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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Et tu


This post might be ca. 2050 years late, but let's still discuss Marcus Junius Brutus - yes, that Brutus. Because some of the drama around the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar stems from Shakespeare's play (the 1953 film adaption is amazing), like the famous quote I used for the title, let's just focus on the essential circumstances. 

Brutus to this day is a mostly negative symbol, in Dante's Divine Comedy (which was so influential, it helped establish Tuscan as standard Italian at a time when Italy was split into many dialects) he is being chewed by Satan in the innermost circle of hell as a betrayer of man. Even in Asterix comics, he's depicted far darker and grimmer than what Caesar looks like. The popular association is of Caesar as a brilliant general and legendary ruler, and of Brutus as a regicide. There are plenty of scholarly texts that accept Brutus as a symbol of resistance to tyranny, but the first association "the man in the street" has is that of a traitor.

The reason the whole conspiracy took place was because Caesar installed himself as a emperor-king, which would soon serve as a blueprint for the Roman Emperors starting with Augustus (enabling Nero, Caligula, Caracalla, Elagabalus, etc.) and later for other European dictators, especially in France. Brutus on the other hand was related to Lucius Junius Brutus, one of the founders of the Roman Republic (removing the Etruscan kings) and one of the first senators. Not to say that the Senate was a remotely democratic institution, but it was still closer to our modern ideals than the single hereditary ruler of the emerging Roman Empire. Reducing Brutus' motives to pure patriotism and believe in the Republic would of course be an oversimplification, at least his own and his family's position in the new Rome Caesar created would have been a big worry, but if it hadn't been for the transformation of the political system, there probably wouldn't have been the conspiracy between the (former) senators.

With his crushing defeat at the two Battles of Philippi (Macedonia), the temporary second triumvirate and the gradual installation of Octavian as Imperator Augustus, Brutus' most famous deed was ultimately a failure. Is it because history is written by the victors, that the legacy of Marcus Junius Brutus is that of a betrayer and not that of a vanguard of the republican system that was practically lost during the dark ages?

Monday, August 10, 2015

True Detective Season 2

The season's over, the audience sighed. I was not caught, in storylines. I was not caught, though they tried, shallow dialogue, badly disguised. I had to leave, this show behind, first seasons style, you'll never find. The story's told, with twists and lies, dropped side stories, but never mind. Never mind, Never mind, the chance was missed, the audience sighed. There're shows that live, and ones that die, this was the latter, so never mind. Rustin Cohle, was so complete, that some among them, thought to compete. A record of, these blander lives, their private quarrels, their pointless fights. The story's told, everyone died, a point in the end, I'll never find. Never mind, Never mind, I'll watch another show next time. McConaughey produced, Harrelson too, their season safe, from meh like you. The ending sucked, with plots entwined, but not resolved, make up your mind. I was not caught, in storylines, who killed Casper, don't even mind. After S1, the contracts signed, they should have left, Vince Vaughn behind.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Pöpcörn

Because everything is a reboot or sequel that is much worse than the original, I have only seen one 2015 movie so far (Macbeth and The Revenant might still turn out nice) and instead watched many older films. Writing reviews of Rear Window (great), Paths of Glory (glorious) of The Maltese Falcon (ok) seemed a bit untimely, so there hasn't been a movie post in a year. Here are some there were released in the last 18 months.

Mad Max Fury Road
I'm not a fan of post-apocalyptic wasteland scenarios anymore and the original Mad Max movies never meant much to me, so I didn't expect much when I saw Fury Road, the best action movie of the last five years or so. The breathless pace of the film, the relentless pushing, the over-the-top action scenes with loads of impressive practical stunts and the great character/costume design completely blew me away. There was some awful discussion about this film and feminism, which is total nonsense. I liked how they don't spend too much time on exposition and instead only give you glimpses of a collapsed society that blur in the brutal rush of this 120 minutes chase scene that feels half that long. Dare I say it...better than the original trilogy.

The Imitation Game
Highly decorated, commercially and critically successful, I was surprised how good this biopic was. Focusing on Alan Turing's work as a codebreaker for the British during World War 2, it portraits one of the most important engineers of all time as a brilliant but socially stunted snob that has to learn to function in a group. Bendadick Thundersnatch delivers a great performance, especially when it comes to his interaction with the talented but miscast Keira Knightley.

Nightcrawler
Carried by the supreme performance of Jake Gyllenhaal (who is on fire lately), Nightcrawler is a thrilling and suspenseful sociopath's trip into the world of freelance cameramen that supply news stations with footage. Having the charismatic protagonist become that bad guy has been a popular story device since Citizen Kane, but it has rarely been executed so well. Deserves all the praise it received.

It Follows
Best horror movie of the decade so far. A teenage girl gets infected by a curse where a supernatural being follows her, slowly walking towards her, killing her if it ever gets close. Other's can't see it and it appears as a varying person. The film and the premise are very simple and it works so well because it feels authentic and low-key. Maika Monroe delivers another great performance (after The Guest). The best part is that it is actually about horror, not jumpscares or gore, but scary, suspenseful horror that makes you look over your shoulder after the credits have rolled.

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Gifted teenager gets picked up by secret agency to fight evil mastermind and save the world. A very silly but fun spy action movie directed at fourteen year olds that never takes itself seriously and is, except for some rare cringe-worthy scenes, a joy to watch. Great performance by Colin Firth.

Calvary
Highly praised but scarcely screened, Calvary is an Irish drama film starring Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson plays a catholic priest who receives a death threat, giving him a week left to live. He spends those days trying to make up with his estranged daughter and setting a few things in town straight - or at least trying to. The performances are superb, the script is intelligent, it deals with the thematic elements (especially the place of the church in modern society) smartly. Highly recommend it.

Locke
As manly a film as Raging Bull. Tom Hardy sets out on a nightly drive, having to explain to his family why he won't come home and to his boss and colleagues why he won't be at work the next day, when the most critical phase of his building project is imminent. The entire film takes place in the car, driving through the night and talking on the phone. We only get to see the protagonist, all others characters we only hear. A powerful performance in a low key, high value drama.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Drunk with Power

My position on energy: Any systemically relevant source of power that relies on burning an easily exhaustible source is bad engineering, regardless of environmental concerns. Despite popular opinion, we won't run out of coal and oil soon (it'll just be more expensive). Among the clean alternatives are wind and solar, whose combination (never just one of them) is a fine source of energy. The only drawback is the relative inefficiency of the devices we use, but that's just a flaw in our methods, not in the principal idea of it. Atomic power is comparatively clean too, but has three significant drawbacks: You have to store (bad) or use up (good) the waste, if something goes wrong it goes REALLY wrong and the minimal investment can only be carried by huge corporations (e.on, RWE...) - anybody can have a solar panel, but not a reactor. Cold fusion is the best concept of them all, promising infinite clean energy with no waste, but it's not efficient. Yet.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Futurological Collection


With a nod to Jens, here is some Sci-Fi literature I've had on my reader recently:


George Alec Effinger - When Gravity Fails
Nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1987 and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1988, this book has received a lot of praise. When Gravity Fails takes places in a near-future cyberpunkish middle eastern city where cybernetic implants, downloadable personality and highend drugs collide with conservative Islam. The low-level hustler protagonist becomes involved in a murder case and gets hired by a local mob boss to investigate. This book is so interesting because it has a very unconventional setting (far from the ultra-urban sprawl of other cyberpunk works) and involves many issues society deals with today, like transsexuality or the collision between modern technology and religion. There's lots of drugs, lots of thugs and lots of praising Allah. It stands out from the mass of the genre, and it happens to be a good read as well.

George R.R. Martin - Dying of the Light
I admit I only read this because of his Game of Thrones fame. Before GRRM did fantasy, he was a Sci-Fi writer and this was his first full length novel. Set on a mostly abandoned planet moving away from its sun, the protagonist comes to the aid of his former lover only to find her entangled with a tribe of warriors. The whole book reeks of decay, of lost hopes and ghosts of the past. The main character isn't a hero and his desparate outreach to his former girlfriend lacks a future as much as the scenario. This gloom becomes a bit hamfisted at times and none of the main character is likeable, but it transport the idea of this abandoned world really well.

Bruce Sterling - Schismatrix Plus
Schismatrix takes place in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, where humanity has colonized the solar system and split in two factions, the shapeshifting shapers and the technology-absorbed mechanists. Exiled from his aristocratic home for switching sides, the diplomacy-trained Abelard Lindsay becomes a fraudster, a pirate, a miner and a hermit - until first contact with a peaceful alien species that is obsessed with trade turns him into the foremost ambassador to them. When these alien visitors offer no way out from the stuck development of humanity, Lindsay becomes the figurehead of a movement to terraform the solarsystem, while his past catches up with him. This space opera has enormous breadth, jumps between styles and gets confusing at times, but it has many fun elements.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle - The Mote in God's Eye
Ringworld is one of my favourite books of all time, so more Niven can't be bad. In this collaboration with Pournelle, humanity sets out to make first contact with an alien species. The "Moties", while fuzzy looking and generally friendly, are stunningly different from humanity and keep secrets from their visitors that will decide over the course of mankind's development for the next centuries. Written in Niven's easy to digest wording, it's a fun excursion into the implications of first contact and a very original alien species...

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes - Legacy of Heorot
...so why not have another one. Legacy of Heorot is about the first human colony on an alien planet. The settlers, while expertly chosen and diversely skilled, suffered minor brain damage from cryosleep and still work on setting up their first village, when they encounter local fauna that is more dangerous than anything they were prepared for. Not as exciting as other Niven works because it is not as fantastic, with most of the book about surviving huge dinosaur monsters.

Iain M. Banks - Excession
Part of his extensive Culture series, (I read Use of Weapons before), Excession takes a look at the minds, the powerful AIs that govern humanity and their colonies across the galaxy. When an alien artefact that offers unprecedented knowledge and power turns up, it becomes a race between the Culture's minds and a warlike alien species. I generally dislike it when machines in Sci-Fi become to humanized, but Excession is the exception to that rule. My biggest criticism is that the human protagonist follows a plotline that ultimately goes nowhere and contributes little to the events. Still, makes me want to read more Culture novels.

Dan Abnett - Titanicus
Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. I've read Abnett's Eisenhorn before, this is my second Warhammer 40k novel. Focusing on the Adeptus Mechanicus, humanity's biomechanical tech-priest offshoot, the story takes place on a forge-worlds under attack by chaos forces. It's engine war, towering mech against towering mech, with footsoldiers reduced to ants by comparison. It's as stupid, banal and entertaining as one might expect and therefore a thoroughly enjoyable read for anybody with some affinity for W40k.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Strike of the Morning Star


[Years ago, at the Bonn headquarters of HARIBO, Germany's largest producer of gummy candy.]


"Now people, let's keep this meeting short and to the point. As you all know, we are about to launch our snack box, which is effectively a bucket to eat out of because that is the kind of audience we want to address. We need to hand over what forms we want in it so production can get their machines ready in time for the schedule. You've all had the task of coming up with designs for the new gummy pieces, so let's get to it. Jenkins, what do you got?"
"Well Sir, the cola bottles were quite successful with our focus groups, we already have the forms in production, so those would make sense."
"Good thinking, man. What else do we have? Bottomsworth, suggestions?"
"Uh...dinosaurs! Kids love the horrid creatures, and they'll literally eat up anything that looks like their favourite plastic toys, so let's have some dinosaur creatures in there. Yeah."
"Alright, dinosaurs it is. Next up? Dingleberry?"
"So uhm...I thought maybe we get some race cars in there, every kid and adult male loves race cars, and also they are usually very colourful so it fits in with our gummy colours. Also...maybe a crocodile? Like a 'cooler' version of our frogs, uh..."
"Well done, Dingleberry. Race cars and crocodiles it is. We only need one more...what about you there, whatsyourname."
"How about Satan, Lucifer, lord of darkness and despair, master of demons, monstrous tyrant of the eternal hellfire, before whose infernal legions of death we vow and and praise?"