Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Introducing Chomsky by John Maher and Judy Groves

(Book Review)

This is part of the "Introducing..." series, by Icon Books, which seek to introduce great thinkers and philosophers in comic book type fashion.

...Which, with apologies, brings me to a quick point of station identification.
Since I started this book review project, I have meticulously reviewed every single book that I've completed reading. I have not, however, extended that to include comic books. (One has to draw the line somewhere, otherwise you'll spend your whole life reviewing every piece of media you come across). So, even though I've read several comic books this past year--more than I care to admit to at my age--I've not reviewed any of them on this blog. (Although - I - have - reviewed - books- based- off- of comic books.)

This book walks the line, but it's not really a pure comic book. It's more of a text with lots of pictures. So I'm counting it as a book.

I bought this book because I thought it would be useful for my applied linguistics course. And, I thought the illustrations would help to make this a fairly painless introduction to Chomsky's grammatical theories. (Despite being a long time fan of Chomsky's political work, I've never yet come across a primer on Chomsky's grammar theories that I could completely understand.)

Unfortunately, despite the eye-catching pictures that fill up this book, the actual text of it is quiet dense and hard to make sense of. To give a typical example from page 15.

E-Language and I-Language
Chomsky originally developed the notion of competence, which is the system of knowledge that a native speaker possesses. This cognitive system or domain is reformulated, rather differently, as I-language: a state of the mind-brain. I-language is what a child acquires when it learns language: an instantiation of the initial state. It is highly abstract, remote from ordinary behaviour and mechanisms. By contrast, E-language means external, extensional, any concept of language that is not internal to the mind-brain. So, if one refers to "Irish" as the language they talk where it is dotted orange on a map of Ireland, that's a case of E-language. It bears conceptual resemblance but no special relation to the earlier term performance--how language is actually used. E-language relates neither to competence nor performance, which are about organisms, nor to complicated socio-political constructs.

Understand all that? I certainly didn't. (And I know I took that above quote out of context, but trust me it doesn't make any more sense in context.)
I read it over several times, and then just shrugged my shoulders and moved on. And basically the whole first half of the book was like that.
In fact, the only parts of the grammar theory I understood were the parts I had previous knowledge of from Steven Pinker's explanation of Chomsky in "The Language Instinct".

Of course I could be just unusually dense, so I went over to amazon.com to check out what other people were saying:

... I gave up trying one third into the book. Not only are the technical terms not defined, but any attempt to derive their meaning or establish relationships between concepts failed.Much of the argument is enigmatic rather than explanatory. Many utterances seem to be drawn out of context...

...I could not recommend it to a non-linguist who wanted an introduction to Chomsky's thought. There's simply too much use of technical terms without defining them, mixing of difficult technical concepts, etc....

...Utterly fails to make it understandable for begginers. I found myself drowning in a subject I didn't particularly want to read about anyway...

...The book might make sense for someone already well familar with Chomsky's ideas but it didn't help me much, I just gave up on this one as not the place to start....

...this book didn't explain all the technical terms too well, or at all. I finished this book with hardly anything learned about linguistics...

...for almost the entire book, its about chomsky on linguistics which, by the way, MADE NO SENSE AT ALL!!!!! it was just so confusing, which was the whole point of making an introduction in the first place!...

You begin to see a pattern here perhaps?
I understand that the author John Mayer was locked into the comic book format because this book was part of a series. But I wished (and apparently most other people did to) that instead of an illustration taking up most of the page, the author would actually take time out to careful explain what he was talking about.

The first 120 pages are dedicated to Chomsky's linguistic theories. I struggled through them as best I could, and I like to think that for all my confusion I learned maybe one or two things from it.

The last 50 pages are on Chomsky's political theories.
And fortunately this is much easier to understand.

It's hard to succinctly introduce someone like Chomsky, who is a walking encyclopedia on just about every political event of the last 100 years. But an attempt is made, and some of Chomsky's more notable thoughts are introduced (some of his opinions on Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Vietnam.)
And the book also firmly grounds Chomsky in the anarchist tradition. (I've been debating some Trotskyists lately who have been trying to claim Chomsky for their own, so it was nice to see his anarchist credentials re-affirmed.)

This part of the book is alright, as far as it goes. But one wonders if Chomsky's politics even need an introduction, or if Chomsky speaks well enough on his own. Unlike Chomsky's grammatical theories, his political speeches are very simple and straight forward. Simply watch any clip of Chomsky on youtube, or pick up any of his books. (Or watch "Rebel Without a Pause" or Power and Terror.") You'll find out where he stands on the issues very quickly.

The author John Mayer seems like a good person with his heart in the right place, but unfortunately some flaws remain in this book.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky On Corporate Propaganda

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Down Under by Bill Bryson

(Book Review)

I actually read the British edition of this book. (Some British friends were moving out of their apartment in Japan, and gave it to me before they left.)
I flipped through the American version, and there do appear to be some differences between them. I'm not sure if this is a major issue or not, but I've decided to play it safe and review this under the British title "Down Under", even though it is probably more familiar in America as "In a Sunburned Country."

I've discovered Bill Bryson a bit late, but it's safe to say I'm becoming a fan. (For other books of his that I've read, see also:
"The Mother Tongue",
"A Walk in the Woods",
"The Lost Continent",
and "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid".

Outside of Bryson, I'm not really famaliar with travel writers, but I always pictured the genre as filled with a lot of books about strong people going through rough places.

Bryson, however, seems to spend a lot of time talking about where he stopped for a cup of coffee. Or the food he ate at the hotel. Or the conversation he had with a waitress at the bar.

It's the "normal guy out having a look" type quality to his books that make them a lot of fun to read.

(An exception to this life of easy travel might be the grueling hike he and Stephen Katz did in "A Walk in the Woods." But even there, what makes that book such a classic is the blatant "fish-out-of-water" quality these too have as they attempt to conquer the trail, and end up bickering with each other the whole time.)

When reading Bryson's books, I always feel kind of inspired to go out and have my own little adventures, and then write up something. (I took a lot of inspiration from him for my "Better Know a City" project, or at least the second wind I got on it two years ago, shortly after reading a couple of his books.)

However, comparing my own efforts to Bryson's, I'm reminded of what my Calvin English professors used to always stress: the kind of breezy conversation tone in good writers, which appears so effortless, is actually very difficult to write. It takes a lot of revision and hard work to achieve that casual tone.

How much work Bryson puts into his prose I don't know, but he has got the easy conversational tone down pat, making him a perfect guide for any sort of travel book.

I read this book on the plane on my way in to Australia, and it's been really neat the past few weeks to actually see in person the things Bryson talks about in the book.

...Although when one reads a travel book about an area one is visiting, I suppose one would just expect as a matter of course to see in person at least some of the things described in the book. So I don't know why it was a big deal to me whenever I saw some sort of landmark Bryson mentioned, but it was. Perhaps because Bryson is so famous, and perhaps because he's almost more of a humor writer than a travel writer, I was always like, "Hey, that's just what the famous guy was talking about in his book."

And although I have, as of this writing, yet to venture anywhere beyond walking distance from Melbourne University, I've already managed to see several little things that got passing references in this book.

And so, I was delighted when I saw Crown Casino, and realized it was the same Casino Bryson mentioned in his book.
And also when I saw a statue commemorating the tragic expedition of Burke and Wills, and realized I had read about this in Bryson's book.
I set off to see the "Immigration Museum" in Melbourne, precisely because Bryson had talked about it in this book.
And when I visited the Parliament building in Melbourne, I knew it had also once been a national capital because Bryson had mentioned it in his book.
And when an Australian friend pointed out to me the jail where Ned Kelly (W) was hanged, I knew the whole story from this book.
And the infamous Melbourne right turns--this book again filled me in, so the other day when some people were complaing about driving in Melbourne, I knew what everyone was complaining about.
And, the argument between Australian politicians Abbot and Costello (which Bryson has a laugh at in his book) is apparently still going on. Just saw an article about it in the Melbourne paper the other day (link).


And that brings up another good point about this book: it's one of those books that teaches you a lot of stuff without you even realizing it. You think you're just having fun reading about Bryson and his zany adventures, but without knowing it you suddenly develop a wealth of knowledge about Australia. Several times already since I started reading this book, someone has tried to tell me something about Australian culture, and I've found myself saying, "Yes, I already know that. It was in Bill Bryson's book."

One final note:
Bryson relates that some of the Australians he meets (particularly the ones on the Indian Pacific Railroad) have unfortunate attitudes about the Aboriginal people.
While living in Japan, I've also noticed that some of the older Australians can casually refer to the Aboriginals using terms that would be considered politically incorrect back in the United States.
But I should also say that among Australians my own age or younger, I've not observed this same attitude. In fact many younger Australians seem very sensitive to the Aboriginal issues.

I've also noticed in my brief time at the University of Melbourne that they will frequently begin large assemblies by acknowledging the Aboriginal tribes who originally owned the land the university is standing on.

I don't remember any assemblies back home begin by acknowledging the Native American tribes. Wouldn't be a bad idea though.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Nicaragua - and international law

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

(Book Review)

Like “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “The Mother Tongue," this is another book I read to help me get ready for my applied linguistics course.
Since I have no idea what I’m getting into with this course, I’m not sure whether or not any of these books will be useful. But this one was definitely very informative about linguistics in general.

The book is written to make the last 60 or so years of linguistic research available to the more general public, and is written in an appropriately engaging style designed to appeal to a wide audience. Steven Pinker is a talented writer, and infuses his prose liberally with jokes, dry wit, and references to pop culture.

For example, in his chapter on mentalese (examining whether thoughts are based on words, or if thoughts are simply translated into words), Pinker begins the discussion with a lengthy quotation from George Orwell’s “1984,” which includes the following:
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words….”
The quotation goes on for a bit, but afterwards Pinker examines whether this would really be true.
As someone who has read “1984” numerous times (or rather, via audiobook listened to it numerous times) I’ve always been intrigued by that question, and was grateful to see Pinker take it on.

And much of the book is like that. The chapter on real life human speech patterns is illustrated by a lengthy quotation from the Nixon Watergate tapes. The difference between German grammar and English grammar is demonstrated by quoting Mark Twain. Woody Allen and Saturday Night Live references abound. The whole book is full of little treats to make the subject matter more interesting.

That being said, parts of this book were a challenge for me. Especially the more technical parts, where Pinker describes what happens when our brains decode the meaning of a grammatical sentence.
I could get through it, but I needed to sit in a quiet room with no distractions, and often had to read the same paragraph several times over before the meaning sunk it.
(As someone who reads almost exclusively trashy novels and arm-chair histories, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to any sort of technical reading. Other people might have an easier time of it than I did.)

However, once I did put in the hard work to understand the book, I usually found what Pinker had to say to be quite fascinating. I always taken language for granted like I do breathing, and never really thought about what goes on in my brain when I hear a sentence. Or why my brain can easily understand a sentence like:
“Remarkable is the rapidity of the motion of the wing of the hummingbird,”
But struggles with a sentence like:
“The dog the stick the fire burned beat bit the cat.”

The book is heavily based off of Chomsky’s theories of universal grammar.
Since I, like most people, know about Chomsky exclusively through his - political - work, it is easy to forget that he leads another life as the world’s most prominent linguist. But I didn’t realize the full impact of his work until I read Pinker’s book. The way Pinker describes it, Chomsky created the model that all subsequent linguistic work has been based off of.

And this book serves as a very good introduction to Chomsky’s theories on universal grammar.
I have, once or twice in my youth, picked up introductory books on Chomsky’s grammar theories, just out of curiosity. This was the only book I could remotely understand. Even though parts of it required some concentration, it’s much more readable than anything else I’ve come across.

A couple other quick notes:
*Because this book was published in 1994, I imagine much of the information in it might be a bit dated, especially because Pinker is constantly saying things like, “Scientific research is just on the verge of figuring out this problem.”

* As a complete novice to the subject area, I more or less accepted everything Pinker had to say as concrete facts. I’ve since read a couple of reviews on-line, which have criticized him for emphasizing this or that theory, and dismissing others.

Link of the Day
Hopes And Prospects (Amnesty International Lecture)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Avatar

(Movie Review)

I had read several reviews of this movie before seeing it. I don't know about you, but it seemed to me that pretty much all the reviewers had the same take on it. The same themes kept popping up in review after review, (and friends I talked to repeated this as well). They all said:
1). The visuals are really great, and
2). The story is just a rip off of "Dances with Wolves"/ "Ferngully"/ "The Last Samurai"/ Those old Jimmy Stewart movies, et cetera.

Well, I'll start with the number 1.
Yes, the visuals are pretty impressive.

I had read a couple reviews which had said something to the effect of, "These are the most spectacular battle scenes ever put to film."
And, maybe my expectations were raised too high, but I was slightly disappointed when the battle scenes didn't completely blow me away.
They were exciting, yes, but I'm not sure they were particularly better than hundreds of other movies I've seen before.

More than the battle scenes, I suppose the impressive thing about this movie is just the whole look of this alien world : the floating mountains, the spectacular waterfalls, the glowing plants, and the vibrant green jungles.
I'm usually not a big fan of CGI, but this was well done enough that I didn't mind. Sure it was all computer animation, but it didn't look like it was computer animation. And so you could really take in the beauty of this planet and forget, for a moment, that what you are looking at was just a computer generated image. Several times I even caught myself thinking, "That looks really beautiful. I'll have to find out where they filmed that."

Okay, onto the second point, the fact that this story is just a rip-off of Dances with wolves, Last Samurai, Ferngully, those old Jimmy Stewart movies...
(And actually well I'm on it, the spirit tree reminded me a lot of Disney's "Pocahontas", and the big battle between an advanced technological army and a forest tribe reminded me a lot of "Return of the Jedi".)

Since Hollywood is constantly recycling story lines (and each cookie cutter movie seems more like the last) I'm not sure how big of a deal this is. Can we forgive a little repetition of the plot themes in this movie, when we forgive it in just about every other formulaic movie? I guess this is something that every viewer will have to decide for him or her self.

The big difference between a movie like this, and say, your basic formulaic action movie, is that this movie gets preachy. You can easily forgive the recycled plot of a mindless action movie, but when this movie is trying to make you feel, you get a bit more critical.

Or put another way: I'll put up with a movie trying to make me feel emotional about the plight of the Sioux. I have less patience for a movie that tries to make me feel sad about the blue people.

That being said, overall I liked the anti-imperial message of the film. (As a liberal, I suppose you would expect no less of me. I certainly have nothing but disdain for those right wing critics who questioned Cameron's patriotism).

However, I do think this movie was overly simplistic.
In this movie Giovanni Ribisi, the evil corporate chief, states quite openly that he is willing to kill the Na'vi in order to get the precious minerals. And the army is quite willing to do the killing for him. Nice simple bad guys with nice simple motives.

Reality is a lot more complex than that. Motivations for taking over a foreign land are seldom that nakedly obvious.

For example, you could always invade for the natives' own good.
The idea of invading to spread Christianity among the natives is perhaps a bit dated now. But the idea of invading to spread democracy is still a valid excuse. (And if there happens to be lots of valuable resources in the region, or if the land has strategic value, that's just an added bonus.)

Or, you could invade for humanitarian reasons (like the British got involved in the Sudan to stop the slave trade) and just help yourself to the resources well your there.

Or you could get involved initially for humanitarian reasons, but then subtle racism causes a slippery slope where you start massacring the very people you came in to help (Mi Lai massacre in Vietnam, Haditha in Iraq)

Or you could claim that the area represented a security threat to your nation (Cromwell in Ireland, US in Iraq), or that it was unstable and was a breeding ground for terrorists.

Or you could invade to help one side in a civil war (British in Afghanistan, US in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan, Caesar in Gaul, et cetera).

Or you could establish a puppet government (Japan in Manchuria).

Or you could just bribe the local elites, and cut them in on your profits as you rape the land. And if someone protests you, you could lean on the local government to execute the dissenters (Shell Oil in Nigeria).

Or if the current government refuses to cooperate, you could aid a military coup (Chile in 1971, Guatemala 1954, Iran 1953, et cetera).

Well, you get the point hopefully. Seldom do the bad guys simply say straight out, "We're going to kill the Na'vi so we can get their land." And seldom do they just go in with guns blazing. Usually they get themselves invited in someway.

And in that respect, I think this movie would have been a lot better had it acknowledged this complexity.
Especially because we as a culture already know it's wrong to invade another country without any cause. And so you could question whether we really need a movie with a message so obvious.

But, I guess you could argue that we don't go to the movies for political complexity. We go to see simple morality plays, and this is a simple story with a simple moral. A place where the good guys always win, the bad guys always get what's coming to them, and all of life's problems are solved with some really cool action scenes.

Final verdict: definitely worth seeing once, but I'm not sure I'm going to be re-watching it any time soon.

Link of the Day
Chomsky Interview

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Three Empires on the Nile by Dominic Green

(Book Review)

"In a major Arab nation, a secular tyranny is toppled by Western intervention, but an Islamic backlash turns the liberators into occupiers.
Caught between interventionists at home and radical Islam abroad, a prime minister flounders. His ministers betray him, his alliances fall apart, and a run-away general makes policy in the field. As the media accuse Western soldiers of barbarity and a region slides into chaos, the Armies of God clash on an ancient river, and an accidental empire arises.
This is not the Middle East in the twenty-first century.
It is Africa in the nineteenth century...."
--from the Introduction.

When I first saw this book on the library shelves, I was slightly worried it be a repeat of "Napoleon's Egypt" by Juan Cole. And although the time periods don't overlap at all (this book covers 1869-1899) there are no doubt similar themes. Both books seek to put some historical perspective on current US foreign policy.

And yet I'm extremely glad I read this book. It was absolutely fascinating. (If you're interested in history, I think you'll find both books are well worth reading).

In the introduction to this book, Dominic Green very clearly and explicitly draws some parallels between the 19th century Victorian quagmire, and our own present day. And he does so again in the conclusion. But the good news is that in between he does not repeatedly hit you over the head.

In the actual meat of the book, Green is not concerned with making a political point. Instead, like any true history geek, he is simply a story teller, in love with history for the sake of history. (In fact, I almost wonder if the introduction and conclusion were forced on Green by an editor.)

Green wants to tell an interesting story, and bring to life all the colorful characters of the past.
And he does this remarkably well. A truly skilled writer, this is one of those history books that almost reads like a novel.

Although a slender book (280 pages) it manages to cover a lot of disparate ground: the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and "Eastern Question", the Crimean War, the rivalry between British prime ministers Gladstone and Disraeli, the Chinese Taiping rebellion, Charles "Chinese" Gordon and his last stand in Khartoum, the rivalry between the British and the French, Ferdinand De Lesseps--architect of the Suez Canal, and even young Winston Churchill (an officer involved in the Sudanese expedition).
All of this is interwoven with the story of Egypt during the late 19th century.
However, Green is able to weave many different characters and events seamlessly into a single narrative.

Since this book covers so much ground, I'm not going to attempt to summarize it here. I'll just comment on a few of the things that struck my interest.

***I had already known a bit about the Gladstone/Disraeli conflict, and Charles Gordon's last stand in Khartoum, largely through watching television documentaries (such as the PBS documentary on Queen Victoria's Empire (A)), but this book was much more informative, and filled in many gaps in my knowledge.

** On that note: one of the fascinating things about this book is that this is not simply a military history. Green focuses as much on politics in London as he does on soldiers out in the field.
So we find out what out what political pressures prime ministers are under when they order troops around. We also get to understand their motivations.
We have the story of Gladstone, a British prime minister who is decidedly an anti-Imperialist, getting trapped into creating an Empire when he can no longer control the wheels that he has set in motion.
Many of the British motivations for getting involved in Egypt were very noble--the anti-slavery sentiment, and the desire to stamp out the slave trade in Africa was one of the main reasons the British public supported intervention. But this book vividly demonstrates the old saying, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."

And to me, this is the most valuable part of the book.
All to often, history books portray the "Age of Imperialism" as heartless European nations shameless grabbing what they can with no justification. However if we examine closely the motivations and justifications given at the time, we might find out they are not too different from today. Contrary to popular belief, the British army did not simply attack natives and annex territories at random. Often, they were called upon to stabilize a country, or were asked to intervene by one side in a civil war.

For that matter, I believe that if we carefully looked at Roman history we might find several parallels. Although the Romans are always portrayed in history books as soulless aggressors, much of the Roman Empire was created by being invited into a region to help out in a civil war, or helping to quiet a disturbance. (The Romans actually had a law on their books forbidding a purely aggressive war, but they usually found a justification to get around it.)

The danger, when we forget these lessons, is what you often hear people say these days: "America isn't like the old empires. When we invade a country, we're trying to help them. We're not out simply for conquest, like the Romans or the Victorians were."

But now that I've got that out of my system, let me reiterate what I said before: don't read this book just because of the historical parallels to America's empire, read it because it's a fascinating story told by a master story-teller.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Anarchism (Libertarian Socialism)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Angels and Demons

(Movie Review)

After reading "The Davinci Code", I never bothered to continue onto any of Dan Brown's other books. (More because I'm a lazy reader than any other reason.)
However I've heard from friends that all of the Robert Langdon books are pretty much the same formula just recycled over and over again.

Assuming this movie is an accurate reflection of the book it was based off of, that appears to be true.

I enjoyed this movie slightly more than I did the DaVinci code, I think mainly because I didn't know the story before hand. And so the various twists and turns the story line took caught me slightly off-guard. (I will admit to being completely fooled by the ending.)

However at the same time, I was beginning to lose patience with another set of symbols and mysteries to be unravelled. It was cool the first time because it was unique. But the second time around, I was feeling like we had already covered this ground.
(And yes, I know this book was actually written before "The DaVinci Code", but for most of us I think we encountered it second.)

I mean, one secret society laying clues all through out art history I could believe. But when two groups do it, it starts to seem ridiculous.
And having stuck with Robert Langdon through all his puzzle solving, dead ends, and revelations in the first movie, I felt like I was loosing patience going through it all over again.

In my personal opinion (and you can agree with this or not according to your own tastes) these movies could benefit a lot from more of the "Indiana Jones" formula. A little bit of a historical mystery goes a long way. And one or two secret puzzles decoded will probably do for the whole movie. Other than that, give us exotic adventures.
We don't need to see the main character in professor mode the whole movie. And we don't need to spend the whole movie decoding puzzles.
And we especially don't need a trilogy of movies about decoding puzzles in art history. "The DaVinci Code" was fine by itself. This second movie was pushing it. And the 3rd movie (rumored to be in production) is really going to outstay its welcome.

If you want to see a movie about corruption in the Vatican, I think "The Godfather 3" was much more interesting than this was.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Socialism, Communism & Government

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Zombieland

(Movie Review)

Yet another film that came out while I was in Japan, so I missed a lot of the buzz surrounding it. (Sorry if I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on that point).

As with a lot of sleeper hits from back home, I heard about this mainly from word of mouth. I started to hear a lot of references to this film before I really knew what it was. And eventually some of my friends in Japan got ahold of a pirated version, and watched it one night. I wasn't there, but they told me about it afterwards. (They all recommended it very highly to me.)

I, however, was a little bit confused. "Wait, it's a zombie movie, but a comedy? Haven't we already done that with 'Shaun of the Dead'? Is this just a rip-off of that?"

No one was really able to give me a straight answer on that one. Yes, kind of, but the tone of the two films is a lot different, was the general consensus.

After seeing this film so highly praised on this amateur review video (link here) I decided to check it out.

I was, unfortunately, largely disappointed with this. Maybe it had just been built up too much for me. I don't know.

It's been a few years since I've seen "Shaun of the Dead", so I'm slightly worried about relying on my memory for this one. But from what I remember, it was a completely irreverent comedy. More or less everything was played for a laugh, including the scenes with the Zombies themselves. You had the two guys arguing over what records to throw as the Zombies bared down on them. And you had Ed, the friend who refused to take the whole Zombie invasion seriously.

This movie, on the other hand, reminded me a lot more of a typical teen movie, only with Zombies added. (Perhaps I'm just noticing the difference between an American comedy and a British comedy).

It had a lot of humorous parts, sure. The opening narration, when Columbus was explaining his rules, was pretty funny. And they way those rules kept popping up on screen at appropriate moments throughout the movie was also pretty funny.
And some of the conversations the characters would have also got me chuckling.

But my big problem with this movie is that, like a typical teen movie, they tried to make me care too much about the characters. And this is where I had a lot of problems.

Most of the things the characters did in this movie made no sense. And I could have put up with that if the movie had been just one cheap excuse for a laugh (ala "Shaun of the Dead"). But when the movie is trying too hard to make me care about these characters, then it really bugs how stupid those girls were. And how they kept getting in trouble by doing stupid things, and then having to be rescued.
(In that respect they were not so much real characters so much as plot devices. Which again, I could have put up with if this movie were all about cheap laughs. But we were also supposed to care about the relationships these characters had with each other, and that I just couldn't do).

To sum up: don't get me wrong, this movie had its moments. And I think I would have been a lot more impressed if this had been the first time someone had ever gotten the idea of playing a zombie Apocalypse for laughs.

But because "Shaun of the Dead" already used that idea (and only a few years ago), this movie struck me as largely unimpressive.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Zinn, Haiti, Iran

Saturday, March 06, 2010

千と千尋の神隠し / Spirited Away

(Movie Review)

This is another one of those "movies I really should have seen a long time ago."

This movie actually came out the first year I was in Japan, and was hugely popular over there. You could see signs for it everywhere, and all the kids (and even the teachers) at the schools would talk about it.

Once it came out on DVD, for a while afterwards it seemed like it was on everywhere all the time. Whenever I would walk into an electronics store or a video rental place, it would be playing on the monitor. Same for a friend's house.

As a result, I had already seen most of this movie in bits and pieces, and I so I felt like I had seen the whole thing.

But recently I've been re-watching a lot of Japanese anime in an effort to keep my Japanese language up. And I ended up renting this as well, and watching it straight through for the first time.

(And I've got to say, it makes a lot more sense when you watch it straight through.)

This film has gotten so much good press already (in both Japan and America) it's difficult to be able to add much. I'd just be repeating cliches if I gushed about what a wonderfully imaginative film it was, or wrote about how wonderful the characters were.

Likewise I suppose it is cliche to compare the plot to "Alice in Wonderland." And yet there's no denying that is the most obvious comparison.

So, because I can't think of much new to say, I'm just going to keep this review short and sweet. It was a beautiful, wonderfully imaginative movie. It manages to capture a very Japanese flavor in its story about a public bath house for spirit gods. And yet, it doesn't get bogged down in its own mythology (as some Japanese films do). Just as you are trying to absorb and take in the wonder of one scene, you get whisked off to another one. The pacing is perfect that way.

Chances are you've already seen this film already. But if you haven't, then be sure to check it out.

(Finally, in an effort to keep things fair and balanced on this blog, here is a contrary opinion--link here).

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky with Tariq Ali - 26 January 2005

Friday, March 05, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

(Movie Reviews)

I'll be honest, I was a little reluctant to see this movie. In the end, I saw it mostly because my youngest sister insisted.

But it turned out to be pretty good actually.

Because I've been out in Japan the past few years, this was yet another movie that had been flying under my radar screen. Until I arrived back in the US last month, I never even knew I hadn't heard of it.

I do remember the book (W), of course, from my childhood. As we probably all do.

Although advertised as a children's movie, the humor in this often reminded me more of "Family Guy" or "The Simpsons". It wasn't quite as raunchy, sure, but the usual saccharine sweetness that used to pervade children's films has been replaced by a much more sarcastic type humor. Also it's mixed in with a sheer random absurdness, which is also a trademark of shows like "The Simpsons".

Now granted, this movie couldn't compete with "The Simpsons" or "Family Guy" at their best. But I think it is about par for the course for an average episode. (And, although it pains me to say this, it is immeasurably better than "The Simpsons Movie" that came out a few years ago.)

If it weren't for the animation, it might not even be considered a children's movie at all.
...Well, that and the formulaic plot structure. The fact that everyone had to learn a life lesson and grow a bit before the film ended. And the few mandatory sappy moments also mark this as a film market towards children (or a least their concerned parents). But other than those few moments, I'd say it's safe to consider this as an adult film disguised as a children's film. I certainly laughed a lot watching it, and do not feel ashamed to admit it.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Leninism

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Land of the Lost

(Movie Reviews)

The premise for this movie seemed like hard to go wrong: a kind of "Jurassic Park" type dinosaur action movie, but played up for laughs with Will Ferrell. (I'm a Will Ferrell fan. Apparently not everyone is, but for my money he's a very funny man).

And the previews for this movie looked really good.

I did notice, however that the critics didn't give it very good reviews. So I was a little bit nervous when I rented it.

And to be sure, it's not the greatest movie ever made by a long shot. But it was a pleasant enough viewing experience, and worth the price of the rental in my opinion.

I never saw the television show that this movie was based off of. The original 1974 "Land of the Lost" (W) was before my time. And when the revived 1991 "Land of the Lost" series (W) came out, I felt like I was too old to watch it (although I do remember catching bits and pieces of it while flipping channels).

So I don't know how well the movie compares to the TV show.
However, the neat thing about the movie is the characters go into a world where anything can happen: intelligent dinosaurs, carnivorous plants, giant crabs, blood sucking insects, viking ships, astronauts, slow moving lizard men, and a dimension prison similar to the phantom zone (W).
Whatever the writers can dream up, there the story will veer. Therefore there's always something strange and interesting going on the screen.

If the jokes connect (and they're hit and miss) it's an added bonus. But you almost don't need them. It's fun enough watching all the weird things in this strange new land.

With a set up like this, it's a criminal that the writers don't do more with it. Instead they content themselves with a lot of lazy jokes about ape-men sex and dinosaur poo, and even a drugged out hallucinogenic scene.
(I always figure when a movie resorts to doing a hallucinogenic scene, it's usually just for padding. And when the writers have the ability to write in anything they want in this strange new land, there's no excuse for padding scenes).

So, while one wishes this movie could have done more, it's satisfactory enough as it is.

It's hard to defend this film as anymore than just a guilty pleasure. As Roger Ebert said, "I guess you have to be in the mood for a goofball picture like this. I guess I was."

Link of the Day
NOAM CHOMSKY ON THE MILITARIZATION OF THE MEXICAN BORDER

Monday, March 01, 2010

Black Dahlia

(Movie Review)

This film original hit theaters in September of 2006. I was back in the USA during that time, so I remember reading a couple reviews of it in the paper.

The reviews said something about being based on a real life unsolved crime (interesting, I thought) that had to do with a big sex scandal in 1940s Hollywood (hmm, even more interesting).

But, the reviews cautioned, the story was pretty hard to understand.

Perhaps I wasn't reading these reviews as carefully as I should have, but I interpreted this as meaning the film had a pretty complicated plot, and you had to pay careful attention to figure out everything that was going on. One of those films that made you think, in other words. A big juicy mental puzzle to sink your brain into on those nights when you're into a "thinking man's film". And after having just finished "Lethal Weapon 3" (see previous post) I was ready for something like this.

Unfortunately however, when the reviewers said this film was hard to understand, they meant it in a negative way. They meant "hard to understand" as in "the screenwriters didn't do their job", because there is a lot of exposition just plain missing from this film.

It also looks like someone did a really botched job editing this, because there seem to be all sorts of key plot points missing from the final product.

The film has some good points (and I'll get to those in a minute) but the bad points are enough to sink it. If the film makers didn't care enough about this film to give it a coherent story line, I wouldn't recommend you feel the need to waste your time on it. Who cares how stylistic it is?

All that being said, the style of the film is pretty cool. The film does a nice job of re-creating the 1940s film noir style. There's plenty of scenes with chain smoking men in fedoras where you can really feel the atmosphere.

Link of the Day
NOAM CHOMSKY ON THE CURRENT ECONOMIC DOWNTURN