Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Second Guesses, First Impressions

Five days ago, I wrote a post explaining that after much deliberation and uncertainty, I had come to a conclusion concerning what my fall class schedule would look like. In the days that followed, I second guessed that decision almost constantly, but every time I thought about making a change, I felt very apprehensive. Changing plans is a very difficult thing for me, even when it seems pretty obvious that changing my plans would be for the best. I don’t fret over making the wrong decision from the outset (like some people I know), but I do worry about changing my decision once it’s already in place. That’s when the fear of regret really sets in. It makes it very difficult whenever I become uncertain about a decision I’ve made, because nothing feels right after that—it feels like a no-win situation, whether I stick with my original plan or not.

Fortunately, my apprehension about changing plans doesn’t always get the best of me. Sometimes I go ahead and change my plans and realize a short time later that I have undoubtedly made the right decision—I just had to give the anxiety time to settle. Such is the case this semester. Contrary to my previous blog entry, I will not be taking the dispositions seminar after all. Instead, I will be taking another seminar from the most famous philosopher at my school. It will be my third time taking a seminar from this person, which is part of the reason I hesitated taking his course in the first place. Not because of the teacher’s style or anything, but because I’d heard rumors that this seminar was very much going to be a repeat of a seminar I’d already taken from him. I’d also heard rumors that the class was going to focus largely on philosophical topics that I’m not very interested in. For those reasons, I originally chose not to take the class, but after seeing a copy of the class syllabus, I realize those rumors were not accurate. Yes, there is going to be some material in the course that I’ve already studied, but overall the class sounds much more interesting than I had originally expected. I’m actually rather excited about the course, and I think it will better serve me in preparing for my dissertation than a class on dispositions would have. So, instead of a Tuesday afternoon class, I have a Monday afternoon class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ll have my TA responsibilities, and on Tuesdays, I’ll also hold some office hours. But that’s it. Not too shabby.

If you read my previous entry, you know that one reason I favored taking the Tuesday afternoon class was because doing so would allow me to stay at home on Mondays. I very much liked the idea of commuting to campus only two days per week. It’s probably premature of me to say otherwise, but having made it through the first two days of the semester, I’m already feeling differently. I think taking my own class on Monday afternoons will feel good, because I’ll go to campus specifically for that purpose. I won’t have been there all day and be worn out and tired of being there. That will be nice, because I always find it terribly hard to stay awake during afternoon classes when you’ve already been on campus all day. As for Tuesdays, I thought I would feel annoyed at staying on campus to hold office hours when I didn’t have an afternoon class to attend. Students pretty much never come to office hours, so they typically feel quite pointless to begin with. I thought it would ease the pain if I knew I was sticking around for another class, not just wasting time being on campus. Well, that didn’t feel so bad today, either. In fact, I think I felt more relaxed during my office hours because I knew I wasn’t going to class immediately afterward. I knew that, as soon as the office hours were over, I could get out of there, and that I’d be getting home before it was very late in the day. It was nice—nice not having a day that starts early and ends late. I think I’ll enjoy this.

And so you see, wisdom has prevailed. (Knock on wood—it’s only the second day of school and I don’t want to jinx myself.) Other things seem to be falling into place, too, which is nice. I’m feeling very hopeful today, very confident about the semester. It’s a nice change from how I was feeling one week ago.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Storm Before the Calm Before the Storm

The fall semester begins on Monday. The powers that be only just today informed the graduate students in my department what their TA assignments for the semester would be. That means there is now some last-minute scrambling to be done, figuring out office hours and making final decisions about what classes to take and what not to take. Sometimes it’s just easier to work around your TA schedule, and sometimes that can be a tiebreaker when you’re deciding whether to take a Monday night class or a Tuesday night class. If you’re going to be TA’ing on Tuesdays anyway, you might as well stick around and take the Tuesday class. It reduces the amount of time spent commuting to campus, and that can be a big deal.

So, how is my semester shaping up? I’m almost too mentally exhausted to bother explaining, but I’ll give you the basics. After much turmoil and stewing about, I’ve decided I’ll take one class for credit. (I kind of have to, but that’s too long a story in and of itself.) It’s a class on dispositions, so it falls into metaphysics. Metaphysics is typically a rather grueling field, so I fully expect this class to be a challenge. You may wonder why I’m taking it, given that dispositions don’t immediately—or at least don’t obviously—align with my area of specialization, which is free will. Well, quite simply, I’m curious about it, and I do hope to leave school with metaphysics being an area of strength for me, even if it’s not my primary area of focus. (And really, free will is a subcategory of metaphysics, but being an expert on free will doesn’t make you an expert on metaphysics, broadly speaking.) What’s more, the class is on Tuesday afternoons, which is convenient because my TA assignment is on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I can lump some office hours in between my Tuesday morning TA class and my Tuesday afternoon dispositions class, and I’ll be good. Other than that, I just need to prepare for my special area exam, which I hope to take within the next six or seven weeks. That means, aside from a long day on Tuesdays, I’ll be at school for a couple of hours on Thursday mornings, and that’s it. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be able to stay home. Very nice. Very nice indeed.

Now for the not-so-nice. I will be TA’ing for the same course and instructor for which I TA’d last spring and last fall. In other words, if you don’t count summer, this will be the third time in a row that I’ve TA’d for the very same class. Looking on the bright side, I’m very familiar with the class and it should be easier going for me. That’s what I’ve been happily telling myself, anyway. But, wouldn’t you know it, the instructor for that class has since contacted me and given me the syllabus for the fall semester, and she’s changed things up a bit. There will be several new readings, and that means I’ll have to be paying a lot closer attention to the class (and to the readings) than I did in the spring. That’s a bummer, because I was really hoping to devote as much mental energy as possible to preparing for my special area exam. I don’t think this will be the easiest TA gig for that. The first semester I TA’d for this class, it was very demanding. Throwing in new material this semester will make it more demanding again. Crap. The instructor’s even got Kant on the syllabus, for crappity crap’s sake. Wish me luck!

I almost had another bright side to turn to, but it’s since been snuffed out. This was the class that formerly was located just a hop, skip, and a jump from my department office. I could get to it from my office in less than 30 seconds, literally. I just assumed it would be located there again. But nope. It’s on the other side of campus. Which means I’ll have to be walking quite a bit in this lovely humid Florida August weather. By the way, Florida has August weather for September and most of October, too, so that’s truly something to cry about.

Alas, I’ve had it good. This semester will put the pressure on, which I guess is highly disappointing to me only because I thought it was looking peachy keen for a brief moment. It’s still more manageable than I’m probably making it sound, but I’m in the grieving period right now, learning that my assumptions were really making an ass out of “u” and “mptions.” I'll get over it … by January, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

If I Had to Do the Same Again, I Would, My Friend, Orlando

So, it’s been a while. I’ve still been watching a lot of movies, but I think I’m done writing reviews for most of what I watch. I’m over that for a while. I’ll probably post the occasional review, but with school starting in a week, I’ll have even less time and motivation to do so. So that’s that.

As some of you know, Melanie and I took the kids on a little vacation last week. We wanted to go to the temple again before school starts and before Creegan comes along, so Orlando was the destination of no-choice. The really cool thing is that a rocket was scheduled to launch on Thursday morning from nearby Cape Canaveral, so we tried to synch our trip with that. Eddie and Peter are both very into rockets, and we thought it would be awesome for them to see a real live launch. We made a hotel reservation very near Cape Canaveral for Wednesday night, and we planned on watching the launch the next morning and then driving to Orlando, about an hour west, where we planned to stay for two more nights. Well, NASA decided quite late to change the launch date to Saturday morning, the day we were planning to leave. Big fat bummer. Theoretically, we could have left Orlando painfully early on Saturday morning and driven to Cape Canaveral and tried to see the launch and then driven home, but that really seemed like pushing it. This was confirmed after our first full vacation day, when we realized (for the 6,539,845th time since Eddie was born) that kids can only handle so much and that you’re generally better off scheduling less than more. We happily scratched the notion of trying to see the launch and decided a visit to Kennedy Space Center would have to suffice.

We visited Kennedy Space Center on Thursday morning. It wasn’t that crowded, which was nice. We started off intending to see a few more things than we actually did see, simply because we got too hot and tired as the day went on. We didn’t take a bus over to see the launch sites, for example, which would have been pretty awesome. We saved that for last, and then felt too exhausted to do it. Everything else was right there when you enter the main gates, so we did those things first and wore ourselves out. Oh well. We saw the Rocket Garden, which is a collection of genuine rockets that are now retired and on display. We visited the exhibit on early space exploration. We let Eddie and Peter play at the kids’ dome, which is not much more than what you’d find in a McDonald’s playland. We visited a life size replica shuttle that you could walk into (for a few feet, anyway), but which was actually rather boring and disappointing as it was mostly just an oversized hollow tube. We took the kids to their first 3-D movie experience by watching the IMAX movie Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3-D. For me, the IMAX movie was the highlight of our visit, not only because it was inside a cool building, but because I learned some things and almost effortlessly enjoyed the 3-D imagery (which has previously taken some conscious effort on my part—for several years now, my brain doesn’t automatically focus correctly on 3-D images, so they usually appear blurred to me by default, even if I’m wearing the proper 3-D eyewear). Peter had no interest in wearing the 3-D glasses, and Eddie only wore them about half the time. Eddie kept tipping his glasses down and verifying that the images on the screen were indeed staying on the screen and not flying into his face. At one point, he said of an astronaut on the screen, “He looked like he was going to give us a hug!” Once the movie was over, we felt we had been sufficiently entertained and decided to head back to the car. On the way out, we visited a robot exhibit that wasn’t very exciting or as robot-laden as you’d think. And that was it. We headed to Orlando, grateful to spend an hour in an air-conditioned car, sitting on our butts.

For our only full day in Orlando, Melanie and I traded off going to the temple while the other one of us took care of the kids. I had the kids first, but Melanie left early, so by the time the kids and I were up and going, we didn’t have to do much more to pass time than go downstairs and eat the complimentary breakfast. After that, we spent a little bit of time in the room watching TV and playing games on the laptop, and then Melanie showed up and drove me to the temple. Melanie did much more entertaining and brave things with the kids than I did. She took them to Chuck E. Cheese’s, which was right in front of our hotel, and also took them swimming. By then, it was time to come pick me up. We headed back to the hotel, where Melanie and the kids still needed to change out of their swimming suits, and then we drove to the Orlando Science Center, a kid-friendly museum that we could get into for free because we have a membership to a partnered museum here in Tallahassee. I tell you, big cities have much cooler museums than small cities do. This one had lots of fun things for the kids to do, including but not limited to: crawling around in tunnels that went under the floor; picking plastic oranges from fake trees, packing them into a crate, and then rolling them down a conveyor belt (that ultimately spills the oranges out and transports them out of view, only to have them reappear on the fake trees a moment later); a pretty cool playhouse area; and an awesome area dedicated to various modes of transportation. The latter area was where we spent a good deal of our time. It was cool. There were all sorts of things for kids to play in and on—small airplanes, (the nose of) a space shuttle, trains, etc. The trains were cool because they were modeled after the toy trains that have magnetic bumps on the front and back to hold the train cars together. I thought that was charming.

And that’s our trip. Aside from that, we had some nice dinners and otherwise didn’t have to pay for food because our hotels had complimentary breakfasts and we didn’t get very hungry before late afternoon. We ate free breakfasts, early dinners, and were otherwise good to go. Snacking kept the kids going. It kept things simple and low-key, which was great. Really, I know I’m repeating myself here, but keeping things simple is always the way to go. Honestly, our kids were thrilled by the simplest things more than anything else. We thought Kennedy Space Center was the grand event of the trip, but Eddie and Peter were much more thrilled by the partial space shuttle at the Orlando Science Center—something they could actually interact with. I’ve learned that’s what kids need at this stage—something they can play with. They may love rockets, but seeing a real one isn’t that exciting because what can you do with it? Nothing! You live and learn, I suppose.

And now, some pictures:

The first thing that I noticed upon getting out of the car and going to check into our first hotel was this. FREAKY! I tell you, Florida has such huge bugs, but even this was quite a shocker. And there were several of them in front of the hotel, which made me very unhappy about staying there. Fortunately, there were none in our room (that I ever saw).

Just to give you some perspective. Did I say FREAKY!?

The swimming pool at the first hotel was pretty cool. It had this miniature rock mountain next to it with water cascading down and into the pool. Eddie liked to play on the rocks, pretending he was a boy stuck on an island, or a pirate looking out for a boat to attack.

Behind the mountain was a “cave” you could walk through. Cool stuff.

Eddie and Peter eagerly await entry to Kennedy Space Center. Peter is shocked at just how exciting the brochure alone is.

The Rocket Garden.

Eddie looking studly in his 3-D glasses.

The bridge from the parking garage to the entrance of the Orlando Science Center. Cool.

Eddie and Peter enjoyed making Melanie and me food in the “house” area of OSC.

The least real, least complete, but most exciting space shuttle the kids saw during our trip.

The end!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Movie Review: Kick-Ass

Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Running Time: 117 minutes
Originally Released: April 16, 2010

* * * ½ (out of four)

Oh, how I want to give this movie four stars. After one viewing, Kick-Ass has to be one of my favorite superhero movies of all time. It’s also inspired me to petition Webster to add the following word to the dictionary: “greatuitous.” Definition: fantastically over-the-top, exquisitely excessive, deliciously indulgent; see also: Kick-Ass.

By his own admission, moderately geeky high-school student Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) simply exists. He’s nobody, not even a loser. That’s fine. He’s got two good buddies and a voracious appetite for comic books to keep him entertained. He also has a question: with all the comic book fans in the world, why hasn’t anyone attempted to be a superhero in real life? It can’t be that hard, right? Dave decides to find out, donning a makeshift green costume and hitting the streets of New York under the pseudonym Kick-Ass. As anyone in his or her right mind would expect, things don’t go so well for Kick-Ass, at least not at first. Eventually, however, a video of Kick-Ass fighting off some bad guys hits the web and the would-be hero becomes an overnight sensation. Shortly thereafter, a more competent and less advertised duo of superheroes—the father-daughter team of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz)—cross paths with Kick-Ass and generously befriend him, teaching him a few tricks of the trade in the process. Meanwhile, crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) is becoming increasingly agitated at the sudden rise of heroism in his city, his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) beaming at the opportunity to help his father fight back.

Kick-Ass is not a very serious movie. At times it is downright corny, and yet its unabashed absurdity is slathered in such extremities of violence and mayhem that you’ll wonder if its “R” rating isn’t the biggest understatement of the year. For some, this quirky blend of silliness and brutality will make the film an instant classic. For others, it will be an assault on all things good and right in the world and should be avoided like the plague, especially when the most vicious character in the movie is the 11-year-old Hit-Girl, a foul-mouthed and ruthless exterminator of bad guys. It’s obvious from my opening paragraph where I stand on this movie. When Hit-Girl first unleashed her havoc onscreen, complete with a childlike “la la la” soundtrack playing in the background, I laughed harder than I have in years. It’s the defining moment of the film. If you love that scene, you’ll love the movie as a whole. If you’re appalled by that scene, you shouldn’t have been watching the movie in the first place. As for me, I’m tempted to buy the DVD just to watch that scene again and again.

I firmly believe you can love a movie without thinking it’s a very good movie. Kick-Ass is very good, but it’s not nearly as perfect as it is enjoyable. True, it’s not trying to be a perfect movie, but I think even in its own aspirations, it sometimes falls short. Aaron Johnson is adequate as the nerdy-meets-normal Dave, but his performance is drowned out by just about everyone else in the film. The movie is also uneven, welding together realism and sensationalism with bumpy and sometimes jagged results. Thankfully, there is plenty to love, not least among them being ChloĆ« Grace Moretz’s splendidly controversial performance as Hit-Girl. Moretz doesn’t just steal the film, she violently abducts it, infusing moviegoers with an instantaneous case of Stockholm syndrome as she does so. Nicolas Cage, proving more entertaining than he’s been in years, is also a delight, especially in those scenes where he teaches his daughter the ways of heroism—how to bounce back from a bullet to the chest, for example. But for the right audience, Moretz’s and Cage’s performances are just two of many elements that make Kick-Ass a movie that fully lives up to its name. Consider yourself whooped.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Movie Review: The Runaways

The Runaways
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
Running Time: 106 minutes
Originally Released: January 24, 2010 (Sundance Film Festival)

* * * ½ (out of four)

“Girls don’t play electric guitar.” That’s what everybody tells Joan Larkin, including her guitar instructor, who’s all too happy to teach Joan “On Top of Old Smoky” but looks disgusted when she asks to learn “Smoke on the Water.” Good thing for Joan, she doesn’t play by the rules. Nor does she play by her own name. At the age of 17, even before joining a band, Joan is introducing herself by her rock n’ roll stage name—Joan Jett.

The Runaways tells the true story of the rise and fall of the 1970s rock band of the same name. As the film demonstrates, it was a brief and volatile flight, taking off in late 1975 and crash landing early in 1979. The band got its start when Joan (played here by Kristen Stewart) approached record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) at a nightclub and proposed the idea of an all-girl rock band. At the time, the idea was revolutionary enough to gain the attention of Fowley, who loved making money off the exploits of controversial rock music. Fowley introduced Joan to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve), eventually lined up other girls (including lead guitarist Lita Ford, played by Scout Taylor-Compton), and completed the band when he discovered 15-year-old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), a wannabe singer who is one part Bridget Bardot, one part David Bowie. Taking the girls under his maniacal wings, Fowley pushed the teenagers’ rebelliousness to the limits, encouraging them to think about music with a part of their bodies that females don’t even have. “This ain’t women’s lib, this is women’s libido!” he tells them. Fowley seems equally committed to both parts of that message, and it’s one he never lets the girls forget as he manages the band with a deranged and subversive savvy.

If The Runaways is meant as a tribute to the band it portrays, it fails miserably. Nothing about the group’s experiences looks remotely desirable, even as The Runaways rise to fame both in the United States and abroad. Instead, the film is harsh and brutal, particularly with the vulgar and verbally abusive Fowley at its center. But as gritty a movie as it is, it is wholly compelling. I like movies that let the events taking place onscreen speak for themselves. The Runaways is neither preachy, nor celebratory in its depiction of teenage girls suddenly becoming rock goddesses and treading the familiar road of drugs and alcohol, much to their collective detriment. Amplifying the film are exceptionally good performances from the lead members of the cast. Those who think Stewart is limited to the dark and dour will not be proven wrong here, but for the first time that I’ve seen, she breathes life into her character. In a word, Stewart’s performance is impeccable. Shannon is equally impressive as the repugnant Fowley, king of derogatory motivational speeches. And, in a role unlike any she’s played before, Fanning is just a notch below Stewart and Shannon, hindered in part by a script that leaves her character forever elusive. (A strange result, given that the film is based on Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography, Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story.)

The Runaways plays like a good hard-rock song, fast and furious. But, as rock n’ roll is wont to do, sometimes it moves along too quickly. Therein lies the film’s greatest weakness, telling the story of five girls’ angst-ridden ascent to seedy rock n’ roll stardom in all too breezy a fashion. Many significant aspects of the band’s history are completely glossed over or given only superficial treatment. Aside from Joan and Cherie, the rest of the band seem to materialize and disappear as if by magic, with the possible exception of Sandy West, who receives peripheral attention throughout. Likewise, the girls’ confidence, record contracts, and fame also seem to appear out of nowhere, with little buildup or paying of dues on the band’s part. It is difficult to believe these pivotal moments in the band’s history would not be some of the most engaging, and so it is sad that they are all but left out. Perhaps the film merely aims to echo the sentiments expressed by the initial members of The Runaways when Cherie announced she would audition for the band by singing the Peggy Lee song, “Fever.” “We don’t play slow songs!” the group chided her. Similarly, maybe the makers of The Runaways just don’t tell slow stories. In the end, then, The Runaways is a powerful film, but one wishes there were more of the music, more of the creative process, more of the friendship developing between Joan and Cherie, more of the other band members—more of everything, really.