Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

This is an interesting movie because despite its frantic pace and and big budget glamour all the best scenes are characters talking to each other.  It’s also refreshing to see Star Trek infused with some ideology and philosophy again after the kind of neutral first movie.

First off, it needs to be said that this is kind of a remake of Wrath of Khan and this has irritated a lot of people on the internet (what doesn’t?).  In my mind, all the problems with this movie are of its own creation and have nothing to do with the parallels to the older film.

At the outset of the film we see a theme of Kirk still being a rambunctious young captain bending the rules to follow his moral code and a Spock that has retreated too far into cold rationality.  Kirk is admonished for not respecting authority and justifying his decisions based on bouts of good luck (both true) and is demoted for a violation of the Prime Directive (despite a very good reason IMO).   However, things quickly escalate with a terrorist attack and Kirk spends almost no time as a first officer, a chance missed for at least some good comedy.

As I said at the beginning of this movie the best parts of the movie are all the rare moments when characters just… talk.  The main one is of course Kirk and Spock learning from each about responsibility and emotion, respectively.  The final death scene swaps the places of the characters from Wrath of Khan and is incredibly touching at least on Spock’s side.  I was not as convinced that Kirk had really learned anything after two hours.  Sacrificing for his crew was a characteristic he already displayed.  I think the humility and loss he learns after Spock’s death in WoK is a more suitable lesson.

Of course, there were other great moments like basically every scene with Scotty and Kirk.  Benedict Cumberpatch can monologue very well even if Khan’s character was weak and Peter Weller as the admiral was a more subtle but just as effective portrayal of a villain.

The movie’s political allegory is heavy-handed.  Using long range torpedoes to kill a terrorist without trial is very similar to the discussion about the legality of drone attacks.  Then we have an admiral convinced that war with the Klingon’s is inevitable and he will do whatever it takes to turn Starfleet into a military institution, essentially the 23rd century’s neoconservative.  Scotty and Spock argue the morality of these viewpoints with Kirk during the movie but the moral battle is not explicitly fought here.  Foes are physically vanquished at the movie’s end; their ideologies only as strong as they are.  Instead we have action; Kirk follows the letter of the law rather than seek revenge, Spock saves Khan’s crew, at the end Khan is not sentenced to death but is put back in cryosleep.  I do think the movie is a little cowardly in tackling the issues it brings up, but it at least tries to bring a little moral judgement which is more than we can say about most summer movies.

Now to get why this is just a good movie and not a great movie.  It mostly comes down to Khan.  The threat of Khan is mostly carried on the shoulders of Cumberbatch’s considerable charisma.  His motives in the movie are murky at best with his backstory left with very few details and a little bit of confusion because Admiral Marcus and Khan tell slightly different stories.  Much of the problem is the filmmakers seem to be relying on the audience already knowing Khan from the previous movie to do a lot of the hard work of character building.  This is lazy and it doesn’t work.

Khan says he is desperate to get his crew back, but why a megalomaniac like Khan cares so vociferously about his crew is never justified.  It also means that the very personal battle between Khan and Kirk is lost.  From what I recall of the original movie, many scenes pit Kirk versus Khan in a battle of wits and determination; superman versus the height of normal man.  Here Khan is a physical threat, but not as much of an intellectual foil to Kirk.  I mean his demise was engineered by a very elementary ruse on Spock’s part; a double travesty for undermining Khan’s intelligence and for allowing Spock not Kirk to defeat him.

Finally, I could list a bunch of plotholes or the ridiculously unneeded final Spock chase scene or how I thought Spock yelling Khan was kind of cheesy (it works much better as something Kirk would do).  However, a stronger Khan could have glided over these issues. I wonder what a movie without Khan would have been like and upgrading Admiral Marcus to primary villain.  We can only hope that the next movie (or TV show!) has a little less baggage from the previous movies.


How to Workout According the Scientists and the Bros Part 1: Programming

Here I am going to compile some of the rare facts about weightlifting that exercise science has actually given the world.  I don’t claim any expertise, this is just from reading sites like Suppversity and words from world class trainers.  Also most of this research is done on complete noobs and therefore might not be as pertinent to a more advanced trainee.

Reps: It is well established that lower number of repetitions (<6) build strength and higher (8-12) reps are for hypertrophy and even higher enhances muscular endurance.  Research has also shown that the most benefit from working out is usually achieved working with 80% of your one rep maximum.  This corresponds to somewhere in the 5-8 rep range.  So don’t be a pansy and lift heavy.

Sets: A meta-study concluded that 40% more hypertrophy is accrued with three sets over one set and that further sets have marginal benefit.  Some argue you can get strong with just one set, but this is not conclusive.  Another study compared groups doing 4, 6 and 8 sets and found that those doing more sets plateaued more slowly.  If you look at bodybuilding routines there is a lot of volume so I am inclined to believe that advanced trainees need more sets for each bodypart.

Time Between Sets:  One study showed no difference in hypertrophy for different rest times, but found greater strength increases with longer (up to five minute rests).  Another found decreasing rest times across workouts increased hypertrophy but hurt strength gains.  I would say three to five minutes is good, maybe mix in some lower rest times for cosmetic muscles (forearms, calves, maybe arms).

Workouts per Week:  Short answer is three per a bodypart for noobs and 2 for advanced.

Which exercises:  There are EMG studies on this, but it is not really an exact science.  Just make sure you hit everything with a reasonable exercise that you like.

Noob Routine:  Go with some variation of Starting Strength to learn the big lifts and build some strength.  Getting strong quickly on SS and then shifting to hypertrophy focus is going to make you bigger faster than hypertrophy from the beginning since you wont be able to lift anything at first.

SS is usually something like every other day alternating the following routines

Overhead Press

Bench Press
Barbell Row

The original Starting Strength has Power Cleans instead of barbell rows, but the program is woefully lacking in back work and power cleans are hard and not really hitting any muscle not hit by squats and deadlifts.  I would also add chin ups/pull ups to get some more bicep and back work.

Deadlifts are one set of five and everything else is three sets of five.  If you complete that at a weight, add weight next time.  You may need to decrease deadlift frequency once it gets heavy.

You will notice that it by happenstance follows most of the research in how you would construct a strength program for a completely untrained individual.


Another option I am pondering follows research that undulations of training volume (i.e. rep ranges) elicit the most gains.  Here is my take that combines Layne Norton’s PHAT, Texas Method Advanced and other upper/lower splits.  I modified Norton’s because it is an enormous volume of work and I want daily undulation rather than between workout undulation.  TMA is very powerlifting oriented and so I want to add a bit of volume for hypertrophy.

Upper Day 1:
Bench Press 3×5
Horizontal Row (Barbell, Cable, etc.)  3×5
Seated DB Shoulder Press 3×8
Chin Ups (high rep bodyweight for three sets)
Dips 3×12
Any additional arm work

Lower Day 1:
Squat 3×5
RDL 3×8
Miscellaneous (calves, forearms, abs)

Upper Day 2:
Overhead Press 3×5
Chin Ups (weighted for 3×5)
Bench Press 3×8
Horizontal Row 3×8
Dips 3×12
(arm work)

Lower Day 2:
Deadlift 1×5
RDL 2×8
Squat 3×12
Miscellaneous (calves, forearms, abs)

As you can see we are doing each muscle group twice a week and we are hitting it in different rep ranges.  This is about as close to that ridiculous “muscle confusion” that infomercials talk about that you want to get.  The goal here is to lift heavy first to increase strength and then add high rep volume for mass gains.  It is just another instance where exercise science and bro wisdom coincide.

If you don’t care about vanity muscles you can put back work on Lower Day, but I find that after squatting and deadlifting I am really tired and vanity muscle exercises are relatively easy.

Next up is supplements and nutrition.

Games as Art: Why do Video Game Stories Underwhelm?

There is a constant battle waged across the hellscape that is the internet over whether video games will ever achieve classification as capital A, Art.  I personally don’t think any game yet has achieved that distinction; games are on the whole so much more better than art.  Games have something art as we know it lacks: interactivity.  Games create experiences involving the player whereas art is mostly a passive thing.  You wander around an art gallery trying to be mature in the face of so many naked women or you pop in a movie and maybe discuss it a little bit afterwards.  However, humans are self-centered creatures so creating stories centered around them is orders of magnitude more engaging.  Get a gamer talking about an old favorite and they can conjure a dozen stories and make sure you hear every one of them.

So the real question is, when is someone going to really take storytelling to the next level by using the experience creating power of games?  I think this is why we see a push to open world game.  Instead of trying to craft a story around the player, developers are giving up and saying “here, make your own.”  Of course, this only works if the open worlds are dynamic and interesting enough and they aren’t there yet.  On the other side you have Rockstar which is increasingly making movies with gameplay sequences shoved in.  Rather than leveraging the power of games they are retreating to the familiar forms of the past.  Yet it says something about the poor state of storytelling in the industry that Rockstar is heralded as one of the best storytellers.

Games have it hard when it comes to storylines.  Take even the most long-winded fantasy series and try to isolate the action oriented bits ripe for a game.  They are rather sparse because at least at the moment games are limited in the situations they can cover and what makes engaging gameplay.  Take any First Person Shooter and you realize the main character is no different than a super hero, mowing legions of nameless soldiers with ease.  But how do you fit such a character into a reasonable plot?  There is always a disconnect between the gameplay and the reality of the story.  For instance, Aerith dying in FF7 seems ridiculous since you can just cast magic or use items to revive characters any other time from deaths much more horrific than a stab wound.

The other problem is length and monotony.  Games usually only have one gameplay system and they stretch it over hours.  Try to write a plot where you have to constantly interject sequences where the main character kills a bunch of people in a variety of locales.  Again verisimilitude breaks down but more importantly you usually have to pad the game.  It almost always becomes a series of Macguffins to keep you occupied until you have put in enough time to face the final opponent.  This is why the plot twist is so overused in video games because it allows you to basically reboot a game’s plot and dangle the player on longer.  Now games are getting shorter and this is mostly decried by the gaming public and I agree somewhat.  Who wants to pay the same amount for less content, but shorter games might lead the way to better stories if we don’t rebel.  For instance Gemini Rue was only a few hours long but managed a plot and characters equal to your typical sci-fi movie.

Lastly, the gaming audience doesn’t seem to care.  They gobble up games that seem to be written by 12 year olds for other 12 year olds.  Game developers respond by putting only a thin veneer of coherency to their games.  Even voice acting has only progressed to the point of not awful and that doesn’t even require any creativity, just money and effort.  Sometimes I wonder if I am the same, constantly skipping dialogue in games to get to the “good bits,” the actual gameplay.  I justify it by saying that it sucked, but it’s hard to say if that is true or I am just impatient.

I personally think Rockstar’s method of linear storytelling is a dead end and that open world games will eventually evolve to the point that they can create novel and exciting experiences for the players.  Right now they just kind of bore me.

Best Pictures of 2012

I have finally watched what I consider were the big three contenders for best picture last year: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. I wouldn’t have even included the last one except for the insane hype around it at the last minute before the Oscars and its eventual win. Silver Linings Playbook may be good (I will be watching it this weekend) but it is not the right genre for Best Picture wins and Django was really enjoyable but the subject and tone might be a bit much for the Academy. Everything else had no chance on account of not being received well or in Amour’s case being foreign.

Before I pronounce judgment upon these works I think it is important to point out how similar they are. All of them are based on true stories and all of them are far more interested in their plot than anything else; even Lincoln, which despite the name is really about passing the 13th amendment. What this means is that the characters are poorly sketched for the most part. Affleck in Argo is basically an unknown which makes the epilogue where he reunites with his estranged family completely saccharine and pointless and nobody else has enough screen time to matter.  ZDT’s main character has but one attribute which is overzealousness to the point of insubordination, but this fervor is not motivated at all.  Lincoln ably rounds out the titular character, but his personality seems fairly ancillary to the story or maybe it’s hard for me to grasp how fervently he wanted to abolish slavery when now slavery is regarded nearly universally as evil of the vilest sort.

Let me hit each film individually starting with Argo.  Argo is a good film, one of the best of the year even, but it is in no way exceptional.  It takes a rather interesting sidestory of the Iran hostage situation and either blandly depicts it or tries to spice it up with Hollywood inanities.  The film is so focused on the rescue operation that it has nothing particularly interesting to say about the broader events.  As stated above the characters are fairly shallow despite the movie centering on a small group of hostages with Affleck’s character not adding anything substantive.  He goes through the motions of a hero but is so withdrawn that it feels like he is being forced.  Finally, the final escape is full of stupid guards and manufactured tension and the closing scene with Mendez’s family reunion is similarly artificial and unmoving.

Zero Dark Thirty is wildly overrated.  It’s not as good as Hurt Locker and that movie was slightly overrated as well.  The problem with ZDT is that it mostly plays like an elongated episode of a crime procedural.  Admittedly, the process of finding OBL was likely long and tedious, but films should spice up reality.  Perhaps the most annoying thing about all of this is the main character who apparently is the only one of any use in finding OBL and is completely obnoxious about it.  I really doubt that this was a one person effort.  In fact I doubt most of the movie since most of this stuff is still classified.  The sad thing is that Maya’s partner Dan is far more interesting as a character, troubled by the horrible shit he has done.  Maya on the other hand is pretty much stoic all the time and we know virtually nothing about her except that she is a “killer”, read: a know-it-all bitch.  Thankfully the last 30 minutes is masterfully executed and tense.

Finally we have Lincoln, which you may have guessed is my favorite of the three.  I remarked to my wife that they should have called it West Wing: 1865.  As I said before this movie is not really about Lincoln, but his attempt to pass the thirteenth amendment and all the politics that went into it.  It does this very well with a lot of rousing speeches and somber moments from characters other than Lincoln.  Even with Lincoln’s part in the movie downplayed, Daniel Day Lewis’ scenes are usually riveting.  He does a great job as an actor taking bewildering stories and lending them gravitas, but the writing really deserves the credit.  The movie even has some well timed comedy.  All that aside, the reason this is a better movie is that I actually got choked up a couple times.  Yes, actual emotions welled up inside me, something neither of the other two movies managed to even got close to doing.

In conclusion, Spielberg got robbed.  Which is sad because he has been off his game for awhile (his last really good film IMO was Minority Report) and for his comeback to be snubbed is a bit unfair.  In twenty years Lincoln will be remembered fondly while people will struggle to remember the the title of Affleck’s picture.