In the visual arts, I watched three DVDs this week plus three movies in a theater:
There was exactly one movie at the Wisconsin Film Festival I was interested in seeing: Joss Whedon's new adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. Trouble was, tickets went on sale at exactly the time I was scheduled to volunteer at Second Harvest food bank; and sure enough, by the time I finished up there and got to the box office, all the advance tickets for Much Ado had been sold. Curses! I posted a note on the Facebook wall of my friend Nathan, who was working in the WFF ticket office: "What's the point of having a man on the inside if you're going to let the one film I wanted to see sell out before I could place my order? :-)" Making me feel all the more foolish the next day when I saw Nathan at church and he handed me a pair of tickets Much Ado tickets, for which he charged me two bags of frozen green beans. So once again I must say, thank you very much Nathan.
So, that said, how was the movie? It was terrific! Much Ado is one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies, and in this new adaptation Whedon managed to overcome the two biggest problems with the 1993 Kenneth Branagh adaptation by having his Dogberry, Nathan Fillion, play the role much less broadly than Michael Keaton, and by having Sean Maher play Don John much more competently than Keanu Reeves. He also restored my favorite line from the play, which Branagh had cut from his version: "Even she; Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero." That said, the Shakespearean dialogue spoken in a modern cadence was occasionally a little hard to understand. But that's literally the only quibble I have, so when it's released wide in June, you should go see it.
Hard to believe, but I’d never seen an episode of Parks and Recreation prior to this week. I think that’s pretty rare among Community fans; almost everyone I know who loves Community also loves Parks and Rec. There were a couple of things that surprised me about these first six episodes. One is that I thought they were all quite good. The consensus I’ve heard was that the first season was considerably weaker than the subsequent ones, so I was expecting them to be a lot for uneven than they were. The other surprise: that Paul Schneider was in it. I see and hear a lot of chatter about Parks and Rec on as a result of the aforementioned intersection of Community and Parks and Rec fandoms, and I don’t remember him or his character name ever coming up. All the other leads, yes, but not him. I presume that means he lef t the cast --- maybe Adam Scott replaced him? --- but maybe it’s just that one likes him.
The second disc of the first season of the The Wire was a little disappointing, in that it had just two episodes and no extras. Which is weird, because the first disc had three episodes and two commentary tracks, so obviously they would’ve had room to add one or two more episodes to the disc. Anyway, it’s still great. I always like seeing competent police work in my cop shows, and it’s likewise fun seeing competent criminality. Cop shows are more interesting when both sides are good at their jobs.
At Luke House last Monday, Lewis Carroll’s name came up somehow during dinner, and one of the gentlemen at my table brought up the 2010 Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, which he said was really good. I happened to see it on the shelf when I stopped at the library on the way home, so I grabbed it and watched it last night between episodes of The Wire. Unlike my dinner companion, I did not think it was really good. I happen to be a big fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books --- I might go so far as to say they are my favorite books --- and that the movie bore so little resemblance to those books was very disappointing. The biggest problem was in the title; why call a movie Alice in Wonderland if it’s not going to be an adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. If they’d called it Return to Wonderland or Alice and the Jabberwock or The Wonderland War or any damn thing other than Alice in Wonderland.
Last year, there were two nominees for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award that I had not only not seen but had never heard of. One of them was A Cat in Paris, which I saw at Union South last week and which I was surprised to learn was actually called Une vie de chat. It's a pretty good film, with interesting stylized art, a few good laughs, and a surprisingly dark storyline for an animated film. (There were a handful of kids at the screening I attended; It'd be interesting to know how they responded to it.) It's pretty short (65 minutes) for a theatrical release, though, and the ending is a little too abrupt. Worth checking out on DVD if you like traditional animation. It was preceded by a very short, very silly animated short called The Extinction of the Saber-Toothed House-Cat, which was interesting for its style: Flash animation overlaid on live-action montion picture footage. It's on YouTube (link above) if you want to check it out.
The Sequoya Library hosted a screening of The Island President, a documentary about Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldives from 2008 through 2012, and his efforts to convince other nations to take steps to attack global climate change, which is literally an existential threat to his nation. As levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and the Earth grows warmer, the oceans also get warmer and expand, as water will do when it grows warmer, putting the Maldives, which comprise 26 low-lying coral atolls, at risk of being completely submerged if sea levels continue to rise at current rates. The movie was OK; I thought the part f the movie that concerned Nasheed's backstory — he was educated in Britain, returned to the Maldives and became a political activist, and elected President in the country's first free and fair multi-party election in 30 years — was far more interesting than that about his climate-change advocacy. After the film, a UW-Madison professor led a discussion of climate change, which in short order was hijacked by one of those painfully earnest activist types who are so thick on the ground hereabouts.
In the literary arts, finished part III of The Mysteries of Udolpho. These last chapters contained some actual excitement and action, as Emily and her maidservant made their escape from Castle Udolpho! On the other hand, it also had the most prosaic possible explanation for the supposedly supernatural events of the previous chapters, not to mention an utterly unsurprising surprise reveal. Emily was surprised into insensibility by it, of course, but she's a dip.
Moving from the arts to the humanities, if those aren't the same thing, I attended two public lectures this week:
Damián Fernández of Northern Illinois University gave a lunchtime presentation entitled, "Trickle-Down Sacredness: Building Churches in the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo (c. 550-711)." Specifically, rural churches, and how they changed in the 6th and 7th centuries. Prior to that time, rural churches tended to be small, built by and for aristocratic land owners, and oriented around family mausoleums, whereas in the period under discussion they became larger, were used both by the aristocrats who built them and the peasants living in the area, and were oriented and the altar and baptismal font, which reflected both the shift in the church's focus toward conversion and the remission of sins, and the growing political power of the Church and the desire of the rural elite to curry favor and secure the protection of the bishops. The topic was not uninteresting (you'll need to take my word for it, I'm afraid), but the speaker was; he basically just read from the paper in front of him.
Dr. Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, spoke Friday night on why Christianity was flourishing worldwide, particularly in places like Asia, Africa, and South America, but was struggling on American college campuses. The short answer is that Christianity — any religion, really — has always spoken most powerfully to people living on the margin, for whom matters of basic survival are first and foremost on people's minds, or very recently have been, so it stands to reason that Christianity would on the rise in the developing world and stagnant or declining in the developed world. As far as college campuses in particular are concerned, it's a combination of factors: a greater concern for utilitarian values than spiritual ones, a consequence of a college education being viewed primarily as a tool for economic advancement; a certain lack of interest in restraint and self-sacrifice among many young people living on their own for the first time; the recent trend in scholarship away from hegemonic/paternalistic traditions that have long dominated western society; and necessary exclusion of the divine from the study of natural sciences. He doesn't necessarily view any of those four things, especially the last two, as negative, just that they're not conducive to the promotion of religion belief.