Monday, February 28, 2011

Jackass Number Two

(Movie Review)

So I was hanging out with a couple friends on a Friday night, and someone put this movie in.

I have never seen any of the other Jackass movies, haven’t watched the TV show (I think I might have seen a bit of it once when flipping channels, or something, but it didn’t pull me in) and I’m not interested in it. But sometimes when you’re with a group of friends, you end up watching things you normally would not.

It’s a bit hard to review a movie like this because it’s just a series of pranks and stunts. There’s no real plot or anything, so there’s no scripting or character development or acting to critique. You just watch the various stunts, and if you laugh, great, and if not, there’s not much else to say.

For most of the movie I was more disgusted than anything else, and the laughs from me were few and far between. If I had been at home watching this alone, I think I would have turned it off within the first half hour. But because I was with a group of guys, I stuck it out and watched the whole thing with them. Even though my predominant reaction throughout most of the movie was “Why in the world am I watching this?”

The creativity from sketch to sketch varied widely. Eating the piece of excrement bit, and drinking the horse semen part both seemed to me like they were scrapping the bottom of the creativity barrel. (I can understand that the pressures of filling up a weekly TV show make you include all sorts of filler, but I was expecting more creativity from a movie.)

On the other hand, parts like the bees in the limo, while admittedly a bit cruel, at least was thinking outside the box. I also liked the rodeo see-saw part.
The taxi driver sketch at the end was an interesting premise, but I had trouble believing the intended prank victim was really dumb enough to not realize what was going on, and so the whole thing seemed a bit fake to me.

Much of the movie seemed to me like a Rorshach test. What was happening on screen was only half the show. The audience reaction was where the interesting part was happening. Will you find it funny, disgusting, amusing or revolting? Will you complain that our culture has finally hit rock bottom, or will you admire the comedic genius of these guys? How hard will you laugh and which parts in particular will hit your comedy level?
As such, it probably goes without saying that this movie needs to be watched with a group of friends so that you can see each other’s reactions. It’s no fun being grossed out all alone.

As for me—well I guess I’ve been a prude all my life. Even back in elementary school I remember being disgusted by the fart jokes and the scatological humor that some of my classmates found so hilarious. To me, most of this movie was based on either just being gross, or self-inflicted injuries, or self-mutilation. In most of these sketches I kept waiting for the greater punch line to arrive until I realized this was it—this was what I was supposed to be laughing at.

So I wasn't impressed. But, somewhat to my surprise, according to rottentomatoes.com, this movie did well with the critics who gave it overall positive reviews. So I guess maybe I'm the one whose out of step with society.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Controlling the Public Mind

and The Wit and Wisdom of “Fox & Friends” Anchors

Monday, February 21, 2011

True Grit

(Movie Review)

I was excited to see this movie, mostly because everyone else was really excited to see this movie. (Yep, I got caught up in the hype. Just call me trendy.)

I haven’t seen the original John Wayne version. (Although since I consider myself a bit of a classic film buff, I suppose I ought to get around to it someday.)

However I was impressed by all the positive reviews this film received. Furthermore I always like Coen - Brother's movies. (I’m not always sure what to make of them afterwards, but I always enjoy sitting through them.)

And I enjoyed sitting through this movie as well. Most of it, anyways. (This is one of those movies where the end unfortunately drags out for a bit too long after the main climax finishes. But aside from the last 10 minutes or so, I was completely sucked in by the movie.)

As with any Coen Brothers film, I suppose characters and atmosphere take priority over plot. There were any number of scenes in this movie which I think contributed nothing to the plot, but which are simply there to add to the atmosphere or to emphasize character eccentricities. I think as long as you go into this movie with a relaxed attitude, and are not impatient for the story to get rolling, you’ll have a great time.

As I was leaving the movie theater, I overheard a number of people say to each other, “Well, that wasn’t a great film, but it was entertaining enough.” And I suppose that more or less reflects my attitudes to it as well. Despite all the rave reviews this film has been getting from the critics, I didn’t think it was a new classic. But it was good enough.

Jeff Bridges does a great job in this movie. Much of the movie is just a showcase for him to act like an old, grizzled, brutal Western lawman, and he makes a character worthy of that showcase.
And, somewhat to my surprise, Matt Damon also really does a good job with his role as an arrogant Texas Ranger. (I’m not generally a huge Matt Damon fan, but I think his performance in this movie should easily silence all those critics who think he can’t really act.)

Josh Brolin, although he has a relatively small part in this movie, is as always fantastic. Hollywood is filled with actors who have a very limited range, and seem to be playing the same character in every film (I’m not going to name names, but you know which actors I’m talking about.) Josh Brolin by contrast shows up as a completely different character in just about every movie he’s in, and always does so convincingly. I think he’s one of the few Hollywood stars who’s also a great character actor.

Link of the Day
What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream

Bonus link--Megan Washington: "The Hardest Part" when I was living in Australia this song was on the radio a lot. Apparently it's by an Australian artist, so it may not have made it big back home (I'm not sure) but it's a real bouncy fun song and deserves a larger audience.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Informant!

(Movie Review)

This film had gotten a number of good reviews, and I was curious to check it out.

It took me a bit to get into it. The first hour or so I was largely indifferent to the story it was telling, partly I suppose because I didn’t find any of the characters very sympathetic. (I know that’s the whole point of the movie, but it still kept me slightly at arm’s length.) And then as the story unfolded, by the last hour or so I was really hooked.

The film is a true story about a whistle blower who, it turns out, has plenty of problems of his own.

The film doesn’t really hide his problems. You sense that something’s a bit off right from the start. But the film doesn’t completely show you everything straight off either, and so as the film progresses more and more is revealed.

Although much of the film is played for comedy, it does contain at its heart an important question: how much protection should whistle blower’s have? Matt Damon’s character, the real life Mark Whitacre, ended up serving a prison sentence 3 times as long as the people he blew the whistle on. Yes, he embezzled 9 million dollars, but the movie hints that this would never have come to light if he hadn’t alerted the FBI to the price fixing scam. If only uncorrupt people are allowed to become whistle blowers, than does this mean most of the corruption is never going to be uncovered?

As I said though, a lot of this is actually played for comedy in the film. And some of it works pretty well. I got a couple laughs out of some scenes.
However film’s main gag is that it gives us access into the head of Mark Whitacre (the main character). The film will show one scene, and then there will be a voice over giving us insight into what Mark Whitacre is actually thinking at the time. Often it’s something completely unrelated, like how polar bear’s hide their black noses to blend in with the snow.
I’m not quite sure what the point of this is. It might be a way of mocking Mark Whitacre, or hinting that he’s not altogether normal. And as the film progresses, it’s obvious Mark Whitacre has mental illness problems, but this seems to be completely unrelated to the little mental thought balloons we get glimpses of throughout the film. And in fact, having constantly having random thoughts about things unrelated to the subject at hand is something we all do. Like a lot of common human eccentricities, it seems a bit ridiculous when you focus in on it with just one character, but it’s a common enough human trait. You could do that with any character in any movie.

I suspect what happened is that someone was worried the movie couldn’t really stand on its own without throwing in some running gag to spice it up a little. But frankly, I found these constant asides mostly annoying.

Link of the Day
Philosophers and Public Philosophy

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Men Who Stare at Goats

(Movie Review)

This is a fascinating little movie about the army’s investigation into psychic activities. It is one of those films that immediately sends you running to the internet to try and figure how much of this is true, and how much of this is fiction.

It’s also one of those movies that is interesting in direct proportion to how much of it is true. If it is all true, then it is absolutely amazing. If it is mostly a Hollywood story, then it’s alright, I guess, but I’ve seen better.
The movie opens with the tantalizing line that it is mostly true. Or in their words, “more of this is true than you would believe.”
The rest of the movie often assumes a tone that almost leads you to believe you’re watching a semi-documentary. It’s told through the voice of a reporter, who appears to be documenting everything as he is going, and is mixed in with facts and historical tidbits (for example, citing Reagan’s support of the program).

While watching the movie, I was under the impression that this was more or less a true story (with maybe a couple composite characters and events.)

However after watching the film, my small bit of internet research (I looked at the Wikipedia page) leads me to believe it’s loosely based on a documentary, but mostly made up. I’m not sure.

At any rate, the movie has a rather interesting premise.
About halfway through the movie, a conversation between two generals outlines the reasons for the Army’s investigation into psychic and paranormal activities.

“When did the Soviets begin this type of [psychic] research?”
“Well sir, it looks like they found out about our attempts to telepathically communicate with one of our subs—The Nautilus, while it was under the polar ice cap”
“What attempt?”
“There was no attempt. Seems the story was a French hoax. But the Russians think the story about the story being a French hoax is just a story sir.”
“So they’ve started doing psychic research because they thought we were doing psychic research when in fact we weren’t doing psychic research?”
“Yes sir. But now that they are doing psychic research, we might have to do psychic research, sir. We can’t afford to have the Russians leading the field in the paranormal.”

Absolutely straight out of “Dr. Strangelove.” I was just waiting for them to say something like “we can not afford to have a paranormal gap” and make the allusion complete.

Given that the military designs contingency plans for absolutely everything, and given what a huge amount of pork barrel spending the military is responsible for, I am not surprised at all they were actively researching psychic and paranormal abilities on the off chance it might someday prove useful for military purposes.

What I am surprised at is that, as this film alleges, instead of turning the project over to real researchers to run controlled scientific tests, they gave free reign to new age shamans, hippies, and failed science fiction writers to completely control the project. The result seems to be prove the old motto “the truth is always stranger than fiction.” (Again, assuming this is an accurate representation.)

The story is told in two parts. One is flashbacks to the 1980s when the whole program began. A fascinating little piece of history, although a bit dated now.

The other part of the story, the frame part for all the flashbacks, takes place during the current Iraq War, where apparently the psychic and paranormal division was still being employed, running experiments on Iraqi prisoners and torturing them by putting them in a solitary cell with strobe lights and Barney music.

I found the constant switching back between the A story and the B story a bit disorienting. (Just when you’re starting to get into one of the stories, they pull you out of it and throw you into the other.) But no doubt that the film as a whole is one amazing story.
The flashback to the 1980s show a bizarre world in which for a brief time pseudo science was given free rein in the small section of our military. The Iraqi war parts show a bizarre world in which private entrepreneurs are convinced Iraq is going to be a new gold mine of private investment, and private security contractors get into firefights with each other, trapping the hapless locals in between. (Again, the voice-overs, in which Ewan McGregor tells how many casualties resulted from the fire-fight, leads you to believe this was all based on real events. If it turns out this was mostly fiction, I’m going to feel slightly manipulated.)

There’s a pretty stellar cast in this film (Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, George Clooney) and they all do a great job. Jeff Bridges, who has been a bit typecast as crazy hippy characters ever since “The Big Lebowski”, nevertheless does a great job as a hippy Army commander. Kevin Spacey has a couple great scenes, especially near the end when he’s explaining the new Iraq War psychic operations, and has a fit, throwing pencils at one of his subordinates who brings up an abandoned project.

The ending could have been a bit better. If it’s a true story, than I guess they were stuck with the facts. But if this was largely made up, then I think it could have used a couple re-writes.

Link of the Day
South America: Toward an Alternative Future

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

(Movie Review)

I was slightly disappointed with this movie when I realized it was about Sherlock Holmes fighting the magical powers of the occult. Couldn’t they just let Sherlock Holmes be Sherlock Holmes and outsmart regular criminals without some sort of vast magical occult conspiracy to take over the world?

And then I thought, “Well but what else did I expect from Hollywood?” Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories where you get the pleasure of observing Holmes outsmart the criminal from his amazing powers of observation and putting together a series of seemingly meaningless clues, may work well as 20 page stories, but probably doesn’t give the spectacular visuals that a blockbuster Hollywood film needs to compete.

(In fact come to think of it, the last Sherlock Holmes movie I saw, “Young Sherlock Holmes”, also involved Sherlock Holmes taking on the occult. And oddly enough, these are the only two Sherlock Holmes movies anyone seems to remember or to watch. I mean I know there are tons of old Sherlock Holmes movies out there if you dig through the archives of Hollywood, and occasionally some of them are run late at night on cable, but I’ve never actually sat down and watched any of these. Have you?)

I was slightly worried the film might attempt to cop-out by invoking the super-natural as an explanation, but to the film’s credit at the end everything had a logical scientific explanation. (Actually some of the more fantastic bits might have been pseudo-science or steam-punk, but close enough.) There weren’t enough clues given to the audience to try and solve the case with Sherlock Holmes, but then the original Conan Doyle stories often worked the same way.

For the same reasons, I don’t really hold it against this film that it made Sherlock Holmes into an action franchise. Like I said, I think Hollywood had to do it to make the film more visually interesting. And I like pop-corn movie, action blockbusters as much as anyone else.

However, if this does become an action movie, it must be judged in part on the quality of its action scenes. And I don’t know, something about these Guy Ritchie action scenes didn’t really do it for me. Hard to put my finger on it exactly. The close-ups, the dizzying quick cuts between shots, the speeding up and then slowing down, all of which made me feel like I wasn’t enjoying the action scenes so much as just struggling to keep track of what was going on.

Also, in theory, I like the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. I think giving the parts to actors like these, instead of more stereotypical serious Holmes, is a great way to keep things fresh.

And, in theory, I think it’s good to have them bickering back and forth a little bit as comic relief.
However the way they were constantly arguing about domestic issues like an old married couple wasn’t perhaps quite as funny as it could have been. It also got a bit repetitive.

Link of the Day
On The U.S. Human Rights Record

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Kick-Ass

(Movie Review)

I hate writing about controversial stuff on this blog.

…Okay, that’s not completely true. If it’s an issue I already have an opinion on, and feel strongly about, I don’t mind it at all. But if it’s an issue I don’t really have a fully formed opinion on, or have strong feelings about, then I’d just assume stay out of it.

I’ve read a bit about the controversy surrounding this movie on Phil’s blog (Phil's post here--and relevant article here). And indeed, it does seem to cross a few lines.

I don’t normally like making common cause with hypocritical Christian media watchdog groups like “Focus on the Family”—(Groups that have made a living complaining about violence in the media, while supporting real life violence in the Iraq War.) And yet, I don’t know, at points watching this movie I couldn’t help but wonder if we had as a culture somehow crossed the line into their worst fears about the fetishization of violence. It was almost like I was watching a satire of what these groups were worried an ultra-violent Hollywood movie would someday look like.

But wait, that’s the point, isn’t it? The whole movie is supposed to be a satire. Does this make everything acceptable because it’s a satire? Well, your judgment call is as good as mine. Like I said, I don’t have any strong opinions.

The film opens with what I thought was a fairly interesting question: given how obsessed our culture is with superheroes, how come you don’t see more people trying to act out these fantasies in real life? Not that it would be successful, but how come you don’t at least see people attempting it?

(Having raised the question, let me give the obvious answer: people, even children, are much better at separating entertainment from reality than media watchdog groups give them credit for.)

The beginning scenes appear to promise a story exploring what would happen if people attempted to live out their super-hero fantasies in reality. But then, very quickly, the film itself becomes just another super-hero fantasy. And since these super-hero movies are a dime-a-dozen lately, I’m not entirely sure what the point of this film is. I mean if I wanted to watch just another super-hero film, I’m more than happy to stick to the standards like Batman and Spider-man.

Especially since we just had “The Watchmen” last year, another movie attempting to deconstruct super-heroes just seems kind of redundant. But I guess Hollywood does everything in packs. Maybe now that they’ve got the idea, we can expect a lot more of these movies in the coming years.

As the movie made multiple tonal shifts, I had a hard time deciding what they were going for. Were we watching a satire on action movies, or an action movie? Was this being played for comedy, or pathos? Were these people living in the real world (where the human body is fragile and can be easily injured) or in some type of comic book world?

Ah, but was it entertaining? Did it hold my interest all the way through? That’s another question, the answer to which is largely yes. Love it or hate it, I do have to admit this film kept me entertained. The film was populated by a number of weird, but interesting characters. And, perhaps in part because of the various tone shifts, you never really knew where the film was going with its premise, and that in itself kind of kept you hooked in for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.

The exception was the last half hour or so. By that time you pretty much know where the film’s climax is headed, and all that’s left to see is just the characters battle it out. At this point I guess my interest began to fade.

So, yeah, I guess in conclusion I’m not sure what to make of this film, and didn’t have any real strong opinions. But for the most part it entertained me.

Link of the Day
On the Backgrounds of the Pacific War

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Hot Tub Time Machine

(Movie Review)

I suppose a large part of any enjoyable movie experience is just matching your expectations to the film, and getting in the appropriate mood.

In that respect, perhaps the title of this film is one of the best things about it. With a title like that, you know right from the start you’re going to get a movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense, or have much of a story line. And having been forewarned about this, you don’t really mind when nothing really makes a lot of sense.

This is one of those stupid comedy movies that’s hard to give an intelligent review to. On the whole, I thought the script was pretty lame. But there were lots of little moments mixed throughout the film that brought a smile to my face.

The premise of the film is that 4 guys travel back in time to 1986, through a process that is never explained, for reasons that are never explained. (Somehow a hot tub is involved, and somehow a Russian energy drink Chernobly (sp?) is involved, and something about a magic squirrel as well.)

Man, you know you’re starting to get old when time travel movies start going back to time eras you actually lived through, and even sort of vaguely remember.
It used to be that these time travel movies would go back to exotic mystical times, like the 1950s in “Back to the Future”.

“Back to the Future” is of course the obvious comparison to this movie. And in fact, call me cynical, but I kind of imagine this movie started life as a Hollywood memo somewhere suggesting that the studio remake “Back to the Future” and update it for today’s audiences. The multiple similarities between the two movies are just so obvious.
(For example, kid travelling back in time to meet his young parents. Same kid beginning to fade in and out of existence once they start changing the time stream. The obvious band performance scene near the end. Returning to the present to find out that everything has changed for the better. Et cetera.)

It’s perhaps unfortunate for this film that all these similarities remind us of “Back to the Future”. It might have been a lot better for the filmmakers if they had tried to make us forget about “Back to the Future” as much as possible, because the similarities invite comparison. And man, does this film suffer by comparison.

In “Back to the Future”, there were all these brilliant little plot points subtly set up in the first third of the film (before the time travel incident), which would then begin to pay off once you got back in time, and saw how everything came together.

This film doesn’t really have any of those. There were a few things that were mentioned in the beginning of the film that I expected were going to pay off later, but they never did.
Why the writers couldn’t have bothered to follow through on some of this stuff I don’t know. It wouldn’t have cost them anything extra in special effects. Either they just got lazy or, perhaps more likely, this is one of those studio films that everyone had their hand in, and went in for several re-writes. This would perhaps explain all the bits that never really seemed to go anywhere. (Such as explaining why John Cusack’s girlfriend had moved out on him at the beginning, how Rob Cordery’s character got the nickname “violator”. What actually happened in Cincinnati. Why the town of Kodiak valley deteriorated in the last 20 years. What the connection with the squirrel was. What the “Great white Buffalo” comments meant, et cetera. What was the origin of the antagonism between Rob Corddry’s character and Clark Duke's character. I even thought the time travel bit might explain why the various characters go on the self-destructive paths they do later in life, but we see none of it.)

I was also a bit confused about just how many cans of Chernobly there actually were. Did they have one, or two? And did they use up all of the first one when they spilled it on the hot tub the first night? Apparently not I guess, but unless I missed something, none of this was really made clear in the movie.

The jokes can be a bit lame as well. Take the following, for example:

“Hey, for your information, I’ve had lots of girlfriends. Hot ones.”
“No, you’ve had lots of boyfriends. Gay ones.”

That might not have been quite so bad if this was one of those scenes where the one-liners where flying back and forth so fast you could barely keep track of them all, and immediately forgot about the lamer ones. But it wasn’t. The whole 4 or 5 line conversation between Clark Duke and Rob Corddry was leading up to this punch line, and after it was delivered the filmmakers decided to lingered on it —stop the conversation for a reaction and laughs from the rest of the car, and then onto a new topic.
What in the world made them think that joke was worth all that? It’s the kind of awkward moment that makes you wonder just how much these Hollywood screenwriters get paid anyway, and if maybe they’re getting paid way too much whatever it is.

But even though the script can be a bit comedy challenged in parts, I think the actors do a great job of selling the material anyway. All 4 of these guys are great. Rob Corddry, who I’ve enjoyed for years on “The Daily Show” can get slightly annoying at times, but on the whole does a great job of playing the jerk in the group of friends—the kind of guy who is constantly causing his friends all sorts of grief, and then gets upset when they try and call him on it.

John Cusack is, as usual, one of my favorite actors, and does a great job with all the dry humor bits. My favorite part of the film is where Cusack’s character is trying to carefully explain to Rob Corddry’s character that the piece of graffiti he had carved 20 years ago (“Adam sux cox n dix”) is no longer there, and Rob Corddry is so devastated by this (as if this was the worst part of the time travel mess.) It may not sound like much on paper, but the actors really do a great job with the delivery.

(By the way, based on the two gags just previously mentioned, you might conclude this film has a bit of homophobia running through it, and many of the jokes are based off of the assumption that the worst thing a male could have happen to him is to be accused of being gay. And you would be right. But I guess it’s no worse than any of the other frat house comedies out there these days.)

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is one of those Hollywood movies that would have been completely worthless if they hadn’t have gotten a bit of star power behind it. If John Cusack hadn’t have been in this movie, it would have been a disaster.

John Cusack’s character in the film, by the way, is apparently a narcissist and a control freak. Although we don’t really see this so much in his characterization, or in anything he does, we just have to be told it by the rest of the characters. (There was the sticker plan thing in the beginning, but since that happened off camera, and had no other ramifications in the movie, and was so blatantly existing solely just to tell the audience this guy is a control freak, I’m not really sure it counts as effective characterization.) So this is perhaps another example of lazy writing.

Still, having said all that, I must admit that this film got enough laughs out of me that I can’t hate it entirely. And may even give it a cautious recommendation, for anyone looking to kill time watching a brainless comedy.

Link of the Day
Interview with Prof. Chomsky Nov 16 2010

Friday, February 04, 2011

The King’s Speech

(Movie Review)

I confess I went into this movie with some ambivalence.

Even though it had gotten good reviews (and had been recommended to me by several people) the premise of the movie just sounded really boring—a king overcoming a speech impediment didn’t strike me as the kind of story that could keep me interested for 2 hours.

Once again, however, I learn that good screenwriting and witty dialogue can make even the subtlest of stories completely engrossing.

Even though not a lot of action happens in this movie (the climax is the main character speaking into a microphone for 3 minutes) the conversations between all of the characters are all really good.
Because this film is so talky, at times I thought like I was watching a theater play transformed onto the big screen. (In fact I should look it up to see whether this movie did originally start life as a play.) But like any successful stage play, all of the talking parts have a nice flow.

This is one of those minor historical little stories that has to struggle a bit to find its place among more major stories. Potentially, what is happening in the background of this movie (the first royal abdication in British history, and the build up to the Second World War) should be more interesting than the main story (George VI struggling to master his speech impediment.) So there’s an interesting balancing act that the screenwriters have to juggle to keep their main storyline from being overwhelmed by the other plot threads.
War films we’ve had plenty of the past few years, so I didn’t mind so much that the war parts got pushed to the background.
The abdication crisis, and the soap-opera like events that lead up to it, I knew little about and would have been curious to learn more. And although the film makers did feature it as a major part of the story (in the 2nd act of the film, at least), I would have gladly sat through more.

I wonder, would this movie have been slightly improved if the abdication crisis had been given almost equal time to the speech impediment? It would have overwhelmed the main plot a bit, but then the main plot was slightly repetitive.

One of the things I hate about romance movies is that the plot sometimes seems to go in circles. The guy will win the girl’s love, then he’ll screw it up and he’ll have to win her back again, then he’ll screw it up again and have to win her back yet again, then something else will come up and they’ll temporarily break-up, and then get back together again. (Not all romance movies do this, but a lot of them do. You know which ones I’m talking about.)
This movie, although more of a bromance, did tend to follow that same pattern. There were several times when the speech therapist Lionel had to win back the King’s confidence, and by the 3rd time or so I felt a bit like we were moving in circles.

Also, some of the reviews for this film had led me to believe this film was about Lionel's "unconventional methods" to speech therapy. (Huge cliche that, but I'll let it go because it's apparently historical.) However the film was really all about the relationship between the two men, and little about Lionel's unconventional methods. There are a couple scenes, and a bit of a montage, but at the end of the film I didn't really understand what Lionel's theory of speech therapy was, and why his methods were considered so uncoventional.
In fact, from the brief bit we saw of it, it looked like the methods of the King's usual speech therapists (Demosthene's pepples)were much more unconventional.

What else to say? Well, the acting was pretty good. It’s easy to either underact or overact this type of script, but I think the actors hit it pretty pitch perfect. They say all their lines with a bit of oomph to them, but they never really get to the point where their overacting.

My only complaint is I thought the guy they got to do Churchill was almost doing a bit of a caricature of Churchill. But admittedly Churchill is one of those iconic figures (like Nixon or Elvis) that it’s hard to portray without veering into caricature. And fortunately Churchill only has a minor role in this movie.
In fact, while I'm on the subject, it almost seemed like Churchill was shoehorned unnecessarily into this movie. He could have been taken completely out of the movie, and I don't think anyone would have noticed. But it's like the studio said, "It's a movie about Britain leading into World War II. Even though Churchill wasn't yet prime minister at the time, we've got to put him in their somewhere. He's the only person the American audiences will actually recognize."

And on the subject of World War II:

Just about every major studio movie that comes out portrays World War II as a just and necessary war. (It’s necessary to maintain at least one good war in the public memory so we can justify future wars.)
Although that’s not the main theme of this film, and although the war is in the background not the foreground of the film, the underlying assumption is still that the war was a necessity.
This isn’t really the place to go through the whole historical record. I’m just going to state my objection to this interpretation, and say that I agree with writers like Chris Harman and Howard Zinn, who have done an excellent job of cutting through all the mythology surrounding that war.

Some more points:

* And one small historical nitpick.
At one point King George VI declares, “Without exception, every single monarch throughout history has succeeded another monarch who was dead, or nearly dead. I am the first monarch in history who has succeeded a king who is still very much alive.” (Or something like that, I’m quoting from memory.)

Despite this being phrased in a very categorical way, I think there are a number of exceptions to this. The example that springs to mind is William of Orange succeeding James II of England. (And I have a feeling that if I racked my brains long enough I could think of more. If anyone else can think of more examples feel free to put them in the comments section.)

This isn’t technically a historical inaccuracy, because it was something that the character said, and you could make the argument that the character simply got it wrong. But you would think that a king of England would be a little bit more versed in his own royal history.

* This movie got a fair amount of publicity over here in Australia because of the Australian connection. (Both the character Lionel Logue, and the actor who played him Geoffrey Rush, are Australian).
Watching the movie in a Melbourne movie theater, I can attest that the audience laughed appreciatively at all the jabs at Australia's expense thrown in this movie.

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Speaking of Melbourne, this little article in the Melbourne Age "Accusations of anti-Semitism have cast a cloud over The King's Speech" adds an interesting angle historical angle to the criticism of the film.
This is all new information to me, so I don't have any strong opinions on it. Go over and read the article and see what you think for yourself. (Rather frustratingly, the author of the article only reports that a controversy exists, and doesn't comment on the accuracy of the accusations. I guess researching it would have been too much work.)
However, if these charges are accurate, it is yet another example of what authors like Harman and Zinn have been saying all along--that much of the justification for World War II was retrofitted into history, and at the time the actual ruling classes of Britain and the United States were not very concerned about the plight of European Jews.

And on the subject of historical criticism of this movie, see also Christopher Hitchens review: "Churchill Didn't Say That"

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One last link: This article "'The King's Speech' might get a post-Oscars nominations re-edit"

This is yet more proof that:
A)--The ratings system is completely broken.
B)--The American obsession with assigning moral values to phonemic sequences is just getting ridiculous.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Gaza MIT Jan2009

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Flashman’s Lady by George MacDonald Fraser

(Book Review)

Yes, I come to yet another Flashman book. (See also: Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Flashman, Royal Flash, Flash for Freedom, Flashman at the Charge, and Flashman and the Great Game.)

So far I’m still having fun with this series, so I’m still continuing on with it.

Although I should add, by way of disclaimer, that these books are definitely guilty pleasures. There’s some of Orientalism in them (using the Far East as an exotic backdrop for Westerners to have adventures in). And there’s probably a bit of sexism in them as well. (The books are meant to parody Flashman’s misogyny, not endorse it, but there’s a fine line that perhaps occasionally gets crossed.) But as much as I’d hate to have to defend everything in these books, I certainly enjoy reading them. They’re a very fun way to learn history.

It’s common for these books to cover about two or three different topics as Flashman runs from one danger point into another. This book can be roughly divided into about 3 equal parts (each little more than a 100 pages):
1). Cricket in England during the 1840s,
2). Singapore and Malaysia in the 1840s,
3). Madagascar during the 1840s.

Not being a big sports fan, the first 3rd of the book, in which Flashman interacts with some of the great Cricket players of the 1840s, was slightly dry for me. It wasn’t terrible (there’s a gambling scandal and a personal rivalry to keep things interesting) but I felt like it went on for too long, and I was eager to get to the more exotic parts of the story. (Despite having lived in a cricket playing nation for one year, I never did catch the fever.)
But that’s just me. If you’re a sports fan, you might enjoy it more than I did.

There’s a brief detour in the storyline for Flashman and his friends to witness a public execution. The scene described there reminded me very much of Charles Dicken’s description of a public hanging in 1849, and indeed Dicken’s account is cited as one of the sources in the footnotes.
The bloodlust of the English mob described here is used later in the story to put some perspective on the cruelties Flashman will witness in Madagascar.

The second part of the story takes place in Singapore and Malaysia.
This past year I’ve met a lot of people from Singapore and Malaysia, and through talking to them my interest in these countries has greatly increased. The history of Singapore and Malaysia seems to be a fascinating mix of Asian culture and British colonialism.

Unfortunately, George MacDonald Fraser, who can be wonderfully descriptive when he wants to be, doesn’t really get into the local culture in much detail. Nor is there much history of the British involvement in these areas. So that was slightly disappointed.

What Fraser does focus on is one of the forgotten heroes of the Victorian Empire, James Brooke, who apparently was famous for going up and down Malaysia and Indonesia battling pirates.

In one of the afterwards to the book, Fraser hints that James Brooke has been left out of the history books as part of a politically correct plot to cover up the good that the British Empire did. “Nowadays, when it is fashionable to look only on the dark side of imperialism, not much is heard of James Brooke. He was one of those Victorians who gave empire-building a good name,” (p355).

Although I don’t know anything about James Brooke myself, this kind of language makes me feel slightly uneasy. Up until now, I’ve always felt like I agreed more or less with George MacDonald Fraser’s politics, but I’m reluctant to concede that imperial military intervention has its good points. But, like I said, I don’t know anything about the subject, so I’ll just let it go at that.

Politics aside, I did get swept up in the whole adventure of the story. James Brooke was fighting pirates on the Batang Lupar River, and engaging in what was known as “river fighting.” I had never heard of river fighting before, but I guess it means taking these big ships that were designed for battle on the high seas and maneuvering them down through the rivers instead to battle other pirate ships also hiding along the river.
Needless to say, river fighting is a lot different than traditional ocean fighting, and Fraser does a good job of describing it, including the different spy boats that would run up and down the river ahead of the main boat and the ambushes when the enemy ships come out from behind the jungle foliage.

And, although Flashman himself is a fictional character, the campaign actually did take place. As usual, in his footnotes Fraser backs up most of what he says by references to diaries from the surviving members of the expedition, indicating that even some of the more unbelievable sounding episodes are straight out of history.

The last 3rd of the book takes place in Madagascar, which was ruled in the 1840s by the terrible Queen Ranavalo.
I had never heard of Ranavalo before, nor read much of anything about any of the history of Madagascar come to that. But I was happy enough to go along for the ride and learn a few new things about a different part of the world.

Once again, these Flashman books end up being a thoroughly enjoyable read.

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Up until now, the books have proceeded in chronological order. This book breaks chronology, and jumps back to the years 1842-1845 (after the first Flashman book, but before the second one.) I’m also given to understand that many of the later books in this series also jump around a lot in chronologically.

The author can get away with this to a certain extent, because in Flashman’s first person narration it’s been clear all along that he’s had many more adventures than he has been telling us.

But it is difficult to write a prequel that fits into continuity flawlessly. And if you want to be nitpicky about it, there are a lot of things you can point out. (As a former Trekkie, I’m trained to get anal about continuity errors.)

For example, Flashman runs into his old rival Tom Brown at the beginning of the book. And he obviously seems to remember the confrontation, because he wrote it in his memoirs. This appears to contradict the ending of the previous book, in which Flashman had to be reminded who Tom Brown was. (Also, presumably Scud East would have heard about this encounter, but the impression given in “Flashman at the Charge” is that neither Tom Brown nor Scud East have run into Flashman since their school days.)

Somewhat more serious is that Flashman and his wife go through a number of shared experiences, which you think would alter their relationship slightly, or at the very least have been referenced in the other books.

But having said all that, none of that really spoiled the fun. The point of these books is just to have some fun historical fiction, it’s not to obsess about every continuity point. (And also, these are admittedly pretty minor points.)

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This is the 6th book in series, and to mix things up slightly, in addition to Flashman’s own first person narrative, pages from his wife’s diary are also mixed in. This is an interesting way to keep things fresh. His wife is so airheaded and clueless about everything that the portrayal might well boarder on sexist (yet another point where I would be hard pressed to defend these books) but there is added humor in reading through her version of events, and seeing how little she grasps of what is happening around her.
Her diaries are edited by her sister, who will occasionally make marginal notes into them when she loses patience with her sister’s narration.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on 9-11 and the New War on Terrorism (2002)