Tuesday, April 30, 2013

From Slate.com
Thesis Hatement: Getting a literature Ph.D. will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor.
(My own area of interest is more history, but I assume that the same issues would apply equally in that discipline as well.)
From the above article, I also found this link very interesting: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go and Just Don't Go Part 2 (Also when I go to the bottom of the article, I realized the author was a professor at Hope College, in my home of West Michigan.)
As I wrote in an earlier post, this was the decision I reluctantly came to myself, although I occasionally still have some regrets about not pursuing a career related to history.  But on the whole articles like the ones linked to above make me feel like I made the right decision.
On the other side of the coin, however, I have many friends and former classmates who are now working as college professors in the humanities.  And sometimes I think to myself, "Well, if they did it, maybe I  could have done it...."

Monday, April 29, 2013

Game Change

(Movie Review)

            Another HBO political movie.  This movie is by the same director and writer of Recount,  and because I enjoyed Recount so much, I thought I would check this movie out as well

            On the whole, I really enjoyed the movie.
            The writer has a great talent for being able to streamline a lot of messy real life events into a single simple narrative.  He also has a great talent for exposition dialogue, and a great economy with his words. There are some great scenes in this movie when McCain’s advisors are laying out the central campaign issues very clearly, and it is very easy for the audience to follow along.
            The acting was very good as well.

            Despite all this, I still found myself a bit bored in the middle.
            I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why I got bored.  Perhaps the story of Sarah Palin was not enough to hold my interest for the whole film.  Or perhaps it was that I already knew in advance what the ending was going to be.
            Most likely, I think the problem was the middle of the film got a little bit episodic.  The middle of the film focused on a series of separate events—the build-up to the Charlie Rose interview, the Charlie Rose interview, the build-up to the Katie Couric interview, the Katie Couric interview, the build-up to the vice presidential debates, and then the vice presidential debates.  I think the attempt to build up tension and then resolution for each of these mini-climaxes caused the film as a whole to lose some momentum. 
            But then things got back on track for the final act of the film, which I found very entertaining.

            As for the content of the film:
            The accuracy of the film is a controversial issue since Sarah Palin and her advocates have denied the film is a truthful representation of what really happened.  I suspect your own view of the film is going to be heavily influenced by your individual politics— most conservatives are going to be critical of the film, and most liberals are going to accept it as true.

            I fall in the liberal camp myself.  Because this film was film was vouched for by the chief McCain campaign strategists (W), and because it fits my preconceived notions of Sarah Palin, I’m inclined to regard it as probably a mostly true portrayal.  (Although I do admit I’m biased.)
            The film presents Sarah Palin as a great communicator, but someone who has great difficulty understanding and remembering basic political facts. 

            I’ve always been a history/politico geek myself, but over the years I’ve learned that not everyone’s brain is wired like mine.  There are plenty of people in the world who have a hard time understanding history, and whose brain just shuts down when you try and overload them with names and dates.
            According to the movie’s portrayal, Sarah Palin was one of those people.  She had a lot of enthusiasm for politics, but she didn’t know what the Federal Reserve was, didn’t understand the difference between the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan, didn’t know why North and South Korea were two different countries.  And even when these things were explained to her, she had a lot of trouble understanding or remembering the information.

            Sarah Palin also apparently had a couple of mini-meltdowns behind the scenes of the campaign, which caused McCain’s advisors to wonder if she had undiagnosed mental issues (although this question is never answered in the film.)

            Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of the film is how the McCain campaign pulled a minor miracle by getting Sarah Palin ready for the debates.  You may remember that after Palin’s two disastrous news interviews, everyone had expected her to get creamed in the vice-presidential debates, and yet surprising she held her own.
            What was the secret?  It turns out that after trying (and failing) to educate Palin about political issues, the campaign just had her memorize a list of 45 responses, and then a number of segues (or “pivots” as they were called) so that she could redirect any question to one of her pre-memorized responses.  And it was a strategy that worked surprisingly well.  (Although it does make you wonder how often this happens, and just how much of politics is really theater.)

            Although it is understandably why Palin would hate this film (it pretty much kills any of her future political ambitions), the film’s portrayal of Palin is not unsympathetic.  It’s not her fault she has a hard time processing facts—she is who she is and she does the best with the talents she has.
            And although she was arguably unqualified to be vice-president, this wasn’t her fault either.  She didn’t ask for the job.  The McCain people came to her first.  All she did was say yes when her Party called for her service.  The fact that she was never properly vetted was the fault of the campaign, not Sarah Palin.

            For that matter, the film is not overly critical of the McCain campaign either.  In retrospect obviously Sarah Palin was a terrible choice for vice-president, but the film shows how every decision the McCain campaign made was completely logical at the time given the information that they had.

            The film does however raise a number of questions that go through your head as you watch it.
            Like, how unique is Sarah Palin?  Is her ignorance an extreme case, or is this actually very common among politicians?  How many politicians have been able to use their skill at communicating in order to successful hide how little they actually know?

            And how much should a person have to know to be President?  Is being passionate about the issues (like Sarah Palin was) just as important as having an encyclopedic knowledge of foreign policy?  Should the ability to memorize the names of world leaders be a prerequisite to becoming involved in the political process?

            I also wonder a little bit about the sexism issue—not in the sense that the media was too hard on Sarah Palin, but that a male politician might have gotten a free pass on the same thing.
            Ronald Reagan comes to mind as someone who was a great communicator, but whose grasp of the facts was always a bit shaky.  (The film does mention that Reagan once claimed pollution was caused by trees.)
            Also in the 2000 election, George W. Bush was caught out on any number of issues.  You will remember perhaps he confused the Prime Minister of Canada with a French food [LINK HERE].   And you might also remember that back in 2000, it was openly argued that Bush’s ignorance of foreign policy didn’t really matter, because once he became President he was going to be surrounded by the best advisors.
            (I’m picking on Republicans, I know.  Sorry, it’s my liberal bias again.  Feel free to leave the names of exceptionally ignorant Democrats in the comments section.)


            At one point in the film, one of the characters makes the comment that 2008 was the first presidential election that took place in the age of youtube.

            I had never made the connection before, but it’s true.  (Amazing how quickly the times are changing—in 2004 nobody had ever heard of youtube, by 2008 nobody could imagine life without it.)
            I wasn’t even living in the US during the 2008 election, and yet I was able to see all those Palin interviews repeatedly on youtube.
            Perhaps another reason I got a little bit bored in the middle of the film was because I had already seen it all before, and at this recent date it is still pretty fresh in my mind.
            In this respect, I suspect the film will become more interesting with age as 2008 fades further into the past, and new generations grow up.  (Although by the same token, references to Ted Stevens, Joe Lieberman, Bill Ayers, and Reverend Wright are going to become obscure in the future, but a few missed references aren’t going to spoil the film.)

            Back when we were taking a course on 20th Century American history, Bork, Buma and I used All the President’s Men as a study tool to try and help understand and remember the convoluted drama that was the untangling of the Watergate scandal.

            Perhaps because of that memory, whenever I watch a modern political drama movie, I always imagine history students using it 20 or 30 years from now.
            It will be interesting to see how this movie will age. 
            The sad truth is that more likely than not, it will be completely forgotten in 30 years.  (All the President’s Men is still considered a classic today, but that’s the exception.  There were any number of TV movies about the Watergate scandal that came out during the 70s and 80s and today are just completely forgotten.)
            But if this movie is still being watched in 30 years, I imagine it will do a very good job of giving future college students a glimpse of some of the craziness that was the2008 -  election.

I found this video quite interesting

Link of the Day
On Presumption of Innocence

Sunday, April 28, 2013

From the Economist:
Ieng Sary

Most of the time I link to articles because I approve of them, but every once and a while I link to an article that gets on my nerves.  This is one of the latter ones.
 When the Khmer Rouge government itself was toppled by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979, he fled to Thailand; and there found fresh clothes, new sandals and a VIP air ticket to Beijing, all supplied by the Chinese embassy in Bangkok. His skilful contacts with China kept the movement going for two more decades.

If you read the article, the Chinese get all the blame for diplomatically and economically supporting the Khmer Rouge after the 1979 Vietnamese invasion.

It is COMPLETELY absent from this article that the United States also condemned Vietnam's 1979 invasion which removed the Khmer Rouge from power.  The US (and its allies) supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese backed Cambodian government throughout the 1980s.  During the 1980s, the US and its allies refused to allowed the Cambodian government in Phnom Penh a seat at the United Nations, and instead the US allowed Khmer Rouge (in exile in Thailand) to retain the UN representation. 
Furthermore, in the Economist article it is only briefly mentioned that the Khmer Rouge were allowed to operate out of bases in Thailand during the 1980s, and never mentioned that Thailand was a U.S. client state in the cold war era.
 Instead, it's all China's fault.

In fact most Americans don't even know the United States government supported the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese in the 1980s.   And the way history is routinely whitewashed in the American media, with articles like this, is it any wonder?

  See wikipedia article here (Khmer Rouge: The Place in the UN) and here (Khmer Rouge: The Ramifications of Vietnamese Victory).  Also see On the Side of Pol Pot: U.S. Supports Khmer Rouge

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Rant About How I’m Not Happy with the Ipod

            I’m a low tech guy.  I don’t have an ipad or an iphone, and I waited several years before getting around to buying an ipod.

            A couple years ago I finally did break down and buy an ipod because I thought it would be a good way to listen to audio books.  But I’ve not been happy with it.  Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but I don’t consider this thing user friendly at all.

            My first complaint goes back to when I first bought the thing, and it came with absolutely no directions at all.  I thought all I had to do was transfer audio files into it, but instead I first had to download itunes, and then spend hours online researching how to sync itunes with the ipod.
            So right away I’m not happy with how unfriendly the whole company has been to new users.

            Then, after loading several audio books into my ipod, I delete them off my computer to save space.  Only to discover that each time my ipod syncs up with itunes, it deletes everything not presently on itunes.  Another thing I had to learn the hard way.  After spending several hours loading up audio books on my ipod, I discovered they became deleted from my ipod once I deleted them from my computer.  Why does this have to happen?
            So, in order to keep all my audio books on my ipod, I also have to keep them stored simultaneously on my computer.  Only my computer doesn’t have enough space to keep all my audio books at once.  So then I spend some more hours researching online, and find out how to get around this problem—by telling the ipod not to sync up with itunes, I can transfer files from itune manually to the ipod.  Although it’s still not user friendly, because once the ipod’s space fills up, I can’t seem to create any extra room by deleting files.  Presumably I just have to sync up with itunes again to get that storage space back. 

            Also, in order to stop itunes from deleting everything on my ipod every time it starts up, I really have to be quick on the button telling it not to sync up.

            The reason I’m writing this rant is because just today, while trying to use my computer speakers to play some audio books off of the ipod, I accidentally allowed itunes to sync up with my ipod and all my audio books got deleted.  (Some of them I had transferred from the library at a town I no longer live in, so I will not be able to replace them in the immediate future.  Some of the audio books I hadn’t even gotten around to listening to yet.)  There wasn’t even a safeguard on the program to alert me that all my old audio books were about to be deleted, and to confirm that this was what I wanted.

            I guess the lesson here is never put anything on your ipod you don’t have backed up somewhere else, but it’s still been a frustrating experience.

            Also, while I’m complaining, I hate it that the ipod doesn’t even come with an electrical cord I can plug into my wall to recharge it.  (I understand that for an extra cost such a cord can be purchased, but I’ve never seen it on sale at a reasonable price.)  So some days I have to turn on my whole computer just to recharge the ipod.  And when I go on vacation without my computer, then there’s no way to re-charge it.

            All this is just to say I’ve not been very happy with the ipod.  I’ve never been an Apple customer, and based on this experience I’m not going to be buying any more of their products.  And considering how unuser friend the ipod is, I’m very surprised it’s been as successful as it has.

Link of the Day
Talking With Noam Chomsky

Friday, April 26, 2013

From The Guardian
British soldiers and airmen who helped to operate a secretive US detention facility in Baghdad that was at the centre of some of the most serious human rights abuses to occur in Iraq after the invasion have, for the first time, spoken about abuses they witnessed there....

Read the whole article here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Die Hard 5: A Good Day to Die Hard

(Movie Review)

Why I Saw This Movie
          Given that I’m not a big fan of the Die Hard series (I still haven’t seen the first 3 Die Hard movies in their entirety) and given how negative all the reviews of this movie were, if left to myself I probably would never have bothered with it.  But it was movie night with a group of friends, and this was the only thing playing at the time.
           “So, this movie is supposed to be just awful…” a friend said rather nervously as we were buying our tickets.  Her voice trailed off, so she didn’t fully finish the thought: “Are we sure we want to waste two hours of our lives on it?”  But we all knew that was the implied question.  We bought the tickets anyway.

The Review
          As the movie finished and we left the theater, the same friend remarked, “Well, it was bad, but at least it wasn’t boring.  And there’s nothing worse than a boring movie.  Every other sin I’m willing to forgive.”

            And that is more or less my thoughts as well.
            And this is perhaps doubly true of Die Hard 5.  As long as you bring in plenty of snacks to stuff your face with, you’ll be entertained by lots of noisy explosions and ridiculous action sequences.
            (None of the action sequences make a lot of logical sense, but just shut up and stuff your face with popcorn and watch all the flying cars and exploding helicopters.)

            But whatever you do, don’t go into this movie without a lot of sugary and salty junk food to keep you occupied as you watch the light show.
            (My personal regret is that my popcorn ran out halfway through the movie, and then I had to just sit and watch all the ridiculous explosions without even having something to eat.  If I had to do it over again, I would have gotten a lot more at the concession stand.)

           True Die Hard fans will lament how far the franchise has degraded itself, and how ridiculous it has become.  But as someone who has no attachment to the series, I was able to enjoy this film for what it was--a mindless action film.  It’s about what you would expect from any other mindless action Hollywood film.

            Despite all the bad press this film has gotten, for the most part it’s not any worse than many of the other mindless action films Hollywood cranks out all the time.  The only place where I felt the film particularly embarrassed itself was the pathetic attempts at humor.
            Interspersed throughout the action sequences were the usual attempts at comic relief and one-liners, and they were all terrible.  In the theater I went to, every single joke was greeted by the audience with complete silence. 
            I’m particularly surprised that the scene with the singing Russian taxi driver made it into the final cut of the film.  Who thought this was entertaining?  Did they not have anything better that they could have replaced that with?

* I’m not an expert in the film industry, but that scene on the highway (with multiple high speed car wrecks) could not have been cheap to produce.
            It makes you wonder just how much money it costs to make a terrible movie.  (And if they can spend that much money on car wrecks and explosions, couldn’t they have hired better writers, or at least spared a bit of money for some script doctors to fix the jokes?)

* The highway scene is also a good indication of how spoiled we are getting as modern audiences.  If that scene had come out 30 years ago, it would have blown people away.  Now, we are so used to this kind of over the top action movie that we just yawn our way through it.

* Despite my characterization of this film as a dumb action movie, I have to give it some credit—there is some clever misdirection in the script.  I can count at least 3 different reveals in this movie where it turns out some character is not at all who you thought they were, and all of the plot twists took me by surprise.

* I also liked the atmosphere created by the Chernobyl scenes.  I suppose on one level it is a bit cliché to include Chernobyl in a movie exploiting American stereotypes about Russia, but it still drew me in. 
            The creepy atmosphere of the abandoned 1980s city was like some post apocalyptic city in a old science fiction movie, but in this case it isn’t science fiction: there really is a post-nuclear disaster abandoned city out there.
            Of course after briefly being introduced, the Chernobyl scenes just degenerate into a backdrop for the usual mindless violence.  But still, I’ll give the movie an extra point for them.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Imperial College Palestinian Society

Monday, April 22, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

Why I Saw This Movie
          I thought the premise of the movie sounded really cool.  Like anyone my age, I have a certain amount of nostalgia for videogames from the 1980s and 90s, and I’m a sucker for mixing my childhood nostalgia with metahumour or deconstructionist plot lines.  So the idea of taking characters from one video game genre and inserting them in a different video game genre sounded to me like it could really have potential. 
            Plus the previews for this movie looked really good.
            Plus this movie got a number of really good reviews.  (I was particularly impressed by the glowing review the AVClub gave this movie [LINK HERE].)

The Review
           After viewing this movie, I’m slightly disappointed.  It wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t a great movie either.
            Of course, it’s always dangerous watching a movie when you are not in the intended target audience.  So watching children’s movies as an adult can be hit and miss.  But sometimes - it - can - bereally enjoyable.  Sometimes the writers aim high, and I find the humor really funny and the storyline entertaining.
            Because this film was marketed as being based on old school video-game nostalgia, I half thought the writers would aim for some humor that would engage an older audience.              But I was disappointed in that regard.  The writers aim low, and the humor is squarely aimed at children.  Example:

            “Markowski!  What’s the first rule of Hero’s Duty?”
            “Um…No cuts, no buts, no coconuts?”

            Well, I can’t knock it too much.  I also would have found that hilarious when I was 5.
            Or another example:
            “What’s that?  I didn’t hear you.  Your breath was so bad it made my ears numb.”

            Basically, it’s all like that folks.  If you have kids, great, bring them along to this movie.  But if you’re a single guy in your 30s, there’s no reason why you need to go out of your way to see this.

The Plot
          Okay, so here’s what I think is the central conceit of this movie:  the video game characters are just like actors.  The bad guys aren’t really “bad”, they just pretend to be bad when people are playing the game, much like stage actors at a play.  Once the arcade closes for the day and the actors are off the clock, then all the video game characters, good and bad, just act like normal people.

            Did I get that right?  Is that what’s really going on here?  I ask, because to me the whole central premise of this game seems incredibly inconsistent.  In some scenes, it appears that everyone knows that Wreck-it Ralph is just an actor with a part to play.  In other scenes (like when other video game characters are fleeing in terror before him at the Central Station) it appears that not everyone is in on the concept.
            Even for the good-guys it is never clear if they really are the characters they play in their video game, or if they are just acting.  For instance Sergeant Calhoun from Hero’s Duty has a tragic backstory pre-programmed into her role in the video game, which haunts her despite the fact that she, like all the other characters, appear fully aware that it is all just a game and she is just acting a role, and that none of that had ever really happened.
            And, if everyone knows everyone else is just a stage actor for a job, then what is this bizarre discrimination that Ralph and some of the other bad-guy characters seem to face?  I couldn’t understand where all the hostility was coming from during the confrontation scene between Ralph and citizens of Nicetown. 
           I know it’s a children’s movie, but some understandable motivation for the characters would have been nice.

            Am I over-thinking all this?  I did feel like all these things nagged at my brain while I watched the movie, and kept me from getting fully into it.  If the plot had been a little bit better, or the gags a little bit funnier, I suppose I wouldn’t have minded so much. But because the movie really starts to drag in the middle, I had plenty of time to over-think the plot inconsistencies.

            The beginning of the movie is alright.  I liked the basic concept, and I liked all the references to nostalgic video games.
            However once Wreck-It Ralph ends up in Sugar Rush land the movie becomes a lot more boring and conventional.  At this point, the movie stops being about Wreck-it Ralph, and instead revolves entirely around Vanellope, who is a clichéd anime female character, and entirely much too cutesy and sappy.  For me, all of her scenes, which were intended to draw humor from how cutesy she was, just fell completely flat.

            As for the other characters running around this movie:
            Sergeant Calhoun is played by Jane Lynch, otherwise known as coach Sue Sylvester from Glee.  In my opinion, she’s miscast in the role, because her voice is so distinctive that it’s impossible not to think of coach Sylvester whenever Sergeant Calhoun speaks.  It pulled me right out of the movie every time she opened her mouth. 
            There’s also a romance going on between her and Fix-it Felix, which happens for no reason, and feels incredibly contrived.  The writers were obviously counting on the fact that the audience would just accept that these two fall in love without asking any questions about why.

Final Verdict
          Not a horrible movie.  A pleasant enough waste of time if you’ve got 2 hours to kill, but no reason why you should go out of your way to see this.

* I know it’s cheating to use someone else’s writing as a substitute for my own thoughts, but the review of this movie in The Atlantic [LINK HERE] pretty much captures exactly what I think about this movie. 
            I part company from The Atlantic reviewer on one issue only—I didn’t mind all the cameos and video game references.  In fact that was the part of the movie I enjoyed.

* Speaking of video game cameos, there are a few scenes in central station that are so chalked full of familiar video game characters that I had a hard time catching them all on my small screen.
            I know I’m giving this movie a mixed review, but if you decide you are going to see it anyway, it’s probably better to see it on the big screen than the small screen.

* So, how is it that Turbo is the only character who can access the video game code? 

* And on a related note, Sour Bill at one point says of Turbo, “He’ll do anything to keep her from racing because if she crosses the finish-line the game will reset and she won’t be a glitch anymore.”
            This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and it’s never explained why the game will reset if she crosses the finish line.  But okay, it’s a kid’s fantasy movie, and part of the genre is that they get to make up the rules as they go along.
            The thing that bugs me is that they didn’t even stick to this.  Although she had learned to control it, she did still glitch even after the game reset.

* While watching the end credits to this movie, I was pleasantly surprised to hear part of the movie soundtrack recorded in Japanese.
The Japanese group who recorded the song is the all girl Japanese teeny bopper band AKB48, who, as it happens, were just recently in the news a couple months ago.  (Did anyone else see this?).  One of the members of the band, a 20 year old woman, was publically shamed in the Japanese media and she shaved her head in repentance.  Her crime?  It turns out she had a boyfriend, which was in violation of the band’s code.  [LINK HERE]

Link of the Day
Violence and Dignity–Reflections on the Middle East

Friday, April 19, 2013

Treasure Planet

Why I Saw This Movie
          When this movie first came out 10 years ago, I thought it looked pretty stupid and didn’t give it much of a second thought.  (I was in the Japanese countryside back then, so I largely missed the publicity campaign that came with the movie’s release.  But to the extent I was aware of this movie, I thought it looked pretty stupid.) 
            For one thing, this movie was during a phase when the animation department at Disney had been churning out a lot of sub-par movies.  (In my childhood, I had been a Disney addict and followed all their animated releases religiously, good or bad.  But as an adult, one no longer feels obligated to keep up with this stuff, and I had missed many of the Disney animated features that preceded this one.)  Plus it had gotten really bad reviews.  Plus it just looked really gimmicky and stupid.
            But after avoiding this movie for 10 years, the other night, I was in the DVD store, and I saw this movie, and I just thought, “Hmmm, why not?”
            It was one of those evenings when my brain was completely fried from a full day of work, and I just wanted to relax with a light escapist movie.  And suddenly, the idea of Treasure Island in outer space sounded like it might fit the bill perfectly.

            Plus, I have a large nostalgia for Treasure Island
            As a young boy, starting from the age of about 6 or 7, I had been absolutely obsessed with the Treasure Island story.  True, at the age of 6, I was more influenced by the fisher price delux comic and tape version [LINK] than Robert Louis Stevenson’s original text, but over my boyhood I followed this story through several different books and multiple film adaptations.  (See here (W), here (W) and here (W).)
            And as I contemplated how much Treasure Island had meant in my childhood, I found myself wondering why exactly I hadn’t checked out this movie before. Wasn’t I the least bit curious to see how they adopted Treasure Island for outer space?  Didn’t I want to see which parts of the original story they kept, and which parts they changed?

            Besides, I thought, it’s a Disney animated film.  Sure, it might be a little bit cheesy or childish, but at least it won’t be absolutely terrible.  The animated theatrical releases are the flagship of the Disney Company, so they have to have some quality control on these things to protect their brand.  Unlike other studios, they would never churn out a blatantly terrible animated movie that only existed just to make a quick buck.
            And so I went ahead and bought the DVD.  And had my illusions about Disney’s quality control completely shattered.

The Review
          I’ll start with the basics.
            I was a little worried this movie would completely disregard the book, but they made an effort to be faithful to the original story.  Long John Silver is still the incredibly complex character he was in the original novel.  Jim Hawkins still has the love hate-relationship with him.  Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey are amalgamated into a single character, but the general idea is still there, and the Captain of the ship is changed into a female cat, but shares many of the characteristics of the original Captain Smollet, including Smollet's initial hatred of the mission .  The first mate Mr. Arrow is changed from a drunken disaster into a more heroic character, but the movie still incorporates his early death.  And Ben Gunn is annoying in this adaptation, but at least present.
            Of course because of time limitations, much of the novel’s plot (and many of the battles with the pirates) are cut out, but at the very least it’s clear an effort was made to adopt the spirit of the novel. 

            As for the Outer Space setting:
            There are a couple scenes near the beginning which are slightly reminiscent of the beginning of another film: Star Wars.  A young boy is bored with his provincial life and fixated on a lost father. Suddenly danger intrudes and completely destroys his home. Then with an older mentor figure, he decides sets out an adventure.
            In particular, the scene at the space port (where they run into all sorts of exotic aliens as they charter a ship) reminded me of Star Wars
            I’m guessing this wasn’t an accident.  I think the filmmakers were deliberately trying to duplicate the George Lucas magic.
            According to popular wisdom, Star Wars was hugely popular because George Lucas simply took old mythological motifs and put them into space.  (This may not be true—[see this article here] --but at the very least that’s the popular perception of the Star Wars movies.) So, why not take classic Victorian Era boys adventure novels and put them in space, and just hope that somehow that Star Wars magic will strike again?

            I’m fairly sure that was the reasoning behind this movie, and I can understand why it must have seemed like a really cool idea on paper.

            In execution though it falls flat on any number of levels for reasons big and small. 
            The biggest reason is that it is just really, really poorly written.
            I mean the dialogue in this movie is just awful.  Really awful.  Like the screenwriters should give back their money to the studio and apologize for wasting everyone’s time.
            There’s a lot of attempts at humor in this movie, and they just fall spectacularly flat.  And, partly because this is a kid’s movie, the jokes aren’t subtle either, so they can’t really be ignored—a character will crack some sort of funny line, and then mug for a reaction to draw attention to the bad joke.  And then you, the audience, are left to think: What?  Is that the best joke they could come up with for that?  I actually feel embarrassed for the writers right now as I’m watching this!

            And then at times it seemed like they didn’t even care.  Like after one of the space pirates blew up an incoming meteor, he exclaims: “Ha ha! Whew, Baby, yeah!”
            Was that really the best line anyone could up with for that moment?  Why even have a moment of him celebrating his shot if that’s the line he’s going to say? 

            I know this is a children’s movie, and that the target audience is probably a lot easier to impress than I am.  And probably this movie does play a lot better with kids.  But that’s not much of an excuse.  Children will watch just about anything you put in front of them, so you can have stupid jokes, and they will love it, and you can have clever jokes, and they will love it.  I think it’s just laziness on the part of the writers to cater towards the stupid jokes.

            If the dialogue in this movie had been better, and the jokes a little cleverer, all the other sins could probably have been forgiven.  But as is, it just exasperates all the other problems in this movie.

            The other big problem is the setting.
            There are advantages and disadvantages to moving the story out into space.  One advantage, if it’s done right, is that you get a new sense of adventure, exploring unknown and unimagined regions of the galaxy, and running into all sorts of fascinating creatures and space phenomena.  As with all fantasy, if you do it right you can create a world that is more exciting and more complex and more imaginative than the real world, and the audience will want to get absorbed in this new world.

            But something is also lost as well.  The original novel Treasure Island was arguably already a fantasy story.  It created this whole pirate mythology— old unsettled rivalries from the days of Captain Flint, pirate codes and the black spot, pirate songs, treasure maps and exotic tropical islands.  Very little of this actually existed in real history, but in the pages of those old 19th century romantic adventure novels, this whole world comes alive.  And because it seems quasi-historical, you half believe that it might actually have been something like this in the seafaring days of yore, and your imagination just takes off and goes with the whole concept.

            All of this is lost when you move the story into outer space, and, unless you are a competent enough writer to replace it with something better, than what is lost is more than what is gained.  And that’s what happens here.  Ripped from its original setting, the ability to immerse yourself in the old pirate lore is just lost, and what they offer in its place just doesn’t measure up.

            Somebody at Disney must have understood all this, and in order to try and preserve some of the original flavor of the novel, according to Wikipedia (W) they came up with the 70-30 rule.  70% of the setting and background would be traditional 18th century, and only 30% would be futuristic space stuff.  In theory that way you could keep your old pirate lore and your new outer space setting at the same time.

            Again, it sounds okay on paper, but it just doesn’t work in execution.  You have these old looking pirate ships, and sailors trimming the mast just like they did in the old days, but what’s the point?  You’ve lost any connection to the original historical feel of the book.  And now you have these ridiculous images of these 18th century sailing ships floating through outer space.

            Okay, you tell yourself, it’s a children’s movie, it’s not supposed to be real sciencey.  This isn’t really outer space, this is a child’s fantasy version of what outer space is like.  As in any fantasy film, a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required of you the viewer, right?
            But surely suspension of disbelief is a cooperative effort between you and the filmmaker.  You, the viewer, agree to suspend your disbelief about one or two things for the purposes of entering the world the filmmaker has created, and then everything else in that world should work according to its own internal logic.
            They can’t expect you to just suspend your disbelief about everything, can they? 

            I tried hard with this film.  I really tried to suspend my disbelief, but never did a film make me work harder at it, and I spent so much mental energy continually trying to suspend my disbelief that I never got into the movie.

            Okay, so for some reason sailing around the galaxy in 18th century nautical ships is the most efficient way for future people to travel in space.  And the movie did go through the trouble of explaining that there was artificial gravity that kept people from floating into space.  The movie never explained how the atmosphere on the ship was breathable, but okay, I’ll go along with it.  And I’m not sure why you can throw garbage over the side of the ship in outer space, but I didn’t ask questions. And there’s some sort of solar winds in outer space that can be caught on old style sails. Fine.
            But here’s where I draw the line: How can there be daytime and nighttime in outer space?  And why is the sky blue in the daytime, when they’re in the middle of outer space? You have blackness and stars in outer space, you don’t have blue skies.  And what is the point of having Treasure Island in outer space, if they are going to be on an 18th century sailing ship with blue skies in the background?  Really, what are we gaining here?  What are they doing in outer space that they couldn’t have done back in the original setting of the novel?  If they’re going to keep the ships the same, and the skies blue, at this point it might just as well be back in the oceans in the 18th century.

            And in exchange for putting up with all this silliness, what is the trade off?  What wonderful imaginative fantastical aliens do the Disney animators dream up?

            Well, mostly they’re just anthropomorphic animal-like aliens.  The captain is some sort of anthropomorphic Cat, Dr. Doppler is some sort of dog.  There’s a number of insect like or lizard like aliens wandering around, but really, if this was what Disney wanted to do, they may as well have just done Treasure Island in its original setting and just done it with anthropomorphic animals—like they did with Robin Hood in 1973.
            Other than that, the best alien they could come up with is one with orifices all over its body that speaks in flatulence.  And it’s just as stupid onscreen as it sounds in print.

Other Notes:
Complaints about the Plot/ Target Audience
          For the most part, I don’t begrudge the changes to the original story that the movie made.  But here’s something really obvious that they should have kept the same: the audience shouldn’t know that Long John Silver and the pirates are planning a mutiny before Jim does.  Up until the moment when Jim overhears them plotting in the barrel, the audience should only be given hints. 
            For reasons I don’t understand, the screenwriters break away from Jim’s narrative point of view to have a completely pointless scene with Long John Silver and the mutineers, giving away their plans and completely spoiling the suspense that was in the original novel. Why do this?

            Also, for a movie based on a pirate story, there’s very little confrontation with the actual pirates.  In the book there were a couple of big battles (like around the stockade), but here there’s really nothing.  There’s a small scene of them escaping from the pirates when they flee the ship, but there’s no big climatic fight against the pirates.  Which is what everyone is hoping for when they go into this movie, right?

            I wonder if brand protection played a part in this.  Disney didn’t want to lose its child friendly brand by having too many violent scenes.  So instead you have a pirate movie in which very little confrontation with the pirates actually takes place.
            But who exactly is the target audience for this film?  This was one of Disney’s attempts to break into the boy market with action/ adventure oriented animated films, but are they aiming for 5 year old boys, or 10 year old boys?

            I don’t have kids, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but as I said before the humor and dialogue seem to be aiming quite low.  I can quite easily imagine a 5 year old enjoying this film, but a 10-12 year old is going to start feeling it’s childish. 
            With such a narrow target audience, it’s probably no wonder this film bombed at the box office.  (According to wikipedia, it cost $140 million to make and only earned $38 million).  The smarter way to do it would have probably been to target 10-12 year old boys, and then the 5 year olds would want to see that movie also.  Plus, with the epic ambitions of this film (Star Wars meets Treasure Island) you would expect slightly more mature storytelling.

            Exactly who the filmmakers were targeting with this movie is a little unclear, and I suspect they themselves didn’t even know.  The animation quality is actually pretty good, but the movie is very poorly written, and there are just all sorts of signs that halfway through production everyone just stopped caring, and was simply relying on the gimmick of Treasure Island in space to lure in the viewers.

Signs That Everyone Stopped Caring
*        This is a little thing, but it’s telling that nobody cared enough to fix this:
            In the beginning of the movie, Billy Bones’ spaceship clearly crashes right next to the inn.  You can see it crash next to the inn, and you can see Jim Hawkins leaping right off the inn roof to assist.
            Then, when Jim Hawkins is bringing Billy Bones into the inn, the next shot shows that they are all the way down the road and have to walk up the road to the inn.

*          Presumably there are lots of guests staying at this inn, right?  (We saw them all during the dinner time.)  When the pirates ransack the inn and burn it down, what happened to all the guests?

*          So Captain Flint went through all this trouble to design an intricate treasure map to lead other people to his treasure, but then he booby trapped his treasure room because he didn’t want anyone stealing his treasure?  What kind of sense does that make?

*          So, the Captain gets some sort of injury during the escape.  But, in lazy writing that is all too typical of this movie, nothing is ever explained.  It’s never shown how she is injured.  The movie never shows nor explains what her injury is.  She just has some sort of mysterious injury that prevents her from standing up or walking.  Until all of a sudden when she doesn’t have the injury anymore and all of a sudden she’s fine again.  (I know this is a kid’s movie but, this is just really, really, really lazy writing.)
            Plus it’s just a waste of her character. 
            The original Treasure Island story was all male dominated, but the movie changed the Captain’s character to female, and established her in the beginning of the film as a sort of swashbuckling female.  (The introductory shot of her shows her jumping nimbly around the sails.)  It seems like a good move towards gender-balance by bringing a really strong female into the story.
            But then all that is wasted by having her get injured and sit the rest of the film out as a helpless female who must be tended to by Dr. Doppler.

            Which brings me to my final subject: characterization.

          Long John Silver needs to be portrayed with enough charisma so that it’s understandable why Jim Hawkins is drawn to him, and why Jim Hawkins feels his betrayal so strongly later in the movie.
            The initial scenes of Long John Silver as a fat laughing slob in the kitchen turned me off, but I have to admit he grew on me as the film went on.  I’m not sure it was quite necessarily to portray him with all those rolls of fat dropping off his face, but all in all I grudgingly have to admit that the film did a decent job on him.

            Ben Gunn (or B.E.N. as he is portrayed in the movie) is just as disaster though.  I agree with the AVclub’s review of this film [LINK HERE], which called B.E.N. the Jar Jar Binks of this movie—he’s not funny, and he dominates every scene he’s in.  From the moment he first comes on screen, all you want him to do is shut-up, and all he continues to do is yell stuff.
            B.E.N. is voiced by Martin Short who is an actor I find funny under different circumstances with better writers.  But here the writers clearly didn’t know what to do with him, so he was apparently just hired for his ability to yell.  Someone thought it would be funny if he just yelled all his lines, and that is what passes for jokes.


            There are one or two other things I want to complain about in this movie, but I’m over 3,000 words now, which is probably much more time and effort than this movie deserves, so I’ll just end this review now or I’ll be writing here forever.

            …on the plus side, this movie did cause me to go around to a few bookstores and scrounge up a copy of Treasure Island to read again.  I might post a few thoughts on the original novel later.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Rightward Shift of US Politics

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rebels and Traitors by Lindsey Davis

Subtitle: An Epic Novel of the English Civil War

Why I Read This Book
          I’m a big fan of historical novels, and this historical novel was covering a period of history I was particularly interested in: The English Civil War, and the Leveller movement.

The Review
          Historical fiction comes in all shapes and sizes.  Some books are more fiction than historical, and some are more historical than fiction.

            Most historical fiction will try and integrate the history into the narrative, but Lindsey Davis does not feel constrained by this restriction.  Large sections of this book will be straight history, where Davis will completely forget about her fictional main characters and go off for several pages explaining the larger historical events that were happening at the time.
            It’s almost as if someone cut up a history book and interspersed it into a novel.

            Purists will argue that this is not how historical fiction should be written—that the author should avoid these large information dumps.
            But there’s no actual law against this, and as I read this book I thought, “Well, why not write a book like this?”  If the reader enjoys following these historical digressions as much as the author does, and if the reader and the author are both consenting adults, then why not?
            And in fact, it would be hard to imagine a novel of the English Civil War going any other way.  The English Civil War went through so many phases, and involved so many diverse characters, that it would be hard to invent any one narrative that could encompass all of this diversity.  The major figures at the beginning of the war were completely different than the major figures at the end.  (For example, Oliver Cromwell emerged as the head of the Puritan side at the end of the war, but, as Lindsey Davis does a good job of illustrating, he was a complete unknown at the beginning of the war.  Any novel that concentrated on Cromwell’s narrative would have had a hard time integrating all the major events in the early days of the Civil War, and a novel that concentrated on the heroes of the early days, like John Pym, would have the same problem in reverse.)

            It goes without saying then that the ideal reader of this book must share the author’s love of history, and anyone who doesn’t want to get bogged down in too much historical detail should stay well away from this book.  But if you like history, you’ll find this an enjoyable read.
            I appreciated having the fictional elements in the book because it gives a sense of a single story that helps to tie the various elements together.  But I almost enjoyed the historical sections of this book more than the fictional sections.  When she turns her eye to history, Lindsey Davis can write very well.  No doubt her training as a novelist helps her write very readable history.

            The value of this book is increased when one considers how few readable histories there are on the English Civil War --at least in my experience I’ve had trouble tracking down good books on the period.  (If someone knows of any good books out there, let me know.)
            When I was last in a university library, for example, I found that there were lots of books on the Levellers (W) and the Leveller movement, but almost all of them written in dry academic tones.
            Thomas Rainborough (W), for example, is one of the more fascinating figures of the time, but I had trouble finding a readable biography.  The books that I could find on him were so boring that I couldn’t finish them.
            Lindsey Davis, by contrast, does a very good job of integrating the personal histories of all the major Leveller figures into her book. The rise of Thomas Rainborough as an important figure in the Leveller movement, and the circumstances surrounding his assassination, are all nicely laid out in this book.  Likewise with the other Leveller figures—John Lilburne (W), Richard Overton (W), and Edward Sexby (W)—whose stories are all integrated into this novel.
            Besides the Levellers, Lindsey Davis also includes the other political and religious radical groups of the time, and does a good job of integrating these movements into her narrative.  The Diggers (W), the Ranters (W), and the Fifth Monarchists (W) all come to the forefront at one time or another in the book’s narrative.

            The book isn’t perfect by any means.  During the course of its 742 pages, there are all sorts of plot threads that either don’t go anywhere or don’t pay off as well as they should.  And the central romance which makes up the backbone of the plot I found a bit contrived. 
            Fortunately, for those of us who have a low tolerance for sappy romances, the lovers don’t actually meet until the last 200 pages into the book, so we only have to endure it for a short time.  But I still felt like the main character Gideon fell in love for absolutely no reason, and in a way that was completely uncharacteristic for him.  Everything we knew about the character seemed to indicate he was reserved in speech and cautious in love.   Then, for no reason whatsoever, he suddenly becomes smitten with the heroine of the novel, abandons caution and reserve, and starts sending her long gushing rambling letters.
           But despite its flaws, the book is good enough.  If you like history, and you like a little bit of fiction mixed in, it’s well worth the read.

Other Notes


            One of the many interesting little historical details I learned from this book is the mock epic poem Hudibras (W) by Samuel Butler.  (Samuel Butler himself is one of the many historical characters who makes an appearance in this book.) On page 244 Lindsey Davis quotes the opening lines to Hudibras.

            When civil dudgeon first grew high,
              And men fell out they knew not why?
            When hard words, jealousies and fears,
              Set folks together by the ears
            And made them fight, like mad or drunk,
              For Dame Religion, as for punk,
            Whose honesty they all durst swear for,
            Though not a man of them knew wherefore,
               When Gospel-Trumpeter, surrounded,
               With long-ear’d rout, to battle sounded,
               And pulpit, drum, ecclesiastick,
            Was beat with fist, instead of stick;
            Then did Sir Knight abandon dwelling,
               And out he rode a-colonelling….

            I really like those lines, because I think it captures very well the religious confusion of the age, and also infuses the whole English Civil War with an old epic mystical poetic feeling.  (I haven’t read the rest of Hudibras, and maybe I never will, but I really like those opening lines.)

Connections With Other Books I’ve Been Reading

            I first heard of the Leveller movement from Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World.   (Harman gives a Marxist economic interpretation of the English Civil War, as opposed to the more religious interpretation emphasized in the above poem Hudibras.  I think both interpretations are possible.)

            David Starkey gives a very readable account of the main events of the Civil War in Monarchy
            As always when comparing two different authors on the same historical event, it’s interesting to see their different interpretations.  Lindsey Davis thinks Oliver Cromwell’s main motivation for dismissing Parliament was Parliament’s undemocratic intention to bypass elections and legislate themselves as members in perpetuity.  David Starkey thinks Oliver Cromwell was primarily motivated by Parliament’s plan to revoke his position as general of the New Model Army.

            Free Born John by Pauline Gregg gives one of the few readable accounts I could find of John Lilburne and the Leveller movement.

            And The Butterfly in Amber is another book of historical fiction dealing with England during the Puritan Commonwealth period.

Other Links
            * If you like mixing your history lessons with Irish folk rock (and why not?) then A Curse Upon You Oliver Cromwell by the Pogues is a fun listen [LINK HERE].  (Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland is covered in Lindsey Davis’s book.)

            * I also really enjoyed Mark Steel’s historical lecture series, and his program on Oliver Cromwell is worth watching [LINK HERE].

            * If you can track down a copy, the four part BBC series The Devil’s Whore (W) also does a good job of introducing the main figures in the Leveller and Digger movement. [YOUTUBE COPY HERE]


            In the interview accompanying the audio book of Monarchy, David Starkey once said, “People often forget that it was the English, not the French or the Americans, who first abolished the institution of monarchy and established a republic” (quoting from memory—not verbatim).
            This was completely wrong.  It ignores the Dutch Republics, the various republican Italian city states, and the English republican experiment.  (Admittedly it was a short lived experiment, but the fact remains that England was a republic for a short time in the 17th century.)
            I blame my previous ignorance on the American educational system.

            Speaking of which, another thing that often gets completely left out of the history books is that the English Civil War had an affect on the American colonies when the Royalist/Puritan fighting carried over to the British colonial possessions.  See Wikipedia article on the English Civil War in America here [W]. 
            I’m not sure why this is left out of the American history textbooks.  Perhaps because of the American habit of writing history as if history didn’t begin until 1776.  Or perhaps it is because American history textbooks often act as if we exist in isolation from the rest of the world.
            But in my fantasy radio program about American history, I would be sure to include colonial history as well.

            To me, one of the more interesting facts is that one-sixth of the Puritans in Massachusetts actually returned to England to fight for the Puritan cause in the Civil War.  (In fact Thomas Rainborough’s family had Massachusetts connections, something Lindsey Davis mentions in her book.)

Monday, April 15, 2013

from archive.org
Bart Ehrman - The History of the Bible: The Making of the New Testament Canon

A free audio lecture series from Bart Ehrman on the New Testament.  I downloaded this an then listened to it over the past couple weeks while puttering around the apartment.  I found it really interesting and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the New Testament.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

(Movie Review)

            Despite the fact that I gave a mixed review to the first Sherlock Holmes movie, on the whole I really enjoyed the sequel.  (I’m going to have to revisit that first movie one of these days--I may have just been in a cranky mood when I wrote that review.)

            Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are both great actors with lots of charisma. Robert Downey Jr. in particular does a great job in this—every scene he’s in is really fun to watch.
            Furthermore, as someone who’s read at least half of the Sherlock Holmes canon, I enjoyed all the references to the books.  I liked the appearance of Mycroft Holmes, Professor Moriarty, and Jack “Tiger” Moran.  And I got a little thrill as soon as the camera revealed a waterfall in Switzerland, and I realized I knew exactly what was going to happen next.
            All in all, a very entertaining film.
            Of course I do have a few nitpicks…

Action Sequences

* The Sherlock Holmes books were never overly focused on the action.  (Occasionally a bad guy would attack, but Arthur Conan Doyle usually summed up the fight in a sentence or two.)
            But I understand that movies are a more visual medium, and that you have to throw in more action sequences to keep the audience entertained.  And I’m not complaining about that at all.  I like a good fight scene as much as the next red-blooded movie viewer.
            The first couple action sequences were well-choreographed and fun to watch. I enjoyed the long chase/fight sequence that took place in the casino.
             But then things just started getting over the top—thinking specifically about the fights in the train and in the German armory. 
            Don’t get me wrong--a bit of fisticuffs and swashbuckling is all right in these movies, but the massive machine gun battles and huge explosions seem more suited to a Die Hard movie, and out of place in a 19th century detective story. 
            I suspect some executive in Hollywood refused to greenlight this movie unless there were a couple big over the top explosions, but the movie didn’t really need it.
            Worse, it brought down the intelligence level of the movie.  The core story of a covert battle of wits between Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, being played underneath the radar of 19th century European diplomacy, was appealing by itself. But this premise lost all believability once huge explosions and machine gun battles on public trains are taking place. 
            (It also loses all sense of proportion.  The initial purpose behind the train battle was simply to kill Doctor Watson and his wife.  Surely there are easier ways of doing this.)

Connections with Flashman
          This movie ties in nicely with the Flashman book I just finished reading, Flashman and the Tiger.  Jack Moran is the principle villain in that Flashman story, and he’s Moriarty’s number 2 man in this movie.
            Also, it’s a smaller point, but Flashman and the Tiger makes brief reference to the 1889 suicide of the Austrian prince Rudolph.  In the movie, newspaper clippings about this suicide appear briefly on Sherlock Holmes’ wall of crimes connected to Moriarty.

And Other History Connections
          Well I’m on the subject, a couple more history facts.  Although one does not expect historical accuracy from this type of movie, it’s worth pointing out that they did get a couple things correct: In the 1890s there really was a lot of tension between French and Germany, and in the 1890s, there really was a wave of anarchist bombings in Europe

            I never really expect the anarchist movement to be portrayed sympathetically by capitalist Hollywood, but it must be admitted the portrayal here could have been worse.  The anarchists in the movie were misguided, weak, and easily manipulated by Moriarty, but at least they were not pure evil.

            That being said, did I miss something, or did the whole anarchist plot line in this movie make no sense at all?  If Moriarty’s whole plan is to create a war between France and Germany, then why did he pay the anarchists to take credit for the bombings?  Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose?  The French government is not going to go to war with Germany if it believes the explosions were caused by French anarchists.

Stephen Fry
          Via my British friends in the expat circles, I’ve become aware of how popular Stephen Fry is over in England.  He seems to be regarded as both a comedian and intellectual over there. (And I enjoyed him in Black Adder). So any time he appears in a Hollywood movie, it always catches my eye. 
            However, the screenwriters did have a hard time figuring out how to effectively use him.  The one gag—that he walks around naked all the time and doesn’t seem to realize this is socially unacceptable—didn’t really strike me as all that funny.
            (Bonus link—see this video of Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens debating whether the Church has been a force for good or evil [LINK HERE]).

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky US, a top terrorist state