At the movies: The Last Jedi, The Circle, Pitch Perfect 3 and the Kingsman movies

I’ve been watching a few movies recently, although nothing particularly highbrow.

The Circle

I enjoyed Dave Eggers’ The Circle, so I was interested to see the movie. SPOILERS: Last chance to watch the movie before you keep reading. 

The movie does a great job of delivering a lot of what made the book good. It takes the protagonists’ view, the story told from the viewpoint of someone diving into the transparency in a positive way, embracing all that is exciting in Silicon Valley.

In its own way, it’s a horror movie, as the menace lurks unseen, offstage. It would have been nice, perhaps, if they’d amped up the menace a little more. It felt hypothetical, unreal, for the most part – the downside to everything being visible, held centrally by a few people, didn’t have as much emotional resonance as you might hope.

For all that, I think they did a better job of the ending, with a Wikileaks moment as the protagonist uses her new power to hold the villains accountable, rather than the quiet acquiescence the book offers.

The Last Jedi

This one has been analysed to death, so I’ll just focus in on the bits that stood out to me. SPOILERS: If you haven’t seen it already, now’s your chance to stop reading.

The movie was visually stunning, particularly those final scenes on the desert planet. They were gorgeous – beautifully put together.

One of the things that did bother me was the abrupt shift in emotional pitch, often within the same scene. It felt jarring. We go from a life or death situation for the escaping Rebel fleet, to a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in the office as Poe taunts a leader of the Order. Later on, we see a massive spaceship that looks like an iron; but the camera pans back to reveal it is, in fact, an iron. Finally, as we witness the destruction of the ancient Jedi texts, a moment that shows the end of the Jedi, Luke admits to Yoda that he’s never actually read them.

There are more. The point isn’t that they aren’t funny – they are. The point isn’t that the original movies didn’t have jokes – they did. The point is that in The Last Jedi, the switching back and forth between one-liners and deep emotion felt abrupt and awkward, where as I think the originals pulled it off better.

That awkward transitioning is reflected in the final scenes. As we see the Alliance brought to its knees, to the final ship containing a handful of people – barely a team, let alone a rebellion – there’s no sense of grief, or loss. Nothing to match the final march at the end of the Jedi Returns, which felt more earned.

For all that, I did enjoy the Admiral Holdo storyline – perhaps because it was one of the few where the characters or narrative weren’t being hilarious.

Pitch Perfect 3

Pitch Perfect is, to my mind, the movie equivalent of comfort food. You’re not expecting much beyond some snappy tunes and snappier lines, and Pitch Perfect 3 delivers. It manages to weave a storyline or two in there, just enough to hang the jokes off. If you liked I and II, it’s more of the same.

Kingsman and Kingsman: The Golden Circle

In the second Epilogue to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes:

If we consider a man alone, apart from his relation to everything around him, each action of his seems to us free. But if we see his relation to anything around him, if we see his connection with anything whatever—with a man who speaks to him, a book he reads, the work on which he is engaged, even with the air he breathes or the light that falls on the things about him—we see that each of these circumstances has an influence on him and controls at least some side of his activity. And the more we perceive of these influences the more our conception of his freedom diminishes and the more our conception of the necessity that weighs on him increases.

This question, of how to balance our perception of someone’s freedom and responsibility with an understanding of the context behind someone’s actions, is still important to day, and is part of what makes Kingsman mildly more interesting than the average action movie.

In fact, it’s a mark of how awful the Marvel movies are that the first Kingsman movie feels positively intellectual in comparison. Because although Kingsman is ostensibly a spy movie, and really another action movie, it is riven with class.

I don’t know the UK class system well, so I’ll let The Guardian summarise it:

In Kingsman: The Secret Service, out next month, a tasty little herbert called Eggsy from a London sink estate is recruited by the impeccably soigné, lah-di-dah spook Harry Hart, played by Colin Firth. Hart detects that Eggsy has the right stuff, the true Brit if you will, to transcend his oikish upbringing and become One Of Us. Now if Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, can survive the training course in which he is pitted against a bunch of stuckup, over-entitled Oxbridge ponces (plus the token bit of hottie posh whose snobby froideur melts at our hero’s bit-of-rough charms), then he can become a Kingsman. But, you’ll be asking, what is a Kingsman? It’s a gentleman spy working for a non-governmental espionage agency run from a secret, steampunk-like bunker beneath (naturally enough) a Savile Row tailor.

What follows from that premise is a fast-paced, self aware action movie with a sense of humour, that I particularly enjoyed when Eggsy is asked why he’s named his dog JB, or when a villain asks for a snappy one liner from a soon to be victim. “It isn’t that kind of movie”.

Ultimately, of course, Kingsman doesn’t really delve into the depths of the class divide. Instead it lets the raw emotion against the entitled upper classes drive part of Eggy’s emotional journey, from his fights with his competitors, through working to save the common people from the maniacal one per cent, to the point where he literally sticks it up the royalty in the final scene.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle has the basic ingredients of the first movie, with an absurd villain, a willingness to kill off characters, and a series of frenetic action scenes, but it’s missing something that made the first a little more likeable.

Oh; but they both have Colin Firth in action scenes.

 

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Articles: National security reporting, social credit and baboons

An interesting piece out by James Risen at The Intercept, on his experience reporting on national security at the New York Times. It gets a little bit into the ‘he said, she said’ territory, but he seems to be careful to quote those with a different view on the story. Underlying it all is a sense of how much there is behind a story that makes it into the media, in the back-and-forth between government and reporters (as per Manufacturing Consent).

Wired has been doing good reporting on the development of China’s social credit system, and I think it’s a fascinating area. It feels like something that may be more important in retrospect, than the amount of attention it’s getting today. This is an interesting piece, reflecting on the concept and its development.

It’s been a long while since I read Baboon Metaphysicsbut it’s stayed in my mind as an interesting piece. This is an interesting article on how culture can change and persist in a very different context.

Let’s wait a little longer for ‘The Winds of Winter’

I’m a big fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. I enjoyed re-reading all the books a little while ago, when I needed some less academic reading. I pre-ordered the hardback of A Dance with Dragons, when it came out.

So I’m really looking forward to reading the next book. But it’s been a long wait. The last book came out in 2011. And sure, there are the (correct) pieces of commentary about why GRRM doesn’t owe the fans anything; as Neil Gaiman (correctly) points out, GRRM is not anyone’s bitch.

Having said that, fans don’t owe GRRM anything either. Sure, I’d like to read the next book, but at this point, I’ve waited eight years. When (if ever) GRRM does get around to finishing the next book, he’ll have a vast number of fans who’ve already waited eight years (or longer), and will have already seen one conclusion in the TV show.

Even if most readers decide to wait and buy the book second-hand, there’ll still be plenty of copies to go around. And readers will be doing the same thing to GRRM that he did to them – exercising patience that’s well within their rights. What’s a few extra months, when you’ve already waited eight (or more) years?

So that’s why I’m planning not to buy the book, and to just wait till it shows up in the second hand book stores. Someone else can pay the full price for a first printing. I’ll get a second hand copy at a discount. I’ll have already waited eight years – I can wait a little longer.

These books explain a lot of things

A while ago I read a book titled This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World WorksEdited by John Brockman, it was a collection of responses from a range of thinkers on their favourite theories or ideas, that had significant explanatory power.

In a related way, I wanted to try and start a list here of books that I’ve read that I thought had interesting or important ideas, in understanding different aspects of people / society / the universe. I think explaining everything is a tall order, so this is just a list of books that I found interesting on a range of topics. In a way it’s also a useful list for me, of keeping track of books that I think cover or explain useful or interesting theories. Obviously, a mention here isn’t an endorsement of the book or the author, etc.

I’ll try to keep it updated as I come across other interesting pieces. But in the meantime, tell me what you think: What are the books that explain essential, profound or important ideas? What have I missed on this list?

Science

It’s been years since I read it (and please be aware this isn’t an endorsement of the author), but reading The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was a useful introduction to evolutionary theory. Interestingly enough, evolutionary theory is one of the ideas that cropped up quite frequently in This Explains Everything as a powerful idea.

James Gleick’s books on information theory (The information: A history, a theory, a flood) and chaos theory (Chaos: Making a new science) are fascinating, approachable introductions to very important branches of mathematics.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but I found a book on Popperian hypothesis testing and falsifiability useful (unfortunately I can’t remember the title).

Philosophy and ethics

There are a few books that I found interesting here – but it’s a complex area, and not one that I have a deep understanding of.

  • The Intentional Stance by Daniel Dennett was an interesting read; I think particularly in how to think about people and intentionality from a materialistic viewpoint. If I can paraphrase, Dennett essentially argues that intentionality is a model that we have of behaviour in the world, so that we conceptualise other people as agents, with goals and mental models.
  • Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett was also an interesting set of ideas, in how to reconcile a materialist viewpoint with questions about free will and ethical responsibility. Essentially, (if I can paraphrase many years after reading it), Dennett is arguing that traditional debates about free will and determinism define things in the wrong way; that if we think meaningfully about what free will means, we can have a useful form of free will, in a deterministic universe. Having said that, I think there is something to this webcomic sending up his approach – that it may feel a little too much like a glib redefinition.
  • Reason and Morality by Alan Gewirth was a difficult book. It took me several months to wade through, when I had the time to read in-depth. But I think meta-ethics is an interesting and important philosophical topic, and this is one of the more satisfying reads I’ve found. To very loosely paraphrase, Gewirth argued that for any agent that acts towards desired goals, there are implicit assumptions that, if logically carried to their conclusion, necessitate valuing the agency of others.
  • Beautiful souls by Eyal Press isn’t a particularly deep theoretical book. But I think it’s valuable to think about the factors that lead us to make courageous decisions, and for that reason this is well worth a read, as Press examines four ordinary people making courageous choices.

Psychology

Story-telling

Perhaps because I read a bit of fiction, story-telling is one of those things that fascinates me. What makes a good story? Why do we find some stories gripping, and others dull?

  • Story by Robert McKee is an interesting read. It’s not foolproof, but it works to break down the key components of what McKee thinks makes for a good story: difficult choices and unexpected consequences.

Politics

There are a lot in this category – perhaps because I’ve been reading quite a few since the blog started, where as other categories I read more of before I was taking notes.

  • The Dance of Legislation by Eric Redman is a fascinating first-hand account of a set of power struggles involved in the passage of legislation. It’s useful as an insightful account of the role chance and relationships can play in day-to-day political outcomes.
  • Collapse by Jared Diamond and The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter both deal with how a society collapses. Diamond’s thesis rests on five key factors:  environmental damage, natural climate change, war, weakened allies, and the ways societies choose to respond to these pressures. It’s a compellingly detailed historical account that societies can collapse because of poor responses to external pressures. Tainter’s thesis centres around diminishing marginal returns to complexity.
  • The Master Switch by Tim Wu is an excellent account of how media empires rise and fall. It’s particularly valuable because it identifies cycles over time, rather than analysing a static moment. He argues that as new technologies emerge, the field is fragmented between many contenders, before it gradually merges into a smaller number of firms. Given that media can influence political outcomes, these cycles are important.
  • The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge is an excellent outline of something that’s so ubiquitous it’s almost invisible – when did companies emerge? They make the compelling case that the legal structure of a company has a significant influence in our society.
  • Democracy for realists: Why elections do not produce responsive government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels is an important read. They argue that our ideas of how democracies work are wrong, and set out a strong evidence base of how a range of voter behaviour theories are contradicted by particular pieces of evidence. It raises interesting and important questions.
  • The rise and decline of nations by Mancur Olson an analyses of why some nations succeed, and why others fail. He sheds powerful light by focussing on the relationships within a society, and how particular groups can have an incentive to take action that is detrimental to the society overall. Interestingly, it seems that since publication, his thesis has held up reasonably well.
  • Manufacturing consent by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky is an interesting read, and one of the few pieces I’ve read that focuses on the structural relationships between media entities and government. Have you come across any other good ones?
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful reflection on race in America.
  • The origins of political order by Francis Fukuyama is an impressive attempt to tell a unified, theoretically grounded story of how political frameworks emerge. I may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I wish there were more books tackling questions like this on this scale. He writes about the historical emergence of the state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability.
  • Economic Justice by Stephen Nathanson sets out, very simply, a set of ideas about how resources should be distributed in society. For all that it’s very simple, it’s actually quite useful: there’s real value in a clear, simple exposition of basic ideas.
  • While not explaining deep theories, I wanted to quickly mention both Neil Chenoweth’s Murdoch’s Pirates, and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, because they’re both well researched pieces that set out in some detail the mechanics of how particular entities interact with the political / media system, in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Economics

Paper promises by Philip Coggan isn’t an excellent book, but it is a starting point on an interesting question – what is money? How does it function? Essentially, it’s a store of value, a unit of exchange, and a unit of measurement. But fundamentally, money works because we expect that we can trade it with other people for something. This is, on some level, obvious, but occasionally easy to forget.

Revisionist history: Relationships and power

I’ve been listening to a little of Malcolm Gladwell’s very excellent Revisionist History recently, including the episode ‘The Prime Minister and the Prof‘.

It’s a fascinating examination of how Frederick Lindemann, an unappointed official (his role seems to have blurred between Minister and staffer – it’s not entirely clear to me) played a crucial role in Churchill’s decisions, that in turn may have contributed to or caused the deaths by starvation of millions.

It’s a fascinating listen.

Books: The Betrothed, Monsignor Quixote and Talon of the Silver Hawk

The Betrothed

I can’t quite find the article now, but I first came across The Betrothed in an interview with Park Chan-wook, where he described it as a reflection on power in a very unequal Italian society (that’s not a direct quote). That’s quite an interesting description, and a reasonably accurate one.

The Betrothed is the story of a young couple in Italy (post-medieval, but not significantly – it’s hard to say), who are excited to marry. Their joy is foiled, however, when the local noble takes an interest in the young bride, and forbids the local clergy from marrying the two.

From there, the story follows their attempts to wed. They’re helped by a local friar, and struggle because of the powerful connections around them (one noble relies on others in multiple instances). They’re also swept up in larger events – bread riots in Milan, a plague that sweeps across the city, and an invasion.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it feels reasonably well-earned. What felt less justified was the conversion, midway through, of a (second) villainous noble, from heartless thug to noble protector, all on the basis of his rumblings of guilt. It’s interesting to read books from that era, that place so much more weight on belief in something larger, rather than on self-interest. It feels harder to find narratives like that today – I’m not sure why.

An interesting read, but not a gripping one. Worth it if you’re interested in how power is represented in narrative, but not otherwise. The characters aren’t quite gripping enough to make it worth while.

Quotes

When I gave you good advice this morning, I had judgement for you and me; but believe me, this is no jesting matter, no question of right or wrong, but superior power.

… if those who commit injustice were always obliged to give a reason for it, things would not be as they are!

… as to justice, I defy it; it does not exist; and if it did, I should equally defy it.

Although the presence, the aspect, and the language of the cardinal embarrassed him, and impressed him with a degree of apprehension, it was, however, an embarrassment and an apprehension which did not subjugate his thoughts, nor prevent him from reflecting that, after all, the cardinal employed neither arms nor bravoes.

Monsignor Quixote

I love reading Graham Greene (Loser takes allBattlefieldThe Ministry of Fear; May we borrow your husband? And other comedies of the sexual life, and others I’ve read but not made notes on).

Monsignor Quixote is an interesting one. It’s the story of a Spanish priest in a post-Franco era, who’s elevated by happenstance to the post of Monsignor, to the fury of his bishop. He sets out on a holiday with his friend the Mayor, who happens to be a staunch communist. From there, they wander across Spain, having random adventures and avoiding the Guardia.

It’s a hat-tip to the original Don Quixote, referenced here as the Monsignor’s ancestor. It’s not gripping, not his best work, but perhaps worth it if you’re a big Greene fan.

Talon of the Silver Hawk

One of the key ideas in Robert McKee’s Story is that part of what makes a story interesting is characters having to overcome challenges, and to make difficult choices – that is, choosing between competing values.

On the first count, Raymond Feist’s Talon of the Silver Hawk only partially succeeds, and it fails completely on the second. The premise is promising enough; a young man on his journey to becoming a man (by being secluded for several days in the mountains) sees his village attacked. He survives, and is taken in by a mysterious stranger. From there he has … adventures, I suppose you’d call them. He goes to interesting places, and does interesting things.

Despite that, neither the protagonist, nor the book, is interesting. I think partially that rests in the writing – Feist fails to create a world that feels real, that feels lived in. It feels a little like walking around a set for a second-rate fantasy movie; you know that if you look too closely at anything, you’ll see the glued seams and scotch tape holding it together. Similarly, the characters are all mysterious, brooding strangers with unique quirks, but still somehow utterly forgettable.

Or if we think of fiction as rhetoric, Feist fails as a likeable and interesting narrator. It feels more like a teenager describing their first B-grade fantasy movie to a friend.

Crucially, and frustratingly for me, it felt as though Feist’s protagonist didn’t have to make any real choices. He chooses to join a shadowy ‘Conclave’, but that was always going to be the case – Feist had never really set up any alternatives, so even though it’s life and death, it feels like a costless decision.

And especially disappointingly, his characterisation of women is of one-dimensional objects, sexual conquests falling before the young protagonist.

If you love fantasy and need to kill time, this isn’t the worst option. Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Quotes

Evil has an advantage, for it is served by chaos and confusion. It can destroy and ravage, while we must preserve and build. Ours is the more difficult task.

 

 

TV and movies: Archangel, Sisters and the Good Place

Sisters

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been at the centre of two excellent TV shows (30 Rock and Parks and Rec), and it’s exciting to see them team up in Sisters.

Sisters isn’t an amazing movie – it doesn’t have a deep theme, and it won’t leave a deep mark. But it is a funny comedy, and worth it if you want something to wind down with.

The two star as sisters, one unable to relax and connect with a potential boyfriend (Poehler), the other unstable and unable to care for her daughter (Fey). Both are distraught at the idea of their parents selling the family home, with the sister tree that serves as a symbol of their relationship as children, even as they’ve drifted apart as adults.

Refusing to deal with the decision, they instead hold a party. [SPOILERS FROM HERE]. But to party successfully, they’ll have to confront their worst fears – Fey will have to be ‘party mum’, while Poehler (no, I can’t remember their characters’ names, and no, it doesn’t matter) will need to connect emotionally with her crush.

Throughout the night they fail miserably but hilariously. And as their failures grow, their childhood home is slowly trashed, the building graffiti’ed and then falling apart, until a literal sinkhole swallows up their childhood pool. That’s when their parents show up, and express how disappointed they are.

But, somehow, they reconnect, and in doing so learn a little about relaxing (Poehler), and being responsible (Fey). Watch it for the laughs, not the story; but it wouldn’t work without the framework of a story.

The Good Place

I saw a few recommendations for The Good Place, and I was keen to try it. But it’s hard to even hear about it, without hearing spoilers. Well done if you’ve made it this far.

It’s a good comedy. This isn’t Parks and Recreation or The Office. But it has its moments, and it’s a fun take on an intriguing new storyline. No doubt there are (or will be) think pieces on how The Good Place approaches the ideas of heaven and hell, and what that tells us about ourselves and society. But if you’re after a mildly funny comedy, this may be the place to try.

Archangel

Roy Chapman Andrews was an explorer and palaeontologist in the early twentieth century. Famous for among other things, publishing the first English language account of the Mongolian death worm in his book On the Trail of Ancient Man. He’s reported not to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones, but there’s a strong family resemblance.

Given that lineage, there’s a certain familiarity in Daniel Craig as an academic with expertise in Russian history, drawn into a mysterious plot in Archangel. As he stumbles through post-Soviet Russia, he uncovers a dangerous scheme that could change world history.

We see the now familiar scenes at the opening. Craig is Fluke Kelso, a womanising academic willing to enjoy the free booze at conferences, looking for the next big thing. From there, Kelso stumbles into intrigue between a Russian opposition party, the secret police, a mysterious notebook dated from Stalin’s death … and it goes on.

It’s fun to see one of those shows where academic ability was relevant to unravelling the plot. That curiosity, pulling at the threads of obscure facts until they give way, revealing a grand scheme, is fun to watch. The show also seems to do justice to post-Soviet Russia. I’ve never been to Russia, but from my experience in other contexts, it seemed to do well capturing the full scope of a cold, grim country with grey concrete buildings, and a dark, impenetrable bureaucracy.

This is a fun show, and a decent drama – worth seeing. [SPOILERS FROM HERE]. 

It felt plausible that Stalin would have abused his power, devastating the lives of people who trusted the justice of the party. I also liked the sense in the story of the protagonists encountering forces beyond their control, as they realise that Kelso is being used as a pawn by schemers with larger plans.

It felt a little frustrating though, in that at the end, all the grand story lines collapse back into a single (vital) McGuffin – a single item that will change world history. It’s not easy to show systematic issues in fiction, but this show doesn’t even try. Still – worth watching, for a drama.