Review: Les Miserables

I saw the Les Miserables movie today.  It was awesome. They did an awesome job of being faithful to the musical.  That said, especially near the beginning, the singing and integration of the music wasn't awesome.  (I've used the word awesome three times already in this post.  I am going to try to use it less now.)

Like with Sweeney Todd, I think the most major roles in Les Miserables went to the actors who got them less because they're the best actors for the role, and more because they're the most famous actors who kind of fit.  (Well, with Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp didn't fit at all.  And if you make allowances for that, did a great job.)

Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both had a rocky start in the roles.  Jackman did a much better job as Valjean as soon as he was allowed to shave -- he plays 'kind soul with a dark past' better than 'haggard vagrant crushed by the injustice of the world'.  Russell Crowe did not grow so well into the role.  Still, he was only distractingly bad near the beginning -- I got used to it.

Thenardier and his wife were fantastic.  (Sacha Baron Cohen must really like playing criminals in musicals.  Or maybe he just really likes musicals, and nobody will cast him as anything else.)

Gavroche was brilliant, too.

I won't say any more, lest I spoil, except to point out that I cried, a lot.  If your heart has turned to stone and you need a film to reach inside you and move something, go see Les Miserables.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

I've been meaning to get around to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin for a while now, and I honestly picked up the Left Hand of Darkness half out of a sense of obligation.  It's one of those books I knew I should read, which doesn't always translate into books I want to read.  [1. I feel the same way about Ender's Game, by the way, which I'm reading now because my little brother insisted.] I'm really glad I read this, though.  And I'm eager to read more of Le Guin's work.[2. Which won't be for a while, because the next twenty or so books I'm reading are all by teachers at this year's Clarion, in case I get in.]

The general idea of the story is:  Genly Ai, a human male envoy (the "first mobile") has come to a planet, Gethen, populated by a species of human that doesn't have two sexes, and doesn't have a gender binary.  A big part of the appeal of this book is the astounding quality of the thought experiment, what would civilization be like without a sex divide?  But that's not all worth reading in it.

Not totally spoilery content below, but with more information about what the book contains past the first couple chapters.

For clarity, I should explain:  any given Gethenian is usually -- not asexual, but sexually dormant, and during their sexually active period may shift into either a male or female role.  They neither have control over which way they shift on any given period of sexual activity, nor only ever shift into one sex or the other for their entire lives.  If a Gethenian takes on the female role in one particular period of sexual activity, they may become pregnant, and for nine months plus nursing time their body remains more in a state like femaleness.  This isn't a species with secret genders only expressed sometimes, it's a species where everyone has the same relationship to their sexual and procreative organs as everyone else.

It's genuinely striking, when you read this book, to keep noticing that it feels like half of a species is missing.  Everyone is treated equally as full members of society, and you feel that sense that there's a second class missing.  Genly consistently fails to acclimate to the fundamental differences between Gethenian civilizations and ours, and so did I.  In that sense, it's very illustrative of humans' internalized sexism.[3. At first I wrote "Actual humans," but I don't want to suggest that the Gethenians aren't human.  I was going for "non-fictional" but fell short.]

But I don't want to go on forever about the gender identity part of the book.  I hope you read it, and everything I say about it will detract from its impact when you do.

The thing I liked best about the book, I think, was the backstory about how Genly got there.   He represented the Ekumen, an interplanetary organization that primarily focused on organizing trade.  Every planet they represented, though, was populated by humans, and every one discovered the way that Gethen was discovered, populated by humans of some kind or another.

The universe, we discover, was subject to some great trauma, and at some point before that, there were people who went to planets and abandoned groups of humans.  Genly thinks it's likely that the Gethenians were an experiment performed by some unethical group, to remove sexual differentiation from humanity, populate a planet with them, and see what happens.

The narrative of the book comes entirely through two perspectives, Genly's field notes and the journal of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, as well as a handful of stories from the Genethian oral tradition.  I didn't really expect it to be, but the story that these narratives end up telling is enthralling in its own right.  I was about two thirds of the way through the book before I realized that I cared more about what was going to happen to and between Genly and Estraven than I did about learning more about Gethen.

Altogether this is an incredibly good book, and I recommend it highly, and look forward to when I'm going to have the time to give it a second read.

 

Review: Pirate Cinema

Okay so first of all, I read this book for free, thanks to Cory Doctorow's policy of posting all of his books free online. I decided that I'm going to buy a copy, and since I've already read it and can get the text online whenever I want, I'm going to take Doctorow's suggestion on his website and buy a copy for a school.  Y'know, when I have money.  It's on the list. Pirate Cinema is a fantastic novel.  It's about a teenager in England who gets his family kicked off the internet for making fan videos about his favorite actor.  In order to spare his family the shame and risk of a pirate son, he runs off to London to live on the streets -- where everything goes pretty well.

I mean, he's homeless, and he suffers some serious consequences for that fact.  But this novel is just a little bit optimistic, and a lot  aspirational -- this is a book about teenagers doing amazing things.  I love books about teenagers who do amazing things.

It gets a little preachy at times, which is fine with me because I like preachy and I agree with the message -- it's definitely a political novel.  But it's the best kind of political writing -- the kind that makes clear the fact that the small-seeming decisions made by big governments pretty much always mean life or death to someone, somewhere.

Check it out, for free or for money.

Review: Flight

Everything is spoilers. So first of all Denzel Washington is a great actor and I've never seen him be bad in anything.  This movie was no exception -- if you're looking for a good movie re:actors, Flight nails it.

But I think this is the second time in a row Denzel Washington has tricked me into watching a religious movie.  I mean, the commercials made it clear that this movie had a lot to do with alcoholism.  They did not make it at all clear, though, that it was about the struggle between drug abuse and salvation through God.  It was basically an ad for AA.

(The other movie I'm referencing, by the way, is The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic action movie in which (SPOILER!) It turns out the book is the Bible, and it magically grants the main character the ability to survive all sorts of ridiculous challenges as though he were sighted.

Last note:  The lawyer is great.  Seriously, Don Cheadle is awesome.

Review and Commentary: Wreck-It Ralph

Quick review:  nearly everything about this movie is awesome.  It's fun, light, emotional rollercoster, life-affirming, optimistic and morally complex.  There are some elements that are problematic, and I'll get to that.  But I want to start by talking about the stuff I love.  Spoilers starting out below the fold.

From a writer's perspective, Wreck-It Ralph is incredible.  Every beat of the movie, every sudden dramatic moment, is perfectly set up by the characters and their setting.  The best things about Ralph -- his optimism, aspiration, and  good nature -- cause his biggest problems -- nearly getting his game shut off, destroying Vannelope's car.  And the reveal at the end, that King Candy was Turbo, came out of nowhere, and made absolute sense.  (I had thought it was just going to turn out that King Candy wanted to race, but had been programmed as an NPC.)

From an emotional perspective, this movie had me in tears more than once, for more than one reason.  If I had been watching it at home, I probably would have paused to finish weeping before getting back to the movie -- for that reason, I recommend seeing it in the theater, where you'll be forced to get the whole experience all at once.  It's worth it.

Moving on to the problematic stuff:

Wreck-It Ralph passes the Bechdel Test:  the other Sugar Racers, predominantly female, talk to Vannelope about whether she can race, and Vannelope and Calhoun are both strong women.  But for the most part, women are not represented well.  All the characters with aspirations beyond their programming are male -- Ralph wants to be accepted by the community of his game, Felix wants to impress Calhoun.  She, by the way, has the darkest backstory, like, ever, which (a.) illuminates her motivation as being down to a man's intervention, and (b.) manages to contextualize her strength as a type of weakness.

I'm not saying this movie is the worst representation of women in media right now, but it's not exactly breaking ground in that area.

This movie also comes off a bit like propaganda for the status quo.  Let's take a look, for example, at the Bad Guy Mantra:

I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

There's a page on TVTropes called Villains Act, Heroes React.  (It turns out, the one called Status Quo Is God is not as relevant to this argument.)  It describes the tendency, in heroic plots, for the villain to do all the trying to change things, and the hero to do all the trying to keep things the same.  The villain's plan is usually awful, and it's good that they're being stopped.  But eventually it starts to feel like the point is "Change is bad."

In Wreck-It Ralph, the worst kind of people are people who compromise the playability of their game, and you compromise the playability of your game by changing things.  Even when Ralph does make a big change (in Sugar Rush) it's only okay when it's made clear that he's restoring an older, truer status quo.

Now, I don't mind the lesson that the way for things to be better is for everyone to accept and celebrate each other's value, as the NPCs in Fix-It Felix accept and celebrate Ralph at the end.  And, I recognize that this lesson is implicit in the premise -- an arcade game can't change how it works spontaneously, so the premise can't allow for that.

But that's just one way to phrase the lesson at the end -- another easy way to phrase it is "Know your place."  There's something a little bit dark about a world where the life of a villain is so consistently miserable that they need a support group to get through it, but have to keep that lifestyle, even though it's unrewarding, or their home will be destroyed for them, and everyone else who lives in that game.

The Newsroom: My Thoughts

I've been trying hard to organize my thoughts about The Newsroom;  I seriously enjoy watching it (something I'll say several times in this post) but I knew it had been panned in the press, and Jay Smooth had some mean things to say about it, and amid what NPR's Linda Holmes describes, "Hearing a Sorkin character forcefully argue something you believe to be true is like bathing in a tub full of champagne while you listen to a CD of affirmations called You Are Great And Smart, And No One Understands You," there's an overwhelmingly uncomfortable sub-... Something. And that's what I keep slamming into.  It's not subtext, it's not a double meaning.  And it's certainly not the deep, pervasive cynicism of the show.  That, I'm fine with.  And it isn't the preachyness.  I love that, too.

But I think I've figured it out.  It's the nostalgia.

A Love Letter to the Great Men of History

The show opens with a beautiful rant, inspired by Will McAvoy hallucinating his ex in the audience[1. I know that (SPOILER!) it turned out she was actually there, but I liked it way better when I thought he was imagining it.].  The first half of the rant is awesome.  He rattles off all the statistics that I wish were printed in a column on the front of every issue of every newspaper.  Especially the thing about the defense budget.

Then he starts talking about the way things used to be.  When we "Never beat our chests," and "Acted like men," and "Aspired to intelligence," and "Didn't scare so easy."

The show has rightly been called on how much bull████ that second half is made of.  The past was not a superior time, we were not a better country back then.  Although, in episode three, they do start to defend the claims in what I think is a pretty coherent way.  And, again, I seriously enjoy watching this show.

MacAvoy, the great hero of the show, is sexist, racist and xenophobic, and MacKenzie's glowing endorsement that he's secretly a nice guy doesn't really make up for that fact.  It hurts, too, that the structure of the show supports that mythos.  You can pretty well rank the importance of the characters by arranging them by distance from the pinnacle, white-male-anglo-American.

It also portrays positive movement in news as a strictly backward trajectory.  I'm glad that someone mentioned WikiLeaks, but the fact that it was Neal, the Indian guy who writes McAvoy's blog (to his shock and disgust), and in the context of Jim (the white, male Batman producer) mocking him for suggesting that the internet is important.  Meanwhile, the model for the new program is Appeal to the Transcendent Model of the Great Men of Brodacasting History.

 On the other hand...

I mentioned the bull████ about the greatness of American history earlier.  But I also mentioned about episode three, where McAvoy points out to his boss, Charlie Skinner, who is easily my favorite character so far, that even at the height of the Hippie movement, the mainstream Democratic candidates were not interested in associating themselves with the Hippie leadership.

This is contrasted with the Tea Party, which now actively gets elected around the country.  I believe that McAvoy and Sorkin are right to raise the alarm, and to point out that this is something new.  Or, at least, something that hasn't happened lately, and should be getting more negative attention than it is.  I hope that the Tea Party aren't the major targets of the whole show, but it was a good defense of a hypothetically better past.

And the past they refer to in the show seems to focus more on the methodology than on the facts of the environment.  In many cases, McAvoy and Skinner seem to be nostalgic, not for a time when everything in America was awesome, but for a time when America was not so divided, when the methods by which change occurred were more organized, and better suited to rooting out bad change.

Indeed, the correlation between heightening scientific and philosophical understanding and heightening coherency in legislation seems to have... well, drooped.  Things may not have been better in the past America they're nostalgic for, but they were at least worse in ways that were proportional to their historical context.

In Conclusion

The Newsroom is not the greatest show in history, but it's a good show.  I seriously enjoy watching it, and I think that its arguments are more cogent than not -- and more cogent than many of the critics are saying.

I hope that in future episodes, the show gets more optimistic about the internet, and takes on the entertainment industry, copyright law, and student debt.  I hope the non-white and the non-male characters get fleshed out better, and get treated with a little more complexity, and I hope Jim ████s up, in a meaningful way, at least once -- and gets called on it.

I don't think there's much hope of getting away from the show's fetish for the Great Man, but I can suck that up.  It's a narrative thing, anyway.[2.  Not that narrative isn't important.  Narrative is the most important thing.]  And I'm not bothered by its preachyness, or the past-setting, "This is how the story should have been" mechanism.  If the show's going to help present-day viewers become informed, it needs to give them the appropriate context about where our country is and how it got there.

So, I recommend it.  It's clever and informative and truer than the news media is likely to admit (though it's not  totally true) and its cynicism is well-earned by its setting.  And I seriously enjoy watching it.

SWG: How'd you like that book? Star Wars: Red Harvest

Greetings! Today is your first taste of the Star Wars Geek "How'd you like that book?" In a pact I've made with myself, much like Watson has done, I plan to review every book that passes under my nose!

...assuming it's a Star Wars book. I mean, I could review the other stuff too, but that'd be hardly keeping in theme.

C'mon.

Stop looking at me like that[1. Yes, I'm battling my conscience here.]...

Sigh, alright, I'll review every book I read. They're 90% Star Wars anyway[2. Which may not be the case for the rest of this summer as I've mostly read through my latest binge purchase, and they only write new SW books so fast.]. To pace myself, these posts will come on Sundays, and only if I'm really on a roll would I think of posting two in a given week (I'll stagger post them on that Sunday). To clarify, with my schedual, don't expect one of these every week, either.

So, Star Wars Geek, how did you like...

Star Wars: Red Harvest by Joe Schreiber

Star Wars: Red Harvest is the second Star Wars horror novel. It is set 3,645 BBY and is a prequel to the first Star Wars horror novel, Death Troopers, which takes place 1 BBY. Let me say up front that I don't normally read horror. Nor do I watch horror movies. This I attribute to not getting scared by such things very easily[3. At all, really.], and with out that element horror doesn't seem to hold much else[4. I do love psychological thrillers.].

One of the greatest things about Star Wars, is it offers so many different genres packed into another genre. From romance[5. Not strickly the kind of romance paperback you find at the pharmacy, but it's definitely a love story first.], to action adventure, to... well, ok, it's mostly action adventure, but there are definitely departures into other avenues here and there, and this is one.

That being said, this book gets a thumbs down: there were flaws in the writing, particularly when locating characters during a scene which could be disorienting, I didn't really feel attached to the characters (and therefore didnt feel concerned at their danger), and it felt like a rehash of the book it was supposed to set up, but with less credulity. Analysis below fold.

Review with spoilers continues below the fold.

One problem that I had with Red Harvest was that I'd already read Death Troopers. Don't get me wrong, I thought Death Troopers was cool. But the two books share a trait which as a reader I find profoundly off-putting, which is that people drop like flies. You better not be hoping to see some of these characters get fleshed out, because most of them don't last that long. Even the dramatis personae seems to be trying to trick you into thinking some of these characters are important by listing them in the first place, when one or two die pretty much on their first or second appearance.

The problem with gratuitous killing is that it destroys suspense. If you think a character is going to die, then you aren't apt to get attached to them or care if they are suddenly in mortal peril because you start getting really good at predicting what is going to happen: gorey death a or gorey death b.

The writing itself wasn't spectacular, and though there were moments where the voice and tone I had hoped for (a sort of creepy unease) were there, the feeling wasn't global. There also weren't any stylistic clues to make this feel like an Old Republic novel. While there isn't a ton of consistancy in the Old Republic as to in what ways people speak differently given the several thousand years of separation from the classic era, (let's face it, people even speak a little differently in the prequel era, and that is only 20-30 years before the OT[6. Original Trilogy]), as a reader I like if at least the colloquialisms don't come across like this is set in contemporary America.

Getting over that complaint, the prose could be pretty, but wasn't beautiful. There was good use of metaphorical language, for instance, "On either side, shelves were shuddering and collapsing with frightening speed, dumping their contents like squadrons of firey angels falling into the abyss."

However, I found myself repeatedly being disoriented by a lack of spatial description, which in the end was the most condemning part of the writing for me. Take for instance this passage, about halfway through the novel,

Trace staggered forward, waving away the smoke in front of his eyes. From here, he saw a gaping hole that the tree had torn through the library's outter wall, and through it, the frozen surface of Odacer-Faustin's snow covered landscape. He could already hear the hiss of steam as the flaming architecture met the sub-zero air outside.

Help me...

Trace felt his sister's scream go burning throughout his entire body. This wasn't just an impression, some random emotional flash--he actually felt her pain as it wrenched through his right arm, throbbing into his shoulder and chest, blasting up to the roots of his teeth. Tears boiled up in his eyes and the wind whipped them away. His legs went numb and he stumbled, almost falling over in the snow. [empasis mine]

Now, at no point did it describe him leaving, and there was no snow inside the library. If it is unclear if he actually left, another paragraph later we get, "He took a step back to the burning hall of the library." Now, if this had been an isolated incidence, I probably would've stumbled a little then continued on my merry way, but alas, this happened consistantly throughout the novel.

While I can understand some scenes require a certain amount of confusion and disorientation, particularly when the section's narrator is undergoing just that, having it all over the place, and often where it doesn't even follow the from the narrative is just bad writing. It's an easy fix to add one sentace saying, "He stepped out of the library through the hole," or whatever may be appropriate.

My other complaint is that this is a book where zombies do battle with an entire Sith academy, and win. While the book does suggest these aren't creatures to be trifled with, I felt like the reaction of standing back and screaming wasn't what I expected from people who have the power to crush the decomposing zombies with their minds. That is where Death Troopers really had more credibility, as I expect a prison barge with minimal gaurds to go to hell in a heartbeat with zombies on board.

To be fair, the penultimate chapters actually did pique my interest and concern level with the remaining characters, and even had me sympathizing with a couple of the characters briefly. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.

In the end, I have to give this book a 2 out of 5, and reccomend that if you're in the mood for some SW horror, check out Death Troopers, which I enjoyed more (even though it wasn't my cup of tea.)

Until next time, May the Force be with you, -Michael DiTommaso, the Star Wars Geek