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Archive for January, 2010

Well, not exactly. More like videos about “Master and Commander”, but I still think that they are a lot of fun. Below is a very entertaining music video. The song is from the Discovery Channel.

Swisskun does some amusing stick figure animation based on the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Here the men contemplate making peace with Napoleon, the guy that they’ve been fighting against lo’ these many years.

Swisskun also did this “Cliff Notes” version of the first book in the series, “Master and Commander”.  If you’re trying to decide if you want to really read the books, check out these videos first. They are slightly blurry in the beginning, but the focus improves.

Okay, I really couldn’t end this post without adding this final video which is just plain fun.

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It’s the kind of show where a guy says he is standing on “sacred ground, watered with the tears of blood.” (And undoubtedly doused with the icy Gatorade of suffering. Woe!)

–Linda Holmes reviewing the (cheesy) cable TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand for NPR’s Monkey See blog

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With his movie, “Master and Commander”, director Peter Weir has successfully managed to do what no one else has: get me to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels or as fans call them, the “Aubreyad”.  I had known that the O’Brian novels were popular with those who liked historical sea dramas, but I was put off from reading them by their reputation.  They were difficult to get into and, honestly, how interesting could a historical sea drama possibly be anyway? Historical fiction has many ways to go wrong–the author often gets too wrapped up in period detail, the action drags, or the series morphs into some kind of soap opera.

I had intended to just pick up one of the books, grit my teeth, and plow painfully through it. But after the first couple of pages, I found that I couldn’t put it down and–even more shockingly–that I wanted to read the other books in the series.

Some of the criticism of the O’Brian novels is very well founded. Patrick O’Brian writes in a 19th rather than a 20th century style. The plots of the books don’t follow the classic crisis-denouement pattern of most novels. Instead the books read more as a series of incidents and often end cliff hanger-fashion making each novel more like a chapter in a very long saga than a stand-alone book.  Important action occurs off-stage and the reader has to learn about them second-hand from the characters’ recapitulation of the event.

That being said, the novels are ripping good yarns with plenty of sea battles and intrigue.  Arnorians take note: the Antarctic regions get mentioned and “Desolation Island” is partly set in Antarctica. Although not generally comic, O’Brian pokes gentle fun at his characters from time to time and I found myself laughing out loud in places.  At one point in “Treason’s Harbour“, for example, he describes the intention of the officers to call upon the newly-installed high muckety-muck in full dress uniform and “astonish him with their combined beauty”. The naval jargon isn’t that pronounced, but I do recommend that fellow “sea-readers” watch “Master and Commander: Far Side of the World” first so that they will have some idea of what is being described in the books.

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One of the things that YouTube does best is to provide a forum where amateur folksingers can display their talent. Here are several of my favorite balladeers gleaned from the wilderness of the Internet.

Dominique is a 58-year-old French language professor who has a fine, clear voice.  This song, “Ach, bitterer Winter” is a a folk song, a song frament really, that dates from the 30 Years War in Germany. The 30 Years War is just a footnote in history to most Western European countries, but to 17th century Germany, it was devastating conflict.  Armies of mercenaries, ostensibly under the direction of this or that prince, but in reality under no one’s control, ravaged the country, committing many atrocities against the civilians. Millions of Germans died, millions more fled. Some areas of Germany were economically depressed for twenty years after the war had ended.  In the sidebar, Dominque translates the lyrics into English and French.

Raymond Crooke is an Aussie folksinger who also writes and sings his own compositions.  “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” is a mid-19th century ballad about a defiant poacher sentenced to hard labor at the Australian penal colony of the same name.  I think Raymond does a great job acting out all the parts.

Jesse Ferguson is a poet and musician from Cornwall, Ontario who specializes in Scottish and Irish folksongs. Here he sings “Northwest Passage”, a song by fellow Canadian Stan Rogers, accompanied by the surf. The wave action bothered me initially, but I’ve become rather fond of it since.

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This year’s mid-winter movie break turned into an impromptu Russell Crowe film festival. I finally broke down and watched “Gladiator” and was sufficiently impressed to look up his backlist. That’s not all I’ve been watching, but it’s made up a huge chunk.

Great

9: “9” is a doll made from burlap and spare parts that awakens in a deserted room and a deserted city. What has happened to the people? What is the purpose of the mysterious disk he found? And why is The Machine hunting him and others like him? This movie is beautiful, haunting, mystical, poetic, and moving. And very Steampunk to boot. I particularly liked the animatronic archivists. The story is by Sean Acker and produced by Tim Burton, but there is nothing Burtonian about the film. Rent it, watch it, buy it and don’t be surprised if you need a Kleenex at the end. I don’t have enough thumbs to give this film all the “thumbs up” it deserves.

Cinderella Man:  I don’t care for boxing movies as a rule, but I really became caught up in this tale of boxer Jim J. Braddock who came from behind to win the heavyweight title in the 1930s.  If you’re saying “Jim who?”, join the club. I had never heard of this guy before either.

Jim Braddock was a big, working class Irish guy from New Jersey who was an up and coming boxer in the late 1920s. Like many Americans, Jim lost his job, his house, and his savings in the Great Depression and he and his wife, Mae (Renee Zellweger), were forced to take increasingly desperate measures to feed their family.

The brilliance of this film is the way it portrays the emotional and physical toll economic hardship takes on families and people. At one point, Jim hasn’t eaten before a match because the soup kitchen ran out of food. Jim’s trainer, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti) gets him a bowl of hash, but when Gould goes to get him a spoon, Jim is so hungry that he puts his face in the bowl and starts to eat like a dog. During the climatic bout, I was so “in the ring” with Jim, that I found my own hands clenching into fists.

Although boxing plays a central role, the crux of the film is really the relationship between Jim and his wife. Mae hates boxing for a good reason: death or injury in the ring could spell economic doom for their family. The central tension in the film is between Jim’s long shot chance at the title and their ability to stay together as a couple and a family.

“Cinderella Man” is a great film with many fine performances from the supporting characters. I’ve seen a number of films about the Great Depression, but this is the first one I feel captures what the Depression FELT like in the big cities of the Northeast. My only complaint is that the DVD I had was double-sided which I don’t care for.

A Beautiful Mind: John Nash was a brilliant, if socially awkward mathematician, until his descent into and hospitalization for schizophrenia. Through the love and dedication of his wife, Nash slowly comes out of it and eventually goes on to win a Nobel prize for economics.  The genius of this film is that it takes us inside Nash’s delusions so completely that we are as shocked as he is when he is finally forced to confront reality. I would have preferred to have seen more details of the emotional and financial toll the disease took on his family. His wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connolly), was forced to support essentially an invalid husband in addition to her young son and while her suffering is credited, I don’t feel that the movie pays enough attention to it. Special effects-wise, the aging makeup on the characters especially Nash is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Director Ron Howard, writer Akiva Goldman, and actor Russell Crowe justly deserve the Academy Awards they won for this film.

“In the service, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils.”–Capt. Jack Aubrey to Doctor Stephen Maturin

Master and Commander: Far Side of the World: My colleagues who had seen this film previously were divided on it. Some thought it a good movie, others that it moved too slowly. If you are looking for a swashbuckling epic with guys swinging from the rigging and fighting off krakens, you’ve come to the wrong place. “Master and Commander” is more a of historical character drama set at sea than anything else. Briefly, the film follows Capt. Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and the crew of the H.M.S. Surprise as they attempt to hunt down (and are hunted by) the French privateer Acheron during the Napoleonic Wars. Although the battles are important, the main focus of the story is the relationships between the characters.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that gives a better idea of what life was like on board a wooden sailing ship in 1805–the relentlessly close quarters, the all-male society with nary a skirt in view, the social rituals, the class distinctions that had snot-nosed, teenage midshipmen giving orders to enlisted men old enough to be their fathers, and so on. Another thing I particularly liked was that the crew was shown to be a team with the men below decks being just as important as the ship’s officers.

Definitely shell out the extra bucks and get the collector’s version of the DVD which has more information on how the movie was made. The attention to historical detail is quite impressive. I also recommend checking out the “Master and Commander” FAQ at the Internet Movie Database site which gives a list of books for further reading. There is a “Making of Master and Commander” book, but it is out of print. However, if you can find a copy at your local library, it is worth picking up.

Star Trek (2009): I was very dubious about this movie. Was a return to the original Star Trek universe of the classic series really necessary or desirable? Hadn’t the ST franchise been pretty much beaten to death? I freely confess that I was wrong and that this is one good flick. As a long time fan, I’m glad to see that “Star Trek” is starting to pass into “classic story status”–much like a Shakespearean play where the characters are the same, but can be played by different actors.  Thumbnail plot summary: Kirk and his fellow cadets must help Capt. Pike foil Nero, a mad Romulan from the future, who intends to use his advanced technology to destroy the Federation homeworlds. Purists, take note: J.J. Abrams has played fast and loose with the original timelines and with some of the character relationships.

Igor: I loved this clever, animated story about a hunchback named Igor (John Cusack) who dreams of making it big as an evil scientist. When his boss gets blown to bits, Igor sees his chance to take top honors at the Mad Scientist Science Fair by creating a Frankenstein-type monster, but soon discovers that his creation has a mind of her own.  A delightful send up of old monster movies with heart–and I’m not talking about one in a jar.

Good

Coraline: Neil Gaiman’s story has been turned into an animated, stop-motion flick which sounds ghastly, but really works with the fantastical story material. Basically, the movie revolves around Coraline, a bored young girl who finds a hidden door that takes her to an alternate world where Other Mother and Other Father cater to her whims. Things take a dark turn, however, when Other Mother tries to keep her there forever and Coraline must fight back to save herself and her parents. I’d rate this film too scary for young children, but okay for those eleven and up. If you get the DVD, definitely watch the “Making Of” bonus features. The amount of effort that went into this film is truly incredible. Even the tiny clothes are poseable.

Secrets of the Furious Five: If you liked “Kung Fu Panda” as much as I did, you will be pleased by this short film that shows us the backstory behind the main characters.  The emphasis of “Secrets” is that kung fu is about more than fighting. It’s about learning the important of things like patience and self-discipline. Although the film and bonus features are clearly designed for the under twelve set, parents will enjoy this DVD, too.

Inglourious Basterds: I never thought I’d say this about a Tarantino film, but this movie wasn’t too bad. If it had less over-the-top gun battles and bloodshed, it would actually work as a film noir.  Brad Pitt is clearly having a high old time as Lt. Aldo Raine who leads his band of Jewish-American commandos behind German lines in Occupied France to scalp “Natzis” and otherwise strike terror into the enemy ranks. Christoph Waltz is utterly compelling as S.S. Colonel Hans Landa who enjoys playing cat-and-mouse with his victims before springing the trap on them. Don’t expect any introspection about whether revenge is worth the price. This is strictly an action thriller with tight pacing and many unexpected plot twists.

Sweeney Todd: Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do a passable job with this Stephen Sondheim musical about a barber who hungers for revenge on the corrupt judge that imprisoned him and destroyed his family. Unfortunately, if you are familiar with the original musical, this film adaptation suffers from comparison. Burton has taken out some songs (“Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd”–one of my favorites), deleted some scenes (between Sweeney’s daughter, Joanna, and her guardian, the Judge), and added other scenes not in the musical (the barbering competition).  The movie is okay, but not as powerful as the dark and glorious original.

Just Okay

Gladiator: This sword-and-sandal epic doesn’t come close to living up to its hype, but Russell Crowe turns in a dignified performance as Maximus and there are strong supporting performances from Oliver Reed as ex-gladiator-turned-impressario Proximo, Joaquin Phoenix as the insecure and degenerate Emperor Commodus, and a brief, but delightful cameo from Derek Jacobi as Senator Gracchus.  Unfortunately, the movie is hampered by a very stock revenge plot. Almost from the moment the dying Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, announces his intention to pass over his son, Commodus, in favor of Maximus, we know how the movie is going to go. Briefly, Maximus’s family is killed and he himself left for dead and sold into slavery as a gladiator. Vowing revenge, he fights his way back to Rome to have the final showdown with Commodus. As a viewer, I was much less interested in the revenge and political intrigue portions of the plot than I was in the nitty-gritty details of gladiatorial life. If the movie had focused more on what it was like to be a gladiator in Rome, I think it would have been a better film.

City of Ember: I picked this film up because it look vaguely Steampunk-ish, but was largely disappointed in both the story and production design. Briefly, the generator that powers the underground city of Ember is starting to fail and it’s up to two kids to solve the riddle of the Builders and find a way to the surface. There’s an obvious parallel here to the threat posed by climate change, but that parallel is not elaborated on. A more complex plot would have improved this story a great deal. As is, it remains a very conventional quest story for the pre-teen set.

Mystery, Alaska: My major problem with this movie is that the film makers insist on passing off a clearly Canadian story and setting as Alaskan. For crying out loud, just call it “Mystery, Alberta” and be done with it.  To set the record straight, the sport of choice in small town Alaska is basketball, not hockey, and no Alaskan would ever say “aboot” for “about”.  And what’s this rot about hockey being a sport for just guys? Women and girls play hockey, too. Apart from misrepresenting Alaska, the story is a fairly run of the mill sport flick about a small town hockey team that winds up playing the New York Rangers in a publicity stunt. The actors in the cast are good and are doing the best they can with second-rate material.

Public Enemies:  I was really disappointed in this much hyped movie starring Johnny Depp as the notorious, Depression-era bankrobber John Dillinger and Christian Bale as his antagonist, F.B.I. agent Melvin Purvis. The movie spends a lot of time on the gun battles, but devotes next to no time explaining why Dillinger was popular with the public. Nor does Purvis ever question the rightness of the increasingly fascist techniques Hoover demands he use to bring down Dillinger at all costs. The lack of historical contest and the failure to flesh out Purvis’s character weaken this film considerably.

The Soloist: Jamie Foxx stars as a mentally ill street musician and Robert Downey, Jr. is the reporter who befriends him in this film based on a true story. Unfortunately, the movie is very episodic without a strong narrative.  Watch the special features portion of the DVD. The back story is actually more interesting than what they put on film.

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