Note: This is #17 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
This was kind of an odd one. Sullivan's Travels is a curious mixture of drama and comedy with the perplexing message of "Don't try to make movies that honestly explore the human condition; just keep making comedies, you jackass."
John Sullivan (played by Joel McCray) is a Hollywood director prized by his studio for being able to churn out commercially successful comedies. Sullivan, however, wants to make movies that examine big issues like poverty and class struggles despite the fact that he comes from a privileged background himself. When the studio execs talk him out of it by pointing out that his upbringing means he knows nothing of poverty or having to struggle to survive, Sullivan reluctantly agrees but gets the idea that he should compensate by living the life of a tramp until he feels he has suffered enough to understand poverty.
The studio execs can't stop him, but plan to trail him to make sure that their hitmaker stays safe (with bumbling and amusing results that are incongruous with the entire spirit of the endeavor). Along the way Sullivan meets a girl (just "The Girl" according to the credits) who had been trying to break in to a Hollywood acting career but has failed and is heading home. The Girl (played by Veronica Lake, who was like SUPER hot I'm not kidding guys) buys Sullivan a meal even though she thinks he's a tramp. When she learns about Sullivan's true identity and social experiment, she decides to come along because she's intrigued and finds Sullivan oddly compelling.
Like I said, the movie is a weird mix of drama and comedy, with slapstick car chases mixed in with almost maudlin moping and stark scenes of soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The acting and cinematography are both fine, if nothing particularly special or spectacular (it's a pretty straight forward story). And Veronica Lake has great looks and charisma on screen. But all in all I found the whole thing kind of meh; it had a pretty good setup (even if it's kind of cliche in 2009) but the direction they end up going with it just struck me as odd, especially considering how many great examinations of poverty and the poor followed --or preceded, like The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, comedies have great value to society, but Sullivan's Travels seemed to go far beyond that and embrace a defeatist message: ignore poverty and social problems --look, here's a funny cartoon dog! Hee hee!
We had a spate of great weather over the weekend, so one day Ger and I took the girls to the park. Actually, it was more like they repeatedly demanded to be taken to the park and we had to go along with it. At any rate we took the kite that Sam had selected as part of her gift basket last Easter. It turned out to be perfect kite flying weather, and Sam was able to get that sucker up in the sky and keep it there with ease. She pretty much immediately started screaming "I'M FLYING A KITE FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE!" and then sprinted towards the nearest group of trees like that Charlie Brown.
She also made a new playmate at the park, as she is wont to easily do every time she sees someone else approximately her size. She and this other little girl played hide and go seek for a while, then I sat and watched as Sam tried to convince the girl to "play Lego Star Wars."
Aparently not hip to the game, the girl seemed confused at first, but eventually figured out that Sam wanted to pretend to be characters from Star Wars. "Okay!" she said, "I want to be the girl."
Sam rolled her eyes at this. "Okay, you be Princess Leah. Nobody wants to be princess Leah. She's boring." (She was close to being correct in this; the truly boring and lame character that nobody wants to be is Leah's twin brother.)
The girl looked a bit affronted by this, but then quickly changed her expression to confusion when Sam said, "I'm Artoo! Weeee-eeeaarr!"
"Weeee-eeeaarr! That's the sound Artoo makes when someone hits him."
The girl looked around. "Nobody hit you."
More eye rolling from Sam. "I KNOW. I'm pretending."
At this point Sam was running around the playground making her best beeping and sqwawking sounds and the other girl just stood there watching her. After a minute she ventured, "I want to be Princess Jasmine."
We didn't stay long after that.
Mandy was also there and she thought she was also playing Star Wars (I heard more than one "I'm Yoda! I'm Yoda!" from her), but she was alone in this perception.
Like all Terry Pratchett's other Diskworld books, Eric is a lampoon of the fantasy genre, full of parodies, ironic juxtapositions, puns, and good old fashioned jokes. Only this time Pratchett sets his sights at slightly more lofty literary targets, as Eric is largely a parody of Faust, Dante's The Inferno, and Homer's The Iliad. But don't worry, there's plenty of dumb fun, too.
The dumb fun in question starts when the perpetually ineffective wizard Rincewind is accidentally summoned from the netherworld by a 13-year old amateur demonologist named Eric. Unconvinced that Rincewind is a victim of circumstance, Eric takes the wizard for a real demon and demands that he grant the three traditional wishes: to rule the world, to meet the most beautiful woman in history, and to live forever.
Rincewind balks at first, but is quickly surprised to learn that he DOES have the power to grant Eric's three wishes, albeit with unanticipated and rather ironic consequences. The source of Rincewind's new powers and the attention it generates from Hell's newly installed leader are unveiled through the book as Rincewind and Eric visit parodies of ancient Peru, the Trojan War, and Hell itself.
Not really sure what else to say about the book; it's classic Rincewind madcap, with the terrified wizard (or "WIZZARD" if the sequened letters on his hat are to be believed) going from one predicament to another and doing his best to keep alive --often with some success. It's not as tightly plotted as Guards! Guards!, but I've come to recognize the Rincewind books as largely just a chance for Pratchett to go nuts with his imagination and focus more on literary lampoons than social satire. Personally, I love it.
And as usual, it's full of great quotes:
"You always knew where you stood with Quiezovercoatl. It was generally with a lot of people on top of a great stepped pyramid with someone in an elegant feathered headdress chipping an exquisite obsidian knife for your very own personal use."
"The Tezuman Empire in the jungle valleys of central Klatch is known for it organic market gardens, its exquisite craftsmanship in obsidian, feathers and jade, and its mass human sacrifices in honor of Quezovorcoatl, the Feathered Boa, god of mass human sacrifices."
RINCEWIND: The Tezuman priests have a sophisticated calendar and an advanced horology.
ERIC: Ah, good.
RINCEWIND (patiently): No, it means time measurement.
"These people were not only cheering, they were throwing flowers and hats. The hats were made of stone, but the thought was there."
"The consensus seemed to be that if really large numbers of men were sent to storm the mountain, then enough might survive the rocks to take the citadel. This is essentially the basis of all military thinking.
"Any wizard bright enough to survive for five minutes was also bright enough to realize that if there was any power in demonology, then it lay with the demons. Using it for your own purposes would be like trying to beat mice to death with a rattlesnake."
RINCEWIND: There's a door.
ERIC: Where does it go?
RINCEWIND: It stays where it is, I think.
Note: This is #16 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
The Maltese Falcon strikes me as another one of those classic movies that gets credit for stepping out and doing something for the first time, or at least being remembered most for it. It's the prototypical example of "film noir" which I think is French for "everybody smokes, yanks their pants up to their arm pits, and talks really fast." I wasn't too enthralled with this one, but it was okay.
The plot of The Maltese Falcon is probably the most sophisticated and complicated one I've seen yet in this little experiment, but the gist is that private detective Sam Spade gets tangled up in several people's competing attempts at finding the eponymous falcon, which is actually a small statue of great value. Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) has to figure out what everyone's angle is, who to trust, who to trick, and which one of them killed his partner. Things take a LOT of twists and turns, and the whole thing reads very much like the detective story it is.
While leaning towards the melodramatic at times (especially the scenes with the leading lady in them) the acting is pretty good, and Bogart has a certain smarmy charm as Sam Spade. You get the impression that this is a really smart AND tough guy, possessed of several shades of gray in the morality department and more than willing to play people off each other for his own gain. That makes for a refreshing change from all the romatic comedies I've been seeing lately. It was also hilarious to see him knock someone unconscious for hours at a time just by gently waving his knuckles in their general direction. The fight scenes, in other words, were pretty underwhelming.
If I have any real complaint about the movie it's that the plot was difficult to follow, though admittedly that was probably by design. Maybe it's more rewarding with repeat viewings. At any rate, it's still worth watching as an early (and still prototypical to this day) example of the gritty detective story in film form. As I watched it I realized that like Citizen Kane, I was more familiar with The Maltese Falcon than I realized just by having seen so much of it in various parodies, tributes, and knock-offs.
Also this week, Paul reviews Grand Illusion (1937).
I was talking to my mom last night and realized something alarming: Sam is getting to be the age at which I had my own earliest surviving memories from childhood --random stuff from when I was 5 or 6 years old that I can remember to this day. This is worrisome because of the implication that everything I do now had a very real chance of scarring her for life. And knowing my luck, decades from now she'll remember the one time I chastised her for blowing bubbles in her milk and she'll tell the electric company that they can go ahead and shut off my heat. And then make an appointment in a few weeks to collect and liquefy my remains.
Of course, if I'm lucky and diligent, maybe she'll remember a few good times, too. Like last night, when we got to the Jabba the Hutt level in Lego Star Wars and we actually cooperated to defeat the giant rancor monster. That part of the game was incredibly hectic, with each of us guiding our little characters around while this big, bellowing monster chased us. We were screaming to each other and laughing the whole time while we tried to figure out the trick to beating the game, and thinking back on it the atmosphere really struck me as being a lot like when I would whoop it up at LAN parties with other gamers. Only with slightly less profanity.
After we finally beat the level it was time to turn in for the night, but Sam carried some residual elation with her all through her bedtime routine and, presumably, this very moment. So for the sake of my soon to be liquefied bones, I hope she remembers that instead of the milk bubbles thing. I know I will.
Mandy says "Hi." She could probably spell it, too, if it came to that. The other day she surprised me again by correctly identifying several of the letters in her "Mrs. Spider's ABCs" book, specifically the ones relating to the Earthworms, Queen bee, and Termites. I'm pretty sure I wasn't doing this at 2 years old, so I'm just resigning myself now to her inevitable planet-wide conquest and domination. You should, too.
I'm trying to work my way through all of John Steinbeck's stuff, and Tortilla Flat is different from what I've read so far in a few ways. It's shorter, for one, but more incongruently it's genuinely funny. Not something I've grown to expect from Steinbeck.
Tortilla Flat tells the tale of a group of "paisanos" in the eponymous California town. Basically, they're a bunch of bums who blow all their (often ill-gotten) money on wine, but they're mostly harmless and Steinbeck tells their tale with great sympathy and tongue-in-cheek humor. The group live in Danny's House, which is one of the two houses that one of their group inherits from a relatively wealthy family member. Most of the little chapters in the book describe little stories and vignettes about how the paisanos spend their days, and they're mostly about how they steal, drink, help each other out, and gossip about the other people in Tortilla Flat.
What struck me most about the novel is how amazingly adept the men of Danny's House are at contorting any given situation and set of morals so that getting drunk and lying around is the best --indeed often the ONLY-- course of action possible. If they owe someone money, it would be a terrible disservice to pay him back and strain their friendship when they could buy a gallon of wine and get drunk together in the shade. This kind of self-serving selflessness is irony at its best, and it's amazing (and amusing) to watch them go at it.
In fact, the book is mildly funny throughout, with all kinds of jokes and digs at the paisanos's expense. My favorite bit was when Danny buys a vacuum cleaner for a lady friend. The fact that she doesn't have any electricity in her house doesn't keep her from coveting the device and showing it off to visitors by pushing it around her house while making sound effects with her mouth, but when Danny's friend Pilon steals the vacuum cleaner and trades it for wine (because it's the right thing to do for his friend Danny's benefit, he reasons), the buyer is outraged to find out that the contraption didn't even have a motor in it. That's irony, folks.
It's also a piercing insight on Steinbeck's part as to what makes people happy, and how the paisanos are blessed in a way by their poverty, innocence, and simple mindedness. These guys are happy, and as far as they can see, noble in the extreme. They lack for everything, so in a way they lack for nothing except maybe another gallon of wine. In a way, this is a stark coutner-point to some of Steinbeck's other novels like The Grapes of Wrath or The Pearl or The Old Man and the Sea, in which the protagonists are ensnared by hopes of prosperity and thus have their happiness dashed to pieces by reality. It's good stuff.
Note: This is #15 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
More romantic comedy, more Katharine Hepburn, more James Stewart, and more Cary Grant. The Philadelphia Story has one of the more complicated plots of its ilk that I've seen, telling the story of self-important socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn), who was divorced from her jerkface husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) some time ago and is getting ready to marry a self-made man (John Howard). Lord guards her privacy closely, so a local gossip rag ropes writer/newspaperman Macaulay Connor (Stewart) and another photographer into infiltrating Lord's wedding day with her ex-husband's help. Along the way people fall in love, out of love, and so forth. Yeah.
So the plot is a little silly and not particularly sparkling, but there are a few funny moments and some really great performances. I think, in fact, I'm beginning to understand the appeal of Katharine Hepburn. I've never found her sexy or attractive AT ALL, so not having seen her in movies I was a bit at a loss for understanding the reason for her appeal. Turns out, it's the obvious one: she's fun to watch on screen. She's got a certain type of charisma and presence up there, and it's easy to get carried away with whatever act she's putting on.
Cary Grant also puts on a good show as reformed jerk C.K. Dexter Haven, and his character probably has the most depth out of any of the cast --though that's not necessarily saying much. I was kind of disappointed with James Stuart's performance, though. Maybe it's because I just saw him in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but he seems to have this unique cadence to his deliveries and a limited set of mannerisms that make me think he's always going to make me think "That's James Stweart. He's pretending to be someone else, but he's not fooling me." It's kind of like Morgan Freeman. When I see him in the credits of any movie my brain always sees "and Morgan Freeman as ...Morgan Freeman ...playing some guy."
So, not a bad movie, but I'd definitely place it in the middle of the pack of what I've seen so far.
Also this week, Jeremy reviewed Milk
Man, we had one heck of an Easter weekend. Lots of pictures.
We started on Saturday by going to an Easter egg hunt at a local park. It was free and had been put on by a local realtor as a way to market herself. After we each got a Bag of Real Estate Literature I pretty much expected to find that each of the plastic eggs the children found would contain one of this woman's business cards, but instead there was candy. This was the FIRST of MUCH candy to be amassed by the girls this weekend. It was soon to be a veritable horde of high fructose corn syrup.
Besides candy, though the organizer raffled off prize baskets. Sam's number was called, and when she ran up to pick her prize she demanded through a mouth full of chocolate that she wanted the most boy-oriented basket in the lot. It contained a Spider-Man kite, a Justice League coloring book, some Batman markers, and a Batman sports bottle. The smiling realtor lady looked at Sam dubiously, but didn't offer any further protest.
Later that afternoon Sam and Mandy added two more baskets to their sugar trove when Ger's godmother came over to paint eggs. (Ger's dad, who also came over, had adopted the brilliantly sensible tradition of buying the girls new spring dress shoes every year.) So we did that. Both Sam and Mandy did surprisingly well, though Mandy's idea of a good time was slashing at the hard boiled eggs with a paint brush like some Springtime Jackson Pollack. There was much anger when we ran out of eggs, so they must have enjoyed it.
That night after the girls went to bed Geralyn and I spent a couple of hours cramming fifteen tons of ADDITIONAL candy into MORE plastic eggs. When I asked Geralyn why we had purchased these additional sweets instead of just using the cornucopia of candy they had gotten thus far, I received nothing but dirty looks and justifications involving the fact that she had ONLY BOUGHT LIKE FIVE BAGS LET IT GO, JAMIE.
Once stuffed with their corn syrup payloads these little sugar bombs were hidden around the house. The next morning the girls came down and added them to their legion of sweets one at a time, undoing our hours of work in about 13.8 seconds. They were both really pretty good at finding them --almost as good as they were at cracking them open and shoveling the contents into their maws. It was about the time I took this picture that I realized Sam was wearing, on Easter morning, her Christmas pajamas. Because, you know, nothing says Springtime and rebirth like a snowman.
Later that morning we went to Easter mass where it was incredibly crowded and the children acted terribly. Just terribly.
Finally, later that Sunday night we went to a party with Geralyn's extended family where OH MY GOD I'M TOTALLY NOT KIDDING PEOPLE THEY GOT TWO MORE FREAKING BASKETS OF CANDY. This brought, by my estimations, their candy collection to approximately "all of it in the world." If you round down.
Still, they had a GREAT time over the whole weekend, and it was a joy to spend it with them. They had fun every step of the way, and you can't help picking up on that. Or eating their candy.
I read and enjoyed Ender's Shadow a few months ago and enjoyed it enough to follow up with the second of Orson Scott Card's "Bean books," Shadow of the Hegemon. Unfortunately just like with the books in the Ender Wiggins series focusing on that hero, there was a precipitous decline in how much I enjoyed the follow-up.
This is mostly because Card is writing a very different kind of book. Ender's Shadow was mostly a book about genius children out in space, suffering hardships, outsmarting the grownups, jockeying for position among themselves, and getting trained to fight horrible aliens. And it features a pretty strong character who is coming of age, at least as much as a 5-year old COULD come of age. That's all cool stuff! People are DOING stuff!
Shadow of the Hegemon, in contrast, is a story about global war, often told in a very abstract way. The gist of it is that after the Battle School genius children are released back into the world, several powers aim to control these "national resources" for themselves in bids for military power to be used in the inevitable war that follows mankind's realization that there's now no alien threat to unit it. Bean's old nemesis Achille is behind most of this in his own bid for world domination/revenge, but Peter Wiggin --the slightly unhinged brother of Ender Wiggins-- has a hand in it too, as does Bean who is really just trying to rescue one of his friends and redress one wrongdoing from his past.
You can tell that Card tries very hard to keep this story from reading like a history book (even though he was inspired by just those kinds of books) and having all the global action fed to the reader by talking heads. He's got Bean and the others mixing it up in assassination attempts, military maneuvers, and espionage, and there's a prominant plotline involving the kidnapping of fellow Battle School graduate Petra Arkarian by Achille. And I always thought that Peter Wiggin had potential for a really interesting character --the ultimate puppetmaster and shaper of public opinion driven by his own obsessions that don't fit neatly into good/evil moulds when you look closely at them.
But Card falls short in my opinion. A lot of the REALLY BIG ACTION in the book --like battles between India, Burma, Pakistan, and China-- have obviously huge implications for the plot and the characters, but they're robbed of a lot of their drama by being so abstracted. The credibility of the whole thing is also strained by having so many amazingly brilliant children pulling off such coups and pushing around of major world governments. It starts to seem like Bean, Achille, and Peter Wiggins are pulling this stuff off less through sheer intelligence and more through ...magic! Or the needs of the plot, take your choice.
Note: This is #14 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
Having grown up in Oklahoma, I'm familiar with the story of The Grapes of Wrath. It's the law. I'd also read the book by John Steinbeck upon which this movie is based, and was surprised to find out the ways that the movie both differs and stays true to the source material.
Like the book, the movie tells the story of the Joads, a family that sets off to California in search of honest work and a better life after being kicked off their farm in Oklahoma. They make an arduous and occasionally deadly trip across the country in a beat up and overburdened truck, led by wayward son and ex-convict Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) and accompanied by a former pastor named Jim Casey. The Joads are beaten down and full of despair over losing their home and livelihood to the big banks that technically own their land, but they are optimistic about what awaits them.
When they get there, however, they just find more business owners who are willing --even eager-- to take advantage of them, paying them a pitiful wage for picking fruit that's not even sufficient to live on, much less prosper. There's some labor union rabble rousing, some tragedy, and lots more hardships. Interestingly, the tone of the movie takes a sharp detour from the book about 3/4 of the way through, when the Joads encounter a government-sponsored labor community (shades of Socialism here, interestingly) where they have everything from fair wages to toilets to people looking out for each other. Suffice to say that the movie ends in a MUCH more upbeat tone than the book, which basically just shrugged its figurative shoulders and made you feel that the Jodes and everyone like them was hopelessly screwed. Which was probably closer to the truth historically and I thought made for a much more powerful story.
The movie had a lot of other great stuff going for it, though. Henry Fonda was fantastic as Tom Joad, for example. He gave the kind of smooth, believable performance (for which he won an Oscar) that makes you forget that you're watching an actor and really gets you to buy into the character. John Carradine was also great as ex-pastor turned union organizer Jim Casy, I should also mention. And the cinematography, was fantastic. It strikes me that this is the kind of bleak movie that's actually better shot in black and white given the way that they made use of such stark lighting and contrasts. To give it color would somehow be untrue to the spirit.
So, I liked the book better for various reasons, but this was a great movie.
The Ghost Brigades is John Scalzi's sequel to Old Man's War, and I enjoyed it about as much for some light sci-fi reading. This book focuses mainly on a Special Forces soldier named Jared Dirac. He was manufactured from a cloned body like all of the Colonial Defense Force's answers to the Green Berets, but in this case the consciousness that was stuffed into the cloned and heavily modified body was a copy of the brain patters from a species traitor named Charles Boutin who is orchestrating a four-way war with other alien races to wipe out humanity. Dirac is indoctrinated into the Special Forces in an attempt to track down and stop Boutin.
Scalzi plays with some interesting ideas in The Ghost Brigades, chief among them what it would be like if you were cobbled together like a cutting edge Frankenstein's Monster from leftover body parts and incredible amounts of genetic engineering, trained in a matter of days to be a perfect soldier, and then cut loose on the universe. There's also some the associated questions about identity, free will, and the effects of indoctrination. Dirac isn't JUST a Frankenstein's Monster. He's a Frankenstein's Monster instilled with the soul of a madman trying to engineer the death of billions of people.
All in all, though, what makes the book enjoyable is that it's another briskly paced science fiction story with aliens, battles, high tech (again with an emphasis on genetic engineering and nanotechnology) and exotic locations. It's quite readable and works great as good old fashioned entertainment. I've already got the next book, The Last Colony on my to read list.
Over on my other, sometimes updated blog I made a nifty update about using Microsoft Excel to do test item analysis. At least I think it's nifty. It's got a spreadsheet! You can read it here.
Now that I'm actually doing this kind of thing at work again, I hope to have more stuff like this to talk about. Hopefully selectionmatter.com will be updated more than once a month.
Note: This is #13 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
Well, here's a movie that has aged ...oddly. When the governor of an unnamed state has to appoint a successor for one of his state's deceased U.S. senators, he refuses to listen to his corrupt political boss. Instead he picks Jefferson Smith (played by James Stewart) on the recommendation of his sons, who are enamored with Smith because of his qualities as a troop leader in the Boy Rangers. Smith is as ideological and patriotic as they come, but his qualifications for the job are pretty much limited to folksy charm and innocence, so when he hits Washington D.C. he's quickly eaten alive by the press and his fellow senators, several of whom are quite corrupt.
Without giving away too much of the plot, what ensues is some severe soul searching and Lincoln gazing on the part of the embattled Senator Smith and a David vs. Goliath showdown on the Senate floor as Smith tries to simultaneously defend his own character and make a plea for the sanctity of the U.S. Senate and democracy in general.
I can see how Mr. Smith was controversial when it came out, casting aspersions as it does on the Senate and basically accusing it of wallowing in corruption. The thing is, though, that in an era of unjust wars, sexual harassment, state sponsored torture, embezzlement, theft, blackmail, CIA agent outing, and the like, the stuff that Mr. Smith's adversaries are accused of seems downright quaint. Nowadays a U.S. Senator could probably murder a box of orphan kittens on C-SPAN live, and most people would probably just shrug. So there's a disconnect there, for better or worse (my money is on "worse").
It doesn't help that Stewart and the other actors lay on the cheese pretty thickly, with hand wringing, misty eyed appeals to patriotism, vague praise for ideals, oversimplification of complex issues, and plenty of platitudes starting with "aw, shucks ma'm." But in the end it's hard not to enjoy a story about the little guy triumphing over the big, bad guys, and part of us will always want to believe in someone like Jefferson Smith. Plus, while some of the supporting actors give stiff performances, Stuart is nothing if not watchable in his role, and it's the kind of movie that just glides by. Trailer of sorts below.
Also this week, Jeremy reviewed Twilight and Role Models.