Monday, December 09, 2013
Because I've got a migraine, today's Movie Monday is going to be short and sweet.
If you haven't seen "Calendar Girls" (2003) yet, do so at your earliest opportunity. No,, really. It might look like a chick flick. It might actually be a chick flick. But, even if you don't particularly like chick flicks (I don't much like them myself, actually), you still need to see this movie.
The performances, from the likes of Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, Penelope Wilton, and a whole lot of other British actors, are fabulous. The story is moving without being cloying. It's also very, very funny.
"Calendar Girls" is based on the true story of what happened when a group of middle-aged women from a village in England decided that they would produce a pin-up girl calendar, with themselves as the models, to raise money for a sofa for the visitors' room at their local hospital after one of the women's husbands died of leukemia. That's all. Just enough to buy a sofa. Except that their project kind of got away from them, they found fame if not personal fortune, and learned, just like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz", that there's no place like home, family, and friends.
Here's the trailer for the film:
I hadn't seen "Calendar Girls" until the past weekend, when my roommate turned it on, on OnDemand, sat me down, and told me that I had to see it. I was skeptical, but I sat and watched and I'm so glad I did. So, my whole purpose today is to pass this forward. Go. Sit down. Watch the movie. It's very, very good.
And, oh, yeah. From the research I've been able to do, the calendar the women produced did raise the money to buy the sofa. In fact, it turned into calendars for several years, all still dedicated to raising money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Research, a UK charity dedicated to funding research into blood cancers. To date, the calendars have raised over three million pounds toward the goal of eradicating those cancers.
Just goes to show, great things can come from initially modest ambitions.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
Back in 1971, Don McLean wrote and recorded "American Pie", the centerpiece of which was "the day the music died", the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (aka "The Big Bopper") in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959. The three were on their way from one show to another and died in a way all too many rockers have passed too soon.
But, for many in my generation, the day the music died came on December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was gunned down in front of his apartment building in New York City, the city Lennon had loved and had fought to remain in when Richard Nixon tried to have him thrown out of the country a few years earlier. Nixon was afraid that Lennon's anti-war activism could cost him the election in 1972, and so sought to have Lennon deported on the basis of a misdemeanor marijuana conviction in London in 1968. For an examination of this attempted deportation, go watch the documentary film "The U. S. vs. John Lennon". It is an interesting and thorough look at the whole campaign against Lennon by the government.
But I'm not here to be all political today. What I want to do is to just share some of the music that John Lennon made in his short lifetime - he was just 40 when he was murdered - that so influenced the world that the most powerful government in the United States (mistakenly, I think) was afraid his fans would try to overthrow the government, just on his say-so. By all accounts, that wasn't even really on Lennon's radar. He just had this revolutionary idea that, after all the wars, it might be a good idea to give peace a chance and try loving one another a little bit more and hating each other a little bit less.
Of course, some of Lennon's detractors have made a point of insisting that he was not that nice a person and, indeed, various accounts have shown that he could be mean and petty and pretty damn snarky. You know, like most humans can be from time to time. As far as I can tell, John Lennon never claimed to be a saint. But he did work harder to get a little peace, personally and for the world, than most people do, and I don't think that pointing out that he wasn't nice all the time should minimize that at all.
At any rate, Lennon wasn't just a musician. He was also a writer, a film-maker, an actor, and a graphic artist. His first book, "In His Own Write", was published in 1964, and his second, "A Spaniard in the Works", was released the next year, when the world was still in the first blush of Beatlemania. Both of those books were largely made up of drawings, short stories, and nonsense verse that nevertheless showed that he was a genius at wordplay and at surrealism.
I'm only leaving three songs here. The first is "Help", the song when John Lennon first started getting real, as far as I can tell. This, of course, was still when The Beatles were going strong, from their second film. But in it, Lennon departed from the band's signature love songs to write this. I like this performance of the song, a live performance in Blackpool at the time the song first came out. They way you can tell that it really was a live performance is that there are a couple of points where Lennon loses his words. Even so, it remains a good performance that I like a lot:
The second song I'm leaving here is "Working Class Hero", which I've shared on this blog before. It is, I thing, another song in which Lennon gets real, addressing his childhood and adolescence, the class system in the UK, and how difficult it is for some people to fit in - and that perhaps it isn't always worth the trying. Or, at least, that's my interpretation of this song, that means a whole lot to me:
And I'm leaving "Watching the Wheels", from Lennon's final album, "Double Fantasy". In this song, Lennon addresses the issue of his years out of the limelight and away from the music industry before he went back into the studio to record "Double Fantasy". It seems written by the Lennon of "Working Class Hero", only several years on and a bit more mature in his outlook, but still going his own way:
It's been 33 years now. If he had lived, John Lennon would be 73 years old now. Who knows if he would still be making music, or what he would be doing. But, honestly, it pisses me off greatly that one lone nut decided that he would take it upon himself to remove Lennon from the world. This still, 33 years later, irritates the hell out of me.
Saturday, December 07, 2013
And here's proof, in the form of two bits she did for Comic Relief in the UK.
The first clip plays off her role as Donna Noble in Doctor Who:
The second clip makes fun of both computer dating and celebrity:
As an extra added attraction - who knew Daniel Craig was funny. Because he really is.
Friday, December 06, 2013
Have you ever read anything by Mary Roach?
Yeah, neither had I, until the past few days. Based on the book I read, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008, W. W. Norton & Company; 319 pages), I would suggest you run, not walk, to the nearest library or book store and find one of her books and read it. Don't worry; if reading about sex is not your cuppa, she's also written about cadavers (dead bodies), in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003, W. W. Norton & Company); what happens to your body after you're dead, in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005, W. W. Norton & Company); spaceflight and what will be necessary to keep humans alive and happy on the way to Mars and back, in Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010, W. W Norton & Company); and the human gastrointestinal tract, in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal(2013, W. W. Norton & Company).
Really. Don't be put off by her subject matter. Roach will make it fun, educational, and worth your while to read her books. She has been called "the funniest science writer in the country" (in The New Yorker), and after reading Bonk, I'm more than willing to believe that. She has a wonderful, if sometimes slightly twisted, sense of humor. The also is a great writer and, from the evidence of this book, knows her way around a research library. In other words, she is funny, but she is also accurate and writes in a way that keeps you interested in her subject even when her subject is something you might not necessarily be completely comfortable with.
In Bonk, Roach looks at the things that scientists have discovered about sex and some of the lengths that scientists have gone to, to find out what they know. And, she doesn't just write about humans, although we're in there, too. But, because sex is such a sensitive subject, and because there are experiments you just can't do on human subjects (although, you'd be surprised at some of the experiments researchers have done with the cooperation of humans), there's also rabbit sex, pig sex, and monkey sex in the quest to discover why animals and people do what they do in regard to sex. It really is fascinating stuff.
I didn't necessarily go out looking for Roach's "sex book". Honest, I didn't. But I've been wanting to read something she had written ever since I saw an extended interview with her on Book TV a few months ago. Unlike some writers, who can be boring interviews (I can say that, since I am a writer), Roach is engaging, as funny speaking as she is writing, and seems dedicated to write good science for the layperson - and you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find writers like that. Anyway, I would have picked up any of her books; it just happens that the one I found on the shelf at my local library was "the sex book", and so that was the one I read first. Reading Bonk has made me even more determined to get my hands on her other books.
Although, I'm not really sure about the one about the digestive system. Some people are squeamish about reading about sex; I find myself a little less than enthusiastic to read about stomachs and digestion and all that the topic implies. Still, I'll probably read it, too. And you should, too...or at least you should introduce yourself to Mary Roach's writing through one of her books.
And, on a related note, I'm just one book away from meeting my reading goal for the year, which I've written about before around here. It is a modest goal: 40 books in the year. Bonk was my 39th. I'm not quite sure what my 40th will be yet. I'm actually reading a couple of books at the moment, and it will just be a matter of which one I finish first.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Every time I think the world can't get any stupider, stories like this come across the wires.
No, really. In what universe is it sane to take sports so seriously that one person would shoot and kill another because she thought the other woman wasn't sufficiently upset that their team - in this case, the Alabama Crimson Tide - had lost a big football game?
I thought it was bad when I was in the grocery store one day and, apropos to the conversation I was having with the cashier, I expressed the opinion that I am not a fan of either football in general or the local state college's football team. Before I knew what was happening, there were four or five store employees grouped around me, trying to convince me of the error of my ways. You would have thought that I had declared myself an atheist in the middle of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, the reaction was so extreme. But, you know, none of them threatened bodily harm over it or anything.
Now, to be fair, police investigating the killing have been quoted as saying that it is "unclear" whether the shooting was really motivated by the game. On the other hand, witnesses to the event have been explicit in their contention that the shooter was upset by other fans at a party who she felt "weren't real Alabama fans."
This just points out what I see as one of the big flaws of American culture in the 21st century. More and more, it seems, too many people are adopting - re-adopting, really - the position that anyone who doesn't agree with them deserves to die. I was under the impression that as civilization has advanced, we had abandoned that very old notion and were learning to live with at least some of our more minor disagreements. You know, like disagreements over games.
Yes, I said that. Football, baseball, basketball...they're all just games, you know, no matter how much money and how many egos have gotten tied up in sports, especially at the professional level. They are not life. Ultimately, they are entertainment rather than something that is actually important. And, yes, I love baseball, and I have "my team", but as vocal as I might get when watching games, I know that it is just a game, and not important at all in the grand scheme of things.
It alarms me enough when people take important things like politics with that deadly seriousness. It shocks me when I see people threatening the life of a politician (and I have seen that on social media as recently as in the past couple of months) just because they don't happen to agree with the politicians policy positions. It likewise shocks me when I hear people express their belief that others who don't agree with their religious beliefs deserve to die. Even that sort of thing, a few years ago, was considered to be so much on the fringe that almost everyone was shocked when such threats were made. In the past few years, though, that sort of threat has become almost normal, and people are not even subtle about making them sometimes.
It is even more alarming, though, when people prove willing to kill over a reaction to a game, or over wearing the wrong color or the wrong sports jersey. Have we so devalued human life that violence over personal opinion is coming to be accepted?
It hurts me to write this, but when I see stories like the one linked at the beginning of my post, I start to suspect that we might not really have the right to call ourselves civilized in the sense that most people take that concept.
I don't know. Maybe I'm blowing this up all out of proportion, and this is just a case of someone drinking too much for their own good and having access to a firearm. But I don't think so. This sort of thing, someone injuring, maiming, or killing of what is really something minor, happens much too often for all of those incidents to be outliers that don't reflect the culture at large.
Monday, December 02, 2013
I spent a good bit of time over the holiday weekend watching the later films in the Harry Potter series, and my roommate spent a good bit of that time explaining things in the plot that didn't quite make sense to me because I've never read the books. Well, I read the first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone", and liked it a lot, but I've just never gotten around to reading the other books. Finally, I asked her, "Will I understand the movies more if I read the books?"
Her answer, of course, was "Yes". So I guess I'm going to have to do that soon.
The whole experience got me to thinking about movies made from books, and how they can be frustrating sometimes. From what I understand, the Harry Potter series is a case in point. I've heard a certain amount of discussion about things that were left out of the films, and how that has displeased some fans of the books. But it makes sense. There is a lot of stuff in a story that takes seven books, some of them very long books, to tell. There is no possible way that everything in the books could have been portrayed in eight movies, even eight relatively long movies (the shortest, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2" (2011)is 130 minutes long, while the longest, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" (2002), runs 160 minutes).
This is reminiscent of "Gone with the Wind" (1939), which runs 220 minutes (excluding the overture, intermission, and other add-ons), while the book is 1,037 pages long in it's original (1936) edition. Now, I had read the book before I saw the film in this case, and I found it the most amazing thing - although there were clearly whole pieces of the book missing from the film, it felt like everything was there, very much as in the book. It will be interesting to see what is missing and switched around in the Harry Potter books as opposed to those films. I have no clue how the filmmakers managed to do that, but they did in the case of GWTW.
"Gone with the Wind", with its story of the Civil War and it's aftermath, told from the perspective of those who ultimately lost the war, has become controversial for its portrayals of some ugly realities of the time and for what are now recognized as simplistic portrayals of the conditions of those held as slaves during that time. But it remains a remarkable film, just as it was remarkable when it was made. This also actually reminds me of the Harry Potter films in a way, for in its time, GWTW was as eagerly anticipated as each of the Potter movies before they were released. Here is a trailer for "Gone with the Wind", prepared after it won multiple Academy Awards:
Another film that I found the same sort of apparent completeness was "Silence of the Lambs" (1991). I had read Thomas Harris's novel of the same name, which was published in 1988, and liked it a lot. So, when the film came out I went to see it, not with very high hopes that it would live up to the book's suspense. However, it seemed like the film followed the book as closely as films ever do follow their source material. The film also managed to keep me on the edge of the theater seat right to the end, even though I knew what was going to happen. That's some pretty good filmmaking there..
Of course, you can disagree, as Siskel and Ebert did, about "The Silence of the Lambs", as evidenced in this clip from their old movie review show. Siskel did not like it, while Ebert said that it mostly worked on its own terms. I do find it interesting that, toward the end of the clip, Siskel criticizes Jodie Foster's work in the film, considering that she went on to win a Best Leading Actress Academy Award for the role:
When I saw "The Trouble with Angels" (1966), I had no clue that it was based on a book. It probably said so somewhere in the credits, but when I was ten years old, I didn't really pay that much attention to the beginning and ending credits of films. As a matter of fact, I didn't know that it was based on a book until earlier this year. I was curious about the book, which was published in 1962 but takes place in the 1930s (it is a memoir, not a novel), so I requested it from the library and read it. I was amazed that the movie, although updated to the 1960s, followed the events in the book and even played down some of the events as reported by the book's author, Jane Trahey. Here is a scene from near the beginning of the film:
So, although films that originated as books can be very different from their source material, I've had some good experiences with films that seemed to follow their source material faithfully enough to be recognizable and to be nearly as good, if not as good, as the book. Sometimes, as was the case with "The Godfather" (film, 1972; based on the novel of the same name by Mario Puzo, 1969), the film is much better than the book. Certainly, it contains what might well be the most effective opening scene in any film, ever:
On the other hand, there is "Raise the Titanic" (1980). When I read the book "Raise the Titanic!" (1976), by Clive Cussler, I spent nearly the whole time I was reading thinking, "This is going to make a great movie." It was a very good book that I stayed up all night reading because I just could not put it down. When I heard it was being made into a film, I was very happy - until I went to the theater and saw it.
It is one of the worst movies ever made. There were something like 17 writers who worked on the script, which is a sign that things are not going to go well. It was horribly miscast - I will refrain from naming the cast to protect the innocent actors who got roped into making this thing. And it was just, well, awful. As proof, I offer this trailer, from the original release:
Just in case you don't believe me, even on the evidence of the trailer, that this movie is really bad, the fill film is available on YouTube. But if you go there, don't say I didn't warn you.