Sunday, January 25, 2015

TV Across the Pond

Once you get over the idea that everyone in Paris in the 1600s speaks with an English accent -- except the Spanish -- The Musketeers from BBC can be a lot of sword-swinging, macho-swaggering fun. Sort of like a 17th century A-Team, which only fits because the A-Team were themselves kind of modeled on Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers.

And for that matter, The Musketeers is only kind of modeled on Dumas' novel as well. There are the same names and the same general idea, but those who read the novel find four fellows who are not always as stalwartly heroic as their reputation has become down through the years. We still have the original three -- Athos, Aramis and Porthos -- who are joined by the newcomer D'Artagnan. There is a Constance Bonacieux, a Milady deWinter and a (boo! hiss!) Cardinal Richelieu. But each of our heroes is given a Weighty Past that Haunts Him to This Day, or at least, Haunts Him to This Day When the Current Episode Calls for It.

Historical accuracy is not a watchword either; the actual King's Musketeers had to do their swaggering in pouffy coats and much looser pants than our heroes, with quite a bit less leather. It is certain they did not look nearly as cool.

All that said, the show is really quite a bit of fun. All four leads handle their acting chores well, as do most of the ancillary characters. Peter Capaldi makes an excellent power-hungry Richelieu, and the second season of the series has so far suffered when he was cast as Doctor Who and replaced in villainy by Marc Warren as Comte de Rochefort. Capaldi was menacing and devious, but played his role with an undercurrent of whimsy that showed he did not take this version of the Musketeers' story too seriously. Howard Charles as Porthos has some of the same attitude, although some of the rest of the cast seem to adapt it into their performances as the season went along. Perhaps Warren can do so as well.
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Of course, the original "play fast and loose with history for dramatic purposes" guy was William Shakespeare. He drew upon Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, first published in 1577, for many of his historical plays, even though scholars at the time and since then question the Chronicles accuracy.

Shakespeare seems to have used the Chronicles most heavily for Macbeth and for his "Henriad," or four plays that detail the dynastic struggles that would eventually lead to the Wars of the Roses, the downfall of the Plantagenet kings and the rise of the Tudors who ruled during Shakespeare's time. In 2012, BBC produced all four as a sort of miniseries called The Hollow Crown. Each had a separate director and several different folks on their respective production teams.

The plays are Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V. They form a rough arc following Richard II's dethroning at the hands of Henry of Bolingbrooke, who became Henry IV, and of his son Henry V. Shakespeare, following Holinshed, holds Richard II accountable for the civil unrest and corruption that spurred Bolingbrooke to take the crown, and which later on allowed for the rival Yorkists and Lancastrians to battle for it in the Wars of the Roses.

In this cycle, Richard II and Henry IV Part II are the weakest, probably, in the eyes of a modern audience. The project takes full advantage of not being a staged play to use locations and hordes of extras to be the armies involved, but both of those plays focus so much on one character that they don't use that freedom to fullest advantage.

Part of the problem is the characters, of course. In Richard II, monologues from the title character make up a huge share of the play, as the feckless, corrupt and uncaring king learns humility and empathy when faced with the loss of his crown (Whether or not the real Richard II matched this description is in debate). He is redeemed as a person only by his great loss as a king. Ben Whishaw handles the long speeches marvelously, but there is only so much mileage a story can get out of its lead character talking about being reformed without showing him so.

In Henry IV Part I and Part II, Henry of Bolingbrooke as the new King Henry IV is played by Jeremy Irons. Even though he is the title character, the main driver of the action is his son Henry V, played by Tom Hiddleston. The first play covers Henry IV's concerns about his irresponsible son, who would rather hang about taverns than learn the business of ruling. At first he is jealous of Henry Percy, nickamed "Harry Hotspur," a young relative about his son's age (in real life they were a couple of decades apart) who is all the leader he wishes "Prince Hal" would be. But Hotspur's pride soon puts them at odds, and he leads a rebellion that culminates in the Battle of Shrewsbury. Prince Hal learns to put off some of his wastrel nature and may yet become a king. In the second, we spend a lot of time on Sir John Falstaff, a layabout degenerate knight who is one of Prince Hal's drinking buddies.

Falstaff as a character is iconic, the archetype of the lovable rogue whose twin aims are self-preservation and self-gratification. In doses, and playing off Prince Hal in the first story, he's tolerable. But given a solo focus as he is in Part II, he's just wearisome. Simon Russell Beale won a BAFTA award for his work as Falstaff, but Falstaff the man isn't as clever as he thinks he is. Nor is Falstaff the character as much fun as Shakespeare must have thought he was, making Henry IV Part II more of a chore to sit through.

By Henry V, we see Prince Hal as a king in his own right, and desiring to re-assert rights he claims to have over the throne of France. The French crown prince or "dauphin" responds insultingly to Henry's claims, and so the fight is on. The play traces Henry's army as it meets with initial success, before distance, attenuated supply lines and France's overwhelming numerical superiority make victory look anything but certain when the two sides meet at Agincourt. Hiddleston carries the main share of this play, showing Henry at court as well as on the battlefield and visiting his soldiers at night in disguise to encourage them and gauge their mood. He does well enough, but was more convincing as the recreational Prince Hal than he is as the grim warrior leader -- even though he was none too shabby as the evil Loki in the Marvel movies.

The Hollow Crown is an excellent combination of Shakespeare stagecraft and modern filming techniques. Even with the expanded abilities to show large-scale battles and scenery that Shakespeare could only hint at, the production does not overshadow the core of his work -- well-developed characters and the wonderful things they say. A lot of folks would differ with some of my evaluations and consider Richard II well worth all the time we spend listening to him and Falstaff a man of depth rather than just a lout. The cool thing is that, thanks to the BBC, we have these excellent productions about which we may argue those points.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

So Long, Mr. Cub

In the Field of Dreams where one hopes Ernie Banks plays now, everyone says, "Let's play two!"

And they're all day games.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Big Ol' Pot of Pourri

-- Well, I was saddened to learn that beetroot juice does not improve blood flow to the muscles and enhance the benefits of working out. Not that I ever intended to drink any; its just that now I have one less excuse of why my workouts aren't helping me lose weight as fast as they might and may be forced to deal with the reality that keeping French fries on my menu probably isn't helping.

-- With Skymall declaring bankruptcy, those hunting for bizarre or unnecessary items at inflated prices will be forced to use Publisher's Clearing House or Hammacher Schlemmer. The latter has a catalog, which can be taken on an airplane to simulate the Skymall experience.

-- Former journalist Scott Timberg wrote a book called Culture Crash that asserts a "winner take all" mindset and the internet are killing the ability of the "creative class" to create art, literature, philosophy, and so on. Writer Andrew Keen isn't so sure. Neither am I. Can an industry booting about the idea of an eighth Saw horror movie really be called "creative?"

-- At last, James Patterson has written a book that is literally a bomb instead of merely figuratively one.

-- A company has produced a watch which is supposed to improve your golf game. In addition to telling the time, it can display diagrams of holes on more than 38,000 golf courses around the world, including an icon showing you were you are when you hit your ball. Sounds good, but unless the watch can replace me with Jack Nicklaus circa 1970 (or heck, circa 2015), I don't see much chance of improving the game...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Unlimited

A quarter-century ago, Oklahoma voters approved term limits for their state elected officials. After 12 years in the legislature, either House, Senate or a combination of the two, yer outta here, unless you run for a statewide office. Those have their own term limits, too.

I wasn't so sure it was a good idea. Sure, we had a lot of hacks who'd gotten elected once upon a time and who wielded the sword of incumbency against all comers far better than they actually wielded the sword of government for the benefit of all governed. But we voters get what we deserve. If a state party organization couldn't get together enough to target one main offender from its opposite and send said offender packing with a top-tier challenger and a statewide infusion of cash, then it wasn't much of a party.

Now State Rep. Paul Wesselhoft  (R-Moore) agrees with me. He introduced a resolution asking for an election to let voters decide if they want the 12-year limit to be expanded to 16 years. Rep. Wesselhoft says that we lose good experience when legislators have to hand over the reins of power to someone else, and we should allow them some more time before asking them to go get jobs. Said experience can counter the vast knowledge of career bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have been at their appointed task for much more than a mere dozen sessions and who use this experience to hoodwink all the honest but na├»ve Mr. and Ms. Smiths who toil at 23rd and Lincoln.

But I don't know that I agree with Rep. Wesselhoft. I do agree that there's a mismatch of time on task between a legislator of just a handful of years and a state bureaucrat in place for decades. However, who has to be in office more than a week to see that the default position of far too many bureaucrats is "Protect My Paycheck?" And who doesn't know that the lobbyist for, say, an arts council is going to have a compelling case for maintaining arts funding over something else, or that education association lobbyists are going to be able to offer "50 Ways to Pay Your Teacher (More)?" Is there something about these folks that a 15-year legislator can see and counteract that a five-year version can't?

I think Rep. Wesselhoft hits on a real issue, but the solution of expanding legislative terms doesn't appeal.

Reducing how long bureaucrats can hold their jobs, on the other hand...

(H/T Dustbury)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Or You Could Make Up Your Own Mind

Recently, nominees for the Academy Awards were announced, and Al Sharpton got huffy. You could probably put any event you wanted in between the commas and that sentence would be the same, but the lack of nominations for the director and cast of Selma caused quite a bit of discussion about whether the Oscars "mean anything" or not.

This blog has gone on record with the position that the awards, except for the technical categories, are glorified opinion polls among a very narrow set of voters. Acting performances, directing work and such are very largely subjective, and at a certain level it's tough to pick one as "better" than another in any way that's much different from saying,"I liked this one more than that one."

Movie critics are in the same boat -- they offer opinions about the movies they see. Many of them realize that, but many also don't, and seem somehow unable to understand why people see movies that they, the critics, think are lousy. I have some sympathy for that view, because I cannot for the life of me see why Eli Roth, for example, is someone that people will pay money to make movies instead of the clerk in a dingy, fading video store who can give you fifteen minutes of reasons why one obscure grindhouse exploitation movie is better than another one.

But on the other hand, all movie reviewers do is tell me what they think about the movies they've seen. You may note I do the same thing with movies, as well as books and some records. And awards and reviews don't always seem to match up with whether or not a movie has a long-term impact. Enter the Northwestern University (yay!) Institute on Complex Systems and professor Luis Amaral, where researchers developed an algorithm based on how often a movie was mentioned or referenced in subsequent movies.

They used their algorithm to predict if a movie would be included in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress, and found out that it did a better job of that than good reviews, awards won or box office sales.

Of course, inclusion on the film registry might not be the final signal of equality either, since the standard is "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," and significant doesn't have to mean "good." Johnny Weissmuller's syntactically challenged Tarzan and His Mate and Cecil B. DeMille's scenery chowdown The Ten Commandments are on the list. Becket, Diner and The Lion in Winter aren't. Nor is Dr. No -- or any other James Bond film -- which have had quite the cultural impact over the years.

In the end, maybe there is no real way to fine-tune the judgment of a movie's greatness. Some movies with amazing performances surround them with a storyline that doesn't really work (Birdman, I'm talking to you). Some movies have less-than-stellar acting and more holes than a chain-link fence but somehow hang together for an amazing experience (Star Wars, that's your cue).

So perhaps if you want to think a movie is great, you should do that, no matter what professional folks or algorithms or run-their-mouths bloggers may tell you. I promise that if I disagree with you, I'll hold my laughter at your unfathomably shortsighted choice until after you're out of earshot.

But only if you do the same.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

He's Born, Jim!

DeForest Kelley, who spent a good portion of his adult life starting in about 1965 or so informing his captain that someone -- or something -- was dead, was born this day in 1920. If he were still living, he would be 95, but he and James "Montgomery Scott" Doohan have passed on from this world into new voyages.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The King's Speech

Researchers at the UCLA Department of Communications recently discovered an audio recording of a speech given at the school by Martin Luther King, Jr., about six weeks after the historic march in Selma, AL, that's dramatized in the current movie Selma.

The press release describes how a student found three audio copies of the speech and began to try to digitize them, but could not until an audiophile donated an old top-of-the-line reel-to-reel tape player to replace the one the student was using.

King had a fairly standard speech delivered at similar gatherings, so speeches similar to this one already existed in audio and video formats. But as with all great speakers, every delivery of even the most familiar words carries its own special weight and meaning, which you can hear if you listen to the speech included at the YouTube link at the bottom of the story.

Fittingly, the restoration was finished in time for the speech to go live online today, on the holiday that our nation has set aside to honor Rev. King for his work.