I watched four movies on DVD this week:
The Reader is a 2008 film starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. It’s sort of hard for me to take movies about people who can't read seriously after that Community episode where Jeff is a vampire and Annie's a werewolf and she's about to leave and he stops her by yelling out, "Wait … I can't read!" Of course, the point of the movie is that Hannah won't admit she can't read or write, even if not doing so means giving up a good job or letting herself be sentenced to life in prison. Nevertheless, that's the way my mind works. My stupid brain notwithstanding, it was a good movie with tremendous performances by Winslet and Fiennes. Why hasn't that guy won an Oscar? Nothing against Tommy Lee Jones, but come on.
Shall We Dance is a 1937 film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I wouldn't say it was one of their strongest efforts; the dancing was spectacular, of course, and the songs by George and Ira Gershwin are terrific, but the story was thin and the conclusion weak. Aside from the song-and-dance, about the only really memorable part was a comic monologue in which Eric Blore's character, having been arrested and taken to jail, tries to explain over the phone where he's being held. The DVD also includes two short films: Toy Town Hall, a badly dated Warner Bros. animated short that really doesn't work without understanding what big-name radio stars are being caricatured, and Sheik to Sheik, a live-action short that was quite awful.
Mansfield Park is a 2007 TV adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jane Austen, which I just finished rereading. I was not impressed. Billie Piper was not very good as Fanny Price, and on top of that, film-Fanny was not particularly similar to book-Fanny. Worse, the film version of Mrs. Norris is an extremely watered-down interpretation of the book version, which is a pity because book-Mrs. Norris is really quite entertainingly nasty. Also, the characters in the movie were more overtly physical than would have been considered appropriate for the time period. The bit with Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram making out backstage … it doesn't ring true. (Although, I do think those characters did get up to hanky-panky long before they ended up running off together — what do you think they were doing when they climbed over that iron gate at Sotherton together? — but I don't think they would have done so in a place where they would have been so easily discovered.) Lastly, the whole thing seemed overly compressed. Admittedly, Austen creates dense plots that are hard to compress into a 90-minute movie, but even allowing for that, it was still too short.
Mrs. Miniver is 1942 drama directed by William Wyler and starring Greer Garson. This is one of those movies that doesn't so much tell a story as show a bunch of stuff that happens in sequence. What I mean by that is that it has a very episodic feel to it, and I tend to prefer movies that have a proper beginning, middle, and end. It's also another one of those Best Picture Oscar winners that seems to have been constructed in a laboratory for the express purpose of winning a Best Picture Oscar. But having said that, it was entertaining enough, and the tragic ending succeeded in taking me by surprise. The DVD also contained a couple of two-reelers: Mr. Blabbermouth and For the Common Defense. The former is a standard-issue WWII propaganda film, complete with an offensive caricature of Tojo. The latter was also a propaganda film, about how U.S. law enforcement agencies help the war effort by cooperating with their counterparts in Central and South America, but a much more entertaining one. Again, it comes down to a question of plot; the former is just a series of loosely connected vignettes about uninformed jerks who undermine morale on the home front by refusing to keep their traps shut, and the other was an exciting tale of an FBI agent tracking down a smuggler in Chile.
In the more refined arts, my college pals Scott and Stephanie and I went to a concert featuring members of Sound Ensemble Wisconsin, a local chamber ensemble. All the pieces on the program were by composers who were inspired by American popular music of the Tin Pan Alley era: a solo piano work by Morton Gould called Rag-Blues-Rag, which the pianist described as deconstructions of those forms; six songs by George and Ira Gershwin, sung by my friend Rachel; and a violin sonata by Charles Ives. It was instructive hearing the Gershwin and Ives works back-to-back; I wouldn't have said those two composers had similar styles, but hearing them one right after the other made it clear that they were working in the same vernacular. It was easy to imagine Ira Gershwin writing lyrics for the melodies Ives wrote for the sonata. As for the Gould, nothing would have been lost by leaving it off the program altogether.
Wordwise, I had a bit of a scare Friday when I plugged my Kindle into a USB port and got an error message that the computer couldn't recognize the device, and then was unable to turn it on after disconnecting it. I tried resetting it by holding down the power button for 20 seconds, to no avail. But when I called Amazon technical support and on their advice tried resetting it again, it started working again. It was sort of the opposite of how your tricks never work when you try to show them to your mom.
Anyway, as I said a few paragraphs up, I finished reading Mansfield Park. It's a good one! I know some people don't care as much for Fanny Price as for other Austen heroines; she's not very spunky, and she's more than a little prudish and priggish … but hey. I'm kind of a priggish prude myself, so I didn't have any problem with that aspect of her personality. And Mrs. Norris is delightfully nasty; she's one of Austen's most entertaining antagonists, in my opinion.
I also read an interesting Kindle Single called Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History's Most Insane Around-the-world Adventure. It's hard to argue with the last part of the title; the adventure, and the adventurer, Ben Carlin, was completely nuts. His idea was to circumnavigate the world in a single vehicle: a Ford GPA, an amphibious Jeep. The original intent was to allow US soldiers to cross rivers without benefit of a bridge, but Carlin was convinced it could be modified to be seaworthy, and set out to prove it by driving from New York to England and thence the rest of the way around the world. It's a fascinating, bizarre story, and was definitely worth the $1.99.
I'm currently reading two different works. One of them is Lovers' Vows, which I described last week as an Elizabethan play. But I was misremembering the Wikipedia article I read about it; it's Elizabethan only in the sense that it was written by someone named Elizabeth, in the 1790s. I'm not very far into it, but so far it's not bad. Kind of funny, actually. I'm also reading Taft 2012, and alternate-history novel in which former US President William Howard Taft appears in 2011, having mysteriously disappeared on the day of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913. I had noticed it on the shelf at the library a week or so ago, and when I thought my Kindle might be kaput, I picked it up just in case. I'm enjoying it so far.
I also read some longform articles online that are worth checking out:
- The Inside Job, about a woman who embezzled millions of dollars from her employer over the course of seven years. Part of the money went to buy expensive show horses, which reminded me of another article I'd read recently about an embezzler who used the money to buy show horses, which naturally leads one to ask, what's up with embezzlers and show horses?
- Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress, an academic paper by a couple of George Washington University professors and a Brookings Institution analyst providing a historical overview and statistical analysis of Members of Congress who died in office. It's written in a very appealing style, with a lot of silly puns about death and dying. (E.g., "The data we have dug up, even in skeletal overview, promise to breathe new life into a field long moribund."
- For Amusement Only: the life and death of the American arcade, which is about what it sounds like it's about. The article is interesting in its own right, but the layout is mind-boggling. I don't even know how to describe how the background images are displayed, much less even venture a guess as to how they did it.
- Solving Kathy Mabry's Murder: Brutal 15-Year-Old Crime Highlights Decades-Long Mississippi Scandal, about the scandalous state of Mississippi's criminal justice system. Stories like this give Federalism a bad name.