Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Flash for Freedom by George Macdonald Fraser

(Book Review)

Having enjoyed the two previous Flashman books:

Flashman and
Royal Flash

I've moved onto the third book in the series.

As usual with these books, this one covers a lot of diverse historical ground: The 1848 Chartist demonstration, Disraeli, the African slave trade, King Ghezo and his amazon warriors, the underground railroad, and Abraham Lincoln himself.

But much of the book takes place in the good ol' United States itself.

For me, much of the appeal of the Flashman books is being able to learn about new places as Flashman's travels take him to the exotic ends of the Victorian empire.

To have most of the action take place in the United States made this book seem a little bit more ordinary. And at times the book was in danger of becoming just another historical novel about the underground railroad (albeit with the twist of Flashman being an anti-hero.)

What I found most interesting about this book was that it got into the the international politics of slave trading. It was legal to own slaves in America, but slave trading itself had been outlawed and was punishable by death. So when Flashman finds out he's on a slave trading vessel, he's horrified not for moral reasons, but because he's worried about being caught and hanged.

British and American navy ships both patrolled the African coast looking to catch slave ships. (The British navy even going so far as to attack and burn known slave trading outposts along the coast.) And if a vessel was captured even without slaves, it could still be condemned if it had slaving equipment (chains, et cetera) on it.
However the American government would not let any navy but its own search American ships, so the safest thing for the slavers to do was to fly an American flag, and just hope they don't run into American patrols.

All these points form an important part of the book's plot. As always, Fraser has put a lot of research into this book, and it shows.

That being said, the climax of the book itself did seem slightly too ridiculous to be believable, but I guess that's the kind of story these books are: mixing historical detail with an element of ridiculousness.

As always there are a few good laughs along the way. Disraeli is given a couple of brilliant dry lines in response to to one of Flashman's typical tactless comments.
And there's a very funny scene with Flashman and a runaway slave crossing the Ohio river. (A parody of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"--a book I, like most people, remember from high school.)

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - BBC Radio 5 - 23 June 2010

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Toy Story 3

(Movie Review)

It's been over 10 years now since I've seen either of the two previous "Toy Story" movies. (And well before I started reviewing movies on this blog).

Consequently, I don't remember those movies in much detail. But I do have vague memories about the experience of watching them.
The first Toy Story I believe I saw somewhat against my will sometime in college. Someone put it in the VCR and I was too lazy to leave the room. And although I had thought it was just for kids, I remember being pleasantly surprised with how good it was, and how much I genuinely laughed at all the jokes.

My experience with the second Toy Story was similar. As I recall it was a family outing to the theaters. I had voted for a different movie, but lost out and somewhat sulkily followed everyone else inside to see "Toy Story 2." And then found myself enjoying it even more. The jokes were funnier, and some of the chase scenes had me on the edge of my seat even though it was a kids movie.

I guess it's somewhat cliche to praise Pixar movies for appealing to adults as well as kids (see: every review of Pixar ever written.) But it's true.

So by the time "Toy Story 3" came out, I went into the theaters of my own volition.

A fuller review of the trilogy, and how this film stacks up against the others, can best be done by someone who has the two previous films in more recent memory (see Whisky's take on it over here.)

I'm somewhat a victim to the gaps in my memory on the previous two films. But there's no doubt about it, those guys over at Pixar are talented writers. They do some amazing things with fast paced chase scenes in computer animation. And they can also be really funny.

Kids toys, and the different personalities they might take on if they were really alive, is a subject somewhat ripe for satire, but Pixar does it well. Sometimes the humor comes from playing up the stereo type such as a Ken doll who is just a little bit too into fashion, and (from Toy Story 2) Rock-em Sock-em Robots that are a bit too argumentative.
Sometimes the humor comes from playing against type, like the evil Teddy Bear, or the mild mannered Tyrannosaurus Rex or the sad clown Chuckles.

But either way it's always good fun. And a clever mix of nostalgia with humor and good story telling.
(For example: I never had a glo-worm (W) as a kid, but as a child of the 80s I remember well the advertising campaigns and commercials for it, and got a kick out of seeing it in this movie as a kind of evil librarian. I got a few laughs out of Ken insisting that he wasn't a girl's toy. And I liked the chatter telephone that talked like a 40s gangster film. All good fun.)

And, although I'm not quite sure the chase scenes lived up to the previous two films (subject to memory, that) I thought they were pretty decent.

What grained on me a little bit is the overdone sentimentality of this film.

With all the truly sad things that are happening in this world, I have a limited amount of emotional involvement I'm prepared to invest in a teenager outgrowing his childhood toys (if you'll excuse me for bringing in my cynical adult views to a children's story). In my humble opinion, it would have been better to just stay focused on the fun part of these stories. Sure Andy has to grow up eventually, and eventually the toys will get thrown away or broken. But in the world of film, there's no reason why this has to happen in real time. I don't go to this kind of movie to see a long drawn out story about toys coming to grips with their own mortality.

As we were walking out of the theater, my friend asked me what rating I would give this film out of 10.
"It loses a point for the gushy sentimentality," I said. "And perhaps it loses another point for being in unnecessary 3D," (in my opinion.) "But I'd still give it a solid 7 or even 8."

And I think I'll stick to that.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Americas Messianic Vision Of Democracy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

(Book Review)

As mentioned in the previous post, since I was reading a parody of "The Prisoner of Zenda", I decided to use this as an excuse to read the real thing, and thus plug in one of the gaps in my literary background.

Actually, "The Prisoner of Zenda" has long been on my reading list anyway (as part of my reading project to work through the classics of pulp fiction--see also “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Martian Trilogy”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu”, “Conan the Barbarian” and "The Scarlet Pimpernel").

This book was so pleasant, so easy to read, and so short, that I don't know why I didn't read it a long time ago.

My copy was only 152 pages, so I was able to finish it in almost no time at all.

It's a classic adventure story, with imaginary kingdoms, treacherous dukes, and beautiful princesses.

I suppose I should say something about "swashbuckling" in here, because it seems every review ever written about "The Prisoner of Zenda" must say "swashbuckling" at least once. The publishers introduction to my volume (Penguin Classics) goes a little nuts with the word "swashbuckling", mentioning it multiple times.

Well, there is plenty of action in the book, and lots of sword battles. So I guess "swashbuckling" is an apt adjective.

The book does have its flaws. Some of the sections on honor and duty I found a bit tedious. The love story seemed a bit forced and overly sentimental. But really, in a book that's only 152 pages, you can't really complain about anything. Nothing lasts too long for it to get annoying. The story moves quickly enough that the book is over before you know it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Israel Apartheid 2010-03-02