universe
I grew up in the Panamanian countryside, under pristine skies bursting with stars. Defenseless against the nightly spectacle, I had no choice but to become a backyard astronomer. A Spanish translation of Isaac Asimov’s The Universe (1966) transformed a romantic interest in constellations into a healthy scientific understanding of the cosmos. Asimov’s tome, although dated, satisfied my thirst for cosmological knowledge long enough for me to shift my attention to more mundane things. Two decades went by until I discovered — with a mix of delight and trepidation — that while I was not looking, a third revolution in cosmology, by no means smaller than those triggered by Copernicus and Hubble, was taking place right under my nose, during my lifetime.
The incredible shrinking argument
Back in November 2009, I reviewed a book by Earl Doherty, Jesus: Neither God nor Man, which discusses at length his theory about the origins of early Christianity without invoking a historical Jesus. After calling Doherty’s theory marginally superior to the predominant view, the atheist philosopher Richard Carrier stated in his review of Doherty’s work that “the tables have turned.” A refutation to Doherty’s theory, Carrier said, would require developing a single, coherent theory in favor of Jesus’ historicity that can explain all the evidence at least as well as Doherty’s. With funding from both atheists and believers, Carrier himself has taken on the question formally, and his work will soon be published in two volumes.
BOOK REVIEW Untangling the Traditions That Begot Early Christianity
One would be hard pressed to find something that has influenced Western civilization more than Christianity. Even in the age of Britney and Facebook, the figure of Christ — cornerstone to the faith — is considered divine by a significant fraction of mankind. Debates stirred by discussion about the historical Jesus make headlines periodically, be they triggered by the serious study of artifacts like the shroud of Turin and the James Ossuary, or by storytelling from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Dan Brown.
CD REVIEW An Experiment in Musical, Cultural Fusion
Yo-Yo Ma has pulled an ace from his sleeve with his most recent album <i>New Impossibilities.</i> Far from canonical, the pieces on the record are wild, living, breathing music. The title, although borrowed from a Mark Twain phrase, seems closer to the kind the writer Jaramillo Levi would use to crown one of his short story collections. In a very real sense, that is what Ma brings to us in his latest production: stories collected from the thousands of miles of the ancient and modern Silk Road. His language is articulated through bold musical sounds, and his subject is the deep continental Asia: Iran, China, and everything in between.
CONCERT REVIEW Journey Through a Mythological Forest
Leave it to the New England Philharmonic and its director, Richard Pittman, to come up with a bold program. Living up to the adventurous reputation that has repeatedly earned them awards and accolades in the recent past, they prepared a unique program for their Oct. 27 program held in Kresge Auditorium at MIT.
CD REVIEW Metallica, Dion, and an Italian Composer Come Together
ArsLatina and Sony Classical have recently presented an homage to Ennio Morricone's masterpieces, interpreted by a surprisingly heterogeneous group of musical masters, from Yo-Yo Ma to Metallica. The anthology could hardly have a more auspicious timing: it comes on the heels of the Italian composer receiving an honorary Oscar at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. Furthermore, the album opens with "I Knew I Loved You," the same song that Celine Dion sang on the same Oscar Night that the composer received his award. In it, Dion still displays the warmth and shine of her prime, which when combined with flawless orchestration, make this the best song of the album.