Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hamlet


by CarpeCyprinidas


I set out to write a review of Hamlet, but I quickly realized that I could do little in my small blurb where whole doctoral theses had been written. If you want a quick recommendation, then I would say yes, watch or read Hamlet—it is a great story, with great writing, that has had a great and lasting impact that reverberates in the Western canon. Here I will describe a couple of film versions and the experience of reading the play, as well as the joys and pitfalls found in each of those formats. 


"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark"
Hamlet is a play by William Shakespeare, telling the tragedy of the eponymous Prince of Denmark whose father (also named Hamlet) recently died. His mother Gertrude is now married to his uncle Claudius (the late king's brother), who has assumed the throne. As Hamlet broods over the loss of his father, and casts slights upon his mother for her hasty nuptials, young Fortinbras of Norway plots to invade Denmark with a host, the ghost of the elder Hamlet appears to his son and demands revenge for his murder, and Hamlet's girlfriend Ophelia gets distraught. Hamlet then must move himself to action against the man who took his father's life, while feigning madness as a cover to his schemes. From that point on it's a bloody ride to the end, a sequence of events where famously nearly everybody dies.



"Words, words, words"
Reading Hamlet is a chore. I find reading most plays to be a challenge, since they lack the structure of prose works: for a play the transition from page to stage is normally facilitated by director, actors, dramaturge, set and costume, all players who interpret and give life to the words and bare stage directions written down by the play's author. To read it alone to yourself requires an intense imaginative effort, as you must create the characters for yourself and endow their words and actions with the proper accent and emphasis, placed within an appropriate setting. In the case of Shakespeare, 400 years of intervening time compound the problem, as different customs and speech further impede the reading. And again, Hamlet is the longest of Shakespeare's plays. Ideally you would slog through it in a single sitting, for the proper effect of sitting straight through a performance, but for most the unfamiliar language will require the flow of the play to be broken by frequently referencing footnotes. You are not likely to make it through the play in a single session, at least not your first time through.

That said, Shakespeare's words are what is left to us. And they are some of the finest words, phrases, lines, sentences in the English language. While a stage production might be easier to follow on the whole, you are like to miss out on some of the brilliancy of Shakespeare's writing, lost in the current of the play as an actor, well, acts, moving along with all the action that is implied in that, leaving you little time to dwell on the niceties of his lines. And such lines they are! Hamlet has my favorites, lines of biting, sarcastic wit, lines that lash out viciously at his queen mother and king uncle/father or mock their toadyish courtiers or dwell moodishly on life. The words may truly come to life when spoken by a great actor, but it would be worth your time first to read through the text so that you do not miss his meaning.

As a last measure you might consider taking up one of the "modern language translations" of Hamlet. I briefly read through the Sparknotes No Fear Shakespeare edition of Hamlet and was unimpressed. The stated goal of the text was to give readers both Shakespeare's English and a dumbed-down translation on facing pages so that they can reference the latter when having trouble with the former. I cannot see this as being that much easier than referencing footnotes, and a good footnote will give a wealth of information with the meaning of a word or phrase compared to the bland rendering in Sparknotes' English, and it will stretch your mental muscles a bit, too. My fear is that ultimately someone who resorts to such a translation will just read through that, and come away indifferent to the work and unknowing of the richness they are missing.


Shakespeare on the silver screen
There is probably a personality test floating around the web somewhere that matches you with your Hamlet performance. There is no "standard" Hamlet to compare all others with, or a "best" Hamlet to watch first. There are plusses and minuses to each, and they will appeal to different people. The only things they have in common is being long, easily over two and a half hours, and being generally worth the time.



Hamlet (1948, Lawrence Olivier directing and as Hamlet)
Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet is distinctly old looking, and indeed it was made nearly 65 years ago. This might hold appeal for some viewers, if you are drawn to classic cinema, or it could be a distraction. It is finely acted, yet to a modern viewer it could seem the quintessence of snobbery that is sometimes associated with Shakespeare. It is very like a play in feel, but the set and cinematography take full advantage of the film format and provide a tight interpretation of the play. Olivier cut out Fortinbras and thus the broader political scope of the play, choosing to focus all attention on Hamlet, but still this rendition is a full (some might feel over-long) two and a half hours. As I said, it is a good Hamlet, but it does not give the full play. The supporting cast in this version are mostly unremarkable, both for being unfamiliar to the modern audience and in their acting.



Hamlet (1990, Kevlin Kline as Hamlet)
The modern dress of this film version reflects a more modern method of acting, and it makes the difference. It surprisingly does not clash with the Shakespearean speech, but rather by removing another archaism makes the language shine all the more. I did not immediately warm to this production, but about half an hour into it I realized that I was more engrossed and enjoying myself far more than I did in Olivier's Hamlet.  The set is barely there, not in a "we're focusing on the play" making-a-statement kind of way, but more in a low-budget way. The cinematography seems to follow the actors at random, and the accompanying music is an eighties-tastic synthesizer score. These demerits were somewhat removed when I learned that this is a more-or-less straight filming of a stage production, and not a movie production, and I then began to enjoy it as such. The language truly shines though, as I said, and in a number of ways this Hamlet is more accessible than Olivier's. There is a humor to Kline's performance that piques the interest—it is notably non-stuffy; this version also preserves better the wit of Hamlet: his biting comments and his humorous ill-humor.


The dead king Hamlet, in authentic disco armor.
MST3K: Hamlet
And of course where there is good, there is bound to be bad. Terrible, even. But of all the bad Hamlets, only one has gotten the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, a 1960 German public television version with English audio dub. It's notable for the wise-cracking of Mike and company and the fabulous costumes. Maybe not the best first Hamlet, but definitely amusing. At just over 90 minutes it's also the shortest you are like to find, unless you catch a production of Tom Stoppard's 15-Minute Hamlet.

It is unusual for me to give a movie repeated viewings: except for my very favorite movies, once is enough for me, and I am uninterested in watching it again for some time. I watched two Hamlets in as many weeks and I'm ready for more, which speaks to the quality of Shakespeare's play. Next on my list is the 1990 Hamlet featuring Mel Gibson in the title role. I look forward to it, both to see the now infamous actor take his crack at the famous role, and perhaps even more to see supporting actresses Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter as Gertrude and Ophelia, respectively. I also am on the watch for a live stage performance.

So, to recap: read or experience Hamlet. The first time or two might be tough, but if you put something into it what you will find that not only does each time get easier and you get more out of it, but you will find yourself looking for more Hamlets to enjoy, be they stage performances or the many movie version and revisions.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Game of Thrones (Book) - Nitpicks

Ah... A Game of Thrones. The first in a five book series, rereading A Game of Thrones was like returning to an old friend. The old quirks that I remembered were still there. The 2+ years I had spent away from it fuzzied my memory enough that it felt fresh and exciting once more. For a long time, I’ve regarded A Song of Ice and Fire (the series’ name) as one of my favorite series of all time, if not the favorite. Nowhere else can you find that incredible blend of fantastic world-building, spectacular character development, immense attention to detail, and enthralling writing. On rereading (this is probably the third, maybe fourth, time I’ve read the first book), I was not disappointed. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the idea of reading about knights, heroes, intrigue, violence, and magic.

And that ends this review! Or at least, the spoiler-free part of it. Given how many times I've read this book, I’ve no interest in obliquely trumpeting its awesomeness. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of fiction, and of fantasy books in particular, knows that this book is among the best of the best. It’s a given. So, instead, I’m going to go into the specifics in no particular order, assess what I thought went well and what didn't interest me so much. Go into themes and characters. Try to resist to gush endlessly and turn this into a 12 part blog post. We’ll see how it goes...
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The Eyrie

First off, the criticisms. In
A Game of Thrones, a good portion of the book is spent in the eastern mountains, far away from everything else, at a stronghold known as the Eyrie. Watched over by an insanely overprotective and vindictive harpy (Lysa Arryn) and her hopelessly spoiled brat (Robert Arryn), the only time I felt that the plot began to slow is when a couple of the viewpoint characters (Tyrion and Catelyn) are forced to travel to this place, deal with the most absurd crap imaginable, and then trudge all the way back. Certainly, the Imp’s trial and the subsequent epic duel keep the attention, but the rest becomes a bit of a blur.

After thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the reason this part felt so slow was because it felt like a sideshow to more important events happening elsewhere. The rest of the realm is on the brink of war; the king is ineffectual; tensions are rising between many of the houses. The growing stress and increasingly desperate moves to restore order are a huge part of what makes
A Game of Thrones so engrossing. The Starks and Lannisters are at each other’s throats while still barely holding the peace. The crown treasury is running empty and terrible secrets of both sides begin to spill forth. You can tell that the shit is this close to hitting the fan, at all times.

By contrast, it becomes obvious early on that the Eyrie and the Arryns are going to sit out, remain neutral while the rest of the realm starts slugging it out. They are going to perch on their mountain fortress and fearfully twiddle their fingers while everyone else actually does something. And, don’t get me wrong, I understand why George RR Martin does this. This is world-building. It is understandable that a faction or two would want to remain neutral. But taking the reader’s attention away from the eponymous “game of thrones” to go on a long journey and focus on the empty machinations of some trollop on a mountain seemed like a poor writing choice to me.
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This pretty much sums up Bran's character

Bran


Now I feel a little bad targeting one character and writing him off, but damn. In A Game of Thrones, at least, Bran is one of those characters who you kind of want to slap in the face a few times (Catelyn is a distant second). The problem is that Bran quickly becomes defined by the injury he acquires after his first chapter; the boy essentially is crippled from the get go. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being crippled. But the fact of the matter is that other characters arguably have it worse. Jon has no real parents and is forced to take the black or be shunned for the rest of his life. Tyrion is a deformed imp who everyone wants to sneer at or murder. While these other two characters have these factors affecting them negatively, they both make progress in defining themselves beyond said disadvantages. They grow as people and thus become admirable in surpassing their station.

However, Bran chooses instead to whine constantly. It felt like the majority of his chapters involved Maester Luwin trying over and over to explain to him that there is more to life than wallowing in misery and being crippled. Advice that utterly fails to sink into Bran’s thick skull. Let’s assess the ways in which Bran could be awesome, but chooses not to recognize because he’d rather complain:

1. By the end of the book, he is the No. 1 authority in Winterfell, what serves essentially as capital city of the entire northern region.
2. Despite his crippled status, he is capable of commanding enormous respect because he has a giant freaking direwolf as a pet, if nothing else.
3. He has ample opportunity to hone his mind to a razor’s edge; Maester Luwin points out repeatedly that Bran could study to do whatever he wants to: architect, astrologist, commander, etc.
4. His physical failure is partly cancelled out by Tyrion’s specially crafted saddle design, which allows Bran to ride a horse however and whenever he likes.

To be fair, Bran is very young (less than 10 years old). But this is a series where a 14 year old girl goes through the most difficult upbringing imaginable and still comes out looking like a badass (Daenarys). Thus I found Bran’s chapters to be a recurrent aggravation; compared to the suffering and change some of the other less fortunate characters go through, it is hard to maintain empathy in a whiny little boy. Thankfully, this annoyance was partly relieved by the interesting, if enigmatic, dreams he goes through as well as how he serves as a lens through which we can see events arise and change in the Winterfell area. So it wasn’t all bad.



Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The United States and the Lessons of Rome - Part 3

Economics

Rome

If one thing is for certain, it is that ancient Rome’s fall was contingent primarily on the weakness and subsequent failure of its economy. If it had had a vibrant economy, they would have been able to better fund and raise armies to defend against encroaching barbarians. Rome would have been better able to provide incentives to join the military as well as fund infrastructure projects that would have made the frontiers more secure. But sadly, this was not to be, and Rome faced its doom with empty pockets unable to cope with the problems facing it. It was only through expansion and through the occasional moderation of benevolent emperors that it lasted as long as it did.



One of the primary causes of economic failure was Rome’s emphasis on the supremacy of the upper class and the special interests that came with them. Rome’s was a system so stratified that, throughout its history, it was often difficult to point to a group of people who classified as “middle class”. If you wanted to run for office at any level, you had to have a great amount of wealth, preferably backed by a powerful and influential family name. It was a system built upon favoritism and  the “good-old-boy” network. Consequently, Rome’s politics became essentially designed to provide favors and benefits to special interests that supported the rich as well as those who made such policies. Taxation of the rich? Not bloody likely. Improving the lot of the blue-collar workers so that they may obtain better living conditions and thus better serve the economy? Haha... no. Support an overwhelming dependence on slaves that took away jobs from actual citizens? Absolutely!
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When funds were needed, both for maintaining the frontiers and for domestic requirements, Rome also made the dubious decision to tax the crap out of all their provinces. Over time, this taxation (along with extortion of the populace by the surprisingly typical greedy governor) ravaged the ability of the empire to grow and innovate. In addition, the currency was made increasingly useless (through inflation) by the minting of new cash for one short-term fix after another. All of these factors combined to strain and eventually reduce Rome’s economy from a relatively free market economy to an economy where it was financially painful to do anything, leading merchants and investors to try elsewhere, and directly contributing to Rome’s eventual demise.
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United States

Many of Rome’s economic causes of decline have little relation or relevance to the modern economy of the United States. For example, slaves aren’t stealing anyone’s job because slavery no longer exists in America. Our economy is not based upon or even supported by plunder; despite our involvement in oil-rich Middle Eastern nations such as Iraq, we only get around 2.23% of our total foreign oil imports from that nation. We have a recognizable middle-class and, unless you are completely cynical, it is clear that policies are being passed all the time that have the aim of supporting and making better the lives of “the average Joe”. Our rich, while they may appear privileged, are taxed and susceptible to further taxation where the Roman upper class wasn’t. And we aren’t vulnerable to the occasional crazy, stupid, or corrupt emperor messing everything up due to our system of checks and balances.
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From this comparison it is clear to see that our economy is in an astronomically better place than ancient Rome’s was, even at its zenith. But we may derive lessons from Rome’s decline. It is abundantly clear that a free and vibrant economy is of paramount importance. Focusing more and more on taxes negatively impacted Rome’s ability to innovate and grow; we should make sure we don’t tax to an extreme. Minting one’s currency also shouldn’t be used as an escape route, though thankfully that idea seems taboo enough among economists that it isn’t likely the United States would try to inflate its own dollar into oblivion like Rome did with its denarii. Altogether, it is clear that the United States, if it is declining at all, is not following Rome’s example on an economic basis.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Drive Angry

Written by Joe the Revelator




I really don't know what to think about Nick Cage anymore. He seems desperate to star in every oddball hero role available, managing to nail a winner every 1 in 10 movies. His last one was Kickass.

But it's too easy and too cliche these days to complain about Nick Cage. Though describing Drive Angry without comparing it to Cage's earlier work may be impossible. Ghostrider and Gone in 60 Seconds have been blended, not seamlessly, into an hour and a half of car chasing, gun fighting, leather boot kicking, down-south-drawling debacle. One that amps up the level of ridiculous whenever it feels in danger of not being taken seriously.


Gunfight Orgasm:

Nick Cage, (I'm not going to use the character's name, because it's simply Nick Cage) is a demon from hell who manages to escape the fiery gates by driving away in a classic muscle car (Take that Paradise Lost!) on a mission to save a baby from being sacrificed by a deranged cult leader with a mutilated penis. He's armed with the mythical revolver called the God Killer, as well as his love for autos, his gravelly voice, and his uncanny sexual appeal to barmaids.

The demon on the run is teamed up with a seemingly-independent Generic Blonde #35, who has recently broken up with her bald, brawny, trailer trash woman-beating fiance. Together they tackle such difficulties as forcing witty conversation at the bar and making sex seem like an alien novelty. During one memorable scene, Nick Cage has a bloody shootout in his hotel room with a woman still connected to his hips, whom he releases only after the last thug has hit the floor.

I wish I was making all this up, but this really is the plot. I imagine Drive Angry being targeted by future incarnations of Mystery Science Theater, if it wasn't already doomed to obscurity in the next few minutes.



The only light in this movie, aside from the whole mess being easy to laugh at, comes from actor William Fichtner , who has played "That Guy" roles in Armageddon, Prison Break, and Entourage. He pops up throughout the film as Satan's bookkeeper, always on Cage's tail, and shows no compunction over murdering people with a bored look in his face. His subtle villainy and idiosyncratic ticks give him an otherworldly strangeness, and he manages to steal every scene he's in, which may not be hard considering the cast and the writing.


Hell can wait.

Given the length of the movie and the lobotomized action, I would recommend Drive Angry if you're a long time fan of WWE and think 4th of July sparklers are AWSOME. Or if you're trapped in a closet with a portable DvD player and a bottle of vodka. Otherwise, watching it for Fichtner's quirky behavior just isn't worth the wait. Do yourself a favor and look up the "Hydrogen Truck" scene on Youtube, the one that's accompanied by the KC & The Sunshine Band's: That's the Way I Like It.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Friends With Benefits (2011)

by DionysusPsyche

More often than not, the universe collides in a multimedia fashion. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but what happens when two scientific discoveries or two identical babies or two movies that are alike happen simultaneously? There's always the “I created this, and you didn't” battle, but when they come out together, it's a collective unconscious, Carl Jung moment that is just weird. Clearly, one of these things has to be stronger or superior to the other one. Or one eats the other and the strongest survives—no babies, please don't try this at home! Someone makes a movie at almost the exact same time as someone else with eerily similar plotlines. The Prestige came out around the same time as The Illusionist. Both were released in 2006, and both were about magicians. Don't believe me? Check out the below films that were the same year and the same subject.

The Thin Red Line vs. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Red Planet and Mission to Mars (2000)
Armageddon and Deep Impact (1998)
The Haunting (of Hill House) vs. House on Haunted Hill (1999)
Alien vs. Predator (2004)

Admittedly, the last one is actually just one movie to see if you were paying attention, but you get my point. The list is pretty long, so I won't continue, and there's a number of sites that go into more depth about this strange phenomenon. One of the comments online where I was researching these movies (in addition to the always-superb Internet Movie Database) said that in the case of the Haunting/Haunted movie that even cast members were getting confused and showing up to the wrong set.

At this juncture, I will digress to my point which is that while this is an ongoing theme in the filmmaking world (and seriously, there are only so many plotlines you can come up with and some are just hot at the time. Vampires, anyone?), it has happened again.
Friends With Benefits is a movie about two buddies (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) who decide to have a bedroom playtime only relationship. No emotions, just physicality. Not disimilar to Outback's catchphrase “no rules, just right.” It came out the same year as Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher's movie No Strings Attached.
The movie industry must have decided it's time to address this issue that even has made the papers and has had parents of adolescents fretting around the country. Not only do they have to worry about their kids having sex now, they have an even harder time of convincing them to hold out for love. Therefore, the industry almost has a bet. “Okay, I'll put Kunis and Timberlake in a movie and you put Kutcher and Portman together. Whoever gets the bigger audience wins. Deal.”

This was ridiculously confusing for my husband and I. Why? Well, one of N'Sync's album was called No Strings Attached. Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher were an onscreen couple on That 70's Show. We figured we'd see one of them, but not the other. So, we took a chance.
Justin Timberlake, famous for his role in The Social Network and the 1990's boy band N'Sync, is teamed up with That 70's Show and Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Mila Kunis. Dylan is a workaholic who doesn't have time for love and can't commit. Jamie is emotionally damaged and the two of them have both recently been dumped. Together, they both miss sex. Idea bubble!

The combination of acting, directing, and a snappy, witty, well-written script went a long way. Of course, there are famous names, and Justin Timberlake sings in a couple of scenes which make for a memorable trailer and, as it turns out, an excellent movie. The celebrity cameos were good, and Kunis and Timberlake's onscreen chemistry was fantastic. We were more impressed than we imagined we'd be, and within the first five minutes it soared above the rest of the movies we'd seen all weekend. Now, there is the matter of nudity, but thankfully, although there's a lot of butts, nobody goes full frontal. I still would advise against seeing it with any of your relatives, but it is a hilarious and amusing few hours.
My absolute favorite thing about the movie was how at times it was so heartwarming and touching that you forgot about the fact that these two people are in a movie with silly, complicating factors like love and intimacy. Especially some of the family scenes. The film openly criticizes romantic comedies in general for what they are--tearing at the purses and emotional heartstrings of their target audience (women) without feeling accountable for making something of substance. That makes the movie more than "just another romantic comedy," not to the point of transcending the genre, but encourages the audience to expect more from their films than "just another thing to do on the weekends."

As for No Strings Attached (yes, that's the one we didn't see, the one with Portman and Kutcher), we decided that based on how much we liked Friends with Benefits that the one we'd watched was superior. Someday, I'll probably get around to watching it as a reference point. Until then, I'd say if you're going for a romantic comedy, see this and not Bad Teacher.

Bad Teacher (2011)

by DionysusPsyche

Ms. Halsey (portrayed by Cameron Diaz) plays not only an awful academia leader but a sad excuse for a human being in Bad Teacher. The mean girl that couldn't get a rich husband, because she's either not clever enough or more appropriately, too self-absorbed to notice. When Scott Delacorte, a fancy wristwatch wearing addition to the faculty arrives at the middle school, Halsey sees her meal ticket out.

“I ain't saying she's a gold digger...”
Oh wait, yes, I am. Remember that popular, snobby girl in school? Puts on airs, scowls, and shoots back snide remarks to other people who try to pretend that they live on the same planet as her? Yeah! You know the one I'm talking about. Now, thinking back on that girl...would you really want to see a movie about her? No, no, she's not being particularly amusing, she's just being mean. No, again, I'm not saying the comebacks are good, they're just ill-willed. Like she was in high school or junior high.

I'm not someone incapable of suspending my imagination, although there are some pretty far fetched things going on here, Big Bird. So, she's a teacher that was only interested in men who made money. Why? Because...she's got a bad salary? Because...she likes cars? Err, shoes? These are hooker stilettos--CRUEL shoes that Steve Martin was talking about! Ugly shoes that she wears throughout the movie that are actually more interesting and kind than she is. Wait, we never learn why she wants a man with money. She's not insecure or grew up with money or without or anything rational like that. We are basically told it's “because she's a superficial person” who is lazy. I repeat, we are TOLD that. The writers don't even take it upon themselves to let us figure it out.

One of these things is not like the others...
She's also surrounded by other teachers that are a nuisance to her. Scholarly, academic types that are beneath her. Who are concerned with the well being of students and making the future brighter. However, somehow through the lense of Ms. Halsey, we are led to believe that the wholesome teachers are just as “superficial” as she is. Except they can't be more superficial. She tells at least one of the teachers that she's getting a boob job. She lies about her past constantly. She steals. No one can compete with that. She only has one friend, because she is “cool.” The only reason that she speaks to this teacher is for a paid lunch.

Sure, the teachers aren't made out of complete angelic virtue, but just because these teachers don't let their kids watch movies in class and do drugs and say fuck all the time (another mystery of the film) doesn't mean that this unmotivated creton should get her way. I'm not squeemish about obscenities, but I found myself wondering constantly about the point of them along with my other questions.
Motive?
Why DID she become a teacher? As Cameran Diaz snapped at kids and slept in class, I thought, “Well, maybe we'll find out eventually.” There are a lot of messages the filmmakers could've made in this movie. Messages like “teachers have really hard jobs and deserve more than they get,” or “bitchy women who treat people badly get karma's revenge kicking their ass.” The one depressing lesson I gained from this film was that most of the time, even mean people if they have an occasional stroke of genius when they come up from a bong hit or a brief moment of clarity in between hangovers, can still end up getting almost everything they want.
It's not a bad movie, and although I didn't have high expectations, I had certain thoughts on where the plot might go. However, the writers put out effort to create clues about potential plot developments or actions and then dropped them. Not even derailing with better ones. It's almost like they want the audience to appreciate the follow through when they did in fact take an idea all the way. I'm uncertain whether they wanted to use an element of surprise or if it's just shoddy filmmaking. Bad Teacher doesn't even take a darker turn like There Will Be Blood...but I'm not going to ruin THAT movie in a review about a movie that isn't half as good.

The good news is...
The acting overall is pretty great. Justin Timberlake proves convincing even as a nerd, despite his character only getting a few lines here and there. Jason Segel, albeit underused, is still amusing. Lucy Punch is phenomenally quirky per usual, and Phyllis Smith shows more versatility in five minutes than the handful of years she's spent on The Office. The movie does have some enjoyable, even funny moments, but they all involve any of the other actors I just mentioned in some combination. My favorite scene involves peer pressure.

When Ms. Halsey starts to seem like she might come around, we see a few more moves from her side of the board. We don't even learn the full truth about the situations she finds herself in. The ending is a little beyond belief, and even though it's Hollywood-esque, I don't even feel like the character undergoes significant enough change to warrant rewards. She doesn't even get off with a slap of the hand.

Conclusion
If you want a movie about a bad teacher who undergoes growth and spiritual development, rent School of Rock instead of getting a movie ticket to see a version of what could pass for its outtakes. Or for inspiring teachers, Dead Poets Society or Stand and Deliver. Enjoy horror films? Try The Faculty. Not to sound like a good teacher, but when it comes to watching Bad Teacher there are more productive uses of your time. Now do your homework.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The United States and the Lessons of Rome - Part 2

Military Tradition and Innovation

Rome

At the height of its power, ancient Rome kept its power and influence by having one of the finest military machines the world has ever seen. Its battlefield tactics led to victory after victory, designed specifically to disrupt and destroy every army it faced. On top of this, Roman engineering skills were beyond compare, allowing them to effectively siege and overcome any city or fortification put in their way, nullifying any defensive advantage the enemy would seek to gain for themselves. Perhaps most importantly, Rome was extremely good at making allies in the region that they would fight in, promising monetary or territorial reward in exchange for a reliable base of supply. Lastly, Roman legionaries were rewarded well for their hard service; it wasn't uncommon for legionaries to be given sizable grants of land and booty after a campaign abroad. Thus was the incentive created for Romans to be all they could be; with great discipline came great reward, a reward that was never ending so long as Rome continued to expand.
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Which of course it stopped doing at a certain point. Once the promise of exotic bounty abroad was removed, it became difficult for Rome to create and sustain the disciplined and experienced armies that it was used to. Obtaining loot beyond the normal legionary salary became rarer and, generally, only found when the legions were engaged in civil war (which was disturbingly often and further contributed to erosion of Roman military tradition). Privatization of the army occurred to pick up the manpower slack; mercenaries were brought in from Germania and Asia Minor to fill the gaps. But with this privatization came a reduction in discipline and loyalty to home. Military innovation was shrugged off as irrelevant, which meant that, in time, Rome's strategies only allowed an even keel with their foes. Their distinct military advantage was lost as their enemies adopted the Roman military method. This meant that legions, while still formidable, became beatable, which removed their mystique and made losses far more common. This, along with the difficulty of defending such a sprawling empire, contributed prominently in Rome's eventual downfall.
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United States

The United States since World War II has been considered the most powerful and technologically advanced military force the world has ever seen. While many people question whether this will remain so, even today it is impossible to point to any other country in the world who could defeat the U.S. military in a straight engagement. The United States proved this by trouncing the Iraq army in Operation Desert Storm so thoroughly that it has seen no challenge since. Much like ancient Rome's enemies, the United States' foes have learned that one can't stand up to the superpower and win, one must fight it indirectly through terrorist acts and guerrilla warfare.

But insurgencies and terrorism did not bring down the Roman empire. It is true that a good deal of military and civilian resources had to be devoted to maintaining stability but, like America today, Rome managed to overcome a great deal of that through the sharing of a dynamic culture. In ancient Rome, this manifested by giving their conquered provinces a voice and making it fairly easy to become a Roman citizen with all the benefits that came with it. In the United States, we don't have “conquered provinces”, but it is clear that our focus on human rights and democracy is immensely attractive to the world at large. When Rome turned inward, it lost that appeal and thus lost its position as the central power of its time. So long as the United States maintains its emphasis on democratic rights and freedoms, I doubt it will go the way of Rome in that regard.
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Military expenditure by top five nations

Privatization of the United States military is a concern though. It is worth noting that use of private military corporations and contractors are at their highest level in the United States, and rising. There has already been concern as to their accountability and adherence to United States law. If the lessons of ancient Rome are of any guide, this development is a concerning one.

The constant desire to reduce and/or outsource military research could be disquieting also. Especially in today's modern warfare, the quantity of troops matter nowhere near as much the quality, technology, and kit assigned to them. The use of drones and cyber-warfare are both immense innovations with which the United States is doing its best to remain the head of the pack. This, perhaps, is an argument to leave the defense budget alone. But a better argument would be to make it leaner and more efficient. Much like elephants and chariots became obsolete in ancient Roman warfare, modern battle tanks seem to have no place in an arena where they can easily be bombed from the sky or rendered irrelevant by complicated urban warfare. So long as the United States invests wisely in the tools it uses to help maintain peace and stability throughout the world, it is unlikely to suffer the erosion of faith and capability that the Romans underwent so long ago.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The United States and the Lessons of Rome - Part 1


So recently I was presented with that most infamous of analogies. Is the United States of America and its influence and power falling just like that of the old Roman Empire? Are we also declining? I have to say that this has been said so many times and misunderstood twice as many that it has really started to bug me. So I'm going to try and confront that here.

Now, before I start, I have to point out that I'm no professional historian. I love history, and I've read at least three books on Rome's decline and fall (Gibbon, Goldsworthy, and one other that I can't quite remember). As for the United States and the current world events, I keep up on the news as much as a politics major can. So I feel that, while I may be flawed/rusty in what I'm about to talk about, I feel I have quite a good handle on both that time period and our own. To do this, I will look at reasons behind Rome's fall and go right to comparison of modern day United States, step by step.

Barbarians and Foreign Policy
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Rome

Perhaps the most commonly realized reason behind Rome's fall was external pressure put upon them by barbarians (Germanic tribes) and middle eastern powers (Sassanid Persians). When people think of the fall of ancient Rome, we automatically think of giant hairy guys throwing torches at the Parthenon. While Rome was sacked like this, it is more important to note that the tension put on the Roman Empire was often more indirect.

The problem is that this goes both ways. There are two things to note on this matter:

  • As time passed in the Roman Empire, they began to remove themselves from countries and regions on their periphery, as they were perceived as both not worth the trouble and too expensive. It was hoped that these peoples would then keep to themselves and leave Rome alone. This did not work, as these provinces (and then the foreign powers that took them over) exerted pressure on Rome's outskirts to see what they could get. Covering such an enormous area, Rome's legions couldn't be everywhere and, even in places where they did show up, victory was not assured. By the latter half of the Empire's life, foreigners had become savvy enough to fight the way the legions did, nullifying that military advantage. Thus, by abandoning far away interests in the name of “focusing on home”, Rome shot itself in the foot and never got the respite it desired by retreating inward. You can see where I'm going with that one.
  • However, it can also be argued that, by spending so enormously on a wide military budget that, despite its costs, was unable to guarantee stability in the long run, Rome was the arbiter of its own demise. A big part of this was that the Roman economy was energized by the looting that occurred when Rome expanded. Once that expansion stopped, Rome's ability to support its foreign policy aims was hit pretty hard. A bigger military was needed in order to keep things stable in its provinces and a bigger military meant ever greater amount of resources kept away from domestic spending. In order to maintain the power of force, greater amounts of taxation and inflation (from coinage) occurred that eroded Rome's economic strength and exacerbated their money problem.
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United States

I would argue that Rome's problems here are near impossible to apply definitively to the United States. As I just explained, abandoning our foreign interests (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc) would likely result in much greater problems down the road, as it did for the Romans. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that leaving those areas and obligations will mean that they will leave us alone. It is worth noting that, like it was for the Romans, removing ourselves from our foreign responsibilities could be far more expensive and dangerous than staying and seeing them through. Rome only began to fall once they stopped expanding. That doesn't mean that the United States needs to go all imperialist and get involved wherever we like, but it does suggest to me that we need to remain a force for stability across the world. This will be much more doable as we continue to engage regional powers such as the European Union and China to help deal with their own regional problems... but I'm getting a bit off topic here.

However, based on the lessons of the Roman Empire, the observations I just made could be rendered irrelevant by noticing how Rome's huge military budget put their own economy under enormous strain. It could be argued, then, that by lessening military obligations we may preserve our economy and remain a superpower on an economic level. It gets to the point where we must ask ourselves the controversial question of what matters more: the world or ourselves? Can we better the world more by giving it economic stability or by keeping people and their human rights safe? It could be argued that keeping the world safe brings economic stability and vice versa, leaving us with no good answer. Me, I believe that we are better served staying out there, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, than removing ourselves from the international equation. But that is merely my belief.

And thus it is clear that, with the lessons the Roman Empire gives us in barbarians and foreign policy, that we can't learn anything definitively from Rome's fall. But what of the other reasons behind their fall? What of their economic problems? What of their military innovation, their internal political strife, their general system of government versus ours?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Last Kiss


I usually feel a bit weird reviewing romantic comedies. I don't know what it is... Perhaps it is society's established bias that affects me, that guys aren't guys if they publicly display a liking to rom coms. To be fair, the average rom com is a piece of generic trash. We all know the stereotypes: guy meets girl; they connect, flirt, and bond; a complication occurs that breaks them apart; then they get together in the end. Part of why I loved the movies (500) Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Easy A was because they broke those expectations. Does The Last Kiss prove up to the task of matching these favorites of mine? Does it escape the bland mold of most romantic comedies?
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Wanderlust

The Last Kiss is all about relationships and commitment to them. In addition, it is about growing up and becoming an adult. The story primarily follows Michael (Zach Braff) and Jenna, his picture-perfect girlfriend in a picture-perfect relationship. Everyone seems envious of him. She seems ideal. But he can't help but feel worried and scared. He isn't sure if he's ready to commit to marriage and a baby. In essence, he questions whether there is something better out there, even if he can't define what exactly it is. A big aspect of the film is trying to assess whether he is justified in having second thoughts. Everyone has them and everyone wonders what will happen before they dedicate themselves to any sort of commitment. But Michael also risks stepping over the line by befriending Kim, a girl outside of his circle of friends who is clearly interested in him. Through his ambiguous relationship and confiding with Kim, we explore Michael's doubts and what goes through peoples' heads when they are afraid of commitment.

This theme is also explored through the marriage between Jenna's parents. Her parents have been married a long time, and it is clear that the marriage has deep issues. Her father seems to take it for granted and often seems to barely tolerate his wife. On the flip side, her mother yearns to be wanted and loved much like her daughter is loved by Michael. Throughout the film, we watch the marriage between her parents undergo strife just as Michael and Jenny's relationship is severely shaken. This provides especial poignancy at the end as the mother talks to the daughter and the father to Michael. We can see what they have learned, the mistakes they have made, and we watch as they try to convey that knowledge to those they love who are moving into long-term relationships of their own.
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One of the Boys

As if this weren't enough, The Last Kiss explores the relationships and dating habits of all the supporting characters; Michael's guy friends. One of them seeks to overcome his unhealthy attachment to the woman who dumped him; through him we see how the obsession that comes with love can be a double-edged sword. Another is in a marriage with a woman who can be emotionally abusive. What keeps them together is their daughter. Through him is weighed the tricky question of at what point is enough enough? Does his love for his daughter and wife outweigh the stress she puts him through? Finally, we have the free spirit guy who sleeps around and appears to generally have a fantastic time. He is confronted with the fact that, just maybe, he should consider maturing and seeking relationships that are more substantial than just the merely physical.

It is abundantly clear that there is a ton going on in this movie, and it does have a lot to say about relationships, commitment, and marriage. And it treats these subjects fairly seriously. Despite the laughs within, it makes one even wonder if this qualifies as a romantic comedy at all. Perhaps the better term is... dramedy? Though that one makes me wince.
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Conclusion

I did find myself enjoying The Last Kiss a lot, despite my hesitance in watching it and risking exposure to another potential failure. It turned out to be a surprisingly thought provoking movie about maturity in relationships and wanderlust. Its ending is also treated realistically. I won't call it an unhappy ending, but there certainly isn't any sweeping of the girl into the guy's arms and driving off into the glorious sunset. For any of the characters. But yet I came away satisfied and resolved. And that is the best thing such a “dramedy” could have offered me.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Next Three Days


Have you ever seen a movie that is so intense that it paralyzes you to your seat as you watch it? You can't keep your eyes off it; you are so invested in the character(s) that you simply have to keep watching to see if they can get out of their plight or not. In fact, The Next Three Days was on a level so intense that, a few times, I wanted to turn off the movie because it was honestly difficult to watch the characters go through what they were going through. I didn't know whether they would succeed or fail, but I almost turned it off because I couldn't bear to see either scenario play out to completion. It isn't since I saw The Departed that I've encountered a movie that honestly stressed me out watching it. And, though I'm not sure I could bring myself to watch it again, I think that this is a sign of a truly powerful film.

The premise of The Next Three Days is rather simple; a husband, wife, and son's family life is ripped to pieces when the wife is imprisoned for murder. While we don't know for sure whether or not the wife did commit the murder, the husband (Russell Crowe) makes it his mission to try and get her out through any means necessary. First he tries to get her out through legal means and assessment of the case against her but, when that fails, he considers breaking the law to get her out.
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The Power of Empathy

What makes The Next Three Days such a successful movie is through a powerful sense of connection to the characters. Before they are broken apart, the life of the family in this movie is idyllic, though not without flaws. The perfect assessment is that it is realistic. Having some stock footage of happy, laughing people is normal for movies to deliver before they shake things up; it is a cheap way of creating some empathy for the characters. But it is easy to cross over that line and for it to feel shallow and only surface-value. This movie surpasses that hurdle to give us a family that, though not perfect in every way, is genuinely happy. And it is this detail that puts us firmly behind Russell Crowe's character as he tries to recapture that, through his noble efforts to make prison visits touching instead of painful, as well as through his never ending mission to reunite the family as it once was.

And yet this film doesn't rest on its laurels and simply deliver an entertaining get-the-girl-out-of-jail sequence. Instead it actually goes into what makes the characters tick. We get both sides on Russell Crowe: we see that his quest to acquire freedom for his wife threatens to consume him; it impacts his relationship with his family, friends, and son. At times it becomes clear that to focus so utterly on this goal is to give up on living life as it was meant to be. And thus the film, at times, becomes torturous to watch. We want him to succeed in reuniting his family as they were. Yet simultaneously we see clearly that it would be better for him if he stopped. It is this indecision that gnaws at us as it similarly agonizes the character.
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Do Not Try This at Home

A unique facet of this movie that makes it incredibly interesting to watch is the way in which Russell Crowe's character seeks to find freedom for his wife. In movies, particularly heist movies, we have come to expect that the characters involved are aces at their game. We expect a crazy complicated plan to pan out or, if it does not, then it will only fail at the end. We are used to our criminals being often suave and sexy, not hesitating for a moment.

The Next Three Days subverts that expectation by showing us, step-by-step, how intense and difficult it is to plan criminal activities like that. Russell Crowe's teacher is so clearly out of his element that you just want to scream at him to get out, for his own safety if nothing else. An early example is when he tries to illegally acquire fake passports and social security numbers. He is told to meet a guy at a dive bar at some place he's never been to. He's told to bring a sizable sum of cash to pay up front. And, when he shows up, he is taken into the back alleyway and has the crap beaten out of him and all the money stolen. Those who would have dealt with him knew that Russell Crowe's character didn't know what he was doing. And he suffers for it.

There are numerous moments like that where, in planning to free his wife, he makes blunders that you and I would make just as blindly as he. It speaks to how difficult it is to commit crimes in real life; you have to be both mentally prepared and you can't just rely on how-to Youtube videos (as he does in this movie). Thus, every step of the way as we watch Russell Crowe, it is hard to resist the urge to see him as in over his head, which makes every moment that much more insane to watch.
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Conclusion

The incredible character empathy and what feels like a very realistic view of how an average Joe would try to successfully get away with crime combines to make for a gripping film. I won't say whether he gets caught or killed in the end or not, just like I won't say whether his wife actually killed someone or not. There are so many questions and concerns that arise in this movie that it, even now, is almost a stress to think about.

Dynamite performances by all of the supporting actors only serve to make what was already a good movie even better. Russell Crowe could almost certainly have carried this alone, but the support he gets on every level turns a good movie great. I highly recommend this to anyone BUT, and this is a big but, you have to recognize that this movie will put you through the emotional wringer. While I won't say that it is designed to make you cry, it IS designed to give you a miniature heart attack anytime something earth-shaking happens to one of the characters. Thus it is a miracle that I'm still alive. If you can handle a high stress level movie, then definitely check this out. If not, then I suggest you avoid dying early.

Friday, July 15, 2011

L.A. Noir

Written by Joe the Revelator




Rockstar, the makers of Grand Theft Auto, have come a long way from ultra violent hooker-killing mobster games. They've veered away from rewarding players for driving over pedestrians, incinerating bystandards, and kicking in the nuggets of carjack victims, and have started penalizing such chaotic behavior in LA Noir. After all, you're the police.

ALthough thanking L.A. Noir for being more mature than a GTA game set in the 1940's is like giving a treat to a pitbull for not mauling toddlers. In LA Noir you play as a flatfoot cop who has just made detective, Cole Phelps. Your primary mission is to watch a cutscene of a crime being committed in 3rd person, arrive on the scene the next morning as the detective, and fumble around the evidence while listening to the keys of the grand piano playing in your head. Instead of highlighting usable objects, as in most games, LA Noir plays chords on the piano to indicate when you're near a piece of potential evidence. The Great Piano points you toward soup cans, spoons, cerial boxes, and other assorted trash, and in rare occasions; murder weapons and other incriminating information.

After the evidence is gathered and taken down in your trusty notepad (quest log/journal) it's up to you to question the witnesses. It's here that the game sports its highly developed facial models, which are so sensitive to human expressions it can render readable emotions. Characters squirm when they lie to you, or avert eye contact, or attempt to obfuscate facts. The strength of your case and the experience points you earn are based on how well you can smell out a lie. Is the angry housewife with a dead husband and a new boyfriend; A) Telling the truth, B) dissembling, or C) Lying?




There is no "break his fingers" button.

With the case nearly solved it's time to take witnesses and suspects downtown for some good old fasioned police work. The chief, who was so much ruddy Irish Cop that his gums bled green, tells you to stick it to the suspect, and knock a confession out of him, to "give him lumps". I was expecting a scene from punisher. What I got was Law and Order. There's no button for a hard interrogation. It's more face-watching and accusations.

And finally, when a witness has cracked and given up a name, when the perpetrator's location is spilled, you might get to shoot someone. But so much of LA Noir is cool thinking and good police work that even the highspeed chases can sometimes be delegated to your partner. And one chase is almost identical to the next. The murderer flees out a window, you follow him over a few rooftops or down an ally, and commence investigating his organs with bullets.




Streamline the Truth-Doubt-Lie function to: Doubt-Bullet

Perhaps there's something in the water around Las Angeles, but some supernatural force has turned every potential witness into a pathological liar or a manipulative jackass. By the middle of the game I was convinced everyone was lying, all the time, and I was usually right. Even the underage rape victim had something to lie about. After a game like LA Noir I found myself doubting everyone around me, telling the pizza delivery guy that I couldn't help him if he didn't "come clean".

It may be my love for the genre, but even with the slow pace and the liar's guessing game, I found LA Noir to be exceptional. It was a callback to pulp in the finest sense, like a collection of dimestore detective novels. It was Hollywood and glamour and murder and intrigue, everything that made the era interesting. I would recommend everyone at least try LA Noir.