Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Save Us From The Stupid People

"Hey, what's the worst that can happen?" ~ Dougie Albans, Village Idiot, April 16th, 1978

"....Mr. Albans, also known as Dougie, was found five miles away in the aftermath of the barbecue explosion, babbling about seeing the elephant. He was examined by doctors, who pronounced him stable but stupid." ~ news reporter, two days later

The notion of the Darwin Awards has been around awhile. Some very stupid people (okay, ninety nine percent of the time it's men, because yes, we're stupid, and yes, it usually starts with a watch this sort of line) have a tendency to test the bounds of the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest. I thought I'd amuse myself, and hopefully you, with a few Darwin Award moments in pics.

Incidentally, my idiot ex-brother-in-law is a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards. He's a pretty dimwitted  moron, after all. And he has no idea just how dumb he is. I keep expecting him to buy the farm someday by falling through the ice while ice fishing, or being one of those buffoons who drives a snowmobile into open water.

Monday, January 27, 2014

From Russia With Psychotic Financiers

Before we get things started, some links to look at. Over at our joint blog, we've got another Snippet Sunday post set up. And since this is winter, and for some inexplicable reason some people dislike winter, I have two winter blogs for your consideration at Cindy's page, where winter has taken quite a turn, and at The Maple Syrup Mob, where winter drags on. And over at Norma's page, she's taking part in a giveaway featuring multiple books and authors. Now then, as for today, we've got ourselves a movie review to look after...

"You Americans like to think of yourselves as direct. Perhaps you are just rude." ~Viktor Cherevin

"You Russians like to think you're poets, but perhaps you're just touchy." ~ Jack Ryan

The new film Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit takes on the signature character- a response to the James Bond character, only American and monogamous- from the late writer Tom Clancy and puts him into a new era in an original story. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, this reboot of sorts refashions Ryan while also fitting back into the sensibilities of the Cold War, what with featuring Russians as villains.

The film resets Ryan (Chris Pine, Star Trek) as a grad student in London who watches the events of 9/11 from afar, ends up joining the Marines, is wounded in action, and meets his future wife Cathy (Keira Knightley), a doctor. He also comes to the attention of William Harper, a CIA officer, who recruits him into the Agency.

In the present day, Ryan maintains a cover on Wall Street as an executive, using his position in the financial world to monitor financial transactions that might suggest terrorist activities. He uncovers irregularities pointing to an embittered Russian oligarch, Viktor Cheverin (Branagh) that could wreck havoc with the American economy, and the path takes him down roads that lead to the full understanding of just what Cheverin has in store for the world.

Branagh does double duty here as director, helming the film. He's got a good record in that respect, with films as varied as Henry V, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Peter's Friends, Dead Again, and Thor to his credit. He knows how to crank up suspense as a storyteller, and the technical details of filmmaking. He can craft a fight scene or an action sequence very well- the climactic sequence here, for instance. Branagh infuses tension into the film as he goes along. And as an actor with a Shakespearean background, he has an innate understanding of character personalities and the eccentricities of actors, both of which are good things for a director to know. He assembles a crew that for the most part does their job well- one exception being the flaw of the film- and makes good use of locations for filming. His frequent musical collaborator Patrick Doyle returns to compose the score, and does a fine job with it.

The flaw, however, is in the story itself. Screenwriters Adam Kozad and David Koepp went with an original story as opposed to adapting one of the novels. This has something of a double edged sword kind of quality to it. The Clancy novels tend to be huge, expansive works, and don't lend themselves well to adaptations into film. The financial attack side of things in the plot hints at a similar plotline in the novel Debt of Honor, but that's the only other link, aside from Jack and Cathy, to the novels. Writing this as an original story tends to have its drawbacks, and that shows itself. Recrafting Ryan's origins isn't as successful as the writers might have wished, and there are slow spots in the script that the cast and director have to overcome. Generally once things move to Russia, the film picks up and finds its pace, but the inconsistencies and derivativeness of the script can be a hindrance. 

Branagh chooses his cast reasonably well for this, and they help him elevate the film above the story. The smaller supporting roles have interesting casting. Former ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov turns up in an uncredited role as a Russian official, which was a surprise, and he seems to be enjoying the role. Colm Feore, the exceptional character actor you've seen many times over (and who in fact appeared in the last Ryan film, The Sum Of All Fears as a villain) turns up here as well. 

Branagh himself nearly steals the entire film as the villain, having a ball and chewing the scenery. His Cherevin is a nasty, coldblooded piece of work... but he's also a whole lot of fun. Costner is also well cast here as the career Agency field man, accustomed to being at headquarters or out in some rough spot doing what needs to be done. There's a cynical gruffness in his performance that suits the character, and Costner makes him feel genuine. 

This brings us to the two leads. Keira Knightley has a varied resume of roles as an actress; perhaps as a result of the weaknesses of the script, she doesn't really come into her own as a character until she turns up in Russia and gets involved in Jack's work. She's oddly enough at her most compelling and strongest while sparring with Viktor. Pine is now the fourth actor to take on Jack Ryan, after Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. He gives the character a different take, more of an action emphasis than previous performances. Like Knightley, he's trapped somewhat by the hindrances of the script, but that's no fault of his own. What he does convey quite well is the man who can think quickly on his feet, an essential element of the Ryan character.

Despite the flaws of the script, director, cast, and crew rise above it and give us an entertaining spy thriller. It  is enthusiastic about that. Will there be more of Jack Ryan to come? Is it possible to adapt one of the novels? Or with the passing of the author, is this the end of the line for Jack Ryan as well?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Is It So Wrong To Break Into Westminster Abbey?

I was going to do a movie review for something just out in theatres today, but it's Robbie Burns Day... so I thought I'd review a film from some years ago with a Scottish theme...

"You may as well go for the Crown Jewels! You'll never get away with it!" ~ Bill Craig

"We fight not for glory, not for wealth, nor honours, but only and alone for freedom, which no man surrenders but with his life." ~ Ian Hamilton

The 2008 film Stone Of Destiny is a character study and a heist film from actor and director Charles Martin Smith, telling the story of a group of Scottish university students in 1950 who scheme to lift the Stone of Scone, otherwise known as the Stone of Destiny, from Westminster Abbey and bring it back to Scottish soil. Ian Hamilton (Charlie Cox) is a student searching for his place in life, involved in the campaign for Scottish home rule. His father is a hard, distant man (played by the magnificent character actor Peter Mullan); his mother assures Ian that his father is proud of him... but Ian wishes he'd say so himself.

Ian and his classmate Bill (Billy Boyd, from the Lord Of The Rings trilogy) find themselves talking about the notion of doing something audacious, to rally the Scots to the cause- and choose the Stone of Destiny, long since in English hands contained within a throne in the Abbey, as that audacious act. They plan together, scheme and prepare... until Bill backs out, worried by what an arrest would mean to his future.

Ian is still dedicated to the cause, pointed in the right direction by a vocal proponent of Scottish home rule, John McCormick (Robert Carlyle). This leads him to another student, Kay Matheson (Kate Mara), who shares his passion for the cause, and to another pair of conspirators and students, Gavin (Stephen McCole) and Alan (Ciaron Kelly). The group set out for England, determined to break into the Abbey at Christmas time, steal back the Stone, and escape for the Highlands in a classic Scottish raid.

Smith has been known as an actor, for such diverse works as American Graffiti, Never Cry Wolf, and perhaps his best known role as the bookish agent in The Untouchables. He has also done a good deal of work as a writer and director in film and television. He's a good storyteller, knows how to pay attention to details, and understands both sides of the cameras quite well. Take a look at another of his works, the adaptation of a Farley Mowat story in The Snow Walker, and he knows how to give us a story rich in characterization and the sense of place. These qualities are all on display in Stone Of Destiny. 

The crew evokes the times in their work. Look at the clothing, the props, even the hair, and it all fits in with the dawn of the Fifties in Scotland and England. Smith chose location shooting around the British isles- and even got rare permission to shoot sequences in the Abbey, surprisingly. The camera work serves the story, and the film moves at a brisk pace. Composer Mychael Danna provides the score, infused with Scottish themes and bagpipes, blending in with the movie very well. And Smith's screenplay lends a good sense of humour into the proceedings.

The casting of the film is interesting. There's a blink and you'll miss it cameo by the real Ian Hamilton, six decades on. Yes, this is based on a real story. As to the main characters? Carlyle has an eclectic history as an actor of various parts, and he plays McCormick with a gruff but sympathetic sensibility. He believes in his cause, is supportive of the heist, as much as he can be, since he is the public face of the larger home rule movement and can't actually take part. Billy Boyd, who spent more than enough time in Middle Earth as a hobbit in the first Tolkien trilogy by Peter Jackson, brings something of the same sense of humour and wry timing as Bill, and though he backs out on the plan early, his reasons are understandable, and it doesn't mean he's quite turned his back on the cause.

McCole and Kelly are contrasting actors in two different roles as Gavin and Alan. This is the only film that I've seen either of them in, but they bring both characters to life. McCole plays Gavin as the boisterous, amused-at-the-world engineering student, big and gruff. You get to like him pretty quickly, even if he can drink anyone under the table. Kelly is much more subdued as Alan, a quiet, shy, and studious young man, hard to come out of his shell, but as we see more of him, we see someone who can improvise quickly, and who's just as dedicated to the heist as anyone else.

The two leads are well cast. I've liked Kate Mara in pretty much anything I've seen her in, and she does well here. She's outspoken, smart, and passionate. There's a strength in the character, and she plays off that very well. Her take on a Scottish accent works well enough here. And there's a good deal of chemistry in the way she banters with Charlie Cox throughout the film.

Cox is terrific as Ian; he is committed to the cause, something he believes in, and he's willing to break the law for what he sees as the right thing to do. Cox also brings a roguish scoundrel kind of sensibility to the character, something we also see in his work in Stardust. He is determined to carry out his plan, comes across as a good leader for an unlikely raid, and deals with problems as they come along quite well. I'd like to see him in other roles- he's one of the actors I could plausibly see playing one of my two leading characters in my writings.

Stone Of Destiny is a whimsical comedy, a heist film, and an interesting character study. Charles Martin Smith assembles a cast and crew that tells a story that has an uplifting kind of quality to it. It also has a very Scottish sense of humour, and it appeals to the side of me that wants to go wander in the Highlands for a month or three.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Night In The Life Of A Cat

4:30 PM. I am most displeased. Who authorized a power outage without clearing it with me first? I am Cat! Hear me roar!

4:35 PM. The staff seems to be taking all of this well indeed. She has stepped outside to turn on the generator. Unfortunately all that does is keep the freezer going, with enough juice left for one or two other appliances. Not the lights.

4:50 PM. The staff is back inside, thoroughly snowy. Staff, I want you to write a tersely worded letter to the hydro company, telling them in no uncertain words that they can rot in hell for all eternity, and if they don't like it, there's a middle finger fully extended for them to consider.

4:52 PM. The staff didn't seem to understand my insistence about the letter. Instead she went upstairs. I gaze at the cuckoo clock. One of my most hated enemies pops out of a little slot up there every hour on the hour. One of these days, Cuckoo Bird, you and I will have our reckoning.

4:55 PM. The staff comes back downstairs wearing an extra sweater. Staff, I demand that you call the hydro service and find out when the power will be back on. Staff? Staff?

Hey, get back here!

4:59 PM. Watching the clock. Waiting for the imminent appearance of my hated nemesis.

5:00 PM. There he is. Cuckoo!  I don't care that it's not a real bird, it's still intruding in my space!

One of these days, bird, one of these days...

5:55 PM. The staff is making herself some sandwiches. You had better be including something for me in there. Chicken would do splendidly.

6:00 PM. The staff gives me field rations in the bowl. Staff, I don't care that the power is out, I will not eat field rations twice in one day!

I walk away in a snit.

6:05 PM. The staff settles down on the couch in the living room. She puts a plate down beside her own. It has a few strips of chicken meat on it.

Much better, staff, much better.

6:08 PM. The staff and I eat in companionable silence. 

6:15 PM. Staff, I would remind you that there is ice cream in the fridge freezer, and if this goes on much longer, it might melt. We can't chance on waiting til morning. I think we need to eat it. I'll even let you have half.

6:35 PM. The staff seems to enjoy candlelight. I don't particularly know why. Candles smell like wax, and the light is kind of mesmerizing. 

7:05 PM. The staff brings back two bowls from the kitchen. Sure enough, they contain ice cream. Strawberry and cream, just the way I like it.

Now this is good treatment, staff. Is there more? We really ought to finish it all up so that it doesn't go bad....

7:30 PM. Satisfied by a good dinner, despite the power outage. Not sure why the staff even bothered pouring in field rations into that bowl... I'm not going to touch it, after all.

8:55 PM. Waking up from a nap by the fireplace. Feels very pleasant to have all this warmth. The staff has been putting together a bed near the fireplace.

Well, staff, this is what you get for not having a generator that'll power up the furnace too. You get to spend the night outside of your bed. 

I get prime spot by the fireplace, though. Just so you know.

9:20 PM. The staff is reading. I'm sitting on the couch staring out into the night. Can't even make out the road from here. 

9:30 PM. I wonder what that annoying dog from down the road is doing right about now. Probably wagging his annoying tail and drooling like the annoying idiot he is.

10:15 PM. Just how long does it take for these power crews to actually restore power? Will someone explain that to me?

11:25 PM. The staff says she's turning in. Leaves a light switch on in the kitchen in case the power comes back on. What? You're not going to stay up to see how long it takes?

11:50 PM. Watching the staff sleeping by firelight. She seems entirely too comfortable. Maybe I ought to walk all over her for no reason at all.

12:40 AM. Contemplating how best to make use of the staff as a food source should the storm go on for days and we run out of food. Note to self: only as a last resort.

2:55 AM. Sitting on back of couch, staring out into blizzard, twitching my tail. Come on, hydro crews! Hurry up already! I haven't got all night!

3:52 AM. My mind is wandering as I continue my vigil to await the restoration of power. What is the meaning of life? Is catnip the ultimate reward? Just what does that despicable red dot want? And what is the purpose of dogs?

4:35 AM. Suddenly the lights come on in the kitchen and the appliances hum back to working order. Oh, wonderful. It only took the hydro crews twelve hours plus.

Assuming the power doesn't go out again in five minutes.

4:45 AM. Settling down beside the staff. Power back on or not, that fireplace looks nice and relaxing and comfortable. I can sleep for a thousand years. Wake me up if there's a sale on catnip.