28 February 2011

Legends of the Dark Knight: "Gothic" and "Venom"

The night before last, I read "Gothic" and last night--in between fretting over whether or not a tornado was, in fact, headed our way at 4:30 in the morning--I read "Venom."  I figured a joint review was perfectly fine for a pair of 20 year old stories.

Um, Bats? Bad place to get comfy.
Gothic: A Romance in Five Volumes
By Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson
Colored by Steve Buccelato
Lettered by John Costanza
Andrew Helfer, Editor
Kevin Dooley, Assistant Editor
Originally published in Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10 (April-August 1990)

In movie terms, "Gothic" starts off as M and becomes Ghostbusters 2.  Someone has begun killing prominent Gotham gangsters.  As we find out, this is a guy those gangsters killed twenty years ago...and who has a connection to Bruce Wayne's childhood.  I'm generally not a big fan of supernatural stories--especially those with a religious slant--but "Gothic" works surprisingly well.  This is a perfect example of the kind of story that Legends of the Dark Knight presented best: those off-beat, more daring stories that really would have been out of place in either Batman or Detective Comics.

That's more like it!
Story: Denny O'Neil
Layouts: Trevor Von Eeden
Pencils: Russell Braun
Inks: Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez
Willie Schubert: Letters
Steve Oliff: Colors
Dooley & Helfer: Editors
Originally published in Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March-July 1991)

"Venom" emerged as significant in Bat-lore a few years later when the character Bane was invented and revealed to be a Venom user.  The premise here is that, despondent after failing to rescue a child, Batman begins taking a performance enhancing designer drug created by the child's scientist father.  Before long, Batman has become little more than another steroid junkie with 'roid rage to boot.  He is also now a pawn in a scheme concocted by his drug dealing master and a former army general.  O'Neil tests the limits of Bruce Wayne's determination--obsession, some would say--and it's the psychological aspect that makes "Venom" so fascinating.  There are some standard superhero story elements here that feel somewhat contrived (including Alfred being kidnapped).  "Venom" was only the fourth story arc of Legends of the Dark Knight and one wonders how O'Neil might have crafted it later, once the series had really established itself as a forum for more mature and daring storytelling.

Both stories were later published in collected editions.  I'd waited a very long time to read "Venom."  I missed it when it was initially published and for one reason or another never remembered to buy the back issues.  Then, when Bane became a key character and DC published the "KnightFall" storyline, "Venom" issues became in higher demand and fetched $5-10 apiece, which wasn't terrible but still outside my comfort zone for issues.  Why I never bought the trade paperback, I can't say.  In any event, I'm thrilled to have found these ten issues on the cheap at Half Price Books recently.  It's been a blast reading 21 year old issues, including their letters columns and the ads; two key elements of any comic book reading experience that are omitted from collected editions.

27 February 2011

83rd Academy Awards: The Winners

Since I'm also trying to win part of a hundred grand for out-guessing Roger Ebert, I'm including his predictions along with mine.  We share twelve predictions, which is half of the twenty four total categories.  The King's Speech makes up the lion's share of our differences.  In my defense, I cast my predictions on 25 January when the nominations were announced; he made his predictions on 10 February by the time other awards were handed out and that film went on a rampage.  It had no awards momentum when I cast my predictions, and while I've had opportunity to revise them I figure that my initial predictions should stand.  They are, after all, the ones I submitted to Mubi in an effort to win some part of the $100,000 prize for out-guessing Mr. Ebert.

Actor in a Leading Role
Me: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Ebert: Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Winner: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Actor in a Supporting Role
Me: Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
Ebert: Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
Winner: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Actress in a Leading Role
Me: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Ebert: Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Winner: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Actress in a Supporting Role
Me: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Ebert: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Winner: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Animated Feature Film
Me: Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich
Ebert: Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich
Winner: Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich

Art Direction
Me: Alice in Wonderland, Production Design: Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Karen O'Hara
Ebert: Alice in Wonderland, Production Design: Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Karen O'Hara
Winner: Alice in Wonderland, Production Design: Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Karen O'Hara

Me: True Grit, Roger Deakins
Ebert: True Grit, Roger Deakins
Winner: Inception, Wally Pfister

Costume Design
Me: Alice in Wonderland, Colleen Atwood
Ebert: Alice in Wonderland, Colleen Atwood
Winner: Alice in Wonderland, Colleen Atwood

Me: Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky
Ebert: The King's Speech, Tom Hooper
Winner: The King's Speech, Tom Hooper

Documentary (Feature)
Me: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy and Jaimie D'Cruz
Ebert: Inside Job, Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
Winner: Inside Job, Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs

Note: Ebert and I both agree that we think Restrepo should win this award.

Documentary (Short Subject)
Me: The Warriors of Qiugang, Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon
Ebert: Killing in the Name, Jed Rothstein
Winner: Strangers No More, Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon

Film Editing
Me: 127 Hours, Jon Harris
Ebert: The Social Network, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter
Winner: The Social Network, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Foreign Language Film
Me: Biutiful, Mexico
Ebert: Incendies, Canada
Winner: In a Better World, Denmark

Me: The Wolfman, Rick Baker and Dave Elsey
Ebert: Barney's Version, Adrien Morot
Winner: The Wolfman, Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Music (Original Score)
Me: The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Ebert: The King's Speech, Alexandre Desplat
Winner: The Social Network, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Music (Original Song)
Me: "Coming Home" from Country Strong, Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
Ebert: "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3, Music and Lyric by Randy Newman
Winner: "We Belong Together" from Toy Story 3, Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Note: Ebert said if he had a vote, he'd cast it for "Coming Home."

Best Picture
Me: Black Swan, Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklins, Producers
Ebert: The King's Speech, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Garth Unwin, Producers
Winner: The King's Speech, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Garth Unwin, Producers

Short Film (Animated)
Me: Day & Night, Teddy Newton
Ebert: Day & Night, Teddy Newton
Winner: The Lost Thing, Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann

Short Film (Live Action)
Me: Na Wewe, Ivan Goldschmidt
Ebert: Na Wewe, Ivan Goldschmidt
Winner: God of Love, Luke Matheny

Sound Editing
Me: Inception, Richard King
Ebert: Inception, Richard King
Winner: Inception, Richard King

Sound Mixing
Me: Inception, Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
Ebert: The Social Network, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark William Sarokin
Winner: Inception, Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick

Visual Effects
Me: Inception, Paul Franklin, Chris Courbald, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
Ebert: Inception, Paul Franklin, Chris Courbald, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
Winner: Inception, Paul Franklin, Chris Courbald, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Me: The Social Network, Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
Ebert: The Social Network, Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
Winner: The Social Network, Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin

Writing (Original Screenplay)
Me: The King's Speech, Screenplay by David Seidler
Ebert: The King's Speech, Screenplay by David Seidler
Winner: The King's Speech, Screenplay by David Seidler

Me: 12/24
Ebert: 14/24

21 February 2011

The "Wrong" Fight

In response to the protest against the proposed legislation in Wisconsin that would revoke the right of public employees to collective bargaining, Sarah Palin has insisted in a note shared on her Facebook page that they are "fighting the wrong fight."  Furthermore, the former governor admonishes that the benefits being sought by union bosses are unsustainable and therefore greedy during these economic times.  The highlight of the diatribe, though, is an effort to portray Wisconsin's public workers as less than the selfless, decent people they surely must be to have even taken their jobs in the first place:
Solidarity doesn’t mean making Wisconsin taxpayers pay for benefits that are not sustainable and affordable at a time when many of these taxpayers struggle to hold on to their own jobs and homes.  Real solidarity means everyone being willing to sacrifice and carry our share of the burden.
Keep in mind that the only reason Wisconsin has a state deficit is that its governor, Scott Walker, decided the most prudent thing to do with the state surplus he inherited was to push through three rounds of tax cuts benefiting the big businesses and fat cats of the state.  Governor Walker wasn't even content to reduce the state's revenue to the point of a balanced budget; he kept going with more cuts "even though the state faces a two-year $3 billion budget deficit." (Channel 3000, 25 January 2011).

According to this guy, protesters aren't taxpayers.
Governor Walker declared
The protesters have every right to be heard, but I'm going to make sure the taxpayers are also heard.
See what he did there?  If you're against this legislation, then you're not a decent, hard-working, tax-paying Wisconsinite.  I'm sure this is news to Wisconsin's teachers.  I can't think of a harder working group of people--to say nothing of under-appreciated--than teachers.  These are people who often pay out of their own pocket to see to it that proper materials are introduced into the classroom to educate their students.  They get to work early, stay late, and take their work home with them.  Think you work under a microscope?  Everyone is second-guessed, but teachers are more often than not much more highly qualified in their subject than their detractors.  And teachers can lose their jobs if enough unqualified parents get it into their heads that they know better.

So you know what, Sarah Palin?  The public workers whose careers--and lives--will be impacted by this legislation are already carrying their fair share and then some of the economic burden.  These people took these jobs knowing it would often be thankless, and that they would stand to make a hell of a lot more money in another job.  Do not mistake their claim on collective bargaining for greed, nor their selflessness as an invitation for exploitation.

Maybe you should be asking the wealthy whose fat wallets got fatter from Governor Walker's tax cuts to do their fair share to help shoulder Wisconsin's economic burden.  After all, isn't not paying into the system that allowed you to become prosperous in the first place even greedier than asking for the right to collective bargaining?

I'd feel sorry for Wisconsinites, except that they elected Governor Walker and the Republican legislature now conspiring against them.  It's particularly shameful, because Wisconsin was the first state to empower its public workers with collective bargaining.  I fear how many states will follow the example of Wisconsin.  You should, too.  Of the 50 states in the union, five do not have unions for their teachers.  Four of them are dead last for ACT/SAT scores, and the highest performing of these five states ranked just #44.

If we're to continue being a world leader, we cannot do it with poorly educated citizens--despite what Jersey Shore might have you believe.  Ironically, it's the core basic free market principle that explains this: where teachers cannot be reasonably compensated for their time and efforts, they will not seek employment.  I'm sure it's great for private schools--who will properly pay teachers and support them--but the majority of American students attend public schools.  They deserve better than this.

President Harry Truman characterized the Republicans of his day, and it's pretty accurate today:
Republicans approve of the American farmer, but they are willing to help him go broke. They stand four-square for the American home--but not for housing. They are strong for labor--but they are stronger for restricting labor's rights. They favor minimum wage--the smaller the minimum wage the better. They endorse educational opportunity for all--but they won't spend money for teachers or for schools. They think modern medical care and hospitals are fine--for people who can afford them. They consider electrical power a great blessing--but only when the private power companies get their rake-off. They think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people. And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.
President Harry Truman, givin' 'em hell since 1884.

Warner Archive Collection Podcast

One of my favorite podcasts, the Warner Archive Collection Podcast, presents recordings of old radio productions.  Actors would appear on radio in abridged dramatizations of movies, often reprising their screen roles.  The podcast can be viewed and accessed from iTunes here.  You don't have to have an iPod to play any of these; they download as .mp3 files.  You can play them on your computer, burn them to disc, whatever you want.

Some of the highlights include the production of Carbine Williams (podcast released 13 April 2009) in which future President Ronald Reagan subs for Jimmy Stewart in the title role and a 26 minute long interview with James Best in which he reminisces about his career including his most iconic role, Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane from the television series, The Dukes of Hazzard.

Go ahead and check it out.  If nothing else, this'll give you something different to listen to during your otherwise monotonous daily commutes.

20 February 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It

You'd think in a blog titled, "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" that I would have already addressed the rash of protests that the world has witnessed in North Africa and the Middle East.  I meant to, I really did.  I even made it most of the way through a draft about the situation in Egypt a few weeks ago.  What happened?
Don't look now, but there are a lot of changes taking place.
Simply put, I found myself favoring Twitter for sharing my thoughts about this wave of revolution.  Contrary to what I once believed, 140 characters is conducive to expressing a clear, articulate thought.  I've seen many such tweets in the last several weeks.  The nice thing about Twitter is that I don't feel the compulsion to expand my thoughts, to make sure my argument in paragraph seven is still on topic, to find appropriate photos, etc.  There's no formatting to a tweet.   I simply offer a remark and that's that.  Sometimes I find responses, occasionally a question and periodically my humble observations are even re-tweeted by others, shared with people who otherwise have no idea I exist.

There's a participatory element to Twitter that I appreciate and that I think is the most appropriate venue for discussing something as important as the uprisings of 2011.  This blog--much as I appreciate having it--rarely receives feedback.  I'm not on the front lines, so it's not like I'm going to be sharing anything new here that you can't find elsewhere.  Dismissing Twitter and online social networking websites as vapid is something left to the troglodytes who neither use nor understand them.  Today's protest in Morocco was organized on Facebook.  I don't know how often I look at a news website, but I can tell you this: I only do it when a tweet or wall post on Facebook brings to my attention a subject I find interesting.  I suspect I'm not alone.

As for the nature of the protests themselves, I'm all for 'em.  I operate under no illusion that the protesters want American-style freedom.  The governments that will eventually arise from these revolutions may not be built on the model we would choose, or that we would recognize as a free democracy.  That's okay.  Self-determination is the right of all societies.  So long as the societies themselves are content with their next leaders, we must respect their choices.

Gaddafi: Dead man walking?  I hope.
On a personal note, I'm specifically rooting for the Libyans to succeed in ousting Muammar Gaddafi.  Like most Americans, I feel like there's still a score to be settled with that guy and I take great pleasure in his downfall being of his own doing by his own people rising up to say that they will no longer allow his iron-fisted will to be imposed upon them.  My thoughts and prayers are with the demonstrators and the loved ones left behind by the 200 murdered today by Gaddafi's thugs.

"I am crying.  Why is the world not listening?"

Those words were spoken by a physician at a hospital so overwhelmed by the casualties it received today that they ran out of supplies with at least 70 patients untreated.  The article I read did not provide that doctor's name--perhaps out of concern for his safety--so I cannot attribute it more specifically.  I doubt he will ever know of my little blog, or that he will ever know what I have to say but I'm going to say it anyway:

The world is listening, and we are moved by the courage of your countrymen who have taken steps to oppose a dictator who does not value life.

"Star Trek: Klingons: Blood Will Tell" by Scott & David Tipton

Star Trek: Klingons: Blood Will Tell
Written by Scott Tipton and David Tipton
Art by David Messina
Art Assist by Elena Casagrande
Colors by Ilaria Traversi
Letters by Neil Uyetake and Robbie Robbins
Original Series Edits by Dan Taylor and Chris Ryall
Collection Edited by Justin Eisinger
Collection Design by Chris Mowry
Date of Publication: 27 November 2007
Date Read: 20 February 2010
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Late last night I was awake enough that I wanted something to read, but too tired to begin something that didn't have pretty pictures so I decided to finally read this.  You may recall the disappointment I expressed in the Spock: Reflections mini-series by the same creative team.  I'm similarly disappointed with Klingons: Blood Will Tell.

Once again, I find myself staring at a Star Trek story that's little more than an excuse to rehash old episodes and movies.  This is the Klingon side of their interactions with the Federation throughout the course of the original series, all framed within the context of being flashbacks and recitations told by a Klingon High Council Member, Kahnrah.  Even in that part of the story, the Tiptons resort to mining previously produced stories rather than crafting something original.  That "present day" part of all this is set during Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, after the mining moon Praxis has exploded.  The plot point was inspired by Chernobyl, so even if you don't know what a Klingon is, you should be able to piece together what an ecological disaster of that scale would do to an empire.  Many of them want to either seize new territory or die trying, but some are willing to consider a more peaceful approach.  The rest of the High Council has apparently already voted on the matter, but Kahnrah has time to go home and revisit old stories with his granddaughter before casting his deciding vote.  One wonders whether the rest of the council all voted immediately and stared Kahnrah and the clock.

Largely, though, this story is little more than an excuse to present "expanded" material for some of the episodes of the original series.  We see what the Klingons were doing before, during and after the events shown on our TV screen.  Just as with Spock: Reflections, I feel that this is little more than professional fan fiction.  Nothing shown here really means anything.  It's imagined cutting room floor stuff.  There's no allegorical value here, no originality.  One imagines the Tipton brothers as kids, playing with their Star Trek action figures and taking the time to write down all the "cool" things they wish someone had shown them "for real."  And now they're being paid to show us.

The saving grace, once again, is the art by David Messina.  The guy knows how to create a landscape (or at least, recreate, as his writers rarely afford him the chance to show us something new), has a great sense of scale and wonderful attention to detail.  The likenesses are almost all captured perfectly, with the notable exception of William Schallert whom I suspect withheld permission to use his appearance.  I may have found little literary value in revisiting old episodes I've already seen, but at least they looked great.

I have only read a few IDW Star Trek publications; the two by the Tiptons, and the prequel to the 2009 movie.  I'm still waiting to find something actually original and interesting.

View all my reviews

18 February 2011

"Powers: Roleplay" by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming

Powers: Roleplay
Created and Produced by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming
Color Art by Pat Garrahy; Separation Assists by Ojo Caliente Services
Lettering by Pat Garrahy and Brian Michael Bendis
Editor: K.C. McCrory
Date of Publication (Trade Paperback): 15 January 2001
Collects Powers #8-11
Cover Price: $13.95
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A friend of mine gave me the first and third volumes of Powers trade paperbacks for my birthday last year, and even though he assured me it was okay not to read them in publication order I elected to track down Roleplay before moving onto the third collection.  It's just how I'm wired.

Anyway, the premise here is that some college kids have taken to dressing up--illegally--as superheroes and role playing on campus.  Only, it appears that a real life super-villain has targeted them for death.  Who's behind the attacks, and why?

Brian Michael Bendis's story is taut and Michael Avon Oeming's art is full of atmosphere.  The only glaring deficiency here is that the conclusion is so abrupt and quick that it feels tacked on and rushed.  Maybe if I had read the original issues on a monthly basis I would have been ready for a conclusion by then, but reading the collected edition in one setting left me feeling cheated.

One more nitpick is that there are a few spelling errors in this volume.  One of them is a line of Detective Walker's: "You're best bet is to cooperate."  Another comes in Maureen McTigue's two-page piece at the end of the collection describing the relationship between Bendis and Oeming, and the creation of Powers: "...and artist Michael Avon Oeming, who's work on Ship of Fools..."  They're little things, but they are glaring distractions in a professional publication.

Still, Roleplay was fairly interesting and I'm looking forward to the next collection in the series, Little Deaths.

View all my reviews

17 February 2011

"Inception" Rental Blu-ray

Shown here is the Blu-ray Combo Pack.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger and Michael Caine
Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan
Rental Blu-ray Disc Release Date: 1 January 2011
I Check Movies

All I needed to know about Inception was that it was the next movie from Christopher Nolan and I wanted to see it.  My wife, however, waited until it was out of theaters to confess that she did not, in fact, want to see it.  Had I known this tidbit of information, I would have simply gone to see it on a day she was working or otherwise engaged.  Alas, I had to wait until it hit Blu-ray.  There's a valuable lesson in here somewhere for you couples about communicating honest levels of interest in movies.

The marketing of Inception presented it as a cerebral head trip the likes of which we have never before seen.  Remember when James Bond realized that Goldfinger's elaborate plan was nothing more than a simple heist?  I had the same epiphany watching Inception.  Just like Goldfinger, the plan here isn't to steal a thing; rather, Cobb (DiCaprio) and his team have been hired to implant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer (Murphy).  This will be accomplished by entering into a dream state in which Cobb and his team will engage Fischer and sneak the idea into a level of his brain so deep that he will accept the idea as his own.

It's a lot like Ocean's Eleven, except that it forgets to have fun.  A subplot involving Cobb and his wife (Cotillard) should resonate with us as viewers.  We know this because DiCaprio becomes demonstrably upset, even crying.  And yet, at no point was I upset, or emotionally invested in any of these characters.  I admire Christopher Nolan for his skill at crafting large scale stories, but his Achilles heel as a storyteller is that he's all head and no heart.  Once I realized the simplicity of Inception's premise, I was hopeful for at least some of the provocative social allegories that made The Dark Knight so brilliant.  There was, unfortunately, none to found save a bluntly delivered message about how escapism is unhealthy.

I wanted to respond favorably to Inception, I really did.  The best I can say is that it's a competent film that looks great.  The cast is great, in consideration of the fact that none of them were really given characters designed to show much growth over the course of the film and that they aren't used to reach us emotionally.  Hans Zimmer's score is serviceable, but its monotony only contributes to the sterile aesthetic of the film.

Many were surprised--even angered--by Nolan not being nominated for Directing while Inception is among the ten Best Picture nominees.  I don't know what Nolan's thoughts about this are, but if it matters to him at all, my advice would be to make an effort next time to reach our hearts.  Art can be cerebral, but it's only when we care about it that it matters.

The rental version, released by Warner Bros. after the retail version, includes no bonus content so I cannot speak to any of the supplemental material that you will find should you purchase Inception to add to your library.

16 February 2011

Movie Review: "The King's Speech"

The King's Speech
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle and Michael Gambon
Screenplay by David Seidler
Directed by Tom Hooper
Theatrical Release Date: 24 December 2010
Date of Screening: 15 February 2011
I Check Movies

My wife had no interest in seeing this, so she and my cousin Brooke elected to see The Roommate, leaving me to see a movie by myself for the first time since I took in a matinée screening of Catch Me If You Can back in 2003.  I enjoy seeing movies by myself, actually; it frees me up to take whole ownership of the experience, rather than share it with someone else.  As I made my way to the front row--where my wife refuses to sit--I thought of Sir Alec Guinness, writing in his journals of going to the theatre (stage, rarely movie) by himself in his advanced years.  I think there's something to be said for the solitary experience; it leaves one freer to become immersed in the story and to critique the art.

By the time I came to see The King's Speech it had already amassed awards and acclaim a-plenty, and has become an odds-on favorite going into the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.  I was mindful of those nominations, of course; I couldn't unring the bell and enter the screening oblivious to them.  My solution to the bias was to look for reasons to appreciate the nominations, rather than expect the film to justify them.  It didn't take long for me to appreciate The King's Speech and its nominations.

The premise, for those uninformed, is that this is a biopic about the man who would become King George VI of the United Kingdom, and how he labored to overcome a lifelong speech impediment which was, of course, a great hindrance to a man of his position.  He wasn't even supposed to become king, except that his elder brother--as shown in the film--chose the love of a married American woman over the throne.  The drama of the royal family isn't shown here as sensationalism, but instead as the kinds of conflicts typical of any family...only within the context of having to maintain a superficial appearance of unity for the sake of the public that most of us don't have to lead or appease.

I wrote in my review of Black Swan that what impressed me about Natalie Portman's performance was that it is a physically demanding role, and that she is in literally every scene.  Firth is in nearly every scene of The King's Speech, and delivers every line he has with affliction.  It goes beyond mere stammering; Firth hesitates, gags, displays frustration and looks around helplessly every time he opens his mouth.  We know Firth doesn't have this impediment, but we do believe he is aggravated by not being able to simply speak his lines.  I don't think Firth displays the same kind of range as does Portman, but the nature of this role is one of a subtler kind of growth.  Audiences have been surprised, I think, by how eagerly they found themselves rooting for this one guy to overcome something as seemingly trivial as stammering.  Hopefully, those audiences left with a greater appreciation for those who have endured their own speech impediments.

Geoffrey Rush has been a favorite of mine since I saw him in The Tailor of Panama (in a somewhat similar role, really) and here he deftly remains the inferior of Rush's Albert, Duke of York while managing to steal the show.  I, and the rest of the audience, laughed often throughout the movie and nearly always it was Rush who had provoked us.  I'm not sure I've ever seen Helena Bonham Carter outside of a Tim Burton production, but she shines here.  And I now want to see Timothy Spall play Winston Churchill in another movie.

Maybe you don't care about the royal family, and historical/period productions do little for you.  That's okay. The King's Speech is, ultimately, about a man struggling to overcome an affliction, and to dig through his own perceived weaknesses to find his inner strength.  Those who are content to wait for the Blu-ray Disc won't be cheated out of much, but I'm glad I caught it during its theatrical run, as the grandiosity of the production design is worthy of the big screen.

"Second Acts" by Mark K. Updegrove

Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House
Mark K. Updegrove
Date of Publication: 1 October 2006
Cover Price: $24.95
321 Pages
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Living in the era of Jimmy Carter, Global Peacemaker and the Bush/Clinton fundraisers I'd become curious about the lives of presidents out of office.  This book was mentioned in one episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and shortly thereafter I promptly found a copy at Half Price Books.  My three-star rating would suggest that I wasn't wholly satisfied with it and that's true.  Much of the material covered by author Updegrove was familiar to me already.  Yes, I'm more acutely interested in the subject material than the average person might be but I also suspect that much of the content would be familiar to anyone who's spent time in a doctor's office waiting room, perusing back issues of Newsweek.  Second Acts is largely just a synthesis of presidential memoirs and press coverage.

I also found Updegrove's chapters largely formulaic.  Each begins with that president's final day leaving office, staring into the unknown, followed by a brief survey of his life and time in office.  Then follows a similar study of the former first lady, and back to the president for a review of how he eventually settled on a direction for his post-presidential life.  Sometimes material is repeated from chapter to chapter, which is understandable given that the careers of these men often brought them together--or into opposition, but it does make subsequent accounts of these incidents rather dry.

Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Ford & Carter.
More egregious is the frequency with which Updegrove's biographies of the first ladies repeats material already covered in the same chapter.  Most glaring is his chapter on the Reagans; there is an entire paragraph about Mrs. Reagan that unnecessarily reminds us of their courtship and the sequence of the birth of their children just a few pages after we were already told these things in the bio of President Reagan.

Also, I despise end notes.  I prefer to be able to see at a glance where information was found, and any expanded remarks the author may have.  Fortunately (and perhaps tellingly), there are no such remarks to be found; merely a running list of the sources mined for information.  Following the end notes is a bibliography which may be of interest for presidential enthusiasts and scholars, and an index.

Presidents Bush, Obama and Clinton (the only one  of the three covered in Second Acts).
From the White House Photo Archive.
As for the material itself, I found Updegrove's writing easy to read; even those with only a passing interest in the presidents should find it accessible.  Updegrove eschews detail in favor of distillation.  I found the chapters on Mr. Reagan and President George H.W. Bush particularly noteworthy.  Mr. Reagan's deteriorating health makes for touching reading; those of us who have been fortunate to be spared that experience in our own families know that it can arise without notice.  Mr. Bush, on the other hand, is humanized by his ability to walk away entirely from politics and concentrate almost exclusively on himself and his family.  Anyone who has ever seen a retiree grateful for the chance to finally begin living for himself after years of sacrifice should be able to connect with our forty first president.

Lastly, I would say that anyone who thinks that there is some kind of shared, collective mindset shared by politicians (you know, "they all...") should take the time to sit down with Second Acts.  The nine presidents covered here (Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton) each had his own ambitions, motivations and conflicts.  They didn't all get along, even out of office.  Second Acts may not be the most detailed account of these post-presidencies but it's certainly a solid primer for those who may be curious.

View all my reviews

13 February 2011

53rd Annual Grammy Awards: Pre-Telecast Results

Nearly all of my predictions were made in categories presented during the pre-telecast portion of the ceremonies.  I really should have taken the time to predict The Beatles to win Best Historical Album; that seemed such a no-brainer, but I was really tired of typing by the time I came to it (it's category #90).  Anyway, here are the categories I did predict, presented here in the order in which they were awarded.

Category 108: Short Form Music Video
Predicted: "Love the Way You Lie" (Explicit Version), Eminem & Rihanna
Won: "Bad Romance," Lady Gaga

To paraphrase our last president, I misunderestimated Gaga.  0-1 to start the night.

Ryan Bingham & T Bone > Glee or Steve Earle.  Who knew?
Category 81: Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media
Predicted: Glee: The Music, Volume 1, Glee Cast
Won: Crazy Heart, Various Artists

Given that Crazy Heart came out before last year's Grammy's were handed out, and given how Glee has permeated pop culture, I was genuinely surprised by this one.  0-2, not lookin' good.

Category 82: Score Soundtrack Album For Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media
Predicted: Toy Story 3, Randy Newman
Won: Toy Story 3, Randy Newman

Woo hoo!  I figured that Newman's lighter score would stand out against the other nominees, which were generally darker (read: primarily in the lower register).  Maybe that's not why it won, but the point is: I'm 1-2!

Category 83: Song Written For Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media
Predicted: "This City" from Treme, Steve Earle, songwriter (Steve Earle)
Won: "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart, Ryan Bingham & T Bone Burnett, songwriters (Ryan Bingham)

I picked the wrong alt.country artist, simple as that.  1-3.

Category 77: Spoken Word Album for Children
Predicted: Julie Andrews' Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton
Won: Julie Andrews' Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, Julie Andrews & Emma Walton Hamilton

Last night, Dierks Bentley asked in a tweet what our "craziest" Grammy predictions were.  I replied with this one.  He re-tweeted it, adding, "LOVE IT!"  I got a kick out of that.  2-3, starting to feel better.

Category 78: Spoken Word Album
Predicted: American on Purpose, Craig Ferguson
Won: The Daily Show Presents Earth (The Audiobook), Jon Stewart (With Samantha Bee, Wyatt Cenac, Jason Jones, John Oliver & Sigourney Weaver)

I originally picked Michael J. Fox to win for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future... but then revised to favor Ferguson after realizing Fox won this category last year.  Apparently, it wouldn't have made a difference.  I should have suspected the green message of Earth would resonate with the Grammy voters.  Lesson learned!  2-4, no longer feeling better.

Why didn't I go ahead and predict this?
Category 70: Hawaiian Music Album
Won: Huana Ke Aloha, Tia Carrere

I only posted this category to draw attention to the fact Carrere was active as a Hawaiian music recording artist.  Apparently, I should have gone ahead and made the prediction.

Category 37: Country Male Vocal Performance
Predicted: "Mason," Jamey Johnson
Won: "'Til Summer Comes Around," Keith Urban

I thought it was written into law last year that critics had to support Johnson.  2-5.

Category 38: Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals
Predicted: "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum
Won: "Need You Now," Lady Antebellum

Not much doubt about this one, really.  3-5.

Category 39: Country Collaboration With Vocals
Predicted: "Bad Angel," Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert & Jamey Johnson
Won: "As She's Walking Away," Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson

I almost went with this one, as there's a lot of love for ZBB (though I still don't quite get it myself).  I know a lot of fans love this song in particular, for the role that AJ plays as "elder statesman."  I think that's overstating it a bit, and I wonder if those fans aren't being led by the lyric that introduces Jackson on the song: "Wise man sitting next to me did say."  If the line had been instead, "Drunk man sitting..." would we start wondering if an intervention was in order for Jackson?  Anyway, a deserved win though I would have still predicted "Bad Angel," which is conspicuously absent altogether on the ACM ballot.  3-6, and I'm not feeling optimistic.

Seriously, I didn't see this on the ballot!
Category 41: Country Song
Predicted: "The House That Built Me," Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin, songwriters (Miranda Lambert)
Won: "Need You Now," Dave Heywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott, songwriters (Lady Antebellum)

I didn't even see this on the ballot, apparently!  I probably would have predicted it based on the fact that Lady A are up for Album of the Year and Song of the Year.  This is why you read the whole thing, boys and girls.  3-7.

Category 27: Urban/Alternative Performance
Predicted: "Fuck You," Cee Lo Green
Won: "Fuck You," Cee Lo Green

Hey!  I've got another winner!  4-7

Category 64: American Album
Predicted: The List, Rosanne Cash
Won: You Are Not Alone, Mavis Staples

I should have listened to Cash, who picked Staples to win.  4-8 and wow, what a dismal showing!

In hindsight, I should have taken the time to predict The Beatles and Tia Carrere, and even though I didn't type up all of Best Country Instrumental Performance, I did predict Marty Stuart to win that, which he did so I'm at 5-8 officially and I'd be 7-8 if I hadn't been lazy.  Throw in the fact that I didn't see "Need You Now" on the ballot for Best Country Song, which I would have predicted, and I could have been 8-7 right now instead.  Just when I think I've got a handle on how the Grammy's view country music, they go and hand out awards to things like Crazy Heart over Glee and Keith Urban over Jamey Johnson.  I thought for sure that Crazy Heart's strong showing would at least mean I'd be proven right by picking the rugged Johnson over the  pop-leaning Urban, who's probably best defined as an adult contemporary artist at this point.  Go figure.

Still remaing: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (I have no idea why this wasn't part of the Pre-Telecast Ceremony), Best Country Album (where I now expect Lady Antebellum's Need You Now to best Miranda Lambert's Revolution, meaning another loss for me) and Best New Artist where, God help me, I have my hopes pinned on Justin Bieber.

Category 36: Female Country Vocal Performance
Predicted: "The House That Built Me," Miranda Lambert
Won: "The House That Built Me," Miranda Lambert

Why the Grammy's selected this category for its prestigious, three-hour TV broadcast when the other country categories were handed out beforehand, I don't know.  What I do know is that I'm now 6-8 on the night with a chance to break even with two more predictions in the offing!

Category 42: Country Album
Predicted: Revolution, Miranda Lambert
Won: Need You Now, Lady Antebellum

I should have gone with Lady A, given that they're also up for Best Album.  That was, after all, the same logic behind my pick of Cee Lo Green to win Best Urban/Alternative Performance.  Still, Lambert has spent an entire year collecting awards and I thought there was one more to be had.  With this, I fall to 6-9 and can no longer end the night at .500.  Sad face.

Category 4: Best New Artist
Predicted: Justin Bieber
Won: Esperanza Spalding

So the Grammy's went with rugged, weary Crazy Heart over the mainstream-friendly pop of Glee, but chose mainstream-friendly pop Keith Urban over Jamey Johnson.  Lady Antebellum wins Best Country Album over Up on the Ridge or Revolution, but artistic Esperanza Spalding bests commercial giant Justin Bieber for Best New Artist.  It's a schizophrenic list of winners and losers, is all I can say.  Congrats to those who won--and those who had a better show of predicting this year's winners than did I.  I finished a miserable 6-10.  Even if I'd taken the time to predict The Beatles for Best Historical Album and made an official prediction of Tia Carrere for Best Hawaiian Music Album, I still would have had a losing record.  Maybe this year I'll do a better job paying attention to what's released so I'll have a better crack this.  Then, chances are I won't actually like any more of this year's music than last year and I'll be just as oblivious.