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31Jul/09Off

Book Review: Dune

Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert is kind of an oddity. It's mostly science fiction given how it's set on a distant planet and got space ships and lasers and all that stuff. But it's also got a few of the tropes of the fantasy genre --people fighting with blades, a feudal system with noble houses, prophecies, and stuff that looks suspiciously like magic. But whatever you call it, Dune is pretty good.

The book follows the noble House Atreides, specifically its heir apparent Paul and his mother Jessica. The Atreides family was given the supposedly plum job of managing the desert planet Arrakis, which is the universe's only known source of this totally rad magical spice called "melange." Ingesting melange is kind of like snorting baby shark catiledge, except it makes you live forever, turns your eyes solid blue, and lets you see into the future.

The problem is that this is all part of an elaborate ploy by the dude at the top of the feudal food chain to get rid of House Atreides, which was getting a little too big for its interstellar britches. Paul and his mother are soon on the run and fall in with the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis. They are are mysterious, twelve separate kinds of badass, and preocupied with drinking their own sweat. On top of all that, they also view Paul as some kind of messianic savior. Like Jesus, but with more roundhouse kicks. From there Paul both tries to engineer his revenge on his enemies and his reclamation (in all senses of the word) of the planet.

I liked Dune because while it was straight up sci-fi space opera entertainment in some ways, Herbert built in a lot of subtle stuff, too. I particularly liked how Paul had to deal with the fact that he can fulfil the role of messiah to the Fremen natives, but his crazy ability to see the future tells him that if he's not careful that he'll ignite an intergalactic holy war, which is a wee bit more extreme than what he has in mind. There's also some cool stuff in there about how the prophecies about Paul were actually meticulously engineered whisper campaigns conducted by a sect that had been trying to produce someone like Paul through selective breeding and genetic engineering rather than something so mundane as divine intervention.

So I like my introduction to Dune, and I plan to pick up subsequent books. I hear that all the ones that Frank Herbert himself wrote are good, but that I should stop before getting to the ones his son wrote after his father's death.

Filed under: Books 5 Comments
29Jul/09Off

Movie Review: Shane (1953)

Shane

Note: This is #30 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Unlike last week's High Noon, the movie Shane seems to fit more of the prototypical Western (non-spaghetti) movie. You've got your eponymous lone hero, mysterious Shane (Alan Ladd), who is trying to atone for his previous life by sloshing masculinity all over the place and helping out Starrett family (Joe, Marian, and that brat lil' Joey). The Starretts are trying to get the sparse community of home steaders in their region to resist being pushed off their lands by the crooked businessman Rufus Ryker and his gang of leering thugs.

I liked Shane fine enough, even though the ratios of wood chopping to gun slinging were a bit off. Every one of the main cast gives a pretty good performance, with the exception of the actor playing little Joey, whose whiny schlock made me hope he would be killed in crossfire at some point. Alas, he was not. The movie also has some great scenery and settings, and it really gave a sense of (I presume) authenticity and place. These didn't feel like actors; they looked and talked and felt like realy people from that era. Great sound, too, especially when it came to the roaring gunfire.

I also appreciated that the film's villain eschewed the swaggering, mustache-twirling archetype that you might have expected. Not only that, but while his methods get out of his own control towards the end he actually does have point of view and motivations that you can understand. During one showdown between Ryker and Shane we learn that he does have a semi-legitimate claim on the land where the homesteaders have ...steaded their ...homes. The question becomes one larger than simple ownership of land, and I get the sense that this was exactly the kind of thing that people of that era had to deal with.

So, not bad, though not particularly deep or riveting. For a Western, there was relatively little action or tension. I mainly got out of it a sense of place, time, and character. Which isn't that bad, either.

Filed under: Movies No Comments
28Jul/09Off

Week 287: Fits, Droids, and Beds

Mandy has penetrated deep into that developmental territory where throwing fits to test the boundaries of the world around her is an hourly occurrence. Though her emotions occasionally fly out from underneath her and she really loses it, she can generally flip these fits on and off the way you or I may smile or frown during any other typical negotiation session. Yesterday we had this exchange:

"I want a treat for going to the potty!"

"Mandy, no, if I gave you a treat every time you did that now you'd stuff yourself silly."

"NO! I want a treat!"

"I'll give you one M&M."

"I want a brownie!" Crying now.

"No. One M&M."

"NOOOOOOOO! BROOOOWWNEEEE-HEEEE-HEEE!"

"Mandy! Calm down. I'll give you a small piece of brownie."

"NO! I want a big piece. A humongous piece!" This actually came out closer to "humgus piece" bit it was a nice effort. And she was shrieking and stomping by this point.

"A regular brownie. That's IT. A regular brownie or NOTHING."

"Okay." And bam, tears off. A few seconds later she's happily strolling off shouting "Thanks, Dad!" through a mouthful of brownie while I try to figure out what the hell just happened. Eventually I decide that I'm lucky I didn't get hustled into warming it up in the microwave and putting a big scoop of ice cream on top of it.

This isn't all to say that Sam can't be without her own freakouts. If you want to trigger a COMPLETE psychotic freakout on her part, try to just touch the R2-D2 action figure she bought herself last week. Any attempt to take this away from her will send her into a spastic fit, such is her love for this little astromech droid. In fact the other day when I showed her how to write "R-2-D-2" she gleefully grabbed the pen from me and began writing the droid's name over and over again. Oh well, I guess it could be worse. She could be writing "H-A-N-N-A-H M-O-N-T-A-N-A" over and over again.

Finally, it's worth noting that we converted Mandy's crib into a "big girl bed." And by "converted" I mean "took the gate off." Mandy was ecstatic about this, and didn't want to leave her bed. Except at bed time. When she wouldn't stay in it. All was forgiven, though, when she came running into our bedroom the next morning shouting "I took a good nap! I want a brownie!"

Filed under: Parenting 5 Comments
24Jul/09Off

Book Review: Alas, Babylon

Alas, Babylon

I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction novels, be they involving zombies, meteorites, natural disasters, or in the case of Pat Frank's Alas Babylon, nuclear armageddon.

The book follows Randy Bragg, a man adrift in life and lounging around in the small community of Fort Repose, Florida with nothing much better to to. That all changes when nuclear war breaks out between the U.S. and Russia (the book is set in the early 1960s) and everything goes to pot. Fort Repose luckily avoids the overlapping circles of nuclear doom that hit most of Florida's cities, but it becomes cut off from the rest of whatever passes for civilization. Randy has to abruptly change gears and finds himself a leader both among his town's survivors and his own expanding household. The book tells about how Fort Repose acts as a stand in for civilization in general as it unravels, adapts, and is reborn.

I really liked this book. The extra twist for modern readers like you and me is that Alas Babylon is set about 50 years in the past. In a way this is weird, because there's a lot of ink spent on out dated details, like milk deliveries, telegrams, radio, and the like, where an updated version of the story would no doubt deal with cel phone networks, the Internet, and satellite television. But at the same time, this temporal setting gives the book its own flavor that grows on you and intrigues you by setting forth a slightly different set of rules. Then again, things like gasoline supply chains and the abstract nature of the world financial system remain as relevant now as they were then. Either way, it gets you thinking.

The other thing to like about Alas, Babylon is that there's a lot more literary machinery going on under the adventure story surface. The book comments extensively on race relations between Whites and Blacks (which were no doubt different in 1959 than they are in 2009) and how it takes a nuclear war to level the playing field. And there's plenty of commentary about how different people deal with the upturning of their world. Randy Bragg make plans to dig an artesian well to procure fresh water while the rich banker's wife blithely decides to saunter down to the super market and hopes that it's "not too crowded."

So I'd definitely recommend Alas, Babylon despite its original publication date, or perhaps even partially because of it. It combines end of the world adventure with social commentary and psychological character development. What's not to like?

Filed under: Books 4 Comments
22Jul/09Off

Movie Review: High Noon (1952)

High Noon

Note: This is #29 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

At first I thought High Noon was going to be a quintessential cowboy movie, what with Gary Cooper in the tall, lanky lead as a sheriff in a small town set upon by criminals. But unlike next week's movie Shane, High Noon actually doesn't follow that template once you get into it. In fact, I've started to mentally append the subtitle "The Existential Cowboy" to this movie's main title since it has a lot more going on underneath the surface about facing death alone.

The surface in question deals with Will Kane (Cooper), who is at the end of his tenure as the sheriff (or marshal, whatever) of a small town in New Mexico. Kane has just married his pretty and pacifistic new wife Amy (Grace Kelly) and is getting ready to start his new life elsewhere when he receives word that a man he helped put away for murder has been released and is on his way into town to take his revenge on Kane and everyone else involved with bringing him (temporarily, anyway) to justice. Most of the rest of the movie deals with Kane's trying to recruit a team to defend the town against the approaching killers.

What I appreciated about this movie is that it's really about how one man faces his presumably certain death once it's clear that nobody (well, almost nobody) is going to help them. The movie's depth and tension comes from watching how Kane is trying to deal with the impending doom and contrasting that with how his fellow townspeople try to cope. Most refuse to deal with it, a few flee, others deny that it exists, some wish they could help but can't and tell Kane that he has to give up or go it alone. This is where my "The Existential Cowboy" subtitle comes into play --the movie can be seen as a existentialist parable about how people have to make their own independent choices, specifically those concerning how they accept their own mortality and inevitable death. Kane knows about the approaching doom on the 12:00 train and the audience is reminded of it by repeated shots of clocks and other indicators of time. But he has to deal with it alone.

This is cool stuff that elevates the film above a simple Western action flick and it's just too bad that the film makers blinked at the end instead of seeing the idea all the way through. Still, it's good stuff in that it sticks in your mind for some time after viewing.

Filed under: Movies 2 Comments
21Jul/09Off

Week 286: Rewards, Banking, and Shopping

I must say, I'm very proud of little geeklings. Allow me to explain why.

Last Saturday we celebrated a certain toilet-related milestone for Mandy by taking her to Toys R Us to buy a new toy. Of course Sam didn't want to be left out, but having long ago mastered her own body in that regard we weren't going to just fork out cash for no reason. So Geralyn had Sam empty her piggy bank and roll up all her coins. This had the dual effect of letting Sam participate in the shopping spree and keeping her occupied for like an hour. Because she had like $32 in change there.

Determined to make some sort of lesson out of this, we stopped at the bank on the way to the toy emporium and had Sam go up to the teller and exchange the rolled coins for cash. Amazingly enough, Sam elected to only take only $15 of the cash and deposit the remainder into her savings account. This is great, because if my calculations on the compound interest from that $17 are correct she should have four trillion dollars in the bank by the time she retires. Sam was, however, briefly upset when she passed a pleasingly enormous pile of coins to the teller and received only two slips of green and white paper in return.

Her concerns were alleviated once we hit the store, though, and both she and Mandy got to run amuck. While Mandy had trouble deciding on any one toy that wasn't three hundred dollars, Sam almost immediately selected an Ariel the Little Mermaid doll. This she carried with her through the entire store until the very end when I casually pointed out the Star Wars aisle. Ariel promptly hit the floor and Sam went running for the action figures. In the end Sam selected a set of Anakin Skywalker and R2-D2 figures and Mandy left the store with a toy light saber (not red, thankfully) that's about as tall as she is. So proud.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
18Jul/09Off

Prototype

So, if you were to look at the bullet points on the back of Prototype's box, you'd see some stuff about an open world game and lots and lots of action. The thing about the latter is that it is generally so extreme that it looks down on "over the top" in just about every way. And if you're rolling your eyes at my use of "extreme" and thinking that maybe I should have just gone ahead that tenth yard and said "eXXXtreme!!" then yeah, you're starting to get the idea.

Indeed, the main critique I feel I can level against Prototype is that the appropriately named developer, Radical Entertainment, seems to have taken every copy of Image comic books from the 90s, wadded them up, put them in a cannon, and fired them point blank at a three-ring binder entitled "Design Document." It's all there --the stupidly overpowered antihero who smolders with generic rage, the gritty urban environment, the high tech shock troopers doing their best to perpetuate a government conspiracy, and black tentacle ...things. The developers truly earned their "Mature" ESRB rating with this one given how the game is full of ultraviolence (63% of which is perpetuated by the morally challenged and player controlled main character) and the game's "web of intrigue" mini cut scenes aren't afraid to slap you upside the face with a mutilated baby or three just for the shock factor. It's NOT subtle.

But here's the thing. The game is FUN. Really, REALLY fun. Here's a short list of the things you can do in this open world sandbox game:

  • Drop kick a helicopter out of the sky
  • Consume an old lady, wear her skin as a disguise, and rip through Manhatten on a granny rampage where you leap from building to building and hurl cars into terrified, fleeing mobs
  • Hijack tanks, helicopters, and APCs to hopscotch from one streak of mayhem to another
  • Leap from the Empire State Building, falling hundreds of feet into a crowd of unsuspecting pedestrians and creating a huge crater from which the dust settles half a second before it starts raining body parts
  • Sneak into a military base, rip through its terrified and panicked inhabitants like a cross between an Alien and the Tazmanian Devil from those old Loony Tunes cartoons, then sneak back out like nothing happened

I could go on, but that gives you a flavor for what I'm talking about. The action and sense of movement and raw power that you get out of Prototype are the reasons to love it, and running around doing crazy stuff doesn't get old any time soon. There are even a series of mini games that challenge you to either race from one location to another (by, say sprinting 300 feet up a vertical skyscraper wall and then leaping three city blocks), or to cause as much death and destruction as you can with a given set of tools and constraints. This stuff is fun because the core gameplay feels so great and is so viceral.

I can forgive a trite story, an amoral lead character, and a few awful boss fights for that. See the Wikipedia entry for more information and links.

Filed under: Gaming 1 Comment
17Jul/09Off

Book Review: Developing Multiple-Choice Tests

Developing and Validating Multiple-Choice Test Items

Hey kids! Do you like writing multiple choice test items that exhibit desirable psychometric properties? You DO? Then Developing and Validating Multiple-Choice Test Items by Thomas Haladyna is for you!

Glibness aside, I actually did find this to be a pretty useful book and it'll be kept within easy reach as a reference book in my office. I picked it up because I was developing a high stakes, multiple-choice test for a work project and wanted to make sure I was doing things right and covering all the bases. I generated double fist fulls of these kinds of tests when I taught undergraduate classes at the University of Missouri, but apparently I and everyone else going all the way back to my grade school was doing it ALL WRONG. Or at best not as well as we could have been.

What I like about Developing and Validating Multiple-Choice Test Items is that it picks a focus and sticks with it. After some obligatory introductory philosophizing, the book walks you through the various multiple choice item formats (of which there are way more than I realized), then moved on to how to actually generate the items and how to check over them to make sure they're valid for whatever use you have in mind. The work is replete with practical "how to" kinds of advice in the forms of rules, check lists, and examples of good/bad items. Only occasionally does the author veer off into naval gazing and discussions that seemed a little pedantic to me, such as providing 3 answer choices to each question instead of 4. But most of those asides were self-contained and easy to skim, so it worked out fine.

This isn't to say that writing these kinds of items is easy. In fact once I sat down and actually started trying to churn them out I found that it's actually very HARD to do if you do it right. Creating believable but still objectively wrong answers to put in there with the right answer is actually the hardest part. But in the end, I was able to take what was in this work and with just a little additional research put together a training program for test item writers that I felt would give them (and me) the groundwork necessary to create a good test out of nothing.

16Jul/09Off

Movie Review: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin in the Rain

Note: This is #28 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm not particularly looking forward to the musicals that this little experiment is going to throw at me, but I really enjoyed Singin' in the Rain. It was charming in a "it was another time" kind of way and actually pretty funny. I don't think we'd ever see anything like this come out of Hollywood nowadays. Plus I was surprised at how many of the songs I actually knew, like "Make 'Em Laugh," "Beautiful Girls," "Good Morning," and of course the eponymous number where Gene Kelly runs around splashing in puddles.

The plot centers on Don Lockwood (Kelly), a silent movie star who has to endure the unwelcome and slightly psychotic advances of his fellow star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), for the sake of maintaining their public image. This despite Lockwood's growing relationship with the more talented, would-be actress Kathy. But when Lockwood's studio starts to transition from silent films to "talkies" they hit a series of brick walls in the forms of Lina's squeaky, irritating voice, her absurd modes of speech, and her complete inability to remember where the sound techs have placed the microphones.

Lina Lamont is played up for a lot of pretty good laughs, as is Lockwood's side kick, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), who ends up stealing most of the scenes he's in. So the movie really is amusing and genuinely endearing. And as with Swing Time my favorite parts were actually the music/dance numbers. Those people can really move. It just seems funny to me now that "big song and dance number" were part of your basic movie building blocks back then, since they seem to be almost randomly dropped in. It also occurs to me, though, that in 50 years people will look at today's movies and say the same thing of car chases, shootouts, and gratuitous special effects shots.

Along those lines, it's also noteworthy that this seems to be one of the earlier color movies, and man did the film makers run with that little piece of technology. Some of the musical numbers were really bright, and the "Broadway Melody Ballet" in particular looked like some giant had vomited an entire box of Crayola Crayons on the wardrobe department. And not one of those little 12 color boxes, either --I'm talking about one of those huge, 96 count boxes with neon green next to bright yellow and sky blue paired with bright purple. It was pretty sensational, but I guess that was the goal.

So, I'd definitely recommend Singin' in the Rain. It's really unlike anything I've seen in the last few decades. Trailer below.

Filed under: Movies 3 Comments
14Jul/09Off

Week 285: Skee Ball and Bath Time

Here's an insider tip: you can always tell the weeks when I forgot to take pictures of the girls until he last minute because they'll feature bath time pictures from Sunday night.

Look! Bath time pictures from Sunday night!

Actually I don't have a whole lot else to talk about. Though Sam did go to a birthday party for her friend Michael at Chuck E. Cheese's ("where a kid can spend money on entertainment in 15-second increments"). I didn't attend, but I heard that each of the attendees were given a Dixie cup full of game tokens and let loose on Mr. Cheese's arcade where games could be played for little tickets which could then be exchanged for little plastic things stamped out by the thousands by Chinese factory robots.

Sam apparently thought that token-to-ticket exchange rate was 1:1, since she ran from machine to machine jamming tokens into slots and squealing with delight when the machine spit out --I can only imagine with some embarrassment-- a solitary sympathy ticket for the little girl who had no idea how to play the game she had just bought. The exception seemed to be skee ball, which Sam got into using a vigorous overhand throw until the arcade attendants closed in on her position.

Filed under: Parenting No Comments
10Jul/09Off

Book Review: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 401(k) Plans

Complete Idiot's Guide to 401(k)

Not sure what to say about this book. After attending some financial planning workshops I was motivated to learn more about the 401(k) retirement savings plan that my employer was offering and about these things in general. It turns out that my 401(k) plan is actually pretty good and I wasn't nearly getting out of it as much as I could. This was because without this kind of voluntary savings my wife and I would be entirely screwed later in life.

Like most of the other "Idiot's Guide" books I've seen, this one explains it to you like you were a four year old, and that's pretty good. I had a vague idea of what a 401(k) plan was (i.e., you put money in it each month and you do NOT take it out to buy a new TV) but I really didn't know anything beyond the basics. This book helped me understand what kind of plans are out there, how much I should invest, what kinds of investments I should make (individual stocks, mutual funds, bonds, etc), how much risk to take, when I should move some of my money over to something else like a Roth IRA, and stuff like that.

As a result of this (and that financial planning workshop) we've shifted some stuff around, made some medium-to-long term plans, and now have a better grasp on where we will be come retirement. If you're one of the people who have access to a 401(k) plan or one of its cousins like a 403(b) or a 457 and don't feel like you're an expert on it, you should read this book or one of the dozens like it. If you're one of those people AND you're in your early 20s just starting your career you REALLY, REALLY need to learn about these savings plans, because if you start early you can literally have millions in the bank at retirement with relatively little effort. If you don't you'll want to throttle your younger self 20 years later when you realize what you've done. Or rather, failed to do.

Filed under: Books No Comments
8Jul/09Off

Movie Review: The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen

Note: This is #27 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009. Halfway through!

Oooh, the first color movie in this little escapade! Humphry Bogart and Katherine Hepburn play what I consider to be a fairly unlikely couple in this 1951 drama/adventure film. When the prim and proper Rose Sayer (Hepburn) sees her church destroyed and her missionary brother killed by Germans invading East Africa during World War I, she flees with the rough but good natured riverboat Captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart). On their way down river the two fall in love and hatch a plan to use Charlie's boat, The African Queen, to attack the Germans. Well, Rose devises the plan. Then she forces it on Charlie.

As an adventure story, this works fairly well. We get to see the two refugees turned guerrilla fighters navigate the perils of the river and African wildlife. Rose, who was already out of her element to begin with, is thrown headfirst into something completely opposite her nature, with a companion to match. So there's some interesting dynamics there.

What really seemed to fall apart for me, though, was the inevitable but still inexplicable romance between the two leads. These two people are not only completely different and apparently incompatible, but they're only with each other for a few days before the fall madly and deeply in love. It's not believable and smacks of something that was crammed in there just because that's the sort of thing that's supposed to happen in the movies. I would have appreciated the movie more if the relationship between the two characters were more nuanced and the movie ended with the hint that they could grow into more over time.

Still, the performances by Bogart and Hepburn are good as to be expected, and a lot of the cinematography with the boat scenes was head and shoulders above what I've seen in earlier movies. The African Queen sits in the middle of the pack in terms of how much I liked it, but it's definitely not bad.

Trailer below.

Filed under: Movies 1 Comment
7Jul/09Off

Week 284: 4th of July

Per our annual tradition, we packed up and headed out to "The Farm" this last weekend for the 4th of July. We left Thursday night and came back Sunday afternoon, learning in the process that this is just about Sam's limit for unwashed country fun.

We did have good enough weather for a swim, though, and once Sam got over her (not completely irrational) fear that a fish was going to bite her in the butt, she made good use of the diving platform in the lake. Afterwords we found a leech on her. No, I'm totally serious guys. Geralyn pulled it off her and put the little blood sucker in a plastic Quick Trip cup to show off to everyone.

On Friday night we let the girs stay up late to marvel at the big bonfire and roast marshmallows. Only Sam's idea of roasting these treats was to put them on the end of a stick, extend her arm as far as she could, turn her face from the flames, and stand about 12 feet away in the dark and dewy coolness of the grass. She still liked them well enough, though.

FUN FACT: If I put my children to bed three hours after their normal bed time they STILL wake up at 6 the next morning. HOORAY!

We had some fireworks on Friday, but the big blasts were saved for Saturday night. Mandy was scared of the explosions at first, perhaps because she was possessed of some common sense that had leaked out of everyone else's more mature brains. Amusingly enough, though, she sought comfort in the lap of her Great Aunt Cleo. Sam, in the meantime, gleefully waved sticks of fire around.

I guess it's worth noting that these are some of my favorite pictures of Sam and Mandy in a while. Instead of using a flash for the low light bonfire and fireworks conditions, I put on my "fast" f/1.4 50mm lens, used manual focus and manually set the aperture and/or shutter speed. The image stabilization on the lens helped, but I really wish I had remembered to bring my tripod with me; some of the shots would have been much less blurry had I used it. Still, I like how a lot of them turned out, since they really give you a feel for how the lighting really was at the event.

Filed under: Parenting 2 Comments
2Jul/09Off

Book Review: Witches Abroad

Investing in People

In this twelfth Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, the author sets his satire scopes on fairy tales and storytelling in general, which results in some pretty great meta humor. As you might guess from the title it features the witches cast of characters, including Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick. When Magrat inherits a magic wand and the job of Fairy Godmother to a young Cinderella knockoff in a kingdom far away, the trio find themselves on the road and twisted up in the machinations of the opposing evil godmother.

Or so they think. Pratchett has a lot of fun with the concept of stories and the fate of people who find themselves playing the part of their characters. There's clever stuff in there about the power of stories and how things are always going to turn out to suit them and the best you can do is ride along like a leaf in the rapids. To illustrate this concept Pratchett yanks threads from all kinds of stories featuring witches or magic in order to put Granny, Nanny, and Magrat through perils, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, the Wizard of Oz (that part was particularly hilarious, by the way, with an exchange between Magrat and some dwarfs who inexplicably want to drink things out of Nanny Ogg's red slippers), Little Red Riding Hood, Dracula, and others. But the stoic and generally imperturbable Granny Weatherwax does her best to change the course of the rapids to her own liking.

So I liked it quite a bit. It's funny, because when Granny Weatherwax first appeared in Equal Rites I didn't like her as a character at all. She just didn't have any zing and seemed like a one-joke character. But by the time of Witches Abroad it's apparent that Pratchett has not only improved as a writer, but he's figured out how to make Granny work (short version: she's a crabby old lady who does nice things in not nice ways) and by placing her in a trio with contrasting characters that provide lots of opportunities for them to play off each other. And along those lines, Magrat and Nanny have also started to flesh out as characters as well. I'm now looking forward to seeing more of them.

Some of my favorite quotes:

Racism was not a problem on the Discworld, because -- what with trolls and dwarfs and so on -- speciesism was more interesting. Black and white lived in perfect harmony and ganged up on green.

Asking someone to repeat a phrase you'd not only heard very clearly but were also exceedingly angry about was around Defcon II in the lexicon of squabble.

The only way housework could be done in this place was with a shovel or, for preference, a match.

Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Yabi was cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and relentlessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Yabi are renowned for being remarkably short and bad-tempered.

-"Can you dance as well?" [Nanny Ogg] said wearily.
-"Oh yes. How about a date?"
-"How old do you think I am?" said Nanny.
-Casanunda considered. "All right, then. How about a prune?"

-"But all the rest of 'em are six foot tall and you're -- of the shorter persuasion."
-"I lied abuot my height, Mrs. Ogg. I'm a world-famous liar."
-"Is that true?"
-"No."
-"What about your being the world's greatest lover?"
-There was silence for a while. "Well, maybe I'm only No. 2," said Casanunda. "But I try harder."

Filed under: Books No Comments
1Jul/09Off

Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Note: This is #26 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.

Here, wait. I need to get this out of the way first:

Everybody take a deep breath and shout "STELA! HEEEY! STEEEEELLAAAAAAA!" Okay, good. Glad that's done. Let's move on.

A Streetcar Named Desire

For about the first half of this movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams's stage play I was thinking that my review was basically going to amount to "Blah, blah, blah. Talking heads. Boring!" And indeed that's a pretty accurate reflection of how I felt until about the second half when things picked up.

The movie follows the story of Blanche DuBois (Vivian Leigh), a self-styled Southern belle with a quickly tarnishing old family name. She's kind of messed up in the head, as becomes apparent to her more level headed sister Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) and Stella's brutish husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Blanche moves herself in to Stella and Stanley's ramshackle New Orleans apartment and starts to interfere with their lives, though whether out of malice or her inherent ditziness the audience isn't quite sure which. Tensions grow and stuff.

Like a lot of stage plays, Streetcar's real luster comes from its presentation of characters and how we as viewers get to gradually learn and infer things about the characters and their relationships. For example, Blanche's back story and the reality of her current predicament are slowly peeled away, and we get as much entertainment out of that as we do empathizing with other characters as they learn the same things.

And this is a movie full of great performances. Leigh does a great job as a kooky and eventually unhinged Blanche, but it's really Marlin Brando that steals the show. The movie is worth watching for his performance alone as the animalistic and cruel Stanley Kowalski. Brando just slops pure brutish masculinity all over every scene he's in, and though he talks like a Murloc half the time, he's fascinating to watch and I was eventually drawn in by both his relationship with Stella and his developing attitudes towards Blanche.

Eventually. This whole thing took a long time to set up and get going, but while that part was pretty numbing, the payoff was worth it and it's the kind of story that sticks with you and keeps you thinking back on it for a while afterwords.

Trailer below.

Also this week, Jeremy reveiwed The Philadelphia Story.

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