Sunday, November 25, 2012

Breaking Dawn & Things That Matter

To be fair, I'm not the audience Breaking Dawn is intended to reach.  I read the first book about the time Twilight came out as a movie - I was teaching high schoolers at the time and I believed (and still do, mostly) that anything that gets that many people reading has to have some merit.  Alas, I think the only reason I finished reading Twilight was due to some sort of grim, morbid curiosity.  It had to get better, right?  You just couldn't put that many God-awful cliches into one novel - and you're telling me this claptrap spreads over another three books?

And don't get me started on the 50 Shades phenomenon - which began life as Twilight fanfic.

Look - I have problems with the whole Twilight franchise and I can explain them easily enough.  Bella is a throwback character who has little agency of her own.  She's clumsy, passive, always needs saving, and is never complete without a man.  The "bad boy" can only be understood by Bella, whose soul was made to be with his.  Being dumped is a reason to abandon those who love you and hurting yourself is a sensible course of action, for it will bring your One True Love back to you.  Lie to your parents and - oh yeah - violence is okay, because it's a mark of uncontrollable passion.  Sex, even within the bounds of marriage, is dangerous and will kill you, but that's okay, because you were born to be different and you can only achieve that transformation by subsuming all that you are or could be into another's desires.

Like I said - I have problems with it.

But I'm game, so off to Breaking Dawn I went.  It's not awful, but it is a fairly unimaginative, shopworn teen romance.  All the sharp edges of being a vampire are ignored - she's with her True Love; they have an adorable, problem-free child; they're rich beyond imagining; they're surrounded by those who love and understand them; they're faster and stronger than humans, and gorgeous to boot (albeit it a touch pale with oddly red-tinted eyes).  Really, what's not to like?  I far prefer the deeper, more troubled, approach Buffy gives to this sort of supernatural romance.

On the other hand, if you want stories of tough people enduring tough times, run - do not walk - to see Ken Burns' two-part series The Dust Bowl.  How soon we forget.  The largest man-made ecological disaster in American history happened not a hundred years ago.  Millions of acres of virgin grassland prairie ripped up to plant wheat, which was great - at first.  A bumper crop, coupled with the Great Depression, meant prices fell, so farmers plowed up more land, removing the very root system that held the rich topsoil in place.  Then came drought.  And tons of topsoil blew away.  Watch the footage of those dust storms rolling in - I expected to see orcs emerge from the blackness.  Magnificent stories, well told.

All without sparkly vampires.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I was in such a froth to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that I couldn't wait until it came to my hometown, so yesterday FryDaddy and I met two of our faithful companions who were also anxious to see it at a theater out of town.  Imagine my delight to get into the theater (admittedly small; the larger theaters in the multiplex were taken over by Twilight which was playing every half hour) and find it crammed.*  We had a devilish time finding four seats together and wound up much closer to the screen than I usually like.  But as soon as the film began, I forgot all about those gripes.

Lincoln is a masterpiece.  I don't say that lightly - I think there are lots of good films and a fair amount of great ones, but "masterpiece" is a word to be used with great care.  Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals (and I'm sad to report that portions of her earlier work have been found to be the result of plagiarism.  Our heroes often have feet of clay, do they not?) and Tony Kushner of Angels in America was charged with creating the screenplay.  (Kushner and Spielberg have worked together before - Kushner was responsible for the screenplay for Munich.) 

From the opening scene, Lincoln grabs you by the throat.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a masterful actor and in Lincoln he is not only given wonderful, rich material to bring to life, he is surrounded by a supporting cast that could make gravel sparkle.  And Day-Lewis ain't gravel.  Sally Field as a political Mary Todd Lincoln capable of genteel manipulation of her husband's political enemies, Tommy Lee Jones as the radical Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as William Seward - all deliver bravura performances, but so do James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Jared Harris.  (Full cast list here - it's truly amazing.)  Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which forever after outlawed slavery in the United States, was not a slam-dunk piece of legislation.  Far from it.  And seeing the agony caused by (and, in some ways, still being caused by) That Damned War made this Southerner very, very glad to be watching this film.  Politics has always been a game  of backdoor deals played by the daring and the foolish - and sometimes, the line separating the two can be microscopically thin.

Spielberg captures this.  By 1865, hardly anyone was in favor of slavery, but hardly anyone knew what to do about it.  Four million people were to be freed from bondage by the stroke of a pen - then what would happen?  Abolitionists fought the moral battle - what came next didn't matter, it was the Right Thing to Do.  Most politicians looked cautiously further down the road and didn't like what they saw, so they wanted to delay the decision.  (As did the Founding Fathers - read Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution.  They kicked the slavery can down the road when they wrote:  "The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808 . . ."  They needed the support of the South, and the South depended on slavery for their economy.)

Look - I could go on and on about this film, but let me just say this.  Lincoln brilliantly lays out why passing the 13th Amendment was both crucial to preserving the Union and blastedly difficult.  And the film manages to make a roll call  vote positively riveting.  Go see it.  Then re-read the Gettysburg Address.  Then see it again.  At that point, you'll probably want to thrash those people who have recently called for their home state to secede following the election two weeks ago.  While I abhor violence, I could see your point.

And here's a weirdness not covered in the film, but definitely worth a "hmmm."  Edwin Booth, brother to Lincoln's assassin, saved the life of Robert Lincoln, who was the eldest son of the Lincolns.  Really - read about it here.

*Oh, and there was a line - a long one - of people waiting to get in to the next screening.  There's hope for this country yet.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 40

The family on break - like "Walter White Wednesday"!
Today, Dear Readers, is the day when "Walter White Wednesday" takes a brief holiday hiatus.  Think of this as the blogging version of the time period when the actors, writers, and crew take a much-needed break to recharge their creative batteries, unwind from the day-to-day stress of creating magnificent televisual stories under deadlines and within budgets, and spend time with their families.  After all, as Walt might say, "Nothing is more important than family."  And as Hector might say, "DING!"

It's crunch time around here for my not-to-be-ignored day job.  I have student projects flowing in that must be managed, evaluated, and returned, as well as an elephant-sized report to prepare for my college.  I'd rather not have "Walter White Wednesday" turn into something I just dash off so I have a place-holder out there - this will come back, but it will take several weeks and it may be longer than that before it becomes "regular" again.  We've had a forty-week run (approximately four times longer than Joss Whedon's Firefly!), and that's nothing to sneer at.  As Walt tells us in the beginning, "Chemistry is the study of change," and this is one (temporary) change that needs to be made.

But be of good cheer - there's so much more to write about and talk about that it's guaranteed that "Walter White Wednesday" will be back after Thanksgiving!  I thank you for reading and consider this - the Mythbusters guys have gotten their hooks into Breaking Bad and plan to air an episode in the spring to examine just how much of the science in the show would work in the real world.  No, you won't learn the secrets of Walt's cook, but it should be fun anyway!

See you in a few weeks!

But to tide you over - click the link to have some breakfast!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 39

. . . which is the one that doesn't get written.

Sorry, folks - and I truly am, for I enjoy writing these posts every Wednesday - but last night was Election Night here in North Carolina and the U.S. of A. and I stayed up late.  Very late.  Too late for someone who has a day job and a 12-hour stint at it this too-early morning.  But I believe that some things are worth seeing live and this was one of them.  (Also - I think we can put aside our differences about the candidates and just admit that the Democrats have a much better soundtrack.  Also - rest of the world, please ignore Donald Trump.  Paying him attention only encourages him to continue acting the fool.)

At first, I thought about crafting a post about who would make the better First Lady, Marie (who'd probably steal the linen from the Lincoln Bedroom) or Skyler (who'd probably squirrel pallets of campaign donations away in the walls).  I also considered cobbling together my thoughts on who would prevail in a Hank vs. Walt tossup, but I got stuck on who would be Hank's running mate (although I have to admit, siccing Jesse on certain world leaders DOES make me smile on this under-caffeinated morn).  Instead, I'm going to simply admit that there's no post this week.

I'll be back next week with thoughts on Breaking Bad, but today, I need more coffee.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"I'm Gonna Wreck It!"

After 30 years, a guy wants a change.
Disney bought Pixar and boy - does Wreck-It Ralph make that abundantly clear.  Ralph features magnificent vocal talent, including John C. Reilly as the title character, a bad guy who wants - just once! - to be the good guy. He "game jumps" to achieve his goal of earning a medal to show he's really a good guy, which gives the moviemakers a chance to show off a vast variety of game environments, from early 80s herky-jerky movement to today's smooth HD silkiness.  The contrasts are great fun - Ralph is appalled by the violence and scare factor of Hero's Duty and I could feel my teeth ache at the sheer sweetness overload of Sugar Rush.

In part, Ralph has a very conservative message - we all have roles to play and trying to deviate from those roles leads to destruction and chaos.  Ralph is a bad guy - he shouldn't try to be anything else, for people have to Know Their Place for society to function.

At least, that's one way to look at it.  You can also see it as a message about blooming where you're planted and realizing that pastures are perfectly green on this side of the fence.  In this reading, Ralph needs to come to terms with what he is and yes, others should respect him for his "badness."  After all, without Ralph's mindless destruction, there's nothing for the hero, Felix (voiced with pixie perfection by Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock) to repair and therefore, no need for the game to even exist.

A third way of looking at Ralph occurred to me only after I'd left the theater.  Ralph is, strangely enough, a feminist movie.  It has two central female characters who are cast in traditionally male games - Sgt. Calhoun is a tough-as-nails soldier (and Jane Lynch does an awesome job with some deliberately obtuse dialogue here), who was programmed with "the most tragic backstory ever." She leads a platoon of tough-guy soldiers on a never-ending mission to obliterate the deadly "cybugs" in a ultra-violent shooter game.  The other, Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), is a wanna-be racer in a candy-colored game involving a go-kart bakery, candy forests, and a volatile diet soda swamp.  (There are also about a dozen other racer characters, who are all uniformly horrid little girls, giving rise to one of the great lines of the film where they are referred to as "children of the candy corn")  While the Sugar Rush game is over-the-top girly girl, the ultimate goal is to win a road race - a traditionally male-oriented game.  In the cases of both Calhoun and Vanellope, the gender of the avatar is never seen as worth remarking upon - Calhoun isn't a "female" soldier and Vanellope isn't a "girl" racer - and oddly enough, that's progress.

There's a lot here for viewers of a certain age who will, presumably, be taking the small fry to the picture.  I know that I spent plenty of time in video arcades during my early teens, carefully lining up my row of quarters to mark my pixellated territory before turning my attention to Asteroids, Frogger, Galaga, or (my favorite) Phoenix. For me, part of the joy of Ralph was in locating as many of the avatars of my youth as I could - the oft-overlooked Q*Bert makes several appearances and yes, that actually is Pong in the lobby of Game Central Station.  Plus, I'm in favor of just about any movie that gives Alan Tudyk work - and this role is a doozy!

Visually, Ralph is a treat. I saw it in 2D - I suspect the 3D version of the race sequences would have made me woozy, but it may be to your liking.

By the way, Wreck-It Ralph begins with a short that is definitely for the grown-ups in the audience.  "Paperman" is a delicate and charming story of magic realism that will delight you, even though it doesn't really fit the tone of the movie it precedes.  It's a lovely mix of classic 2D hand-drawn artistry and computer generated techniques.  Ah, animation - how much you can do for us!