Young Victoria

Young Victoria
Young Victoria

Young Victoria

A few quick thoughts about this costume drama:

  • It’s a nice little movie, with solid acting, a good story, and a charming bit of romance.  A good first date movie for history buffs, perhaps.
  • Any time we watch movies about British Royals, Jenny and I have the same conversation cultivating our own minor Anglophilia, wishing we knew more about the crown so that we could understand the machinations and timelines better than we do.
  • As always, courtly politics are all about politeness combined with vicious machinations and villainous intentions.  And REALLY nice gardens.  But what were the men of the 1800s thinking when they did their hair?  Dear Lord, it’s UGLY.
  • The bit of crowd-pleasing concern over the plight of the working class sprinkled throughout the film works well, helping set Victoria and Albert apart from the other nobles of the era.
  • I discovered that Jenny was unaware of the classic phone prank: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”
  • Minor spoiler (if the results of historical events can be called “spoilers”): Albert died after 20 years of marriage to Victora, and she remembered him by having his clothes laid out every day afterward, for 41 years.  That’s kinda cute.

Worth watching, especially if you enjoy romance films.  Not usually my cup of tea, but it’s well acted and not too melodramatic.

2011-02-27 Tweets

  • I'm in for sure. #HNBF #Firefly #
  • Sabbatical report: 440 solid words, 1200 brainstorming words #
  • Fun for the afternoon, loading up Scrivener. #scrivenerforwindows #
  • Best unexpected momentary feeling of sabbatical? Being away from Moodle CMS so long I nearly forget my password. #
  • Sabbatical report: 1343 words today. #
  • Sabbatical report: 966 words this morning. #
  • New celeb apprentice lineup includes Gary Busey, Star Jones, Richard Hatch, and David Cassidy. When did that show become The Surreal Life? #

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The Curious Case of the Third Crab

"I Got Crabs" by P. Dub
"I Got Crabs" by P. Dub

For Christmas, Avery got two water crabs from her grandparents.  She’s been lovingly overfeeding them ever since, and we change their water about once a week.  About three weeks ago now, one of the crabs died and settled in the bottom of the water.  It took a couple days for Avery to tell us about it, and a couple more before I cleaned out the cage, so in the end it sat there for a week or so. (YUCK, I know.)  Because I let it sit there for a couple days, there were at least two times where someone reminded me to clean out the cage.  Important to remember for later.

Anyway, the other night, Jenny hollered, from Avery’s room, “I thought you cleaned out the dead crab!”

“I did!” I shouted back.

We bickered about this for a moment, as I asserted that I had, indeed, cleaned out the dead crab and she insisted I hadn’t.  So after a moment, I got up and joined her to see what the trouble was.  And there it was again, the dead crab, the living crab looking on, accusingly.  We disposed of the new dead crab and then spent the rest of the evening, off and on, pondering how it could be that I thought so surely that I had disposed of the crab only to discover that I hadn’t.

The most pedestrian answer we came up with was that I thought about disposing of the crab, but hadn’t.  This wasn’t satisfying, as it had been another week and we’d had no dead crab sightings in the meantime.

The other answers we came up with were:

  • I fished the dead crab out but then, without thinking about it, put it in the clean water and then put both the live and the dead crab back in the tank.
  • Avery or Finn got the dead crab out of the trash and put it back in the tank.
  • Jenny was gas-lighting me and had put a dead crab in to meet her own nefarious plans somehow.
  • A shadowy agency had placed the dead crab in the tank to avoid us pursuing an investigation of why the first crab died.
  • A malevolent omnipotence (like the mechanical beings of The Matrix) had re-loaded our world and failed to notice that the dead crab had been disposed of.

The next day, the mystery was likely solved by Jenny’s dad, who suggested that the living crab had molted (or whatever the crab version of that is).  We decided this must have been the case, as the only other option involves strange machinations or extreme dysfunction in my memory.

Red, Dead, and Buried


Dead and Buried
Dead and Buried

Red adapts the Warren Ellis graphic novel by significantly expanding the story, adding a lot of humor and some other characters, and giving it a happy ending.  Dead and Buried tells the story of a creepy town where strangers are murdered in horrific ways and buried, only to reappear a few days later as happy, productive members of the town.  The film starts off with a lot of atmosphere but goes downhill as the plot unfolds.  Some thoughts:

  • Both films turn on the notion of catastrophic violence going unnoticed.  It’s unclear in Dead and Buried what percentage of the town are zombies (it seems like it’s a high percentage), but the regular citizens in the town seem particularly unaware of the maimings, burnings, shootings, and stabbings happening in the street and on the beach.  Similarly, Red features aggressive and overt military action by whole gangs of gun-toting thugs, but never gives any hint of the aftermath. (I’d think that a covert agency wouldn’t be able to shoot a minigun at an aircraft control tower without getting in at least a little trouble.)
  • Both films follow protagonists going up against the system, battling superior numbers to save themselves.  Each film features a normal looking person (bathing beauty at the beach or dowdy traveler at the airport) who turns out to have murderous intentions (though only the latter has a bazooka).
  • Both films ponder the question of death and aging — is it better to deny your inner self in order to have a longer life or to die unsoiled?
  • Both films reveal villains mad with power and out of control.  In Dead and Buried, the warlock mortician schemes to bring an army of the living dead to life in his little town; in Red, a gangster schemes to bring a corrupt politican to office by any means necessary.
  • Both films have small surprises if you didn’t look too closely at the credits: Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfus make cameos in Red while Robert Englund and Barry Corbin (Maurice from Northern Exposure) have small parts in Dead and Buried.

The Manual of Detection

The Manual of Detection
The Manual of Detection

The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry

It wasn’t even a year ago that I read this book for the first time, but I recommended it for my mystery book club, so I read it again before we got together.  I thought I’d just point to my review from last year and then leave you with a few quotes I enjoyed.

This struck me as a good summary of the working method for Getting Things Done

Imagine a desk covered with papers.  That is everything you are thinking about.  Now imagine a stack of file drawers behind it.  That is everything you know.  The trick is to keep the desk and the file drawers as close to one another as possible, and the papers stacked neatly. (49)

And there’s a bunch of stuff about dream detection I find interesting, and delicious:

“How often have you tried to recall a specific memory–a conversation with an acquaintance, maybe–only to determine that the memory was a delusion, spawned in dream?  And how often have you dreamed a thing, then found that it spoke some truth about your waking life?  You solved a problem that had been impenetrable the day before, perhaps, or perceived the hidden sentiments of someone whose motivations had baffled you.
“Real and unreal, actual and imagined.  Our failure to distinguish one from the other, or rather our willingness to believe they may be one and the same, is the chink through which the Agency operatives conduct their work.” (152)

And more about Enoch Hoffman’s evil plot

“His true goal is the destruction of the boundary between the city’s rational mind and the violent delirium of its lunatic dreams.  His ideal world is a carnival, everything illusory, everything in flux.  We’d all be butterflies dreaming we were people if he had his way.  Only the Agency’s rigorous adherence to the principles of order and reason have held him in check.  Your work, Mr. Unwin, and mine.” (155)

And about alarm clocks

“…the clocks were implements of order, ones we’ve long taken for granted, and Hoffmann drowned them in the bay.  These people outside, they may have dreamed of waking to phantom alarms, when in truth they were waking into a second sleep, one that Hoffmann had prepared for them.”  (161)

On Unwin’s reports (and, for me, his similarity to Watson):

“Your work has given me some pleasure through the years.  When you leave a thing, you leave it where no doubt can touch it.” (186)

On the tension between the Agency and the Carnival:

“The problem is not belonging to one or the other, Mr. Unwin–and there is always an Agency, always a Carnival to belong to.  The problem is belonging for too long to either of them.” (227)

And from the Manual itself, on solutions:

To the modern detective, truth is rarely its own reward; usually it is its own punishment.  And if you cannot track mystery to the back of its ugly cave, then be content to stand at the edge of the dark and call it by name. (265)


And by opposing, end them

Slings and Arrows, season 3
Slings and Arrows, season 3

Slings and Arrows, season 3

I’m sad to see that Slings and Arrows has ended, but the writers would certainly have been hard-pressed to keep the tumultuous stories of Geoffrey, Ellen, Richard, Anna, and the ghost going without spinning them into oblivion.  This season follows the New Burbage Theatre company as they struggle to produce King Lear with a Lear too cantankerous for his own good.   Meanwhile, after his rousing success in season two, financial director Richard seems poised to go on to greatness, if his own hubris and inhumanity don’t get in his way first.

A few thoughts:

  • I’m pleased with the way the three-season story arc ended.  It has both up endings and down ones, with enough “up” ones to make me happy, but some solid grim outcomes as well.
  • Of the three seasons, this one had the least predictable storyline, for me.  If anything, the previous two seasons primed me to consider that perhaps the story would resolve in the usual way, namely: things start out shaky, they get worse, personal and public drama ensues, the whole deal appears like it will come off the rails, they save it at the last minute and produce an amazing play.  I’m not saying that this description doesn’t apply to this season as well, but it plays out differently enough that it’s a nice surprise.
  • I’m pleased to see the writers give Paul Gross a bit less mayhem to play this time around, especially given the nature of his madness in the last two seasons.  It’s a great wrap up for the character.
  • As usual, the supporting cast and side bring the show to life.  The extra drama between Lear’s Cordelia (Sarah Polley), her male roommate, and a trampy ingenue from the musical production seems a bit predictable, but provides some easy tension without the complex storylines of the continuing characters.

As usual, Slings and Arrows makes me want to see more theatre, and wish that sometime in my past I’d gotten the theatre bug.  (And be very happy that I never did.)

When I need a break

"Boo... splash" by Jeffrey K. Edwards
I have no good reason for choosing this photo

When I need a break, I usually dive into one of my regular haunts on the web.  Here they are, in order of use, with the most regular visits at the top:

And don’t forget my RSS reader, which includes some 82 blogs, about a quarter of which update at least once a week.

photo by Jeffrey K. Edwards used under CC NC-SA-AT license

2011-02-20 Tweets

  • @JMeredithA Knock 'em dead! in reply to JMeredithA #
  • @dancpharmd that's my daughter's favorite song on the wii game JUST DANCE. in reply to dancpharmd #
  • @JMeredithA they make white out for 4 year olds? in reply to JMeredithA #
  • Sabattical report, day 12: 816 words. #
  • Banging head on desk after 30 minutes of bug searching. Note to self, if variable is '$_FILES' don't type '$_FILE' #
  • Avery, playing w/ old magazines. "Everything I cut out is because it's beautiful and a girl." Then she cut out a picture of Michael Jackson. #
  • Sabbatical report, day 13: 1202 words #
  • Best spam email yet, the US Postal service claims to have intercepted, for me, "a confirmable ATM CARD to the tune of $800,000.00 USD" #
  • Nonsequitur of the day– both kids sitting on my lap when Avery says "We're just like a bowling ball!" #
  • @loweringthebar "In Defense of the Swingline 747" — You, sir, have clearly never used the Swingline PowerEase. #
  • Discovery–each day in my home office causes a week's worth of clutter. 3 weeks of sabbatical looks like a whole semester of normal work. #
  • @loweringthebar PowerEase isn't electric: pushing down charges a spring that staples perfectly every time. Still light enough to throw. in reply to loweringthebar #

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Two thoughts about Peter Pan

I try to have a couple posts each week that aren’t movie or book reviews, and I suppose this is a cheat because it’s about Peter Pan, but too bad for you. I was watching the new Peter Pan with my kids Wednesday morning and two thoughts about the story occurred to me.

1. What if HOOK is Peter Pan as an adult?
This came to mind in considering the way Never Never Land is set up in this film.  The entire environment reflects Peter’s moods, like a Kate Chopin story.  When he’s away on Earth, the oceans freeze.  When he’s sad, it storms.  Etc.  Later, when Hook has succeeded in demoralizing Pan to the point that he’s lost his fight, Hook says, “You will die alone, unloved.  Just. Like. Me.”  Finally, in this film Hook is played by Jason Isaacs, who also plays Mr. Darling.

These three notions made me wonder if Never Never Land operates on a time loop, and in the far future, after all the Lost Boys have returned to Earth and Wendy has grown and forgotten him, perhaps Peter becomes Hook.  He’s the spirit of adulthood, constantly heckled by his childhood dreams, which are always more exuberant.  He’s lonely and mean.  Just a thought.

2. The “I believe in fairies” bit is misleading
We’ve all seen the play, in which Tinkerbell dies after intercepting the poison meant for Peter.  We’re exhorted by Peter and the other characters on stage to chant that we believe in fairies, bringing forth an incantation that serves to ressurrect poor Tink.  I couldn’t help but think of this as an odd bit of theatre for two reasons:

First,  within the world of the play, the protest that we believe is strange.  It’s like shouting that you believe in fire hydrants or automobiles — they’re both available for your inspection, so it would be silly not to believe in them.  It’s not a leap of faith for Peter to claim he believes in fairies.

Second, for the audience, shouting that we believe in fairies seems, in some ways, to echo the profession of faith that’s part of so many religious ceremonies.  I grew up Catholic and can still recite the Nicene creed from heart.  It’s a way to reassure ourselves that we believe together, but it’s done in a common space during a ritual designed to help reinforce that belief (in this case, the theatrical presentation of Tinkerbell’s death).

Which leads me to my favorite stopping point used by the hosts of The Atheist Experience, a public-access television show out of Austin, Texas that features several astute rhetoricians of religious debate.  When they encounter a religious person who admits that they “just believe, regardless of how rational or irrational it is” or who claims they’ve had personal divine revelations, the hosts switch tactics, not arguing about the logic or reason of claims, but rather asking why personal revelation should provide justification for anyone else.  We’d all believe in fairies if we could see and touch them like Peter does.

Towards Zero

Towards Zero
Towards Zero

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie
BBC 4 Radio dramatization

I didn’t realize until I was well into the story that I’d seen it before, as part of the PBS mystery series, but converted into a Miss Marple story.  This version was quite entertaining, with excellent voice acting and good effects.  A couple quick thoughts:

  • The main detective in the story is a disgraced cop (thrown out of the Met after being accused of corruption).  He argues with the detective from the Yard who shows up to investigate the murders and disdains his help.  After McWhorter uncovers a crucial piece of evidence or two, the Yard detective grudgingly asks for his help.  It’s so British.
  • I like the notion that murder stories really start well before the death.  The title refers to the “Zero hour” toward which all the characters involved in the lamentable events of the story are hurtling.
  • At times, it was a little difficult to tell the characters apart in the radio drama, particularly the women.  There were a couple times I thought we were listening to Kay when we were actually listening to Audrey.  And so on.
  • One of the ways mystery writers create several reasonable suspects in a remote place (like the secluded manor in Towards Zero) is to make nearly everyone except the detective an asshole.  (By contrast, another move is to make the murder victim a total asshole to everyone.)  The downside to this strategy is that the reader has almost no reason to care about any of the characters.  In this way, Christie has done an excellent job of developing a group of people who seem, universally, to be jerks but who, by the resolution of the story, have seen their motives for awful behavior vested in the villain and removed.  The ending was satisfying without being cloying.

Worth a listen.

The Fury

The Fury by John Farris
The Fury by John Farris

The Fury by John Farris

The Fury follows a half-dozen characters as they grapple with two children who, in the tail end of puberty, develop enhanced psychic powers like clairvoyance, telekenesis, and telebloodboiling (that last one’s not a scientific term, as far as I know, but it describes the effect well enough).  The two main characters are Peter, a CIA assassin and father of one of the children, and Gillian, a sensible early-teen debutante who discovers psychic powers that kill people whether she wants them to or not.

A few thoughts:

  • This book feels very much of its year.  While a modern science fiction novel will take as a given the idea that nanotechnology will be available to do wondrous things soon or that computers will be able to simulate/emulate digital beings or that digital/mind interfaces will be possible, the givens about the 1970s seem to stem from the Age of Aquarius stuff: mind expanding, astral projection, psychic phenomenon are all present.
  • The palpable distrust of government in the 1970s roils through the book as well, with two competing government agencies eager to take advantage of the psychic children.  And nearly every character in those agencies is revealed to be amoral or downright vicious.
  • The casual misogyny of 1970s horror also seethes through the book.  The sex scenes use a blunt, one sided kind of language to regularly describe womens’ bodies using terms that, by today’s standards, are downright ugly.  And abuse of all sorts, sexual or no, undergirds all these relationships.
  • By contrast, Farris does a nice job crafting an intricate plot that reveals itself at just the right pace and prods the reader to strive for the end.  While the novel took me a bit longer to get into than I would have liked, I was genuinely interested, in the last half, to find out what happened.
  • Once you get past the believability of the science-fiction aspects of the novel, the deadly psychic children made for an intriguing concept, and Farris’ talent with gory description drives the story nicely, er, gruesomely.

I probably wouldn’t recommend seeking this book out, but it has its high points.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Jeremy Brett and David Burke
Jeremy Brett and David Burke

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke
(also available via Netflix streaming service)

Over the past two months or so, I worked my way through the first series of Sherlock Holmes episodes featuring Jeremy Brett, with David Burke as Watson.  I have, in the past year or so, watched a number of the later episodes as well, but this was my first concerted effort to be systematic about the process.

Brett has captured the unofficial title of “the best” Sherlock Holmes, something documented carefully on Wikipedia.  He plays the character with a slight edge of nastiness, a quick, almost feral physical presence, and a remarkable flexibility of face.  Burke plays Watson evenly, with passion but without clownishness or chewing the scenery.  He also doesn’t take a lot of guff from Sherlock, calling him on his more offensive comments.  It’s a good series, if a bit slow by today’s standards.  For 1980s British mysteries, it’s right on target.  A few additional thoughts:

  • I liked a number of these stories quite a bit, most strikingly “The Norwood Builder” and “The Dancing Men,” both of which presented positive puzzles for Holmes to engage and solve.  “The Blue Carbunkle” is the most enjoyable, funny and extremely strange.  By contrast, some of the stories require almost nothing of Holmes, who merely watches events play out and then explains the mystery afterward.
  • As I mentioned above, Brett plays Holmes pretty extravagantly, but not outside the realm of the stories.  In fact, he takes great pains to interpret the stories and render a character in line with Doyle’s vision.  It’s easy to see why real fans of the books peg these as the best Holmes adaptations.
  • My favorite moment in is from “The Norwood Builder,” when Inspector LeStrade rebuffs Holmes’ first request to speak to the maid of the house, suggesting that she cannot offer any new facts to the story.  Holmes smiles like a wolf and snarls, “Nevertheless.”  LeStrade pauses for a moment and then sends for the maid.  It’s excellent.

By the end I was a little tired of the slow pacing and won’t be watching any more Sherlocks for a while, but the ride was fun while it lasted.

Sarah Vowell at Unity Temple

Hey fellow Chicagolanders…

Unfamiliar Fishes
Unfamiliar Fishes

Sarah Vowell is going to be in Oak park on April 6, 2011, to discuss her new book Unfamiliar Fishes.  She’ll be at Unity Temple, in Oak Park, at 7pm.  The event is free and open to the public.  I’ll be there!