Thursday, March 30, 2006

Peter Jackson

So I just watched "King Kong" and was surprised how unbloated it felt for such a bloated movie. There are some truly amazing action sequences, some really creepy bits and some downright beautiful bits. None of it looks anymore real than the claymation/minatures of the original, despite the cgi, in fact because of the crystalline clarity of the cgi, but I'm not sure that wasn't the intention. All in all, a fun, albeit long, movie.

It also made me go back and start watching the Lord of the Rings movies. As a fanboy of longstanding (my dad gave me the books to read when I was nine or ten and I've read them every few years since then) I have huge problems with the liberties taken with the texts and tremendous redirection of motivations by Jackson and company. I still love the movies. There well done, well crafted and perfect visualizations of Middle Earth (via Alan Lee's illustrations).

I'm bothered, though, with something I only started thinking about lately. Aragorn, as portrayed in the books, is utterly heroic and nigh flawless. He's was a warrior of renown under many names for almost a century before the story's opening and he's hardened to battle and loss. He's been bred to the throne he claims and has no doubts about his right or fitness to take it upon Sauron's defeat. He knows his destiny in his bones and isn't scared of it.
As characterized by Jackson he's less sure and somewhat reluctant. He tells Elrond he doesn't want to be the one wielding the power of Isildur's sword and what it represents. He displays doubts throughout the series and less than surety of his destiny.
We seem to have entered a time where any display of heroism bereft of doubt is seen as unrealistic or unbelievable. I've read enough history to know that's a simplistic few of the condition and in a work of heroic fantasy I find the suspicion it's treated with disappointing.
Maybe Jackson only changed Aragorn (and the Rohirrim and Gandalf and Elrond) because he felt the introduction of uncertainty and doubt provided more dramatic tension but I suspect not. Boromir provides that element as does the struggle between Gandalf and Denethor in Minas Tirith. I think that Jackson succumbed to the easy cynicism of the age that is trouble by clearcut displays of heroism and needs to cut it with moody introspection.
Still, the movies do work on their own terms and Jackson's the master of large scale mayhem and special effects. He's able to work with a large cast of characters, keep them straight and maintain enough dramatic tension to keep views absorbed for over three hours at a clip ('cause you know I'm watching the fanboy friendly extra long director's cut DVDs).

Monday, March 27, 2006

Weekend Marches

So illegal immigration is finally going to take center stage in American politics. I predict this will be a bloody (perhaps literally) battle with no easy resolution and with hard battle lines emerging quickly.

I don't know what will happen next. The problem is that the illegals in and of themselves are simply hard working folks trying to make things better for themselves and their families. For the most part they keep to themselves, and just go about working like dogs. In response, most native Americans don't pay much attention to them except when they need the lawn mowed or a table bussed.

So why do they exist in such huge numbers? We're told that they're simply doing the jobs Americans won't but we still want done. The reality is that business simply won't pay wages that really reflect the work being done and the rest of us don't want to have to pay for the wages with higher costs of products and services. The vast influx of low skilled low wage laborers lets industry keep salaries low and thus discourage native born Americans from taking those jobs. Americans always did crappy jobs in the past because they could make a living off them. Illegals can survive because they're simply more willing to put up with crap conditions and wages because it's still more money than they made back home.

On the other hand, Mexico does nothing to discourage illegal immigration and in fact attacks any efforts on America's part to limit the exodus because it's a pressure release. If Mexico actually had to address the problems of its government, economy, and corruption, Mexican might be able to stay home and make decent livings in their own homeland and not have to risk border crossings and deportation once in the US.

So where does that leave the US? Mass deportations are logistically impossible, callous beyond all belief and would destroy families where some members are legal residents or full citizens. Simple amnesty is something the vast majority of Americans opposed. I'm not sure we're ready to pay a couple of dollars for an orange.

On the other hand, half a million people waving Mexican flags and demanding the nation cease all efforts to curb illegal immigration will just make things worse. I know the image makes it easier to harden my own heart. What it does to the real red-meat illegal crowds I can only imagine.

"Billy Budd" - Herman Melville

What an odd and moving little story this is. "Billy Budd" is about a merchant sailor impressed into service on the HMS Bellipotent during the Wars of the French Revolution. He is described as being so beautiful he would be able to pose for a statue of Adam prior to the Fall and the sort of man to whom all other men willingly turn their attention and devotion. He is so good natured he bears no ill will towards the naval vessel's officers when he's forced off his comfortable merchant ship and forced into his new service.

For reasons specifically unknown (though what they might be are discussed at length by the narrator), the Master at Arms of the ship decides to destroy young Billy. Over the space of a few pages their conflict comes to a head and is resolved. The intensity and suddeness of that resolution is downright disturbing.

The followup to that conflict takes up the greatest portion of the tale and that's where Melville's greatest questions are put to the reader. I don't want to go into much detail about them because I want you to go read the story if you haven't. It's one of those books you always hear called a classic but don't know of anyone who's actually read the thing.

I will say that the questions involve duty and order in opposition to mercy and benevolence. As a younger man I would have sided with the latter but in my aged state (heh) I find myself on the side of the former and authority. It's an interesting observation I'm able to make of myself and not one I can see myself always being satisfied with.

Monday, March 20, 2006

"V for Vendetta" - the Wachowskis

So I went to see the movie this past Sunday. I have to admit that the comic I dismissed the other week is actually a paradigm of subtlety and nuance compared to this hunk of filmic crap. There are flashes of special effects brilliance and the mask is great, but the movie's a pile of waste matter.

For the unaware, "V for Vendetta" is about a Guy Fawkes masked bomb thrower and the waif he rescues from rape and death at the hands of the secret police taking on the government and social apparatus of a near future post-war fascist England. The original comic was Alan Moore's cry of rage against Thatcher. The movie is a limp cry of dopeyness against Bush and Blair. Moore had the temerity to examine his posited world as it was beset by real war and chaos. The Wachowski's set their version in a world of smoke, mirrors and fake villains.

I know people don't believe me when I say lefty anti-American stuff doesn't bother me if done well, but that's the truth. Whatever. Moore has the sense to allow his dictator possess real awareness of the weight of his horrific actions in the service of national order.
The movie's villain is called ADAM SUTLER (hint hint) and has a Hitler part in his hair. And he's played by John Hurt, once of the exquisitely brutal and moving "1984." That's the depth of subtley for the entire movie.

The extent of it's radicalism is that blacks, liberals, gays and Muslims weren't bad people and they shouldn't have been exterminated. The movie provides no rationale for why or how that could've happened or how a fundamentalist version of the Church of England reemerged in secular England. At least Moore portrayed this happening in the wake of famine, plague, flooding and war.

Some of the reviews hold up the canard that the it demands you decide for yourself if V is a hero or a terrorist. I'm not sure if they're dumb or blind. There's no question that V's a freedom fighter and everyone arrayed against him is utterly evil. Again, not a problem if done well. It wasn't.

As also wrote earlier, Moore kept his name from appearing on the movie. I wish I had heeded that warning and avoided it myself.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

"Dennis the Menace 1951-52" - Hank Ketcham

Continuing the trend of beautifully rendered collections of old daily strips, Fantagraphics has started treating us to the original "Dennis the Menaces". I grew up reading the strip in the paper and some early collections my dad had bought but I hadn't seen the earliest ones from 1951. They are simply great and very funny.
Don't let memories of the somewhat neutered and very formulaic strip from recent memory or even the old Jay North tv show deter you from checking out this book. The early Dennis is truly a menace, driven by ego and sheer spite and malice much of the time. He's a definite precusor to Calvin and much more possessed of a willingness to wreak havoc on his surroundings.
Thank you Fantagraphics and thank you for volume 2 coming out next month.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"The Death of Adam" - Marilynne Robinson

This collection of essays by the author of "Housekeeping" and the current "Gilead", contains defenses of Calvinism, several investigations into the reasons for the coarsening of society and support for evironmentalism as well as a history of the McGuffey Readers. They are densely written and sharply argued and even where I disagree with her she makes me believe there's some underlying validity to her points.
She is politically liberal (in the sense of defending the weak and comforting the poor and infirm) and unabashedly Christian (and not some weak willed apologetic one). Her faith and Calvinist theology are the explicit subject of most of the book and the rationale for the rest.
If you're not religious I still suggest checking out the book. Her historical analysis of Calvinism and Puritanism is fascinating. By actually reading the works of those two strains of theology she does much to dispel the picture of them as dark, brooding things lingering over New England. Instead they were liberating as well as responsible for instilling a deep sense of personal accountability into their adherents' actions. The very fact that they were the wellsprings of town meeting based government and abolitionism makes me think she's more right than much of the history I've learned.
So pick it up. It's just returned to print and is readily available.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Moore's Vendetta

Decent length article in the the Sunday NY Times about Moore and his relationship to Hollywood and the movies (none) made of his books. Lloyd sounds disappointed with the whole thing but Moore's perception of the studio's attitude towards him and his work made him leave DC yet again, though seemingly for good this time.

The Vendetta Behind 'V for Vendetta'

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"V for Vendetta" - Alan Moore and David Lloyd

So I dug out my old copy of this comic in preparation for the impending Wachowski Brothers' movie. Rereading it reminded how little respect I have for Alan Moore and how bad that movie's going to be.

For those not in the know, "V for Vendetta" details the exploits of a Guy Fawkes masked vigilante wreaking havoc across a post-nuke holocaust fascist England. In the days after the war the England's nazis came out from under their beds and began rounding up the blacks, Pakistanis, gays and leftists and put them in concentration camps. In some camps horrible experiments were undertaken and one of the victims escaped and is now seeking his personal as well as societal revenge.

There's more stuff - a rescued teen girl taught about freedom, a cop who feels deep guilt over what England's become and various fascist functionaries. Unfortunately it's undercut by the childish politics undelying the book that might as well have been written with crayons on looseleaf paper.

I'm not annoyed with the political sympathies of the books (even though they're not mine), but with their facileness. There might have been a lot to be said about Margaret Thatcher but she sure was no nazi. We're told the main thing people should've done before the war was prevent the deployment of missles in England (a big issue in the early 80's and one that's been shown to have been a big element in the collapse of the Soviet Union). A country that laughed at Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the thirties is depicted as a nation just waiting to slip on the nazi bridle when things get hard.
There's just lots of trite crap. When the cop rhapsodizes about the his love of the varied skin colors of the murdered blacks and Asians and the long lost gay pride parades I dare you not to laugh. Comics ain't always subtle, in fact their lack of subtlety's often one of their selling points to me, but criminey this book's dopey.

Simply taking on the cloak of politics doesn't mean you've got the brains or talent to make anything interesting out of it and "V's" the proof. I have lots of problems with "Watchmen" but it's a vast improvement over this overblown piece of subpar agitprop (yeah, think about that prospect for a moment).

Beyond all that stuff the book's just dull. Too much psychobabble claptrap between V and Evey and nothing happening that's attention holding. The art's sort of crappy and the story's blah. When I finished it I put in on the growing pile of stuff I'm planning to dump at a yard sale this spring.

Since Matrix II had lots of crappy bits and Matrix III is an utter laughable abomination I don't hold out much hope for "V for Vendetta" as movie. I'm really expecting a stinking pile of garbage.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Herman Melville

I actually dug out the Mastodon album because I'm reading Melville's "Billy Budd" right now. I figured what the heck, a little mood music can't hurt.

It's an odd little novella so far, replete with the humor I remember from "Moby Dick" (without doubt one of the funniest and awe inspiring things I've ever read) and the acute examination of our dark selves and what motivates us. More later.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Band: Mastondon Album: Leviathan

So I'm listening to this now. It's extreme metal with a little too much of the guttural vocals too common these days but it does rock pretty hard. So far the stand out track is "Seabeast." Pretty cool for a metal concept album about "Moby Dick."

Mastondon plays "Leviathan"

Saturday, March 04, 2006

John Bellairs' Lewis Barnavelt books

Something made me reread these decent childrens' fantasy books the other day. I remember loving them as a kid, liking them as a younger adult (younger than I am now)and now I just sort of like them.

The first is "The House With the Clock In Its Walls" and is followed closely by "The Figure in the Shadows" and "The Letter, the Witch and the Ring". There are several more and then there are the Johhny Dixon books and the Anthony Monday ones. I haven't read any of the second two series but I imagine they pretty similar to the Barnavelt books. Somehow, whether by accident or happenstance the hero gets caught up in dangerous supernatural situations. That's really about it.

There's great bits about Lewis and his worries as the geeky fat boy and his relationships with his friends but after the second books things get a little too samey.

But you know what? They're real short, you can read them pretty quickly and they're not that bad. Just don't read them all at once.

I also found this cool site about Bellairs and his books. Very well done with some great pictures. John Bellairs Site

Thursday, March 02, 2006

New York Public Library - Digital Library

NYPL Digital Library

Go here and do a search on Staten Island. You can waste your time and look at the other boroughs, but why? You can also refine your searches for neighborhoods, churches, schools, whatever. Very worthy and very cool. Thanks NYPL.