Thursday, October 27, 2011

Musical Break - Take Five

     We invited some friends over last night to play games, and this song came up in a trivia-type game. It's such an excellent piece of jazz music and musicianship I decided to share it. It is the center piece of an excellent album by Brubeck & Co. called Time Out, in which all of the pieces are notable for their unusual and underused time signatures. Take Five, for example, is in 5/4, which explains the odd feel to the rhythm. It's still a popular album among jazz fans, so it should be easy to get a hold of a copy. Check it out!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Off the Cuff Movie Review Special: Cars 2

This is not really a movie review. The boys and I just got back from watching Cars 2 at the theater, and overall, it was a fun, enjoyable adventure. As always, Pixar animation is top-notch and the voice-acting is excellent. Kudos for the cameo by Bruce Campbell, or should I say, Sam Axe.

N.B. Here there be limited spoilers, in case you haven't seen the film yet.

What I wanted to say, though is this:

Well into the movie a serious and grown-up character tells Mater, rather matter-of-factly, that he is an idiot and a fool, and that everyone thinks this of him, which is true. This, of course, upsets Mater terribly. But just a little while later in the film, his best friend Lightning McQueen, (unaware of the revelation Mater was given) tells Mater that he is fine just as he is, and that if other people don't like him, then they must change, not Mater. It's the tired old mantra of the self-esteem crowd: “Just Be Yourself”. Except that this is hogwash. We are given, via a flashback sequence, a montage of all the ways in this movie that Mater acted like a clown or did stupid and foolish things, and Mater momentarily at least feels badly about this, perhaps realizing that he could have acted differently. In short, Mater is given an opportunity to stop acting childish and begin to grow up.
But no. “Just be yourself,” his friends tell him; why would you want to be an adult when you are told it's OK to be perpetually immature?

This message of the movie I find much more disturbing than the in-your-face accusations leveled at “Big Oil”. Kids probably won't be personally affected by that, since international oil markets are not everyday fare for them. But they are affected by what others around them think of them, and while nobody likes to be laughed at or told they're foolish, this movie could have given them an example (like McQueen does in the first film) of someone taking some criticism, doing some critical self-reflection and then taking steps to change in a positive way.Instead he decides, judging by his actions, to continue being a fool. 

As I said to my boys on the way home as we discussed this, sometimes it's OK to act silly and goofy, but at other times, we should act a little more grown up. Knowing the difference is called maturity.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fantasy Ideology

I was asked recently by a student at the school where I work, what I think about the Occupy Wall Street thing. I admitted that I haven't paid it that much attention, but the general impression I got from various media sources was that it was a disorganized affair, with no coherent/unified message or goal. Much has been said of the hygiene deficiencies of the participants. Now, I don't intend to get involved in a debate as to whether these folk are right, wrong or whatever, but the question brought back to my mind an article I read nine years ago, discussing the motivations of Al Qaeda in conducting the 9/11 attacks. [N.B. I am NOT trying to directly compare OWS to Al Qaeda, so don't get all worked up about it. I am NOT saying that OWS are a terrorist group or that they have any terrorist intentions.]    

     The author of the article, linked here, argues that, while most everyone assumed in the aftermath that 9/11 had been a politically motivated attack,  there may have been a completely different reason that had nothing to do with actually achieving a political goal. I here present the article, and put forth the idea that the OWS group may have a similar non-political objective. 

From the article:

     "For Stockhausen did grasp one big truth: 9-11 was the enactment of a fantasy — not an artistic fantasy, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless.
     My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

    So if I have anything to say about the OWS thing, I suppose it is this: What is motivating this group to act as it is?  Unless we (the general population and the protesters) are all talking about the protest using the same frame of reference, there is very little point in talking about it at all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Off the Cuff Movie Review: North by Northwest

     I was asked recently to review my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie. This was not a simple request to fulfill, since I've seen many, not all, of his films and liked most of them. But after reflecting on it for a while, I decided that North by Northwest  was the one with which to go.
      The film begins with Roger Thornhill, played by one of my all-time favorites, Cary Grant. Thornhill is an ad executive in New York. While out at lunch one day, he is kidnapped by a group of men who have apparently mistaken him for “Mr.Kaplan”, a government agent that has been following them. The gang leader, Vandamm, played by the excellent James Mason, disbelieves Thornhill's protests and tries to kill him by staging an 'accident': getting him roaring drunk and putting him into a car headed down a winding road.
Thornhill survives, but no one believes his story of abduction – the criminal/spy gang have a good enough cover story to bluff the police. So then Thornhill tries to track down the real owner of the house where he was held, and finds that he works at the U.N. The two barely have time to meet before a member of the gang kills the diplomat with a thrown knife. Thornhill foolishly grabs the knife and implicates himself for the murder. Somehow he escapes, and goes on the run, trying to find Mr. Kaplan. He makes it on board a train headed to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. She helps Thornhill escape capture by the police for her own reasons. In Chicago, Thornhill is pointed towards a meeting with Kaplan in an isolated cornfield. Instead of a meeting, Thornhill gets attacked by a biplane and almost gets run over by a truck. Escaping mostly by luck, he returns to Chicago and confronts Vandamm again. When Vandamm threatens his life, Thornhill's only way to escape is to get himself arrested. Once in custody he is turned over to “The Professor”, a CIA-type director who explains the truth about Mr. Kaplan, Vandamm and Eve Kendall, all of whom are more (or less) than they seem.
      So why is this my favorite Hitchcock movie? Well, anything with Cary Grant is going to be worth my time. Here he's less the suave, urbane man-about-town that you get in some of his films, and more a man struggling to cope with a situation he is totally unprepared for. But he still gives great delivery of both dialogue and action. James Mason is also terrific in this film. He nails the slimy threatening bad guy, covered over with a veneer of sophistication. Eva Marie Saint trades witty banter with Grant and Mason and is a far more complex character than a 'damsel in distress', although she's in great danger throughout the film.
      While the action scenes show their age in both the special effects and in the amount of stuff exploding, any observant movie watcher should know that good effects and explosions can't prop up a weak story. Hitchcock gives us a strong story with strong characters to keep our interest. The tension in this film, and it is tense, is all about the unanswered questions about Mr. Kaplan, and the menacing presence of Vandamm. There are twists in the plot that keep you guessing, but you know in the end, the good guy is going to win, and get the girl.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Off the Cuff Movie review - Shiloh

     This week it was my son's turn to pick the movie for Sunday night, and we watched  Shiloh.  It is the story of a boy (Marty) and the dog (Shiloh) that he wants to have. At the start of the film, the dog belongs to a mean spirited neighbor who wants Shiloh for a hunting dog, but Shiloh runs away because of mistreatment. Marty befriends the dog but has to return him, over his vocal protests that its owner will again mistreat him. After Shiloh again runs away, Marty, concerned now for Shiloh's life, hides him and concocts a plan to buy him from the owner. When Marty's parents eventually find out, they insist that the dog be returned to its owner. Marty works to earn money and negotiates a deal with Shiloh's owner to acquire the dog, but at the last minute the owner goes back on the deal. Eventually, though, the owner grudgingly realizes that Marty wants the dog far worse than he does, and agrees to let Marty keep Shiloh.
     I am not normally fond of movies that star or prominently feature animals. It's not that I'm not fond of animals (I own two dogs, which I walk with every day) but animal films have never grabbed me. The character I liked the most in this film is Marty, because at the wise old age of eleven, he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep Shiloh safe. He puts in a week of serious manual labor for the dog's owner, as well as multiple other odd jobs to earn money to pay for Shiloh's care. This was one dedicated kid! 
     The film is set in West Virginia, so there's lots of pretty scenery, although the film doesn't dwell on that. The acting is good, solid but not spectacular. The dog in the title role is well trained, but is not on-screen that much of the film, and when on screen, often doesn't do much. Never the less, this was an enjoyable family film, or for anyone who is an animal lover.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wisdom from the Fathers - St Athanasius

From On the Incarnation, chapter 2

We saw in the last chapter that, because,death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in the process of destruction. Man, who was created in God's image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was, disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there as on escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil, and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creature who He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was he to let corruption and death have their way with them? . . . It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Off-the-cuff movie review: IVANHOE

Last night our family watched the 1982 made-for-TV version of Sir Walter Scott's romantic adventure, Ivanhoe. The boys liked it because of the jousting and sword fighting, I liked that too, but also enjoyed the political and religious and social interactions between the varying parties. 
Ivanhoe is set in the time of King Richard the Lionheart, and Prince John's attempt to seize the throne is the backdrop for the story.  The main character, Wilfred of Ivanhoe (played by Anthony Andrews), is a young knight, disowned by his Saxon father for running off with Norman King Richard to fight in the Crusades. Ivanhoe returns and hopes to favorably influence his father by competing anonymously in a tournament, where he defeats and makes enemies of three Norman knights, who are loyal to Prince John. On the way to the tourney, he befriends Issac, the Jew of York, played by the excellent James Mason, who is almost chewing the scenery every time he's on screen. Isaac's daughter Rebecca, played by the lovely Olivia Hussey, gets it bad for Ivanhoe, even though they are kept apart by religion, and the fact that Ivanhoe only has eyes for Rowena, his father's ward. Rowena, played by Lysette Anthony, is also desired by one of the Norman knights that Ivanhoe gave a whuppin' to. 
Cedric, Ivanhoe's father, refuses to acknowledge his son, even when he is gravely wounded at the tourney, so if falls to Isaac and Rebecca to give Ivanhoe aid. They fall in with Cedric's party on the way home, and all of them are captured by the Norman three, and taken to the castle of Front-de-Bouef,played by John Rhys-Davies, who DOES chew the scenery every time he's on screen.
Enter the Black Knight, played by Julian Glover with heaps of presence and gravitas, who with the aid of Cedric's fool Womba, and the surprise arrival of Robin Hood and his band, attacks the castle and rescues (nearly) everyone. One of the knights, Brian Gilbert, played by Sam Neill, has gotten the hots for Rebecca, who unsurprisingly, wants nothing to do with him. So Brian flees the castle with Rebecca in tow, and runs off to the HQ of his religious order, probably meant to be the Knights Templar. The head of their order decides she's a witch, and orders Rebecca's execution. In the end, Ivanhoe saves the day, and the Black Knight's name and position are revealed. Everybody should be happy, except for Isaac and Rebecca, who depart in sadness for Spain, hoping to escape the religious bigotry and persecution they endured in England. Oh, and Rebecca doesn't want to stick around now that Ivanhoe and Rowena are married.
Apart from the scenery chewing, the acting all around was very good. Even the secondary characters were fully rounded people, not just stereotyped cutouts. The scenery, English countryside, was of course beautiful, and the costume people did not skimp at all on the robes, banners, armor, coats of arms, etc. The plot was multilayered, with large-scale politics blending with and interfering with such basic personal relations as father and son, lovers, friends and masters. The Fool Wamba, for example, very knowingly and very calmly puts himself in the way of certain death so that his master Cedric can escape, a fact which Cedric very gratefully promises will be remembered "as long as there is honor in the world".
Now, on the down side. There is one scene in which Front-de-Boeuf is threatening to torture Isaac, and this could be terrifying to younger kids. It doesn't happen, but we get right up to the edge before events intervene to stop it. The tourney scenes and the battle scenes are not bloody or gory (remember this was filmed for TV in 1982) but are very loud and I think more realistic than theatrical. Lots of knights and other fighting men do die. At one point Brian Gilbert is trying (not very well) to woo Rebecca, but she sees him as trying to assault her, and while the word rape is not used, nor is any violence done to her in the scene, the tension is very palpable, and may prove confusing and upsetting to younger kids. Especially when Rebecca threatens to throw herself out a high window rather than accept Brian's advances. Rebecca's treatment at the hands of 'Christian' knights was also deplorable, and prompted some discussion with our boys about whether these guys were acting in accordance with the Christian faith. I am proud to say they saw right through the knight's self-righteousness, and we had a good conversation about the importance of our actions matching our profession of faith.
Run time was two and a half hours, with convenient fade out-fade in breaks every fifteen minutes, where the commercials would have gone. Overall, this was a good, well acted movie with a mature plot that is still accessible to kids, and enjoyable on several levels by grown-ups.