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This is a really weird poster. It looks like they are all hovering in the sky like Mary Poppins or something.

I’ll skip my usual plot-point-by-plot-point synopsis for this one–I think most readers are already familiar with World War II. Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill’s (Gary Oldman) first days as Prime Minister in May 1940. Hitler’s armies are advancing through France and closing in on British forces at Dunkirk.

The film depicts Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), Churchill’s predecessor as Prime Minister, and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) attempting to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler. Churchill argues with them repeatedly, as the Nazis draw ever closer to Dunkirk, and the news grows more bleak by the day,

Churchill is on the point of giving in to the calls for negotiations when he makes a spontaneous (and apparently completely invented for the sake of the film) visit to the London Underground, where all the passengers he talks to are strongly in favor of fighting to the bitter end–bricklayers, new mothers, and children all are fiercely opposed to the idea of negotiating.

This is a major over-simplification of how public opinion works. I understand the scene was intended to convey that Churchill was in tune with the spirit of the people, but it just seemed ham-handed and unbelievable, which raises the question of why they bothered to invent the scene at all. Why make something up just to have it be the weakest part of the drama?

His faith in the British fighting spirit restored, Churchill makes his famous “We shall fight on the beaches”  speech to Parliament. The evacuation of Dunkirk he ordered is a success, and the film ends with Churchill receiving overwhelming applause for his resolve.

The plot may be a bit thin, and of course, like all historical dramas, is hampered by the fact that we know what’s going to happen, but the performances of the major roles are all quite solid. Oldman does a terrific job, portraying Churchill as a flawed, temperamental man, capable of brilliant oratory as well as moments of confusion and depression. Kristin Scott Thomas is also very good as Churchill’s wife Clementine, although it seemed at times like the writer and/or director didn’t know what to do with her.

The big problems with the film were immersion-breaking things like the scene in the Underground, or another scene where they are playing a film reel to brief the Prime Minister, and the images displayed are fairly obviously what you get if you ask for “stock footage of Nazis”. (Why would Churchill, at a briefing about Dunkirk, need to see footage of Hitler giving a speech?)

Also, the cinematographer applied that grayish blue washed-out color filter that apparently everything set in England is supposed to have these days. This is far from the only movie to do this, so I don’t mean to single it out, but this desaturation business is getting tiresome. Can’t we just have normal colors?

Still, this is one of those movies that hinges on the performances, and those are certainly good enough to make it enjoyable.

Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.

It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read: The Doctors’ Plague.

The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.

This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.

Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?

After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?

The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”

I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.

I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.

There’s an interesting article by Prof. Julia Azari at FiveThirtyEight that argues Trump is more like a 19th-century President. What’s really good about the article is that it’s about more than just Trump–it illustrates how the Presidency has expanded in power in the century:

“Modern presidents have exercised considerable influence over the nation’s policy agenda and the legislation Congress considers and passes. They also communicate with the nation about their policy priorities — we see this, for instance, in the evolution of the State of the Union, which started as a written message to Congress and has become a nationally televised speech. But when the Constitution was written, it wasn’t necessarily designed to give presidents this kind of sway over domestic affairs. The tools for policy influence that presidents now have, such as the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t used to exist.”

And what’s more, this expansion of the Executive’s power came at the expense of Legislative power–which, as I discussed here, is actually in the interest of both branches. (Though perhaps not the nation itself.)

This gradual erosion of the Legislative branch–with its consent!–is a major reason why the government is so dysfunctional.

Possibly the worst movie poster in history.
Poster for “Waterloo”

In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.

As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.

All that’s quite hard enough.  But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.

It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.

Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815.  Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.

After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career.  There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience.  Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond.   This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere.  The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).

Wellington and the Duchess
“Old Boney’s advancing on Quatre-Bras… IF you know what I mean.”

The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.

It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.

The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud.  The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.

The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.

There are lots of issues like this.  After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing?  Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”

While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.

And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.

Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.

Waterloo_1970_06Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible.  As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field.  It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.

It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative.  Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle.  Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.

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Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

All done?  Good.

The part I loved most was this:

“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”

This is a highly significant point.  On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.

But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.

Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express.  It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.

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“Wonder Woman” poster. Image via Wikipedia, re-used under “Fair Use”.

Superhero movies are not my favorite genre. But I have long enjoyed watching re-runs of the old Wonder Woman TV series starring Lynda Carter, so I made a point of seeing this one.

Another thing that intrigued me is that the movie is set in World War I. (The character of Wonder Woman was originally created in the 1940s, and therefore was naturally depicted fighting in World War II against the Nazis.)

This was interesting to me for a couple of reasons: first, Hollywood normally can’t resist inserting Nazis into things on the flimsiest of pretexts; so to have no Nazis when the source material actually includes them is a pretty bold artistic choice.  Second, World War I is not nearly as well-known to modern audiences as World War II, so this setting seems like a bit of a risk from a marketing perspective. I like risk-taking.

I also like spoiling movies, so be warned–I’m now going to describe the plot, with spoilers!

The film begins in the present-day with Diana (Gal Gadot) receiving a photograph from the first World War, showing her in her full Wonder Woman garb, standing alongside a ragtag band of soldiers.

This segues into young Diana’s childhood on a hidden island of Amazon warriors. Diana wishes to train as a warrior under General Antiope (Robin Wright), but her mother forbids it, and tells her a cautionary tale about the horrors of war. She explains that Zeus created men to be peaceful, but they were corrupted by the God of War, Ares. Zeus then created the Amazons to protect mankind, and Ares was ultimately defeated. But Zeus also created “the God-Killer”–a weapon housed on the Amazons’ island, in case Ares should return.

Despite these warnings, Diana trains in secret anyway.  Her mother eventually finds out and initially disapproves, but ultimately is persuaded to let her continue.

One day, after a sparring session, an airplane crashes just off the shore.  Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), and the Amazons defeat the German forces pursuing him, but General Antiope is killed in the battle.

The Amazons question Capt. Trevor, who explains that he is fighting in the “War to end all Wars”. His plane was shot down as he was fleeing the Germans having stolen a notebook from a chemist nicknamed “Dr. Poison” and her commander, General Ludendorff, who are working to create a super-deadly poison gas.

Diana quickly realizes that the war Steve describes must be the work of Ares. She takes the God-Killer weapons and asks Steve to travel with her to the outside world and the center of the fighting, where she is sure they will find Ares.

Steve first takes her to London and delivers Dr. Poison’s notebook to his superiors. They can’t read what it says, but Diana can, and realizes it means the Germans are manufacturing and preparing to deploy the new, more lethal gas at the Front.

Sir Patrick Morgan, one of Steve’s superiors, is close to getting the Germans to agree to an armistice, but Diana believes Ludendorff is actually Ares, and will use the gas no matter what.

Diana, Steve, and a small group assembled with help from Sir Patrick go to the Front to destroy the supplies of poison gas.  Thanks to Diana’s heroics, they successfully liberate a small town and learn that Ludendorff is in the area, planning to attend a gala for the German officers at a castle nearby.

Sir Patrick orders them not to attack the gala, as he is close to finalizing the armistice. However, they go anyway. (Notice a pattern here?) The Germans fire the gas into the recently-liberated village, killing the inhabitants, much to Diana’s horror.

Diana tracks Ludendorff to an airfield where the Germans are about to deploy a massive long-range bomber loaded with the poison gas. Steve and his men attempt to take the bomber, while Diana kills Ludendorff with the God-Killer sword.

Diana is shocked that the fighting doesn’t stop on Ludendorff’s death. She starts to wonder if all mortals truly are inherently evil and prone to violence. At that moment, Sir Patrick appears, and reveals that he is in fact the God Ares, but that he does not cause wars–he merely exposes the true, dark nature of Zeus’s creation.

Meanwhile, Steve and his men fight their way to the bomber, and Steve is able to get aboard, knowing the only way to stop it from delivering its payload is for him to personally destroy it.

Diana and Ares fight a massive battle, and when Diana sees the bomber explode with Steve aboard, she rallies and defeats Ares, having been persuaded that humanity has the capacity for good as well as evil.

The closing scenes show Diana in London, somberly remembering Steve as cheering crowds celebrate the end of the war. The film ends with a return to the present-day Diana, looking at the old photograph of her and Steve, taken when they liberated the village.

As is typical of the genre, there are lots of drawn-out, special effects-heavy fighting scenes.  These are not bad for the most part–though definitely not to my taste. Each of them seemed to go on longer than necessary–thanks in part to an overuse of slow-motion effects. This was especially true of the final showdown between Diana and Ares. Since Diana’s victory was a foregone conclusion, it really did not need to drag on that long.

Much more interesting are the “character” scenes–yes, that’s right; the parts where people actually talk to one another. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together, and their scenes were my favorite parts of the film.  Romantic sub-plots in action movies can very easily become pointless and tiresome, but the sparks between Diana and Steve seem genuine, and it gives the story some real heart.

One interesting aspect of their scenes is that they frequently talk simultaneously or interrupt one another.  This happened quite often–almost to the point of being overused–but it also made their conversations feel spontaneous, rather than just like two actors reciting lines at each other.

I wish the film had dwelt a bit more upon Diana’s relationship with Steve, and her impressions of the “outside world” in general–there was a little too much time in the second half devoted instead to Steve’s merry band of sidekicks.  They were mildly entertaining, but I think it would have been better to let them be nameless grunts rather than try to make them “colorful”. It’s Diana’s story, after all.

The script didn’t even try to use language that was appropriate for the time period–all the allied soldiers and officers spoke in modern lingo. Even more puzzling to me was that occasionally some characters would speak in a foreign language, with subtitles, but the Germans (and some of our heroes when posing as Germans) would speak in German-accented English.

I’d be interested to know the details of some of the weapons used in the film.  Some are obviously fanciful, others seem to have been trying to stay faithful to the period.  At one point, Steve still has a Colt 1911 despite being disguised as German colonel–that seemed weird to me. But after all, this is a comic-book superhero movie, so I tried to tune out the nit-picking historian voice in my head.

This brings me back around to the setting, which as I discussed at the outset was something that interested me in the film. I still think it was daring (by Hollywood franchise standards, that is) to change the setting to a less-familiar time period.

However, given what actually happens in the movie, it’s a bit puzzling. In fact, World War I actually did end with an armistice, and the real Ludendorff survived the war and went on to be influential in the early years of the Nazi Party.  So, given what happens in the film, is it supposed to be the beginning of an alternate history tale in which World War II did not happen? That would be quite interesting, but it’s left very vague and unexplored.  Fertile ground for a sequel, I suppose…

It’s not a bad film by any means, the plodding CGI boss fight at the end notwithstanding. The other fights are good enough, if you like that sort of thing, and Gal Gadot is a very likeable and charismatic lead.

As I said, I have seen few superhero films. The only recent ones I have watched are Marvel’s Thor and its sequel, The Dark World. The former is a delightful adventure that ranks among my favorite movies.  The latter, sadly, is more what I gather the typical superhero movie is like: a CGI-laden affair, with little time for character development or nuanced emotion of any kind.

This is noteworthy because Patty Jenkins, who directed Wonder Woman, was originally hired by Marvel to direct The Dark World, before leaving over the dreaded “creative differences”. It’s a pity; having seen Wonder Woman, I would have liked to have seen what she could have done with it.

Wonder Woman isn’t a great movie, but it’s certainly an entertaining summer flick, and it’s nice to see a film with a female lead and a female director drawing crowds to the theaters.  Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a trend in the entertainment industry.

When I was a lad, I used the family video camera to make all sorts of crazy movies.  I wanted to be the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.

Naturally, being a young boy, my preferred genre was action/adventure. My main stylistic influences were Star Wars, The Terminator, and the James Bond movies. (Yes, I know I had no business seeing those so young, but there it is.)

I had several long-running series that I added to whenever I could get the camera and a new tape. (For readers under the age of 25: tapes were something that we used back then to record data.)

There was the “James Monkey” series–a collaboration between me and a friend which starred us as members of an elite secret agent team led by a toy monkey, whom we dubbed “James” for the parallel with James Bond.

Then there was the “Secret Agent Boy” series, which starred just me as an elite secret agent who operated alone, against enemies who were either invisible or strongly resembled plastic Halloween skeletons. (I was an only child.)

But my most elaborate series was a convoluted stop-motion epic I made using pretty much all of my action figures and other toys.  It was a franchise crossover-laden multiverse, involving figures from Star Wars, The Terminator, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon and many other random figures I had, led by the unlikely duo of Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, from the Richard Scarry Busytown series.

(Some background: Huckle and Lowly were my favorite characters as a little kid. Naturally, I read all the books and then asked my Dad to make up new stories involving them.  Dad’s stories were typically a darker take on the Richard Scarry canon–for example, one involved Huckle and Lowly running away to join the French Foreign Legion.)

The point here is, if you were wondering at what point in my life I first started creating weird fiction, the answer is “pretty early”. In fact, looking back, I realize nothing I’ve written as an adult is half as weird as some of the stuff I dreamed up when I was 10 years old.

Anyway, the reason I bring all of this up is that the other day I happened to find an old box with DVDs of my movies.  Most of them are too long and too incoherent to post in full, but I found a few sections that I thought I’d share for your amusement.

The first is a car chase scene.  If you can’t tell–and I’ll be very surprised if you can–what’s supposed to be going on is that a bad guy shoots out the tires on our heroes’ car, causing it to flip over and skid off a ramp–but not before it crashes into said bad guy.

I was so proud of those special effects when I was a kid.  Hours of work for a few seconds of absurdly incomprehensible screen time.

The second clip is the opening title sequence to the same movie. (I’ve blurred the credits to avoid embarrassing any family members.) It’s called “Dr. Maybe”, because all my movie titles were parodies of Bond film titles. Also, to explain the first title card: the Buhwumbabumbas were another invention of my Dad’s–a warlike species of aliens who would frequently invade Earth to steal our supplies of their most prized commodity: baked beans.

Once again, this is probably totally mystifying to anyone who isn’t me.  It’s supposed to depict the Buhwumbabumba ship landing on Earth. How I ever thought it actually conveyed that is beyond me.

One thing I am still proud of is that musical score.  Composed by me–a person with no musical talent or training whatsoever–using my electronic keyboard.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it holds up pretty well.