Friday, January 30, 2015

A Shot in the Light: parts I-IV (a book review post)

You can find my review for part one, "A Flock of Ill Omens," here.
You can find my review for part two, "In Short Supply," here.
I had intended to review parts three and four separately, but, before I got finished with part three, the individual parts became unavailable, so I'll be reviewing the first collection with a focus on parts three and four, since I haven't talked about them, yet.

The first thing I want to note is that the editing fell into a sinkhole or something somewhere between parts two and three. I believe that I noted in my review of part one that it was pretty clean but, by part three, it was like having the maid who doesn't do windows. In other words, the grammar and punctuation errors started getting in my way of seeing the view. Now, I will admit, editing issues stand out more to me the less I'm enjoying something or, to put it another way, I more easily overlook those kinds of copy-editing issues when the story is compelling. There was nothing here by part three to keep me from noticing every single error, some of them the kind of errors that shouldn't have existed to begin with. Example: Periods and commas NEVER fall on the outside of a quotation mark. If you look above to the links I've included, you can see that the commas, even though they are not part of the titles, are within the quotes. That's the proper way to do it. That should be a simple thing, and the increasing volume of people punctuating only outside of quotation marks is becoming troubling, and it's not something I expect to find in the work of an experienced author.

The other thing that was tiresome was the overuse of the past perfect and past perfect continuous verb tenses. I'm not sure exactly when this started happening, but I started noticing it in part three. The chapters started beginning with these elaborate thought flashbacks of everything that had been happening to the character since the last time we'd seen that character. For instance:
He'd left the apartment before everybody got up, deciding there was no better time to get the lay of the land. He'd started with Fort McPherson, an Army base he'd been to for Special Forces training twice upon a time, so the sense of familiarity had given him an advantage when he went to see what was going on.... Once he'd made his way onto the grounds, he'd stood in the trees to watch for a long time.
That goes on for almost that entire chapter, telling us everything very passively after the fact. This is the very definition of "telling" and not showing. There's no tension, because we know everything already happened from the character's perspective and he's just thinking through it all. Not to mention that passive storytelling just grows boring after a while.

 And I'm not even going to mention the fact that "army" and "special forces" shouldn't be capitalized. Oh, wait...

Now, I'm going to jump back to an issue I mentioned in part one, because it comes up again part three: the use of bug bombs to sterilize living environments. It bothered me when it was done in part one because, really? I mean, don't you think that if we could use bug bombs to kill viruses on open surfaces that we would be using bug bombs to kill viruses? By "we," I mean hospitals and health care people. For all I know, there are "normal" people out there who do use bug bombs in this way, and I bet they wonder why they still get sick. But I digress. After it happened in part one, it was possible that it was a misconception of the specific character; I didn't believe that, but it was possible. In part three, some other character wants to do the same thing, so it became apparent that it was an author issue as it seems to be common knowledge among all of the characters (who are all supposed to be intelligent and accomplished). This kind of research flub really bothers me.

And it's not the only one.

Also back in part one, one of the characters finds an office complex full of people who died from the flu. It was like they all got sick at once and died before any of them could get home. Or to a hospital. Or anything. This is after the author has already shown us other people with the flu being sick for long periods before succumbing, so I didn't understand why would have this building full of dead people. But I reserved judgement on that in case there was something else going on. However, by part three, finding office complexes full of dead people has become kind of normal, and it makes me wonder, again, if the author did any research beyond watching The Walking Dead. People don't get the flu and drop dead from it a few hours later. Employers don't keep people at work who are puking and running high fevers. This idea that there would be whole office complexes of people who died because they got too sick to leave is just.. wrong. Poison gas, maybe, but not any kind of disease. Biology just doesn't work that way.

On top of the scientific inaccuracies, one of the main ways the author moves the plot forward is by having the (supposedly intelligent) characters repeatedly doing stupid things. Like sneaking out alone. In fact, in part four, every main character but one sneaks off alone at some point and, each time, something bad happens. It became too much for me and, again, made me think of shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad where stupidity is substituted in for personality so that the author(s) can move the plot forward. That was actually the breaking point for me, that all of these characters kept doing this stuff. Actually, it was all because of one character: Sydney. She sneaks out after someone else who has sneaked out, and she has no good reason to do it. The author prompted her by giving her a "bad feeling," but it was so that she would be there to rescue Theo when the bad stuff started happening. Sorry (not sorry), but I hate contrived plot points.

Honestly, it was a struggle for me to get through part four of A Shot in the Light. I only did it because I had previously stated that I would give it through part four. All of the issues with the story that I mentioned in my first two reviews are still present along with the issues that have been added in. So that's it for me. I won't be continuing to the next part or collection or whatever is next.

I will point out again, though, that the writing is fast-paced and there's a lot going on in the story. For most people, the grammar/punctuation issues are not going to be a problem. And, maybe, details like the bug bombs won't be an issue for most people, too. Based on the other reviews for "A Flock of Ill Omens," I have to assume that that is so. I do have a mild curiosity as to what is going on "big picture" in the book, but it's not enough to prompt me to struggle through the rest of the series.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Whiplash (a movie review post)

This is the kind of movie that might mean something if it was based on something that actually happened but, as it is, it's almost meaningless. Which is not to say that the message -- greatness comes from adversity -- isn't true, but making up a story to prove your premise doesn't prove anything. I mean, I could make up a story to "prove" that eating spinach gives you massive forearms, but it doesn't mean anything without something real or true to back it up. So, you know, great: A fictional kid becomes a great drummer because a fictional band director is a supreme asshole to him.

And I'm not trying to knock the impact of a fictional story, but it usually helps if your protagonist isn't also an asshole if you want the story to be "inspirational." It also helps when the crisis moment is at least remotely believable. So let's walk through that. Yes, there will be spoilers.

Andrew has worked his ass off to get the drum part for a significant competition. He is by far the best player, but the director, Fletcher, is threatening to give the part to someone else in order to get Andrew to be even better. So far so good.

On the way to the performance, the bus Andrew has taken gets a flat tire which makes him late. This is awfully convenient (read: contrived), but it does happen. I suppose it does, anyway. In all my years of riding school buses (similar in most respects to paid public transportation), we never once had a flat tire. I did have a couple of buses break down, though, so I'll concede the possibility, We're still okay.

Andrew, in an effort to make the performance on time, runs to a conveniently located (convenient in that he could get to it on foot) car rental place. Okay, so I have a bit more of an issue with this. In my experience, car rental places aren't just scattered around randomly like gas stations. We're beginning to stretch things, but I'll still go along.

Andrew leaves his (drum) stick case at the rental agency.

Andrew gets to the place where they are performing. He's past call time, but he's in time to play for the performance. Fletcher is pissed that Andrew's later and threatens to give the part to another of the drummers. They have an argument, but Fletcher, evidently, agrees to let Andrew play... except that Andrew doesn't have his sticks, and Fletcher refuses to let him borrow some from one of the other students. He may play if he can be back with his sticks in five minutes.

Okay, I have a really difficult time accepting this bit. Fletcher wants to win the competition. He is completely about winning. Andrew is by far his best drummer (probably his best musician), but he's going to let someone else play instead? It just doesn't fit with Fletcher's personality. He would wait until after the performance to punish Andrew for his tardiness rather than risk losing the competition.

At any rate, Andrew dashes back to the car, speeds back to the rental place, grabs his bag, and speeds back... and he has a car accident. A bad one. The car rolls several times and stops upside down. Yet, Andrew crawls from the wreckage, covered in blood, and runs, sort of, the last few blocks to where they are performing. And I'll give them that. As unlikely as it is, sometimes people do do extraordinary things. However, it completely falls apart after that...

Andrew is bleeding from his head, blood is dripping off of one hand, and his clothes are ripped and shredded. In short, he looks like he was just in a car accident. He makes it all the way through the building without anyone stopping him. He makes it onto the stage without anyone stopping him...
Wait a minute. His band is already on stage, evidently, just waiting for him. During a competition, the band is sitting there with no one at the drums just waiting for... him.
1. Um, we're supposed to assume that the judges are just waiting patiently for some indefinite amount of time for the late drummer to show up. The drummer who ran out of time before he even made it back to the car rental agency.
2. We're supposed to assume that Fletcher did not put in one of the reserve drummers he had on hand. One of them was good. Not as good as Andrew, but he was good. That we're supposed to believe this of Fletcher, that he is just waiting for Andrew, is even more unbelievable than that the judges are waiting for Andrew.
3. When Andrew walks onto the stage, covered in blood, no one interferes. He just goes and sits down at the drums and starts playing. No one -- NO ONE! -- is like, "Dude! You're covered in blood! What happened? What are you doing?" Not any of his bandmates, not Fletcher, not any of the judges or any of the people watching. Um, I'm sorry... That's insane that we're expected to believe that he just walks out onto the stage in that condition and no one stops the proceedings to see what's going on.
4. Andrew isn't able to keep up; he's dripping blood all over the drums; he drops one of the sticks and has trouble retrieving it. Finally Fletcher does something. He comes over and orders Andrew off the stage. Not nicely. I don't care how big of an asshole you are; if your best drummer is bleeding out on stage, you have more concern than to come over and yell him off the stage.
5. Andrew loses it, about the only thing in this sequence that makes any sense, and attacks Fletcher right there on the stage in front of everyone. And gets expelled for it. What? Seriously? We're expected to believe that a kid who was just in a car accident, bleeding from a head wound, and was just screamed at by his director during a performance got kicked out of school for losing control?

Basically, this whole sequence dance along the Cliff of Belief like a blind man, almost falling, almost falling, almost falling until, finally, falling right down into the Sea of Disbelief far below. Nothing that comes after this really works, including the scene where they are convincing Andrew to testify (for lack of a better word) against Fletcher about his abusive ways. So they know they way Fletcher treated people and they still expelled Andrew? Riiight...

So, yeah... I really couldn't buy into the movie. I get that music is competitive and can be harsh, but, honestly, Damien Chazelle has admitted to basing Fletcher on one of his band directors, so the whole thing comes of as sort of a bitter, "You wrecked my life," kind of thing. I don't feel bad for him, nor did I fee bad for Andrew. Andrew was an arrogant asshole. And, well, if the point of the movie is that you only become great through adversity, then we see that Chazelle gave up and walked away from music. As the movie points out, if you become discouraged enough to abandon the thing you love, you were never meant to be great, anyway, so Chazelle needs to just get over it.

Oh, and the recurring story about Charlie Parker (an actual jazz player) isn't accurate. Chazelle re-wrote that to fit his movie.

All of that said, J. K. Simmons is fantastic as Fletcher. He is the kind of villain that you hate and respect at the same time. Then hate some more. The best supporting actor nomination for him is well-deserved.

Miles Teller is also pretty good. Not great, but he was good. And good at not being likable. Even when wanting him to succeed, you also wanted him to fail. Basically, it's a movie of not likable characters. The only two people in the movie who are decent human beings are Andrew's father and Andrew's (short-lived) girlfriend.

It's not a movie I would recommend to, well, anyone, and it doesn't belong on the best picture nomination list. It's more deserving than The Theory of Everything, but that's not saying much.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The New Face of Addiction and Why We Need To Stop the War on Drugs

First, let me just say, that I am not "for" drugs. I barely drink (and was well over 30 before I ever had any alcohol at all), have never smoked (anything), and am fairly resistant to taking even painkillers (which my wife thinks is insane). Basically, unless the doctor has told me to take it, I'm not much for putting drugs into my body. I'm part of the "war on drugs" culture that came out of the 80s. You know, that whole egg-frying-in-a-pan-that's-really-your-brain thing.


We have the wrong idea about addiction and what it means, and the way we've been warring against drugs for the past few decades obviously hasn't worked. Of course, most people, especially old, rich, white dudes in politics strongly believe in doing the same thing over and over and over and over with the hope that, at some point, it will suddenly work. Einstein's definition of insanity.

For a long time, we've know that some personalities are more prone to addiction than others, you know, weak people. At least that's how we've always termed it culturally. Weak people are poor people, usually minorities, who are unable to enrich themselves, living destitute lives hooked on drugs and alcohol. If only they were better, stronger people, they wouldn't have problems with the drugs.

But that's all wrong, and that's not what it means when we say that some personalities are more prone to addiction than others. [For a discussion of personality, you can take a look at my "Exploring Personality" series.] Now, I'm not going to get all clinical, and I'm not going to cite a bunch of studies and include a lot of links that no one is going to look at anyway. This is going to be a very general overview of some recent studies and what I think they mean. So, sure, the conclusions are my own, but I think they are valid.

One thing we know is that some people are more prone to addiction than others, but let me re-frame that statement:
Under the right conditions, all people are prone to addiction. Some people are more prone, but all people are susceptible. And it doesn't even have to do with the actual drugs.

See, if you put a rat, alone, in a small cage with nothing in it but the rat, well, it doesn't make the rat happy. If you hang a bottle of water on one side of the cage and a bottle of drug-spiked water on the other side of the cage, guess which water the rat will drink. It doesn't take long before you have one addicted little rat. And I hear you thinking, "But that's just a rat..."
Wait! There's more!

If you have another cage, a large, comfortable cage full of fun, little rat toys and a whole community of rats and you have the same two bottles of water, guess what happens. The rats almost never become addicted. Some of them, sometimes, will sample the drug water, evidently just for the experience of it, but it doesn't become a cage full of drug-addicted rats. It's kind of the definition of recreational drug use. All of them try it but, mostly, they just ignore it.

What you can take from this is how rats react to their environments. Rats in a negative environment -- alone in a cramped little cage with no stimulation -- will becomes addicts if given accessibility to drugs. Rats in a positive environment -- plenty of social opportunity and things to keep them busy -- will almost never become addicts even with easy access to drugs. The reality of the situation is that it's not the drugs that are the problem; it's the environment.

Now, if you take an addicted rat, and not just an addicted rat, a heavily addicted rat, and take him out of his cramped, little cage and put him in the other cage, the one with all the rat friends and toys, a very unexpected thing happens: The rat kicks its addiction. It almost immediate, in fact. Some of them have to deal with withdrawal symptoms, but, pretty much, they just stop the drugs. Even though the drugs are right there in front of them, they give them up. Not some of the rats. All of the rats.

Because the addiction stems from the poor environment and the brain's search for (for lack of a better all-encompassing term) stimulation, not the drugs. The drugs are just the tool the brain uses to deal with what is, basically, a trap. But you take away the trap and you give the rat freedom and options and a social environment and you take away the "need" for the drug and the brain just says, "That's enough."

Do you know what this tells me? It tells me that people with addiction problems are suffering from the same condition as the rat in the tiny cage. They feel trapped and the drugs are the way they cope. We've been trying to solve the problem by taking away the drugged water supply, but the problem is that there are too many bottles of drugged water for us to ever get rid of them all. You take one down, and someone else comes by and hangs another in the same spot. Or we take the person out of the tiny cage and put him in a slightly better cage with only plain water to drink (rehab) until he breaks the addiction but, after that, we drop him right back into the cage he was in before. It's nearly impossible to break the addiction cycle with these methods.

You know what would break the cycle and cause people to just drop their addictions? If we took the billions and billions of dollars we spend on the "war  on drugs" and used it to help build better environments for the people struggling with addiction. Which includes helping them to find some purpose and work they find meaningful. They'll give up the drugs on their own that way.

We will never win the war on drugs by trying to bring down drug dealers and take down drug lords in other countries. There's too much money to be made. The only way to break the cycle is to remove the need the for the addiction.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Selma (a movie review post)

I have to wonder if it's the historical controversies over this movie that have caused it to be so overlooked by the Academy. Not that that has stopped them from being all over movies like The Imitation Game but, then, those are less controversial controversies. Yeah, I know Selma got a best picture nomination, but that seems almost as if it was only a token nomination (because they had to) rather than any serious consideration of the film.

The thing is, I think the controversies, especially the ones around LBJ, have to do with perspective rather than actual fact. In other words, both sides are correct and both sides are wrong. Sure, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act and not even against his will, but that doesn't mean he didn't also act as an impediment to King. That's really the kind of thing that depends upon which side of the fence you're on. It's an awfully small thing to be arguing about in a film like this.

And what kind of a film is this? Well, it's everything that 12 Years a Slave was not. Where 12 Years is emotionally distant, Selma is emotionally gripping. Where 12 Years is brutally graphic, Selma shies away from actual depictions of violence. The club goes up, but you rarely see where it falls. What you do see is the aftermath and the emotional turmoil. You see purposeful, personal, systematic persecution of a people rather than the rather impersonal depiction of slavery from 12 Years and the isolated vendetta-style conflict. In Selma, it's not someone with a chip on his shoulder abusing a loan slave, it's a culture of persecution against a race. It's deliberate and it's illegal, and it was maddening to watch the injustice. Selma shines a bright light on what was a culture of intolerance and ignorance.

Look, I grew up in the South, and this movie made me wish that I had been alive in the 60s and could have marched with King myself.

That David Oyelowo was overlooked for a best actor nomination is frustrating at the very least. That Eddie Redmayne received one for sitting in a chair is an injustice. As far as I can tell from what people who know have been saying, Oyelowo was pretty spot on and, from the clips I've heard of King speaking, it sounded to me as if he nailed it. What I do know for sure, though, is that he nailed the speaking style of the Southern black preacher. I've been to some of those Southern Baptist meetings with black preachers, and Oyelowo, when he is delivering King's speeches, would have fit in flawlessly. It's also worth noting how monotone Oyelowo was when he was practicing those speeches to himself, but it was a tremendous transformation when he moved in front of a crowd.

The other acting is also great. Tom Wilkinson was spectacular as LBJ, as was Dylan Baker as Hoover. I have a fondness for Wendell Pierce and really enjoyed him as Rev. Williams. And Tim Roth... well, I wanted to punch him in his big, old nose. He needed someone to punch it. Stephen Root is also always good, and we didn't get less than we expected. Carmen Ejogo was also good as King's wife, but I don't actually think that one was an Oscar performance... except when you see that Felicity Jones was nominated; Ejogo was at least as good as Jones.

On top of everything else, though, the movie is timely in its relation to how you deal with terrorism, because that's what had been going on in the South for 100 years. I don't remember the exact quote, but there is a conversation between King and another man while they are in jail, the gist of which was something along the lines of standing up for your rights as a person and how to deal with the fact that the people who have been keeping you down will continue to try to knock you down. You just stand up again. It really resonated with what Charb said about dying on your feet rather than living on your knees. Some of King's followers did die, but they died on their feet for something they believed in, and it allowed those that came after them to start out on their feet. It's a powerful message.

Monday, January 19, 2015

You Can't Expect Better

Working with teenagers can be... Let's just say it can be interesting. They can be very creative, often in ways that will get them in trouble. Often in ways they know will get them in trouble because they're coming up with creative ways to do things they know they're not supposed to do. Fortunately, it's only very rarely that they come up with some brand new way to get into trouble. Usually, they're just re-inventing the wheel and doing the kinds of things we did when we were kids. Like telling your parents that you're sleeping over at someone else's house while that person tells his parents that he's sleeping over at your house.

Not that I ever did that. Or anything, really. Because I was the "good kid" who never got in trouble. But I had friends who did things and, mostly, what they wanted from me was to cover for them, because, hey, if I said it, it must be true. "Good kid," remember? My parents never had to bother with giving me a curfew, because I never stayed out late.

As I have mentioned before, I spent more than a few years working as a youth pastor. I learned very early on to be completely explicit with expectations and consequences. If you're not completely explicit, teenagers will try to get creative on you. Or, you know, tell you that you never said whatever it was you were trying to imply. When dealing with teens, never imply. Actually, when dealing with people, never imply. In general, leaving things to implication will never lead anywhere positive.

The first church I was youth pastor at after I moved out to CA didn't have its own building. The church rented space in a school auditorium for Sunday services. When I got there, that's all they had, Sunday services, and nothing specifically set up for the teenagers. As such, the youth group was very small. Less than a dozen kids and a significant portion of those were kids of the other staff. One of the first things I did was set up a midweek youth service that we had in the church offices, which were quite small. And, so, it didn't take us long to outgrow the space (we grew to over 30 kids within the first year I was there), which is when I had to start getting creative.

We moved to a house with a large living room that could fit everyone. The explicit rule was that once you got there, you stayed, a rule made after one of the girls turned 17, got a car for her birthday, and started using youth group as her excuse to go cruise. She'd show up for long enough to say she was there then cut and run. But it was still a house and had a more casual feel to it. People did things like ring the doorbell when they arrived, which was disruptive when they got there late.

So, one night, one particular girl -- she was 15 or 16 -- was sitting on the couch by the window, and she kept looking outside. A car pulled up and, before the person got all the way to the door, she jumped up to get it. As it turned out, it was her boyfriend and, instead of coming in, she went out, and they left. On Sunday after, I let her know that she couldn't back on Wednesday night, the explicit consequence, until I had had a meeting with her father about her behavior. My view was this: If you were going to leave in the middle, then you didn't want to be there. If you didn't want to be there, you didn't need to be there.

Let's just say there was wailing and gnashing of teeth.

During the meeting with her father (for which the pastor was also there, because this was a buddy of his), he said something along the lines of "Well, you can't expect better behavior than that. She's just a teenager." Basically, my daughter shouldn't suffer any consequences, because you can't expect her to act better than she is. I was blown away. I had never heard a parent say anything like that before.

After I finished staring, I said, "Actually, I most certainly can expect better behavior than that. In fact, I do expect better behavior than that, and the other 35 kids haven't had a problem living up to that expectation. You'll never get better behavior if you don't expect it." I believe that.

It was with some distress that I saw someone post on facebook last week that the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, basically, deserved what they got because they provoked terrorists and you can't expect terrorists to do more than kill you when you provoke them. Now, while it's true that teenagers will misbehave and, yes, terrorists will kill people, that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't expect better behavior.

After all, terrorists, just like teenagers, are people, and we should be able to expect better of people.

I mean, it hasn't really been that long since we had a significant issue with racial terrorism in the United States and, while that's not 100% solved, it's a lot better than it was. It's better because we, as a nation, expected better behavior. In fact, we demanded it. We had clear expectations and clear consequences. Maybe it's time that we, as a world people, did the same. Terrorism, whether it's racially motivated or politically motivated or religiously motivated or whatever, is unacceptable behavior. We expect better.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Theory of Everything (a movie review post)

I'll start by making it clear that I am not a Hawking fan. In general, I am not a fan of science that has a greater relation to the kind of "science" that Greek philosophers did than to actual science. But that has nothing to do with the movie, which is kind of unfortunate, actually, since the movie barely touched on anything to do with science other than that Hawking was working on his PhD in physics.

In fact, the movie doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. The trailers seemed to indicate the movie was going to be focusing in Hawking's survival of his early onset motor neuron disease, and, maybe, the movie looks like it's heading in that direction at one point. Hawking meets Jane (the movie opens with that), they fall in love, Hawking falls on his face and discovers he's going to die. He has two years. Jane proclaims, "We'll fight this together." And, well, that's it. They just glide on through and never mention the fact that Hawking failed to die or why he lived. So, basically, the thing that might have made the movie interesting is left behind as if it was nothing more than a conversation over breakfast, "Oh, and by the way, we'll fight your disease together. Have a good day at work doing physics."

I did become curious, though, as to why Hawking did survive, and I tried to find out, but there's not a lot out there on the subject, at least not any information that requires a lot more time to find than I was willing to put into it. Basically, though, it sounds like the general attitude is, "Oh, he just didn't die." Did he have better care (Jane) than other people? Was it love? Was it determination? Was it just that he's so smart? None of those things are touched on in the movie, and I didn't see anything in a quick survey about Hawking, either. He just lived. Kind of like Harry Potter.

As far as the movie goes, there was nothing compelling about it. It's not that it was boring (that would be something that could be said about it, at least), it just wasn't anything. If the power had gone out or the projector broken or, for any reason, the movie had to be stopped, I would not have felt enough interest to wonder what happened. When it comes down to it, more than anything else, the movie is about what a horrible deal Jane struck when she said she wanted whatever time she and Stephen would have together, but, then, she didn't expect that to be more than two years.

In effect, the movie is about the horrible marriage that seems so common amongst most couples and hardly needs to have Stephen Hawking in it to drive that point home. And if it has a point, it's probably during the fantasy sequence at the end where Hawking imagines himself walking again and gives his "where there is life, there is hope" speech. I don't think I needed a movie to make that point, and this movie certainly doesn't support that point. Not in any way that matters.

For some reason, people seem to think that Eddie Redmayne did some kind of spectacular job playing Hawking but, mostly, he just sat in a chair with a grin plastered to his face. To say that I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing impressive about this movie, least of all Redmayne's performance. As to why it's being considered for any kind of Oscar has everything to do with the person it's based on and nothing to do with the merits of the film, of which it has very few. This has Heath Ledger written all over it to me, i.e., getting an undeserved Oscar for which there would have been no nomination if he hadn't died. Not that Hawking is dead, but it's the same kind of sympathy.

Maybe, I'm a heartless person, but I don't have that kind of sympathy. Redmayne hasn't delivered an astounding performance, and people wouldn't think he had if he was playing someone we'd never heard of. But, you know, it's Hawking, and we all feel bad for Hawking, so "Oooh! He was so good!"
Sorry, I cry "Bullshit!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"I'd rather die standing..."

I suppose you could say that I was a real Looney Tunes fan when I was a kid. It came on at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, and I got up, religiously, to watch it. None of my friends did that. At best, they might catch one or two of the cartoons before it ended three hours later. Often, when I would spend the night at a friend's house, I'd be the only one up on Saturday morning, which is why I know none of my friends got up to watch cartoons that early. I'd only turn the TV on, with the sound down low, sitting close to it so that I could hear, and sit and watch Bugs, Wile E., and Yosemite Sam in someone else's still-sleeping house.

Oh, and Porky Pig. You know, the stuttering pig. Not one time in all of my childhood did I ever think that people who stutter were being made fun of because of Porky's stuttering. That did not stop a wave of protests throughout the 90s, though, against the pig and the removal (at least for a time) of Porky's famous closing line "Th-th-th-that's all folks!" Evidently, people (or pigs) who stutter were not considered good enough to be on TV. They might offend someone else with same condition. It's good no one ever told Mel Tillis.

We have become a culture too scared to give offense and too willing to be offended. Any hint of offense must be met with an immediate and very public apology. It's ridiculous and has moved into the realms of being an unhealthy obsession. This reluctance to offend has become the largest barrier to free speech in the world. We're too busy self-censoring to even know what free speech is. It's all about fear.

Maybe Porky is an extreme example but, seriously, being offended by an animated pig is pretty extreme. Probably, being offended by any cartoon is extreme. What a way to hand power over your life over to someone else. But I don't want to get side-tracked on the psychology of why people are blatantly offensive.

The actual issue is that when we all try so hard to never offend anyone and spare everyone's poor little feelings then, when there is someone who is willing to be offensive and ridicule things that probably ought to be ridiculed (because, honestly, more things probably ought to be ridiculed; anything that people treat as religion, in fact, from actual religion to money to sports teams), then that person stands out, way out, and stands out in that way can make him a target for retaliation from people who have given all of their power away.

The problem is that too many people, almost all people, just go along. It doesn't matter if it's wrong or right, they don't give things enough thought to ever get to that determination. Religious people are the worst. I say that as someone who grew up Baptist and worked in churches for years. I say that as someone who lost his first church position because he spoke out against something wrong the church leadership was doing. I say that as someone who was told, "Teenagers are not a priority for us because they don't bring in any money. Unless you can figure out how to get their parents to come to church [and tithe], we're not going to support the program [beyond being a babysitting service]." I say that as someone who is no longer associated with an organized church because every organized church I've been a part of has been more concerned with money than doing its job. No, wait, only concerned with money. The "job" was only a means to bringing in money.

But, then, churches are another of the places that are primarily concerned with taking people's power away from them. Satire, in that sense, can be a way to give that power back to the people.

Charlie Hebdo was not unknown to me before the attack on January 7. I didn't read it (because, well, French), but I agreed with its ideologies. I admired those men for continuing to publish despite the very real (as the massacre demonstrates) threat upon their lives. As Stephane Charbonnier said in 2012, "I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no children, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I'd rather die standing than live on my knees." That's not actually a new quote, the part about dying on one's feet. It goes back at least 200 years... to another Frenchman. People, some small group of people, have always been willing to stand up and die.

I can't say that I'm not afraid of retaliation. I have children. I have a wife. I even have a car, a house note, and a dog and a cat. But... But I would rather die standing than have my children live on their knees. The thing is, if more people would take that stance, the people who would kill wouldn't stand any kind of chance. But most people just stop at fear. And refusing to think.

Look, I get that Charlie Hebdo was irreverent, and I remember just how un-funny I found Bored of the Rings back when I was 14 or 15 and thought it would be a good idea to read it (but I was 14 or 15!), but!
When irreverence is seen as a justification for murder, there is no place left for reverence.

"I am Charlie."
"I am Ahmed."

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Is this a good place to stand?" (a Battle of Five Armies review)

It is not an illegitimate question to ask me why I saw this movie. I've not hid how much I disliked... no, loathed... the other two movies in this godforsaken trilogy that erupted from Peter Jackson's bowels (more on that in a moment), so why would I bother with this one? The answer is actually very simple: I don't earn the right to speak disparagingly about it without having seen it. It's much easier to give examples of why you don't like (hate) something than it is to defend your reasons for why you think you won't like something. There's no good response to, "But you haven't tried it."

As a related example:
My oldest son (both of my boys) detests the Hobbit movies. Not in his exact words, but he described it like this: Imagine the most beautiful bathroom in the world. Gorgeous. Marble and gold and perfumed. And it has a heated golden throne of a toilet. But, when you sit down to take a dump, it is still just a dump, and, specifically, The Battle of Five Armies is a slow motion movie of Peter Jackson on that beautiful, golden toilet in that gilded bathroom, taking a long, excruciating dump.

But he has this friend who is always attacking his position that, compared to the book, the movies are horrible. She loves the movies and thinks they are better than the book. The problem? She hasn't read the book. But she believes that since the movies have made so much money and that she likes them that that is proof enough that the book must really not be that good. And why bother with it, anyway, when she loves the movie so much? [Which goes back to what I said in my review of Desolation about kids not wanting to bother with the book because of the movie.] Her opinion, though, is ill informed and without authority.

So I went to see the movie so that I could have the freedom to talk about how stupid it all is.

And, this time, I'm not even going to mention the deviations from the book; I'm just going to talk about the blatant stupid of the movie. Which started immediately, I might add. There was so much stupid, in fact, that I lost count of the stupid before Smaug was even dead. Let's look at the big two:

1. Bard is left locked in prison as the dragon is attacking. Naturally, he's in a ragestorm trying to break his way out. But it's a good, solid prison, and he's having no luck. But he ends up with a rope that he's able to grapple a boat with. A very slow-moving boat because the boat is loaded down with gold and on the verge of sinking. And let me be clear: This is a boat being paddled by just a couple of dudes. Against all odds (and physics (maybe Peter Jackson has never been in a boat that was still tied to a dock)), rather than the boat stopping, the boat rips the wall out of the prison! Without even slowing down!

And just to continue the stupid of that scene, rather than go out the hole in the wall, Bard suddenly is able to punch a whole in the ceiling and go out that way instead.

2. During the battle, Bard's bow gets broken in half. How is he supposed to shoot the dragon out of the sky with a broken bow? Answer: Jam the two halves of the bow into a crumbling structure (because the dragon smashed it and set it on fire) and proceed to pull the string back as if nothing happened. Oh, except, now, the string is like three times as long and he uses his son to steady the arrow. Which leads me to believe that Jackson has probably never even touched a bow, because what Bard does is the equivalent of trying to shoot down an airplane (that's crawling at you) with one of those toy bows with the suction cup arrows. And, yes, I'm saying this as someone who was at one time into archery and has experience with bows.

The worst part about the movie, though, is that I couldn't wait for Thorin to die. I wanted him to just get it over with. Between all the slow motion talking and the drug hallucinations, I was just through with him. Jackson managed to undermine the entire point of The Hobbit through what he did with Thorin and the Arkenstone. There was no power in Thorin's apology to Bilbo, because there was no understanding on the part of Thorin, just recovery.

Oh, and to go back to mere stupid: Azog blasting through the ice as if he was rocket-powered. Seriously, someone send Peter Jackson back to school so that he can learn things like physics. And to teach him some appreciation of literature. Jackson's Hobbit is the worst piece if fan fiction filth I've ever seen or heard about.
And, yes, that's how I really feel.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Foxcatcher (a movie review post)

I think this might be a year where the performances are better than the movies they're in. Foxcatcher is a great example of this. I really can't say that watching Foxcatcher is an enjoyable experience. Disturbing is more like it. And kind of fascinating, but that's all about the actors.

I went into this one with no idea of what it was about. I mean, I had no clue at all other than my wife saying she thought it had something to do with boxing, which turned out to be wrong and only matters in that it explains that I had no expectations whatsoever. Even having no expectations, what I got was completely unexpected.

The movie was kind of like watching a scorpion or a large spider crawling over your kids, and you can't do anything about it. It gives you the shivers and makes your skin crawl watching that... thing... creeping over your kids, and you just keep hoping it keeps going and doesn't stop to bite or sting. Watching spiders and scorpions and how they move can be pretty fascinating. It's just not enjoyable when they're on you or someone you care for.

That said, the performances are amazing. I mean, seriously, they are fantastic.

You can barely recognize Carell, and it's not because of the nose and makeup. His whole bearing is changed. The way he holds his head, the way he talks, his mannerisms. There's nothing Carell-ish about him, none of that frenetic energy he so often has. And he's creepy. He's a creepy, rich, old white dude, and he acts like it. I might not have known it was him if I hadn't known it was him. That Steve Carell was in it was about the only thing I knew about the movie going into it.

Speaking of bearing, Tatum and Ruffalo were incredible. I don't know if I can even describe what they did. So they were playing Mark and David Shultz, wrestlers who both won gold at the 84 Olympics, and they had this way of moving their bodies around that more closely resembled chimpanzees than humans. It wouldn't have even surprised me if they had put their knuckles to the floor and moved with their arms instead of their legs. And it's not just about the way they walked; it's everything. Tatum even had this jutting lower jaw, and it wasn't some fancy prosthetic thing. If he was doing that himself, it must have taken incredible concentration to keep that up through filming. The overall effect, especially with Tatum, was that of cavemen. Or, at least, how we imagine cavemen.

And Ruffalo? Well, I wasn't even sure it was him some of the time during the movie. I mean, I thought it was Ruffalo, but, every once in a while, I was doubtful. I thought it was just someone that bore a striking resemblance to him. With the beard and the odd way he moved around, I was never quite sure, not until the credits rolled. That's just impressive.

To top it all off, at least as far as I can tell by doing a cursory investigation of what actually happened, the movie got it pretty spot on. The only issue I could even raise is that there is a lack of clarity about the time frame on some of the events, but that doesn't have any actual bearing on the movie or the plot; I was just surprised to find out how far apart some of the events actually were. That's a very small thing for a movie like this.

I think this is definitely a movie worth seeing as long as you're not looking for something that's going to give you that feelgood buzz when it's over. If you want to see some stellar performances, though, this is really a must see movie.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Going On the Offensive (an IWSG post)

I'm not one for all of that resolution stuff or making lists of goals or any of that stuff. I figure I'm going to do something or I'm not and making a "resolution" isn't going to change that. If I make any kind of list at all, it's only so that I don't forget things (and I'm not really the best at those kinds of lists, either), so don't look at this post as some sort of New Year's resolution thing; it's not. In fact, the idea for this post has been sitting in my notes since October, and I've been thinking about it for longer than that, but this seems about as good a time as any to get on with it.

First, this is likely to be my last IWSG post. Unless something just grabs me and tells me "I am an IWSG post!" it will be. To a large extent (and I've talked about this before), it's because IWSG is completely misnamed. There is no actual support in or from this group. It's an encouragement group, and there's nothing wrong with that other than that it should call itself that. Encouragement says "Good job!" and "You can do it!" and this group is all about those things. Support does more than it says (things like buying indie books and reviewing them rather than only ever talking about the big, mainstream traditionally published stuff), and it's rare to find other indie authors doing things that support indie authors.
Sorry (not sorry), it's just the truth.
Oh, and sporting links and announcements for books you haven't read is also encouragement not support. Yeah, I know some of you are disagreeing with that, but, really, how many people do you expect to buy a book when what you're doing is this:
"Hey! Buy this book that I haven't read and am never going to read! I'm sure it's good because this person I (sort of) know wrote it."
That amounts to "good job" and "I believe in you," not actually doing anything that supports the author.

Disclaimer: Yes, some of you out there do do the actual support things, but there aren't very many of you, and you don't do it because of IWSG. It's just something you do.

Which brings me to what is the point of this post: being more offensive. Yes, there is the part of the title that is going on the attack, and I mean that, too, but a lot of it has to do with not holding back anymore. Conventional wisdom is all about how "we" shouldn't be controversial or do things that could alienate readers or... whatever. It's all about the things we don't say and never speaking our actual minds because we might offend someone. Well, screw that.

Okay, before you screw that, let me be clear about something: I'm not talking about using "honesty" as a tool to be mean to someone. That's just being mean no matter how many people try to tell you it's just "brutal honesty." Those people suck and are liars. There's a difference between saying:
"This manuscript is full of grammar and punctuation issues." (truth) and
"This is the biggest piece of trash I ever read." (brutal honesty)
You should never resort to "brutal honesty" (unless it's at Snow Crash or Peter Jackson). Or unless you're talking about people in general, because general people are pretty stupid.
So, okay, if you're going to be brutally honest just own it and say you're being mean or something. I mean, seriously, I'd really appreciate the opportunity to be brutally honest with Peter Jackson.

All of that said, very often people are offended by the truth, but you should never let the fear of someone's offense stop you from saying the truth, even if that truth is only your own truth. And, really, despite what I was just saying about Peter Jackson, there's a difference between speaking the truth and just being mean (though, with him, I'd make an exception and be mean along with my truth (give me a break, the guy sleeps in money; he can take it)).

Basically, you can expect to see more things which could be seen to be as controversial here on the blog. Or maybe they won't be; I don't know. All I know is that I don't plan on holding back in the things I talk about anymore. Yeah, I know. Some of you out there are thinking, "He's been holding back?" Crazy, right? But it's the truth. But no more of that here!

Oh, and also...
I never really meant to have a schedule here on StrangePegs, not when I started, but I developed one after tracking patterns of page views. I settled into what seemed to be the optimal days. No more of that either! Yeah, that's right out the window. I'm just going to be posting whenever I feel like it from now on, so you'll have to be paying attention, I suppose. That is if you stick around to be offended in the first place. Being on a blogging schedule, though, has been being confining. For a while, now, actually, so it's just time to move on from that. The blogging is not the writing and, when it starts getting in the way of the writing, you have to get rid of it.
Not the blog, just the schedule.

All right [And, just by the way, that's the correct way to spell "all right;" it's two words, not one, so quit putting "alright" in your manuscripts.], there you have it. Changes and stuff that just so happen to coincide with the new year, but, hey, as much as I like all (most) of you writer types, you're really not my target audience. I can tell by my sales. Which is not to say that I want you to go away, but I have to start appealing to, well, to people who just read.
Or pissing them off.
Or something.
I guess we'll see how it goes.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Imitation Game (a movie review post)

I'm going to start by saying that The Imitation Game is a great movie; however, it takes a lot of liberties with the subject matter. The broad sweeps are okay, but the details were, shall we say, exaggerated, no, actually, twisted to make the movie "better." It's a little unfortunate, because I'm sure the movie could have been just as good if they had kept to the straight facts (and, yes, I realize the irony there) rather than the dramatic "truth."

That said, Benedict Cumberbatch was incredible. He is really setting himself up as the go-to guy for any anti-social genius type of character. It would be unfortunate if he ends up being typecast as that guy and never gets any other kind of role, though, as good as he is at it. I think I may be becoming convinced he's more than just that.

It's actually very interesting what Cumberbatch did with the part. He started out with a kind of Sherlock level of human interaction and descended into a kind of Frankenstein's monster thing like he did in the National Theatre Live presentation of Frankenstein. It's too bad Alan Turing wasn't actually like that. Eccentric, yes, but he wasn't unfriendly and without the ability to operate in a social setting as the movie showed him to be.

Keira Knightley was also quite good. Well, she was mostly what you'd expect of Keira Knightley, but it was good. She was a good foil to Cumberbatch's portrayal of Turing, which is to say that her character was not quite accurate, either. Joan Clarke was probably quite a bit more socially awkward than she was in the movie but, then, in the movie, it's Joan who mediates between Turing and his team and enables him to work with them, so she had to be socially savvy for that work.

The other actors I really liked were Mark Strong and Matthew Goode. Strong played Stewart Menzies, a person that Turing probably never actually had any contact with, but he was a great movie character and added a bit of a spy edge to everything. Goode played Hugh Alexander, a chess champion who was on Turing's team. Even while I was watching the movie I didn't buy that Alexander was really as charismatic and charming as Goode played him to be, but he was fun to watch in the role.

Of course, the most interesting thing about the movie to me is not the movie at all; it's that the British government kept all of this secret, everything that Turing did during WWII, stuff which helped to end the war, for 50 years. 50 years! And, then, what they allowed to happen to him after the war was just... horrendous. And he was only posthumously pardoned in 2013. It's kind of unbelievable.

The main thing is, though, if you like those little electronic gadgets that you carry around everywhere and use all the time, you have Turing to thank for them. It was what he did during the war that lead to computers. Thinking machines were his thing. In fact, computers were originally called Turing machines.

Basically, I'd say to see the movie; it's worth it for Cumberbatch's performance alone, accurate or not. He might even deserve the best actor Oscar for it, though I haven't decided that for sure, yet. However, once you've seen it, check up on your Turing facts. It's all really quite fascinating.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Boyhood (a movie review post)

I think it's probably safe to say that there has never been any other movie quite like this one. Ambitious is an understatement; risky comes closer to the truth. If you don't know the idea, Richard Linklater, the writer/director, took a group of actors, two of them kids, and followed them for 12 years (not constantly: that would be insane) in order to show the life of a boy from 5 to 18. Every year or so, he would gather the primary actors and whatever extras he needed and film a few scenes for the movie. That way, we saw the same boy (Ellar Coltrane) as Mason and watched him grow up through the process of making the movie rather than seeing a bunch of different actors playing the same kid.

I've given it several days, and I'm still ambivalent as to how I feel about the movie. The best thing I can say is that it's very interesting. It really is. But it's not captivating, so there's no place it couldn't have stopped where you would want to know what's going to happen next. I say that because the movie is also long, nearly three hours, and it felt it. I was ready for it to end well before it got to the end, if you can even call it that, because, really, it just stops. But more on that in a moment.

One of the risks involved with shooting a movie like this is that you end up with kids who can't act, and you certainly see some of this in the film. In fact, Linklater's daughter, Lorelei, plays Mason's older sister, and there are definitely scenes in which she is only capable of nervous laughter. She sort of falls out of the movie as the kids get older, and I have to wonder if part of that is not because she couldn't actually do the acting. Many of the scenes involving Mason as a pre-teen and teen are rather flat due to the lack of ability on the part of the other child actors involved. It's just reciting lines and rather awkward. Fortunately, some of it can be awkward because kids can be really awkward, so it doesn't completely fail.

Patricia Arquette is pretty decent as Mason's mom. She's believable, which I guess is what's important. However, she is also central to my major issue with the movie. Not her, the character. The actual story arc of the movie is hers; Mason just sort of dangles from it. Not to be spoilery (because, really, there's nothing to spoil in this movie even if I told you everything that happened), but the great emotional climax of the movie is her moment at the end when Mason is moving out to go to college and she declares that, with him leaving, all of the great moments of her life are over. All of them except death. You grow up, you get married, you have kids, you get divorced, you raise the kids, and, then, they leave. After that, only death awaits. Mason does not take the moment of his departure seriously enough for her. He does not understand its weight.

But Mason does leave and arrives at college to meet his roommate and the movie ends as they and a couple of girls skip out on freshman orientation. It's not that Mason doesn't change in the movie, because, of course, he grows up, but, really, it is just growing up. There is nothing extraordinary about his life other than the fact that he's the artsy kid from a liberal family growing up in south Texas. I get the feeling that the real purpose of the movie is that Linklater wants us to see how he grew up. That he was that liberal, artsy kid growing up in south Texas, because he did grow up in south Texas. It didn't feel eye-opening or revelatory to me. My wife says it's because I was that same kid (without the experimental earring) growing up in the South. However, I felt no connecting or empathy with the character.

Mason's mostly absent father is played by Ethan Hawke. Now, I am not a fan of Hawke. As far as I'm concerned, he should have stopped acting after Dead Poets Society. In effect, every role he's had since then has been based off of Todd Anderson. Not one time did Hawke give in to that signature deer-caught-in-headlights look in this movie. And he was really good. I mean, he was really good. Maybe, Hawke needs to be allowed to improvise more of his roles, because that's how I understand this movie to have been made: through improvisation. Basically, Linklater gave them a scene and told them to do it. No scripts. Whatever they did, it really worked for Hawke. He was easily the best part of the movie.

So this is one of those situations where most of what I have done is point out the weaknesses in the movie, but, despite those, or, maybe, because of  those, I did actually like the movie. As I said, it's interesting. I don't have a desire to see it again, but I am certainly glad I saw it this one time. However, it's not the kind of movie you need to see in the theater. It's not going to lose anything by waiting to see it on DVD.

I do think it gives a mostly accurate representation of what it's like to be a boy in American society, right now. Young Mason really has no ambitions. He wants to play video games, and he gets in trouble a lot for things that look like he's being destructive but are really just because he's curious, like trying to sharpen rocks in the pencil sharpener. His sister, on the other hand, is very driven, at one point expressing her disappointment in only having gotten an A on something rather than an A+. There is a wide divide between the girls and the boys in that way. Mason's mother has gone back to school (and eventually becomes a college professor) so that she can better their lives; his father has gone off to Alaska and spends his 20s chasing his dream of becoming a musician. Mason, by the time he's leaving for college, wants to be a photographer.

All of which brings me back to being ambivalent over the film. I think what Linklater has done here is pretty darn impressive despite the lack of a real story arc or message. Which is not to say that the movie doesn't say anything. I think it says a lot of things, but it doesn't really have an actual point or message to it other than, "Here it is. Here is boyhood." And maybe that's all it's supposed to be, after all. But, then, I did experience that for myself (minus the spray paint, the underage drinking, and the drugs), so it wasn't particularly enlightening for me. In that respect, maybe it's a film that women need to see. My wife certainly got more out of it than I did.