Don’t think of an elephant

Don’t think of an elephant has been around a while now, but I only just got to reading it. I won’t say too much about it here. Just that I think the central idea is a powerful one, but that the book doesn’t do a great job of outlining a rigorous way to think about metaphors. I didn’t feel like Lakoff communicated a clear set of ideas for what defines the frame, or what a frame is. 

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The Moral Bucket List

I came across this article by David Brooks a few days ago. It’s a great read; and apparently based on his book, The Road to Character.

The article is excellent – I like the distinction it draws between moral virtues and other virtues. I like the focus on working for it, the idea that moral virtue is something we can strive towards.

The reviews of the book aren’t unanimously glowing, but they’re certainly positive. I’m looking forward to checking it out.

Age of Ultron

There are plenty of reviews of Avengers II: Age of Ultron out there (Variety, The Guardian, and so on). So I’ll just quickly say, if you liked the first one, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Having said which, I probably won’t see the third one (even less likely if Whedon’s directing).

Also, just a thought [SPOILER ALERT], having an aircraft carrier appear basically out of nowhere is basically my interpretation of a deus ex machina. I felt like it gave the protagonists an easy out from a hard question that the plot was asking them, and because of that the movie suffered.

Oh, and a second thing; that missing scene where Thor goes to find the meaning of his dream? Would have helped if it was included.

The Almost Moon and The Leviathan

I really enjoyed Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bonesso I was excited to read The Almost MoonI was disappointed. It opens with a brilliant first line (‘When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily’). From there it’s downhill.

I think the main weaknesses were both plot and characters. I found it difficult to relate to the characters – it was hard to know what motivated the protagonist, or what choices she was making. The story telling changes throughout the novel, as well; what starts as a domineering mother becomes an agoraphobic one, and it doesn’t feel consistent.

There is a choice the character makes at the end, but it feels detached, from the rest of the novel. I think Sebold picked excellent themes, but hasn’t managed to carry them through.

I also saw Leviathan today. It was an interesting piece; I’m still in two minds about it. On the one hand, there was a lot to like. It’s beautifully shot, and a has excellent cinematography. I’ve never been to Russia, but from what I’ve seen of other countries that border it, the portrayal of a post-Soviet breakdown looked very plausible and compelling; it creates and draws you into a world that’s very different from typical Hollywood.

It tells an excellent story, too – of a small landowner, being forced off the land by a corrupt local mayor. There are other story arcs, too, but this is one of the most important. It’s here that the name of the film comes into play – with two possible interpretations. When I first saw it, I assumed it was a Hobbesian reference, a vision of government structures as all powerful and un-opposable. That’s certainly part of it; the first portion of the movie deals with the futility of a visiting lawyer, who attempts to argue and sue his way to success. What the movie demonstrates is that his ideas are futile; the structures are too inherently corrupt for any attempt within them to succeed.

The second reference for the title is in a similar vein, but draws on the book of Job, quoted by a priest in the movie. The image here, perhaps, is of the state as a dangerous beast – to stand against it is foolish, and it’s best to suffer, uncomplainingly, like Job.

In some ways the film is a little long; certainly longer than I’d expected, and it has a slow, languorous quality that while enjoyable at points, is frustrating at others. But it’s a good movie, and if you have the time and want something a little more meaty, it’s worth seeing. And for context, there’s an interesting interview with the director at The Guardian. 

The Lives of Others

I’ve just finished watching The Lives of Others. It’s amazing. If you haven’t had a chance already (I know I’m almost a decade behind on this), then I highly recommend it.

There are a couple of things that are remarkable. The two that stuck out to me were how well-plotted it was – exquisitely so – and the elegant contrast of the internal and external conflict.

The story follows an East German Stasi agent, surveying an artist at the behest of a superior who’s enamoured of the artist’s partner. From there, it’s a rich story about several things at once. There’s change in all the characters, from the Stasi agent, to the artist and his partner. I don’t want to ruin the plot, but suffice to say that while it’s set in a dark, cold and colourless world populated by Stasi agents, much of the actual conflict is internal. Truth and lies, when to share and when to withhold information – the decisions change lives, and they’re made in seconds.

And that’s where the plotting comes in. The interplays of the different storylines are beautiful; a thoughtless act by one character ripples out into enormous ramifications for others, and throughout, random chance plays a real role. I noticed it halfway through, in one of the simpler turning points; and gradually I realised that it reminded me of one of the Shakespearean comedies in its complexity. But it’s a tragedy that draws you in, right until the last moment.

I was disappointed to find it wasn’t a real story; and the movie’s been criticised for letting the East Germany police state off the hook too lightly. Those are aspects that I don’t know about first-hand, so I can’t really comment. But in terms of narrative, this is a remarkable film. Well worth seeing.

Disney, horror movies and the classics

It feels like I’ve been watching a lot of TV recently. In no particular order, Big Hero 6, CasablancaDead Set (and reading Lovecraft, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Big Hero 6

I enjoyed Big Hero 6. Someone I watched it with pointed out that a lot of Disney movies feature a protagonist with a significant loss, and this one is no exception. It isn’t life-changing, but it’s a fun movie, and I enjoyed it.

Casablanca

I watched Casablanca a few years ago, and it was fun to re-watch it recently. Particularly, I was prompted by Robert McKee’s fascination with the piece. It’s a great movie.

It’s interesting to reflect now that at the time it was made, it apparently wasn’t expected to be anything beyond the ordinary. Roger Ebert writes:

No one making “Casablanca” thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an “A list” picture, to be sure (Bogart, Bergman and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warners lot than Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and Dooley Wilson). But it was made on a tight budget and released with small expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been, and would be, in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of “Casablanca” was largely the result of happy chance.

I think in part, it’s easy to read a little too much into something that has an established place as a widely acknowledged masterpiece. This review in The Guardian concludes with a summary that seems perhaps a little overstated:

In fact, if Casablanca has an author, it’s ultimately us. Its shrewd open-endedness invites the viewer to step in and decide what the motivations of the characters really are, and which kind of film it’s going to be this time. All of which means that Casablanca is a film with a relationship to its audience that no other film has ever quite achieved. It’s a 60 year love affair that feels as fresh as the first encounter. Each time you sit down to watch it, it is always the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

But Casablanca is an excellent movie. It combines several things well, without feeling crowded. There’s the broader context, of a world at war – the tension between the French and Germans, and other nationalities, beautifully embodied in the ‘battle of the anthems’ scene. Casablanca also sets the scene well. The city’s expatriate community is seedy, ugly and selfish – Vichy French Captain Renault demands sexual favours for visas, Victor Laszlo is at risk of disappearing without a trace, and the corrupt police are in on the take from most illegal activities.

Casablanca also tells multiple intertwined stories, all stemming really from an inner conflict within Rick. Rick, the jaded American bar-owner, is a former gun-runner (for the right side, we’re assured) – and one of the main conflicts in the movie is internal. Will Rick’s better side win out? What is better, cynical self-interest or more noble sacrifice (charmingly embodied by Laszlo, the resistance fighter making his way to freedom)?

Once Rick’s made his decision, although it isn’t revealed right away, the decision ripples out, impacting first his relationships, and then broader society. There’s a resolution to the love triangle that’s central to the story. That resolution also brings with it answer to a broader, if less central question; one that gives us hope for the broader conflict that is a backdrop to all of Casablanca’s action.

I haven’t linked to a trailer yet, because I think it gives away too much of the ending. But if you want it, it’s here; and the movie’s well worth seeing.

Dead Set and Lovecraft

I don’t normally watch horror movies. Can’t handle them, really. I sat through Cabin in the woods holding two pillows much tighter than I normally hold on to parts of a couch. So I wouldn’t normally have watched Dead Setbut the premise was particularly intriguing. It tells the story of the cast of a Big Brother show, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse.

There are a few additions to the group – a producer, a set-runner and her boyfriend. Together they’re facing a society collapsing, zombies surrounding them as they struggle with basic challenges like finding food and staying alive.

Part of the horror genre, I suppose, is having more gore than is necessary for plot purposes. The image of a man with blood up to his elbows, hacking apart a body to use as bait for zombies is that one seems like it’ll be hard to forget. The zombies look real, and the shooting certainly creates a terrifying feel.

Of course the main focus is the characters, their struggle with each other and their environment, to simply stay alive. That’s a fascinating one, and the series tells some poignant stories. It ends pessimistically; this seems to be something of a recurring theme in the horror genre. Speaking of which, I read a few Lovecraft stories the other day. I can see the appeal in the universe he creates, the way he has of using broad brush strokes to sketch a world with a very different, but very persuasive feel. But I was also struck by the pessimism in his writing, the sense of an individual as powerless against a horrific evil rising up against him.

So, I enjoyed Dead Set; if you like horror movies, you might enjoy it. I won’t be watching much more anytime soon.

Robot Uprisings

I read Robot Uprisings over a long, luxurious weekend at the beach. It was a fun read – a whole set of varied imaginings of how a robot uprising might take form. Every story was different. It was a lovely example of how the same prompt can mean different things to, and be in interpreted in different ways by, individual authors.

Having said which, the quality of the writing felt somewhat patchy to me. Some stories were good (and Cory Doctorow’s was stand-out in its excellence), while others felt quite sparse, with Chekhovian guns that weren’t fired, and characters that weren’t three-dimensional, and narratives that weren’t driven by a compelling underlying story.

The idea for the collection is a great one, and there are some excellent stories. Overall I’d say it’s worth a read, as a piece of fun fiction. But the collection could have used some higher standards in accepting pieces.