Friday, April 4, 2014

A spoiler-light review/comparison of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers

I’m going to potentially sacrifice the nerd cred I’ve cultivated over the last several years and say Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a much better movie than The Avengers overall.

Yes, I mean that, and no, I’m not a contrarian dweeb who says stuff like it just because he knows most people will think the opposite. After spending two-plus hours in a packed IMAX screening room – with a crowd so captivated by the movie I barely heard anyone speak once the lights dimmed, I might add – I can say with some authority that I enjoyed The Winter Soldier on a whole different level than I did The Avengers.

The difference? Lots of stuff, but it comes down to two big points: The Avengers was a summer popcorn flick, and Joss Whedon didn’t have anything major (if anything) to do with Winter Soldier.

Again, I’m not being one of those dweebs when I say Whedon’s whole bag is getting a little played out with me. I’ve never liked his stuff. I didn’t like Buffy, straight-up hated Dr. Horrible, and only found Cabin in the Woods entertaining at certain points – namely the ones where the D-bag characters weren’t flapping their stupid idiot gums.

In fact, besides the (admittedly wonderful and brilliant) Toy Story, it’s fair to say Mr. Whedon’s style and my tastes don’t really intersect at all. That’s not a knock on him or his work – it’s just not for me.

His characters are smug, and despite any superficial differences, they all have the same personality: Snippy, snarky, too smart for their own good. Ready to throw out a castaway one-liner at a moment’s notice. Ready to sacrifice the movie’s pacing and general integrity to steal a quick, cheap laugh from the audience. It feels like every character in his films should be sporting a fedora and a heavy neckbeard. Like all the dialogue could have been posted in a particularly droll reddit thread instead of delivered by superheroes or doomed horror-movie teens or what have you.

Winter Soldier is, in many ways, much more of a superhero movie than The Avengers. It’s not a comedy, though it does pack a few laughs in; it’s not a mindless action flick, though the action sequences were some of the best I’ve seen, especially on the spectacular IMAX screen.

Compare this to Avengers, which mostly felt like a string of solid action scenes strung together by superheroes trying their hardest to be the biggest smartass in the group, and you start to understand why I think Winter Soldier is the superior product.

True to the headline, I’m going to remain as spoiler-free as possible here. I mean that for comic fans and non-readers alike, since I mostly belong to the latter group. Anything that does resemble a spoiler will be clearly marked, with plenty of space for you neurotic types to skip around it… that said, if you think me mentioning the existence of certain characters constitutes spoiling the film, well, you might want to go look for a different review/critique.

You also might want to stop being such a nitpicky baby. Just saying.

On that note, the differences between Whedon’s Black Widow and the one featured in Winter Soldier illustrate exactly why his characterization rubs me the wrong way. In Avengers, we’re introduced to the character via one of his classic “witty” exchanges – she’s tied to a chair, and her captors are big, mean, scary dudes, but they still stop to let her talk on the phone.

Even though she’s tied to that chair, however, she makes it clear she’s still in control – as I recall, she says something to the effect of “I almost had what I wanted from them” – and then she proceeds to kick evil military dude butt. I’m pretty sure she says some other snarky thing prior to walking off.

To be clear, I am not at all opposed to the idea of strong females in film. There should be more of them. But just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there are certainly more sorts of composed, self-confident women than the wisecracking, plucky, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better variety. I’m aware that this character is one of Whedon’s calling cards – as is anyone who has seen more than 15 minutes of his work – but that doesn’t mean every single lady in every single film has to act that way. Joss apparently doesn’t understand that.

While Winter Soldier definitely features more of Ms. Romanova, and is definitely more dependent on her development as a character to further the plot, the differences go beyond that. In Avengers, as with many other characters, she largely exists to fight and wisecrack. Here, she develops realistically – a challenge for anyone in a Marvel movie, let alone one with a backstory like hers.

SPOILER: She’s conflicted about her identity, the actions she’s taken to survive in both the US and Russia, and who she thinks she can trust – she’s also much more of a “gray hat” character than the ultra-skilled bad guy killing machine we see in Avengers.

A lot of this comes from necessity. We need a character nearly as skilled as the good Captain himself, but one with a vastly different set of morals, to foil the All American Good Boy image Rogers is supposed to represent, especially throughout the film’s early going. Romanova lies; Rogers tells the truth. Romanova kills; Rogers is much more inclined to knock the target out or brutally break his limbs or something.

The story sees similar degrees of subtle change, and the movie is all the better for it.

To get something out of the way up front: Yes, I realize one movie was a summer blockbuster type of film and the other is an early-spring sequel, thus allowing it to be headier and smarter in general than its Whedon-built counterpart. That still doesn’t excuse Joss from filling his narrative with points so thin and light they might float away in a strong gust – especially considering how heavy the topics in Winter Soldier can get.

SPOILER: Much of the movie’s plot come from current-day events. Without giving too much away, there’s a big focus on spying here: Like the NSA, countless organizations are intent upon stealing data from the public in this film, and the ever-popular “threat of terrorism versus appeal of safety” motif is obvious throughout as well.

Is any of that groundbreaking stuff? Absolutely not. But the film is deep and relevant enough to create discussion among adults and teens alike, something I noticed from both camps leaving the theater this afternoon. Compared to Avengers, whose overarching idea seems to be “big aliens are bad,” we have a film that operates on a whole different level of thought in Winter Soldier.

We know that big budget, summertime superhero blockbusters can approach ideas like these. All three of Nolan’s Batman films did. So, to a much smaller degree, did both iterations of Sony’s Spider-Man

In a lot of ways, differences like these almost make me feel like I’m comparing apples and oranges, despite the films coming from the same company and being set in the same universe. It’s also worth noting that not every summer blockbuster needs a subtextual critique of the government or society to be worthwhile. Sometimes we just want to watch shit explode, and Avengers was at least great on that front.

It’s just that, with superhero movies, that kind of focus makes a lot of sense. Many of the characters we know and love today come from some sort of political unrest of social concern – taking that away from them in their biggest on-screen gathering ever seems like a near-sighted move.

So, yes, people do go to superhero movies to watch muscly dudes in spandex battle it out. Others like the interconnected story lines and consistent universes across franchises and films. But a lot of people go to see those issues compared to their own daily lives reflected somehow…  doing away with that angle feels like visiting a relative you only see once every couple of years, only to find he’s become a little more shallow each time.

I’m sure Winter Soldier will blow box-office doors off. I’m also confident it’ll generate some useful discussion about the value of personal data and the destructive things that can befall anyone who doesn’t monitor it carefully, particularly among younger people.

It’s exactly the kind of conversation current and future voters need to be having, what with campaign contribution laws vanishing and the NSA monitoring its own citizens (and their neighbors) without any sort of effective oversight. At this point, that kind of awareness is basically the only thing that can lead us from this hole we’ve dug ourselves into by not speaking up earlier.

And even if I’m being dramatic, it’s a damn sight better than three straight hours of scary aliens, spectacular explosions, and plucky, sarcastic females. They stop being “one”-liners when that’s all anyone speaks in, Joss. Just an FYI. :)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The curious case of Adobe Muse

I'm not sure what to think of Adobe Muse.

On one hand, it allowed me to make a website. This website, to be exact. Not easily -- and, for that matter, not without at least two moments where issues with the software quite literally frustrated me to tears -- but it at least made the task possible. For someone whose HTML knowledge stops at linking and formatting text, that's huge.

On the other, well, it frustrated me to tears at least twice. It's also unintuitive, incompatible with several other products within the Adobe Creative Cloud family, and unable to handle several next-to-crucial website features: Vector graphics, CMS integration, and a bunch more stuff I know of but don't understand well enough to explain in short terms after a colon.

For those of you unwilling to click the link I provided, here's what I ended up making:

By the way, you can visit it at You can even hire me if you want. As you can see, I'm clearly a great shill. 

To be fair, every bit of criticism in this post should be tempered with the knowledge that I'm far from a Creative Cloud guru. I'm good with Illustrator, okay with Photoshop/Fireworks/Animate CC/Premiere, and not-so-hot with everything else. 

Then again, I'm basically the kind of person Adobe designed Muse for in the first place. 

Kind of. The inability to work with Illustrator caused me some serious issues: I had to figure out how to make my logo a PNG without also making it look like pixelated garbage, for instance, a task that took nearly as long as building the rest of the site.

Then we have the above-mentioned CMS unfriendliness, which is why I'm hosting this blog here instead of under my own domain in the first place. I know how to implement it with some iFrame trickery (i.e. pasting the address in some code I also pasted), but that can apparently get you on Google's bad side, since their automated systems tend to think you're scraping other content instead of posting your own in a roundabout way. 

If anything, familiarity with other Adobe layout/design products is a double-edged sword for Muse users. The high-level concepts are the same, and so are many of the nuts-and-bolts functions. Other features aren't there, however, while others are unintuitive or completely out of sync with the rest of the platform. 

Let's take a look at a critical command in the world of Adobe: Zooming in. 

With Illustrator/Photoshop/pretty much everything else in the suite, you hit control/alt/option and scroll your mousewheel to get closer to the page or move further away. With Muse, you hit Ctrl+= or Ctrl+-.That sucks. Capital-S, boldfaced-and-italicized Sucks

For those of you rolling your eyes at me or saying something hilarious about "first world problems" or whatever, think about it like tying your shoes. You've probably been doing it one specific way your whole life, right? How would you feel if you got a new pair of shoes -- a pair that, for some reason, you desperately needed to wear in order to expand your business -- and the laces only tied up if you did it a very specific, totally unfamiliar, less efficient way than you're used to? 

Crummy. Miserable, even. You'd cuss every time you tried to do it the old-fashioned way. As someone with poor eyesight and a near-neurotic need to make sure every image and text box and colored rectangle aligns just so, I tie my proverbial new shoes maybe 40 times a day. Sometimes a lot more than that. And most of those times, I start by doing it the wrong way out of habit first. Again, that Sucks

Now for something I love. 

I'm an old-school print guy. Like I said further up, my design experience mostly comes from my time at a small-town newspaper, where uniform rectangles were encouraged and a color edition meant there was some crazy stuff going on in town. Back in those days, I would have killed for a feature like this: 

I'm sure auto-aligning like that is nothing for a professional designer (or most experienced amateurs). For everyone else, what you're looking at are boxes that tell me exactly how well the text box I'm placing line up with everything else in the immediate area. The green boxes above and below, for instance, tell me the text box sits perfectly between the line at the bottom and some text at the top. 

Here's a larger look: 

That goes a long way towards fixing my align-just-right neurosis. Though I'd be lying if I said I don't zoom in to make sure the software got it right most of the time. 

There's also a semi-decent number of built-in widgets, covering everything from lines to lightboxes to full-on presentations. Some, like the webform option, are only really useful if you host your site through Adobe's service, which I think is kind of lame. Others I really enjoy. Here's an example of the latter: 

That's my portfolio page -- which you can find at, a site you can also use to hire me  -- and I'm pretty darn happy with it. While the stock portfolio widget is fairly ugly, I was able to edit pretty much every aspect, including basic stuff like fonts and button locations all the way up to what the links look like when you mouse over them. 

And you should mouse over them, because that would mean going to my site. Which is located at and has information on how you can hire me. 

Then, finally, are the bugs. I don't care to talk about the little stuff like the menu text flickering when I scroll (which isn't function-breaking or anything, just a little annoying), but this doozy is certainly worth mentioning to my loving audience of dozen(s): 

That, awesome readers, is what my site looks like in Chrome when I load it. But only on my copy of Chrome, and then only until I change my zoom level. Even if I scroll back to the original level, the text is there, smiling back at me, ready to convince people I'm the guy for the job. And I totally am. At my site at

I can't get the issue to reproduce on my tablets, my laptop, or anyone else's computer. It doesn't even happen to me all the time. It made its first appearance about thirty seconds after I first uploaded my work to the Web, however, and that was a major problem at the time -- one of the two or so that made little tears of Internet rage well up in my eyes. 

Final impressions

I'm thrilled that Muse came included with my Creative Cloud subscription. If you saw my old site, which looked like absolute garbage, you'd understand why. It's decently intuitive and, in some ways, surprisingly powerful as desktop Web publishing platform. 

I'm not nearly as happy with some of the features (or lack thereof), especially as it pertains to Illustrator integration. I'm hoping they'll come -- I'd love full-on vector editing from within the software, or at least the ability to drag Illustrator vectors over now as I do with Photoshop -- but they aren't there as it sits. For a company that preaches and sells interplay between their powerful tools, not to mention one who sells said products to countless designers with little or no coding ability, that's what the French like to call a megabummer. 

In other words: Muse is an awesomely helpful, incredibly flawed, some-other-adjectively ambitious piece of software that lets people with limited HTML experience build decent-looking sites. The better your are at coding, the more likely you'll find it lacking, but for me it's wonderful. Just like my site, where you can...

Screw it. I'm done for the day. Leave a comment if you have questions or an answer for one of mine. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Dear everyone looking for a freelance writer:

You need to figure out who the hell you want to hire.

Straight up. I've been monitoring job sources from here to the ends of the Internet for a long time. Way back when, here's what a typical (if slightly generic) call for writers might look like: 

Strong writer needed for (industry) blog covering (topics). Ability to hit deadlines and promptly respond to emails required. Knowledge of (industry) required. Please send a copy of your resume, a short cover letter, and three short clips to...

You get the point. A call expressing a need for a writer. 

Here's what that same post might say today: 

Strong writer needed for (industry) blog covering (topics). Knowledge of (industry) required. Gigantic social media following required. Klout score of approximately sixteen billion required. Ability to post the content you create on other, high-ranking sites required. Connections in several major industries required, but not for research... we just want more free marketing out of you. Oh, and we pay $2 for every 500 words and need 12 articles a day. 
I see this kind of garbage all the time. And not just on sites like Freelancer and so on, where greedy people with no understanding of the industry prey on people who don't know how much their work is worth, either: I'm talking on respected job sources professionals have been using to find gigs for ages.

Pardon my language, but it's straight-up, unadulterated, weapons-grade bullshit of the highest level.

Do you need that kind of work done for your product/service/seedy SEO-spam blog? Fine. Ask for online marketing managers or "brand visibility optimizers" or whatever else you want to call it.

But don't ask for writers.

Listen, I understand why people ask for this stuff. People are obsessed with content going viral -- a term so run into the ground you'd dig up the Oak Island Money Pit before you found it -- and they want to make sure they get the most value for their money. But asking me to handle your writing and your marketing and your business connections and to do it all on a one-off basis isn't just unrealistic, it's insulting.

I do all sorts of writing, for marketing firms and big companies and small-time, web-based startups. That's because I'm a writer.

What I am not is a shill. When you ask me to spam your product to my social media following -- a group of friends and other people who have chosen to follow my posts because they find my content interesting -- simply for the fact that I'm producing content for you, well, we have a problem.

If I find the project interesting I will probably share the completed product. I'm proud of what I do. Wanting to share the work when I'm finished is natural. But judging the quality of my work on the size of my social media following, my Klout score, or my ability to network with people in fields totally unrelated to mine isn't cool. It's -- again -- unrealistic and insulting.

Marketing writers produce the content, marketing managers figure out a way to spread it around the Internet. I'm certainly responsible for a large part of that, but not in the way these ads suggest. If my content is good, people will share it, and that's my part of the equation. This isn't a "that's not my job" thing, it's a "you're trying to get one person to handle ten different job functions" thing.

If you want crummy work from people who "spin" articles and post them to a social media following comprised mostly of spambots, take it to Freelancer or some other portal/bidding site. Don't fill up the ProBloggers and BloggingPros of the world with your tripe.

If you want a writer, on the other hand, fire away. I would love the opportunity to work for you, and so would all the other people I'm competing against/working with on a daily basis.

I understand the insane amount of so-called "backroom" stuff that goes on in the online content sphere, the importance of high visibility, and the lengths people will go to to get their stuff seen. I also understand that asking me to abuse all that stuff is a sure-fire way to put my mouse pointer on the Back button.

There's a reason so many of these posts hang around on the major sites, and it's definitely not because they're getting filled at such a fast rate people need more of them. It's because the jobs aren't getting filled, and thus the people posting them aren't taking them down.

Think about that the next time you need someone to craft words for your project. You'll get better responses from better writers, and that inevitably ends in better work.

You damn well better not ask my Klout score in the follow-up email, though. At least if you want a response back.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Some more thoughts on criticism

If you've read my About page -- and you totally should if you haven't -- you might have seen the last paragraph or two, which briefly outlines my feelings toward criticism. For those of you who haven't, it says this:
Is this more suited to a blog post? Maybe, but I think it's important enough to mention here. In short: There is no improvement without criticism. Part of being a pro is knowing what advice to take and what advice to ignore. When I'm being paid to produce content, there's a lot more of the former than the latter.
Having worked in many collaborative environments, I've seen plenty of hot-shot freelancers who balk at the idea of rewrites and approach re-dos in general as a pain or problem to deal with. That, in my opinion, is a poisonous attitude to have in any field...
And then I go on to brag about myself. You'll notice this is not an uncommon thing.

Inflated ego aside, however, the topic of criticism (and the way people take it) is very important to me. As a dude with a liberal arts degree, I've spent an insane amount of time in workshops. It's pretty much the same thing no matter what sort of art you produce. The more subjective your area of study, the more time people get to spend discussing their thoughts on what you've created. If there's no right answer, after all, everyone's opinion is equally valid.

Everyone's except yours, that is.

Why do I say this? Because no matter how harsh the critique you're receiving may be, no matter how obvious it is the dude offering it wants nothing more than to impress the professor with his brilliant critical skills, you're going to come off as the bigger jerk the second you start taking your work so seriously you feel the need to defend it against the opinion.

Take a second and watch this video.

 I wouldn't presume to know the situation behind the girl's outburst, but I do know she's a Z-grade internet celeb simply because she took her work too seriously, and it led her to the dark side. That's not melodrama or an outdated Star Wars reference, either: I firmly believe that, until you've reached some serious level of success with your work, the worst thing you can do is care about it to a point where that kind of reaction is the right thing to do in your head.

What does it matter? To some degree, everything we create is for other people, assuming we go out of our way to show it to others. Those people may or may not be able to take the work home with them when the critique's over; either way, it becomes theirs the moment you voluntary offer it up.

Creating anything comes down to observation and practice. The girl in the video obviously has some talent, which means she has taste, which means she has the skill needed to look at something and say "this is good/bad because X and Y." Passively or actively, inwardly or outwardly, she consumes and critiques media, too. Reacting like that doesn't just show how immature she is, despite her talent with a paintbrush -- it demonstrates a belief that, on some level, her work isn't deserving of the exact same thing she does to other peoples' stuff.

That's a fairly arrogant attitude to have about one's work, don't you think?