Archive for the ‘Not-So-Casual Commentary’ Category

Thoughts on “Antony and Cleopatra”

December 7, 2022

This is another historical, and is a sequel to the best historical I’ve read up until this point in “Julius Caesar”.  This also is an oddity for a historical, where the main focus is on the title characters and we follow their story through the play.  In “Julius Caesar”, the focus was not on Caesar but was on Brutus, and Caesar himself dies early on in the play, but here this actually is the story of Antony and Cleopatra as they head towards their tragic ends.

The basic story is recounting the story of the second triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus.  Lepidus is portrayed as a member of the triumvirate who at least talked as if he was equally impressed by Octavius and Antony, but is really a minor character here.  Antony is spending his time with Cleopatra in Egypt, and when she advances her claims that her son Caesarion is Caesar’s that and Antony’s staying there Octavius starts to suspect that this will cause a rebellion so that the two of them can seize power, and so he calls Antony back to Rome to soothe his suspicions.  Antony agrees to marry Octavius’ sister, but immediately decides that he will return to Cleopatra anyway.  Meanwhile, Cleopatra is enraged at the news that Antony married Octavius’ sister.  They soon reconcile, but this causes the very split that the marriage was supposed to prevent and Octavius and Antony and Rome and Egypt go to war.  Antony takes the incautious tack of attacking at sea rather than at land and loses a huge battle, that is somewhat retrieved with a land battle the next day, but eventually he is defeated and he commits suicide.  At the time, Octavius was not willing to treat with Antony for a peace treaty but was willing to be quite lenient towards Cleopatra, but she suspects that Octavius’ sister is going to have it in for her and that she will be humiliated, and so she commits suicide as well.

The big problem with this play is that while is does focus on Antony and Cleopatra, neither of them are very interesting protagonists, and neither of them actually act all that nice throughout the play, but their problems are not ones that can properly carry drama or tragedy.  Antony is inconsistent throughout the entire play, first accepting the marriage to Octavius’ sister and then immediately repudiating it to return to Cleopatra.  If it had been presented as him knowing that he needed to do it but then being tempted by Cleopatra or even the memory of her, it would have made him more sympathetic.  It doesn’t help that his ill-fated attack is one that pretty much all of his officers tell him is a move that he shouldn’t make, so he looks less tragic and more stupid, and since that is what ultimately results in his suicide we really want it to be more tragic.

For her part, Cleopatra has a running gag where she assumes the worst about someone coming to tell her news and keeps going on about it and speculating about it and what it means so that the person coming to tell her the news can’t get it out over her objections.  This is mildly amusing, but also presents her as a bit scattered and overly emotional.  This wouldn’t be a problem, but she is also saddled with scenes where she berates and torments the messenger for bringing her bad news, threatening even greater punishments and beating him for not lying to her, which makes her unsympathetic.  Again, the only dramatic and tragic elements revolve around the two of them, and her death ends the play, so we really need her to be a sympathetic character so that we feel the right feelings there, and we don’t.  In fact, we don’t feel that her assessment that the Romans are going to humiliate her is accurate, and are more inclined to think that Octavius really wanted to show her mercy given that her assessments of such things throughout the play are almost always wrong.  So she too comes across as more stupid than tragic.

I came into this play and “Julius Caesar” knowing things about the main characters from history and other works, and feeling sympathetic towards them because of it.  That is what carried me through this play, because there is no time taken to develop those characters and make us feel for them in the play itself, which is a hallmark of the historicals.  However, by the end I ended up disliking Antony and Cleopatra despite coming in liking them, and given the structure of the play that isn’t what was intended.  Given that, I didn’t care much for this play, which leaves “Julius Caesar” as the best historical so far, and I’d dare say the only one so far that was unequivocally good.

Up next is what I think is another historical in “Coriolanus”.

Thoughts on “King Lear”

November 30, 2022

This is another play that I happened to study in an English class at some point, probably in high school.  I recalled enjoying it, so it was another play that I was somewhat looking forward to.  And it’s a tragedy, which certainly is a point in its favour.

The basic premise is that King Lear is aging and is probably even entering into his dotage — and is probably a little senile — and so he decides to divide up England among his three daughters.  But before he does so, he asks them how much they love him.  The two older ones — Goneril and Regan — praise him profusely and talk about how great their love for him is, but the youngest — Cordelia — says that she cannot declare that she loves him more than anyone else ever.  This enrages him and he cuts her off from her inheritance over the objections of his closest advisor, and doing so almost scuppers the proposed marriages that he was considering for her, but the King of France maintains his suit in spite of not receiving a dowry and in the face of Lear’s displeasure and marries her, taking her away to France.  Lear also turns his anger on his advisor and exiles him.  Lear is supposed to spend his time staying with his two daughters, but while staying with Goneril he causes her some trouble both with his actions and with his sizeable retinue, which she wants to reduce.  When he refuses, she insists and he attempts to go stay with Regan, but she is on Goneril’s side and they insist that he reduce his retinue and moderate his behaviour to a degree that he considers unacceptable.   Ultimately, they lock him out in a storm, which seems to badly impact his mental state as he slips into insanity.  Meanwhile, his advisor has disguised himself and returned to England, and he supports him.  At the same time, another noble is trying to take his brother’s inheritance and contrives a charge against him that is false, and then wrangles his way into Goneril and Regan’s good graces, which causes them to want to ditch their existing husbands and marry him instead.  Goneril’s husband is reasonable and opposes their general aims and treatment of their father, but Regan’s husband is as cruel as they are.  Cordelia eventually returns with an army from France and they find Lear, but lose the subsequent battle and the other noble orders Cordelia killed while being taken into custody, which is the last straw for Lear’s sanity and he dies as well, while Regan’s husband was killed earlier which causes the two of them to kill each other to try to land the noble, and then of course the noble is executed as well.

For a good tragedy, we should be able to see the tragic events coming but note that the personalities involved will make it so that they can’t avoid those outcomes.  But here that doesn’t seem to be the case.  There was no reason for Cordelia to respond to Lear’s question about how much she loves him the way she did, as she goes over and above simply saying that she wouldn’t flatter him to trying to make rather specious arguments about how she’d have to spare some love for her husband and so on and so forth.  Once she finds out about Lear’s condition, there’s no real reason for her to invade as opposed to simply trying to bring Lear back to France, especially once she finds Lear and can return with him.  The play doesn’t establish that she and her husband — who returned to France and so wasn’t with them to be captured — were really trying to re-establish her legacy or restore Lear’s, and there seemed to be little reason for them to do so.  And yet, that’s the precise event that leads to Cordelia being captured and ultimately killed, which is the real tragic event that we’re supposed to focus on, but it ultimately ends up being nonsensical, which hampers the tragedy.

A big part of this, though, is that we don’t get to know Cordelia very much throughout the play, and so we have a hard time discerning her motives.  She is far too outspoken early on in the play, but we can feel a little happy for her when the King of France wants to marry her anyway, and it would have been nice if she had been able to keep that.  But then we don’t hear much of anything from her for pretty much the entire rest of the play, which leaves her motives in returning with an army unclear.  And as noted above, since that’s what ultimately costs her her happy ending we really need to understand what her motives are.  So we think that she was unfairly treated but could have happiness with the King of France, all of which is tossed away for an invasion that she didn’t need to do and that we are given no reason for.  So it isn’t the case that the tragedy follows from who she and Lear are, because we don’t really know who she is and we have to think that she should have been smart enough to avoid it, which makes it an inferior tragedy.

The tragedy also suffers from portraying the other sisters inconsistently.  They seem to have a point in arguing that Lear’s retinue is too large and too rowdy for them to support, that Lear himself can’t seem to control them, and that Lear in fact can’t even seem to control himself as he acts out against their servants and commits violence upon them.  Since they aren’t his servants, it seems like they’d have a point that he should treat them better and given the slip in his mentality it’s also reasonable to think that he’s doing that unreasonably and so when they didn’t deserve it.  But the play then quickly moves to make them almost cartoonishly villainous, locking him out in a raging storm and then immediately contriving to throw over their husbands for the other noble and contriving to kill their husbands and each other.  The shift from them being flatterers but seemingly committed to looking after their father and only reconsidering because he’s causing so much problems to people who would commit such crimes and care not one whit for their father is way too quick and moves them from being interesting antagonists to boring ones, so it cannot be a tragedy that the entire family dies, but their deaths also aren’t a relief or give us a sense that they received justice or a sense of irony that they ultimately destroyed each other.  Perhaps if the noble was a more compelling character it could be seen as the result of his schemes, but he isn’t and so really the only feeling their deaths instilled in me was relief that at least Goneril’s husband lived.

But I think the big issue here is that there isn’t really enough plot here to fill the number of pages this play has.  “Macbeth” covers 27 pages in my edition, while “King Lear” covers 39.  But “King Lear” certainly does not have a more involved plot than “Macbeth” does, and in fact it’s a pretty simple one at its base:  elderly King hands his property over to his children on the basis of flattery and exiles the one that wouldn’t flatter him, but it turns out that the only one who was truly loyal to and loved him was the one he exiled.  Yes, I outline a lot of things happening in the plot above, but they are mostly disconnected at least in terms of the characters — a theme of family members betraying family members and elderly nobles being fooled by words in lieu of deeds — and so there doesn’t seem to be a lot happening in the plot, and yet it seems to be spending a lot of time doing it.  As such, at times I found myself bored while reading it, which is not something I’m used to having happen in one of Shakespeare’s dramas/tragedies.

And ultimately, at the end of the play, I didn’t have a sense of tragedy like I did in “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet”, but instead felt, well, depressed.  I would really have liked Cordelia to survive and live in France, and felt her death was pointless, along with pretty much all of the other deaths.  It didn’t follow from the characters as written in the play because the play doesn’t really establish their characters in the play, and so it wasn’t a tragedy that they could have avoided but wouldn’t because of who they are, but instead seems more like them making stupid mistakes and unnecessary moves that led to their downfall.  That’s depressing, not tragic.

That being said, Shakespeare does manage to get us to care about Cordelia, which is why the ending was depressing, and his writing is indeed on form here and so the speeches and dialogue still works.  So it’s still a well-written play.  However, that I was ultimately so depressed by it means that it won’t be one of my favourites.  Still, it’s better than most of his comedies and most of his historicals.  It’s just, in my opinion, an inferior tragedy.

Up next is the sequel to “Julius Caesar” in “Antony and Cleopatra”.

Thoughts on “Silent Night”

November 29, 2022

This isn’t a movie that I picked up to start watching to get into the holiday spirit.  No, I actually watched this movie many months ago when I watched “The Fifth Element” and had a rough plan to watch that stack of Sci-Fi movies that I have (and never got around to doing that).  As I’ve wound down watching TV shows, it’s a good time to clear the stacks of things that I want to talk about and so finish off the two Sci-Fi movies that I had watched and never written about in preparation to watch some more Sci-Fi movies and write about them.  Maybe.

As it turns out, I wasn’t really sure how to classify this movie anyway.  The basic premise is that it’s Christmas and a strange storm has been brewing around the world that causes people to be infected with some kind of disease that kills them rather quickly.  It’s just about it hit the U.K., and the citizens have been given suicide pills so that they can kill themselves before it hits and they die horribly.  So they are spending their one last Christmas trying to get in one last gasp of frivolity and togetherness before the end.

Now, this could easily be a horror plot, except that the actual plague isn’t shown much at all (there are a couple of scenes with it).  It could be a straight drama, but the premise seems to be at least slightly futuristic given that it tracks events that might follow from what we’ve been doing to the world but that no one expects to actually happen, at least not that way, right now.  So I think it works better as a science fiction movie.  One thing that is clear, though, is that it’s meant to be a black comedy, with the plague hovering over them and the somewhat goofy events that happen as they try to ignore it for their own last gasp of happiness.

Which makes it a shame, then, that it’s not all that funny.  They did try, however, by contriving all sorts of situations where the preparations for the holiday and for the suicide go wrong in somewhat slapstick ways.  The best part is at the end when one family is preparing to down their pills and the kids are complaining that they were promised a full can of soda apiece and that it’s warm and the father has to run around trying to put all of this together.  But scenes like this are few and far between, which means that for the most part the humour is them sniping at each other which isn’t followed up on or them acting like idiots and dancing around which in a movie like this is more drama than it is comedy.  There’s just not enough humour in the movie for this to work as a great black comedy.

The movie does take the time to add some political commentary, with one girl talking about how this was caused by Russia when it wasn’t and with a couple of other characters talking about how the government didn’t get the pills to illegal immigrants and things like that.  This isn’t actually a bad thing in a movie like this, but what it is supposed to do is get a bunch of people together with radically different political views to spend their time together trying desperately to ignore that in light of the fact that they’re all going to be dead by New Year’s.  But outside of the dinner scene with the comment on the Russians that doesn’t happen, and it seems like we’re supposed to accept that the things they say are correct (except for the Russian thing), which means that it can’t be used as simply a thing they disagree on that they are trying to suppress but instead comes across as more like the writer winking at the audience about the things we obviously all know and agree on, right?

So without the comedy, we have to evaluate the dramatic moments, and the movie flubs that by making the drama nonsensical and yet correct anyway.  The big drama is that the one boy thinks that they could survive the plague, and in the one couple the woman is pregnant and starts to think that maybe she should stay alive to have the baby.  The boy ends up invented and seems to die, which then settles it for everyone and they all decide to take the pill and die, but then the boy wakes up later proving that in theory some people can live through it.  This should be triumphant on his part and cause us to feel that the deaths of everyone else was a tragedy … except that the way the story is structured even with that we know that in-universe the boy got luck and out-of-universe the writers contrived the story to produce that outcome.  As the movie establishes, the storm hit other parts of the world first, such as Africa if I recall correctly, and they would therefore have had lots of time to study it and see if there was any kind of reasonable survival rate, and since they decided to go with the suicide pill option they had to conclude that there wasn’t.  Also, we know that in any kind of plague like this some people will have natural immunity or fight it off so that he manages to survive doesn’t mean that he was right that there’s any reasonable chance of surviving.  And if the pregnant woman had tried to live, perhaps the baby would have lived but she wouldn’t have and then it would die anyway since no one would take care of it.  Even their own political statements work against them here since while they say that the Queen and some others are hiding in a bunker until it passes by the fact that the kills are being given to citizens and not immigrants means that the sort of government that would deny that to immigrants clearly thinks that the better option is to die peacefully from the pills than from the storm, and that they don’t expect anyone to survive the storm since they’d want their citizens to survive and not the immigrants.  And, again, they had lots of time to study its effect in other areas so that they could put this plan into place and decided that the suicide option was the better one.

So the boy surviving isn’t triumphant and isn’t proof that he was right.  He was still wrong but in-universe got lucky and out-of-universe benefited from writer fiat and contrivance.  So the ending is stupid and meaningless, but is trying to seem meaningful and important.  Any work where that happens leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the audience, and yeah, for me one of my main takeaways is that it had a really, really stupid ending.

Given all of that, this isn’t a movie that I want to watch again.  It had its moments, but not enough of them to redeem its ridiculous ending that contradicts its own story.  So, yeah, it goes in the box to possibly sell if I get a chance.

Thoughts on “Macbeth”

November 23, 2022

“Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, being less than 30 pages in the collection I’m reading — most are between 30 and 40 pages — and only taking me about an hour to read.  It’s also a play that I read in high school and wrote a couple of essays on, one that cast Banquo as a mostly noble person and not one wracked by ambition, and another that compared “Macbeth” to Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” series noting that in “Macbeth” people trusted too much and that caused the issues while in the “Amber” series people trusted too little and that caused the issues.  At any rate, this is a play that I’m pretty familiar with and that I probably had a rosier view of than most people do.  So I came in expecting to like it and so there really shouldn’t be any surprises here.

Anyway, the basic plot is that Macbeth and his lieutenant Banquo have just heroically won a major battle against an invasion force supported by some traitors against huge odds.  As they are returning to meet their king, Duncan, they encounter some witches who say that Macbeth will get additional lands and will eventually become king, while Banquo’s sons will be king (interestingly, I’m currently also rewatching “Babylon 5” and the similarities between this prophecy and the prophecy that both Londo and Vir will become Emperor, one becoming Emperor after the other is dead are striking).  When they meet the king, it turns out that he has given Macbeth those lands because of his heroism and because the previous owner was actually the traitor who allowed for the invasion in the first place, thus confirming the prophecy of the witches.  Given this, Macbeth and his wife start to believe that he will become king, but that is hampered by the fact that Duncan soon afterwards elevates his son to the position that would normally spawn the next king.  Macbeth and his wife hatch a plan to kill Duncan and frame Malcolm for the deed, leaving the throne open for Macbeth.  Macbeth is hesitant, but his wife pushes him into doing that, and it succeeds.  But Macbeth starts to worry about potential opposition, first wanting to try to break the prophecy of Banquo’s sons becoming king by killing Banquo and his son.  Lady Macbeth actually demurs at this, but in a shift Macbeth is now more ambitious and active and says that he’ll handle it.  He manages to kill Banquo with hired murderers but they don’t manage to kill his son.  Soon after, Banquo’s ghost starts to appear to Macbeth, and Macbeth’s reaction to that causes Macduff to be suspicious of Macbeth, and he leaves to join up with the exiled Malcolm.  In response, Macbeth kills Macduff’s family.  After being assured that he is invulnerable unless a couple of rather impossible things occur, he ends up setting off to fight the army of Malcolm and Macduff, while Lady Macbeth seems to have been driven insane by her guilt over her role in things.  Circumstances then conspire for those impossible things to happen, and Macduff manages to kill Macbeth and return Malcolm to the throne.

Now, back in high school I was also asked to help someone from a lower grade with her Macbeth essay, and she took the exact opposite tack with Banquo, focusing on him being in it for ambition, which I couldn’t really grasp.  I suspect that one of the reasons that she didn’t ask me to follow up with that — whereas my friend managed to have his charge ask him to follow up later — was because at the time I wasn’t as good at dealing with arguments that opposed mine and likely argued too much for my own opinion instead of simply assessing whether or not her own argument worked (something that philosophy has certainly helped with).  And re-reading it this time, I did manage to see how Banquo could be seen as someone who was primarily ambitious and only not ratting Macbeth out in the hopes of having his sons become king.  The reasons for seeing Banquo as that ambitious is that he is quick to ask the witches if he will gain anything in the future, and after musing that Macbeth has paid most foully for his kingship wonders if the prophecy will thus also come true for him like it did for Macbeth.  The reasons against that is that he does indeed say that Macbeth paid foully for his role and that the others definitely see him as being trustworthy.  Yes, that other characters see him as trustworthy even if they start to suspect Macbeth doesn’t mean much since he could be fooling them, but Shakespeare very much likes to throw in asides and speeches after everyone leaves to highlight this, and we don’t have that for Banquo.  A lot of the interpretation, it seems to me, will come down to how one presents Banquo’s question to the witches early in the play.  If the presentation is one where he seems to asking out of a sense of trying to make sure that he gets what he deserves or with overt curiosity, then that would lean towards him being ambitious, but if the presentation is more him mocking the idea of prophecy and making light of it then that would lean to him not being ambitious at all.  But, yeah, it is more ambiguous than I thought way, way back then.

The other impression that I had of the play is that the witches were more passive than they actually were.  I had remembered them simply making the prophecies, but here the Wyrd Sisters deliberately seek out Macbeth to tell him that, and Hecate is angry that they did that and tells Macbeth about his “invulnerability” to in some way correct the mistake they made.  This has interesting implications for the idea of Destiny wrt the play.  The play presents it as though the prophecies were going to come true, and they both do come true.  But if Hecate needed to “fix” things, then that suggested that what the Wyrd Sisters’ action changed something that Hecate didn’t want changed.  So if their prophecy was going to be correct, Macbeth was going to become king, but something about his becoming king because of the prophecy led to some kind of result that Hecate didn’t like.  So this suggests that maybe the endpoints were fixed — Macbeth would become king and Banquo’s sons would become king — but how that happened could change.  Which suggests that if Macbeth had been more patient, he might have become king in a more stable way and avoided the end that he came to at the end, and that instead of seeing Banquo’s sons as displacing his own perhaps a more stable way for that could have happened as well, with perhaps one of Banquo’s sons marrying a daughter of Macbeth and taking the throne that way.  The tragedy, then, would be that Macbeth’s approach to achieving his ambitions was the one that would lead to the worst possible outcome for him … and if he hadn’t done it he would have achieved them anyway.

Which brings me to what struck me about Macbeth, which is that out of all of Shakespeare’s plays that I’ve read it’s the one that has the least direct musings on philosophical and thematic points while having as part of it the most philosophical and thematic implications.  In addition to the ones above, we have the nature of ambition itself, the interesting reversal between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth when it comes to directly satisfying their ambitions and the impact attempting to do that has on their sanity, along with issues over trust and the ambiguity of numerous characters.  If I look at plays like “Hamlet”, Hamlet muses a lot about the various issues but they only come up in those musings and it’s not the case that they just fall out from the situations themselves.  Yes, deeper themes are there as well, but it seems to me like you have to go looking for them more than you have to in “Macbeth”, where they are more natural consequences and considerations from what actually happens.

Now, given my experience with the play, I was always going to like “Macbeth”.  And despite the ambiguity over one of my favourite characters, I still like it, and like it even more now that I’ve seen some of the other thematic and philosophical implications of the play.  It’s probably my favourite of the plays so far.

Up next, one that I also read as part of an English class in “King Lear”.

Thoughts on “The Fifth Element”

November 22, 2022

It’s been a while since I said I’d talk about this movie.  About five months, to be exact.  I had lots of other things to talk about and so this fell out of the schedule, but with my catching up with all of my other movies and video games and TV shows it really seems like it’s time to finally talk about it.

The basic plot of this is that an alien race has set up a defense against another alien race in ancient times and then left, leaving behind an order to preserve it.  In the future, the enemy aliens finally arrive and one female alien from the defending race (played by Milla Jovovich) arrives on Earth to activate the device, with the one remaining member of the order seeking her out.  Meanwhile, a former special forces agent (played by Bruce Willis) who now drives a cab ends up getting caught up in all of this when she tries to escape from the government agents that revived her and ends up in his cab, which spawns a long adventure to save the day.

Now, from what I understand this movie wasn’t that well-received when it launched but has become a cult classic to some.  The reason for this, I think, is that this movie doesn’t at all do what you’d expect from this movie.  I don’t mean that it deliberately tries to subvert expectations, because it doesn’t seem like it’s actually trying to subvert expectations.  Or, at least, if it is it’s not setting these things up to be things that we expect and then subverting them.  Instead, it really seems like it just isn’t doing what you’d expect not only from such a movie but also from what the movie itself sets up.   For example, when the alien shows up in Willis’ cab, what we’d expect from such a situation is that he’d join her then and just go along with her on her mission.  However, he ends up making a pass at her which ticks her off, and so he ends up having to leave.  And so you’d think that he’d be convinced by her mission — and his attraction to her — and so push his way back into her mission.  Except he seems content to leave things as is until he is recruited by the government to check this all out, which is the first time that we really understand what his role was with the government, who then arrange for him to win a contest to get onto the exclusive resort that they need to get to to get what they need, at which point the alien and her keeper push their way into his win so that they can all do that together.

You would have expected that the first part where he meets her would have been skipped entirely and he would have met her on the resort and joined her then, or that as noted above that he would meet her in his cab and then use his government influence to get them both there.  Instead, both plots are used as the first one is started, dropped, and then the second plot picks up the slack.  It’s not a problem, per se, but it does come across as a bit convoluted, and again because it goes against what we’d expect given how the plot was structured it can be a bit disconcerting.

More minor and yet amazingly more of a problem is a comment that Willis’ character needs to be careful with the alien because she’s not as strong as she seems.  Given that he was attracted to her and wanted some kind of relationship with her, and that she had up until that point shown incredibly strong physical prowess, this would seem to imply that she is weaker mentally and that his pushing her for the relationship might cause problems or that she’ll need emotional support on this mission, but soon after she gets shot and ends up being physically weak.  That’s the only weakness she shows and what forces him to do the action heavy-lifting in the rest of the movie, and there is no hint of any mental or emotional weakness that belied her physical powers.  It’s more minor because it’s not a main element of the plot and we can easily ignore it, but it’s more of a problem because it sets something up that it either tries to pay off against expectations or else simply drops.

I also found Chris Rock’s character quite annoying.  Well, he’s supposed to be since he’s a bit of comedy relief in the typical Chris Rock style, but that’s not why I found him annoying.  No, I found him annoying because he’s pointlessly annoying.  He doesn’t do anything except let Chris Rock be a motormouth and act annoying in some of the big action scenes.  He’s not a real sidekick.  He’s not someone who was supporting the enemy unwittingly who converts.  He doesn’t do anything of any importance.  He, well, doesn’t do anything.  So he’s just there to hopefully make us laugh a bit, and since he’s doing that in the serious action scenes or in the tense lead up to the big mission he’s actually doing that at the worst possible time.  If he was more prominent in the movie or had less time when he does appear, he would have been better, but the movie focuses too much on him when he arrives on the scene for us to ignore him but then we also can’t ignore that for all the time spent on his character the character, ultimately, plays no important role in the plot at all.  Essentially, he’s a “Please laugh!” character and is only the more annoying because of that.

So, ultimately, what did I think of the movie?  I think that how it doesn’t do what either the genre or what its own plot would have us expect does hurt the plot since it leads to things being more convoluted and we can’t help but think that it would have been easier if it had just stuck to what it had outlined originally or to the standard plot, and Chris Rock’s character’s annoyances can’t be ignored.  Beyond that, it’s a fairly serviceable sci-fi movie with some good moments, but not enough to redeem the rest of it.  I don’t hate it and didn’t hate watching it, but I can’t imagine myself rewatching it on a regular basis, although I can indeed see myself rewatching it at some point, as it’s definitely entertaining enough for me to give it another shot at some point.  So it goes into the box of things to maybe rewatch at some point.  It’s not a bad movie, but has just enough flaws that I would generally rather watch lots of other things than it.

Thoughts on “Othello, The Moor of Venice”

November 16, 2022

I didn’t expect that my comments on “Othello” would be something that any of my audience would be anticipating, but it turns out that this is one of long-time commenter malcolmthecynic’s favourite Shakespeare plays , and since I didn’t care for one of his other favourites — “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — it’d be interesting to see if I like “Othello” any better.  I noted in that comment thread that “Othello” had an advantage in being a clear drama, and so far I’ve struggled with the comedies and the historicals but the dramas have more or less worked for me, with some exceptions to all of these categories.  Then again, maybe we just have completely opposite tastes and so I could be expected to dislike “Othello” as well.

The plot is that the noted mercenary general Othello is working for the city of Venice and has won them a great victory, which encourages the ruler of the city to give him control of another city that is likely to be attacked.  However, Othello has also been wooing the daughter of an important noble and has just eloped with her, angering her father.  Part of this is because as a Moor — basically, someone who is black — and as a mercenary Othello isn’t in the right social class, and part of it is because she had been insisting that she had no desire to get married and spent a lot of time lying to her father, so the father basically disowns her.  Meanwhile, Othello sets out for the new city with his companions Iago and Cassio, bringing Desdemona his new wife along and Iago’s wife as her servant.  However, Iago is secretly jealous of both Othello and Cassio, and devises a plan to make Othello believe that his new wife is cheating on him with Cassio, while also stringing along Desdemona’s former suitor for money and to set him up to take at least part of the fall for his plans.  With the sometime aid of his wife, Iago poisons Othello’s mind against Desdemona, sets the suitor and Cassio on each other, and eventually manipulates Othello into killing Desdemona.  At that point, his wife — who had become quite close to Desdemona — reveals Iago’s plotting to the authorities, for which he kills her and is killed himself, while the suitor was killed in a fight with Cassio and Othello kills himself out of grief for what he has done.

This play has something that I haven’t seen in any previous Shakespearean play:  a solid villain who is driving the plot and tragedy.  Sure, Claudius is an antagonist in “Hamlet”, but Hamlet drives the plot and tragedy and Claudius is mostly an opportunist than a proper manipulator.  In “Julius Caesar”, Brutus was the antagonist to Caesar but was arguably the protagonist in the play, and was sympathetic besides.  In “The Merchant of Venice”, again Shylock is an opportunist, not a manipulator, and while he’s a terrible person he might have a point about how badly he is treated.  There was another play whose name I can’t remember at the moment where the villain was a manipulator and whose answer to his internal question about why was “I like to be the villain”, but Iago is a far superior central villain than he was.  His schemes drive the entire plot and pretty much everything that happens comes about through his design.  And he also has understandable if nasty motivations for his actions, being jealous of Othello, feeling that he deserved a higher place that Othello and Cassio were keeping him from, and likely even a bit of racial distaste for Othello.  And he gets his just deserts in the end, because even though his schemes achieve his desired end his machinations are revealed and he doesn’t get to benefit from them.  This is something that works quite well even as it’s quite different from what I’ve seen — and liked — before.

The most interesting thing about that for me is that since I had never read or seen this play before, I only knew anything about it through osmosis from popular culture, and I was surprised that Iago was such a staunch opponent of Othello and the main villain of the piece.  It seemed to me that the popular culture idea of Iago was more as an actual companion of Othello and more like a Horatio or Banquo figure than the antagonist that he ended up being.  So it seems to me that either I or popular culture — or perhaps both — had gotten Iago wrong, which did allow me a new sensation:  being surprised at a major point of a famous Shakespearean play.

The play also does Desdemona quite well.  It’s clear that she loves Othello and would never cheat on him, and that she’s devastated when he pulls away from her due to his growing mistrust.  She also clearly is trying her best to discover what is the matter with Othello and try to fix it, and that through Iago’s manipulations she only ends up making things worse.  And she clearly doesn’t deserve her fate and so her death really brings out the tragedy in the play.  On the other hand, I don’t find Othello himself to be as good a character.  Part of this is because he treats Desdemona really badly and, as already noted, she’s probably the most sympathetic character in the entire play, and part of this is because he seems to come to distrust her far too quickly because of what happens.  This is one case, however, where it would be better if performed than simply by reading it, because if the actor can properly express the anguish that Othello is feeling over not wanting to believe that Desdemona is cheating on him but falling for Iago’s manipulations then we’d feel more sympathy for him than the simple bare words can convey on their own.

Ultimately, though, I liked “Othello”.  Again, the big thing that appeals to me is having a set, solid, manipulative villain with motivations that make sense even as they are despicable who ends up driving the plot towards the tragedy that the villain was trying for and yet for all that the villain doesn’t really “win” either.  I still like “Hamlet” better, so it’s not my favourite, but it’s definitely an above-average drama, and since I like the dramas that makes it, in my opinion, a far above-average Shakespearean play.

Up next is another play that I had read in high school in “Macbeth”.

Thoughts on “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”

November 15, 2022

So, recently I was heading out to get a haircut and needed to look in an area that I used to do a bit of shopping in for a few things, and decided to hit a couple of stores in the area to see a) if they were still there (it’s been a couple of years) and b) if they had anything interesting.  So there’s a comic book/board game store and a couple of stores that sell DVDs and CDs.  I also had to pick up a couple of calendars for next year.  In one of the DVD/CD stores, I found a copy of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”, the Joss Whedon musical.  I had heard a lot about it and thought it would be worth taking a look at, especially since I was getting it for less than ten bucks.

The plot is based around an aspiring supervillain named “Dr. Horrible”, who is trying to get into the Evil League of Evil but keeps getting his plots foiled by Captain Hammer and, well, the fact that most of his gadgets don’t work as well as he thinks they will.  At the same time, his human alter-ego has a crush on Penny, a girl he sees at the laundromat.  At about the same time as she ends up talking to him, the scheme he had in motion at that very time goes awry and almost kills her, at which point Captain Hammer saves her.  He is then revealed as being a bit of a fake, trying to date her but only pretending to care about the homeless, and then when he discovers that Dr. Horrible has a crush on her he wants to make her his “girlfriend” just to spite him.  Meanwhile, the failure of Dr. Horrible’s latest plan means that the ELE is demanding that he kill someone or else never be able to get into the ELE ever, so he decides in his anger that the victim will be Captain Hammer.  Of course, he gloats too long when his plan actually starts to work and the freeze ray he built wears off and Captain Hammer decides that he’s going to finally kill Dr. Horrible, but the Death Ray that Dr. Horrible built backfires when Captain Hammer tries to use it and hurts Captain Hammer … and the shrapnel kills Penny.  Dr. Horrible then gets onto the council of the ELE because he publicly defeated Captain Hammer and killed Captain Hammer’s girlfriend, and seems locked into the idea of being a villain.

I had thought that this was more a film/movie length work, but it turns out that it’s about as long as a normal TV episode.  This, then, contributes to the fact that it feels like an episode of a TV show ripped out of its context than as a complete work on its own.  Given how things end, it really makes you feel that there should be more to it than this one work, meaning that either it’s a prequel to an existing story showing how the main villain became one, or a flashback episode of an existing series doing the same thing, or a first episode of a series written as an introduction to the main series.  While the performances are good and it all works, it really does seem like we’re missing an emotional connection to these characters that we would have had if it was part of a larger work or was itself a longer work.

When it comes to the singing, Neil Patrick Harris works pretty well as Dr. Horrible and while Nathan Fillion isn’t a professional singer he manages well-enough, especially given how his songs seem written to let him ham the songs up a bit more than normal.  For Felicia Day’s Penny, however, I found that things didn’t work as well.  Day has a weaker voice, and so her songs tended to be quiet and monotonic.  Yes, the character is supposed to be a little shy — although that gets dropped way too quickly to maintain that — but even at times where she should be more excited her songs are quiet and monotonic.  The fact that I, who is not an aficionado of musical, noticed it suggests that she was a bit weak there.

Now, of course, everyone knows that for me the big question when it comes to such works is “Would I watch it again?” and that is an interesting question for this one.  I tend to like a lot of Whedon’s stuff and it is comparable to “Once More With Feeling” from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, but I think that highlights the issues with this one.  The Buffy episode was inside a context and, as I’ve discussed in the past, was an interesting way to get a bunch of stuff out in the open that the audience already knew but the characters didn’t.  That gave it that emotional connection that this lacked.  It’s entertaining and light for the most part, but it’s too short to stand on its own as a musical and isn’t connected to anything else to make it more interesting.  So, ultimately, even though I liked it well enough, I don’t think I’ll watch it again.  It’s not a good enough story to want to watch it again, and there’s no real themes or emotional connections to explore either, so there’s really just nothing there to interest me on a rewatch.

Thoughts on “Measure for Measure”

November 9, 2022

So, another comedy, and again the comedies have been hit and miss for me (this is a recording) and I’m coming off a comedy that I really disliked.  And “Measure for Measure” commits some of the same sins as “All’s Well that Ends Well”, which is not going to make me pleasantly disposed towards it.  So is this going to be another play that I very much dislike?

The main plot is that the duke of a city leaves it for a while and leaves it in the hands of the person he seems to be mentoring, Angelo.  The duke in some sense seems to want to do this because he wants to tighten up the discipline in the city — especially over sexual matters — but doesn’t want the people to get mad at him over it.  Angelo all unwittingly fulfills his role by sentencing Claudio to death for sex outside of marriage.  Claudio appeals to his sister Isabella to plead for his life, but when she comes to do so Angelo is struck by her and offers to spare Claudio if she will sleep with him.  Meanwhile, the duke returns disguised as a friar to see how things are working out and hears about the plot, and decides to get Isabella to agree to the deal but secretly substitute a woman that Angelo was supposed to marry but whom he completely dropped when her dowry was lost at sea.  Angelo sleeps with this woman thinking that she’s Isabella, but then decides to execute Claudio anyway, which the duke secretly stops.  At the end, all of this is revealed and Angelo has to go off to marry the woman that he wasn’t going to marry, although the duke insists that he should be executed and Angelo seems like he wants to be executed as well, but the woman protests that she really wants to marry Angelo for … some reason and so he is spared.

Angelo’s character is very much like Bertram’s in “All’s Well that Ends Well”, but he doesn’t annoy me as much because he’s not really supposed to be a likeable character.  Interestingly, the play does spend a fair amount of time with his inner thoughts making it clear that he’s more torn over these actions that we might expect, but then doesn’t follow through with that.  Still, he’s clearly more the main antagonist for the real main characters than a main character himself, and the woman he is forced to marry is also not a main character, so with Claudio alive and reunited with his sister we can be happy with how things turned out.  That being said, if they had just followed through with the character that was hinted at at times even this could have been fixed.  Make it clear that the Duke chose him because he was so strict and prudish and so would indeed enforce those laws very strictly.  Then have Angelo be incredibly tempted by Isabella and come up with the idea to trade sex for her brother’s life.  If you want to have him not keep up his end of the bargain, have him justify that by feeling guilty for what he’s done but rationalize it on the basis that if he doesn’t actually trade justice for that sex then he didn’t really sin and it’s all on her.  Yes, that would be hypocritical, but we could understand if not support his actions there.  At the end, then, he could end up in that marriage and accept it while making a rueful point about finally understanding how tempting the pleasures of the flesh can be, justifying the mercy that had typically been shown to people like Claudio — who was in love with and wanted to marry his paramour — and the mercy that Angelo himself receives.

There’s also a subplot with Lucio, Claudio’s friend, who meets the duke while the duke is in disguise and badmouths the duke, only to accuse the duke as friar of doing that, and is revealed to have gotten a woman pregnant that he abandoned, so the duke makes him marry her.  I didn’t care for this subplot because as Claudio’s friend who did make much effort to help him Lucio is somewhat sympathetic, and the rest of it is completely irrelevant to anything else.  So all it does is make a sympathetic character less reputable for no real reason.

Ultimately, though, I’m pretty neutral on the play.  I didn’t find it all that funny but also didn’t hate it.  I managed to get through it in a little less than an hour and a half but neither dislike nor like it.

Now, interestingly, in looking up to make sure that this was a comedy, I came across a comment that this is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” because it is ambiguous, as it contains elements of his tragedies as well as his comedies.  I have complained about that before in some of his early plays.  That being said, I don’t really see that here.  While the plot involves executions and the like and some character introspection, you can indeed do that in a comedy and I felt that those elements here are there just to move the plot along and set up the stakes rather than as something to be focused on in and of themselves.  If there’s any reason to consider this one ambiguous, it would be because Shakespeare has a tendency to put banter in his dramas and tragedies and so you could ask whether there’s enough banter here to make it a comedy rather than a drama.  Either way, though, that’s probably one reason why I find it rather “blah”, as if it can be considered ambiguous it would be either an inferior drama due to having too many comedic elements or an inferior comedy due to too many dramatic and tragic elements.  Still, I’m personally comfortable treating it as a comedy.

Up next, we return to the dramas with one that I have heard a lot about but never read or watched in “Othello”, which means I can finally start to look forward to reading the next play again.

Final Thoughts on “Space Crusade”

November 8, 2022

I finished it off a while ago, but here I want to talk about my thoughts on the Amiga version of “Space Crusade” after having worked my way through all the missions included on the disk.  I managed to complete the primary mission in all of them — although sometimes without any marines surviving — except for the last one where I was supposed to destroy the “Cube of Chaos”.  And I would have completed that one if I hadn’t sent one team of Marines after the secondary objective, as I only had a Dreadnought and a few other enemies to kill off when the team was wiped out, so having another Commander and a couple more guns available probably would have let me finish it.

In playing the game, I for the first time learned how it actually worked.  If you had a marine shoot at someone — or an enemy shot at them — the game rolled a set number of dice defined by the attacker against a defined number for the defender that you had to overcome with your total on the dice, and subtracted one “hit point” if you hit.  Marines were I think four or better, little gremlins were a one and so on and so forth.  Soulsuckers, on the other hand, except in any situation where they swarm you over with them, pretty much can’t be hit at range, which means you have to engage them hand-to-hand.  Hand-to-hand combat is different.  Each participant gets a roll of a certain number of dice based on their own abilities, and whichever of them rolls the highest number wins.  Obviously, the more dice you get the easier it is to roll a higher total, but a one-die gremlin can roll 3 and if your Marine’s two die don’t add up to that or more (ties mean that nothing happens) then they would kill the marine.  What’s really interesting about hand-to-hand is that it doesn’t subtract one “hit point”, but the difference between the two rolls.  Since most units only have one hit point, normally this doesn’t matter as any loss is an automatic kill.  However, in the case of Commanders and Dreadnoughts who both have more than one hit point, it matters a lot.  This means that Commanders are great against Deadnoughts because they can survive losing combats and with good rolls can take them out easier and faster.  However, it means that if they lose hand-to-hand combats they might lose a lot more of their hit points than you’d like them to, even against weaker opponents.  And they can only fight hand-to-hand.  But they get four dice — most of the best other units get two at most — which means that they are likely to outroll their opponents.  But if a gremlin gets a two and they roll a 0 and only have two hit points left, they can be killed.

What this means is that the game is really luck-based.  However, the RNGs seem to be biased to the low-end, so there are a lot of misses, which avoids it being slaughtered.  Still, since there are so many enemies with both ranged and melee attacks eventually the numbers will catch up with you and your Commander will take hits and your marines will get killed.  This ultimately makes the game a pretty brutal one, explaining why I ended up “winning” missions with every marine killed.  In the later missions, getting back without a loss is pretty much impossible.

The bad thing about the game, though, ties back to the number of misses:  the game is plodding for the most part.  The marines in general don’t get a lot of movement points, so it takes a long time to get to the mission objectives.  Along the way, they will encounter a lot of enemies who will all take shots at them and move towards them (especially if they are revealed by a scan).  That takes a while, and since most of them miss it ends up being anti-climactic.  In general, marines can only take out an enemy at a time — in hand-to-hand if attacked they can take out more — and they miss at range at lot and so it can take quite a while to clear out enemies.  Once you’ve cleared them out and completed the objective, it takes a long time to walk back to the area where you can leave the ship, with little to do … unless the game spawns a Soulsucker, at which point if your Commander is already dead the rest of your marines will likely soon be.  There are a lot of times where all you can do is watch the game and pick from some small options at some point instead of doing anything tactical.

That’s ultimately why I could, in general, only manage to play one game a session.  When things were hot and there were tactical decisions to make, the game was really fun.  When I was facing attacks from weak enemies that generally didn’t hit but fired anyway, in general I was slightly bored but could see an important goal in the future and so could stick with it and still have fun.  But walking back after completing the objectives felt way too much like make-work and so usually sucked all the fun out of the game, forcing me to stop until the next day when I could start with a fresh attitude towards the game.  Thus, I found the game fun, enjoyed playing it, and would play it again at some point, but wish that they had taken out some of that dead time so that the game wasn’t so plodding.

The next game I’m supposed to be playing is “Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds”, with a plan to play through all the campaigns.  I was working through the meatier tutorial missions, and in the last one I was told to fill in the gaps in the wall but to make sure that I put a gate in so that I could get out.  I did, and then filled in all the gaps, and then found a strange gap that I couldn’t fill in in the normal way, but filled it in anyway and went on with the next things I was supposed to do.  And then noticed that a worker was walking around outside the walls wandering back and forth and not coming in.  And it was a nova crystal miner.  Then I tried to move units through the gate and discovered … that there was a wall behind it and so nothing could go in and out.  What I think happened was that when I found a worker free and found that “gap” something was standing by the gate, close enough to have it open, so it looked like a gap in the wall instead of an open gate, and so I blocked it up not realizing that that was where my gate was, which was probably why I couldn’t fill it in straight across but had to go out and then back again to make that wall.  So after deliberately trying to avoid blocking myself in I did exactly what I was told not to do.  I quit that mission and haven’t had the time to go back to it yet.

Thoughts on “All’s Well that Ends Well”

November 2, 2022

This is another of the comedies, and as I’ve noted on a few occasions the comedies are a bit hit and miss for me.  In this one, I realized something about what comedy has to do to work because I don’t feel that it managed to pull that off.

The basic plot is that a young woman named Helena is the daughter of a well-known and skilled doctor who has recently passed away, and the duchess who was his patron has taken Helena in.  However, Helena is in love with the duchess’ son Bertram, but feels that such a marriage could never happen due to her only being a commoner desiring someone of some noble birth.  However, the duchess figures that out and says that she is unconcerned about such things, and so Helena goes off to try to cure the king of a disease using her father’s notes, and in return asks that she be allowed to marry anyone, no matter how noble, she wishes.  Of course she chooses Bertram, but he isn’t pleased with marrying a commoner and refuses to consummate the marriage, and runs off to help an ally of the king.  Once there, he courts another woman, which allows for a “bed trick” where he arranges to sleep with Diana, the other woman, but when he goes to do so Helena steps in instead.  After accomplishing some great deeds there, he returns to the king and ignores Diana, but a ring that the king gave Helena was given to him proving who he really slept with, which means that he is now properly married to Helena.

From reading this and watching “Three’s Company” re-runs at times while doing other things, I’ve come to realize that for a comedy to work we need to have a specific feeling at the end, which is generally a light and happy feeling.  At the end of a good comedy we want all the misunderstandings to be resolved, the main characters back together in at least somewhat friendly relationships, and everyone to be mostly satisfied — if possibly a bit rueful — with how things worked out.  Any bad consequences should happen to the “villains” in the play or are things that the character shouldn’t really want or get anyway (for example, Jack losing a date with an attractive woman in “Three’s Company”, especially if he was lying to her over it).  In a play titled “All’s Well that Ends Well” that has multiple title drops, it seems like that would be all the more important.  Yes, you can subvert expectations and dark comedy works better if the ending is not particularly happy, but a good comedy is supposed to be fun and it’s hard to consider a work fun if the ending is dark or the main issues aren’t resolved.

That, to me, is the sin that this play commits, but in an interesting way.  The issue is that Helena wants Bertram but the play sets him up to be a cad.  Despite his own mother liking the match with Helena, he refuses it for the exact reasons of status that Helena feared.  This in and of itself isn’t an issue, as long as the main plot is about convincing him otherwise.  But because she “wins” him with a “bed trick”, that doesn’t happen.  But on top of that, he starts wooing Diana which would set up an interesting conundrum if he thought she had the right sort of status that Helena lacked … but he abandons her after sleeping with her and doesn’t give her another thought, and immediately on his return to court is wooing someone else.  So, he treats Helena very badly, treats Diana very badly, and is likely to treat the new woman very badly.  What in the world does Helena see in him?  Why wouldn’t she be far better off with someone, anyone else … like all the other nobles who expressed great interest in marrying her when the king trotted them out for her to choose?

We should want the main characters and the characters that we like to get a happy ending, even if it wasn’t the one they originally envisioned.  But if you like Bertram, then the fact that he was tricked into consummating the marriage won’t make you happy unless he himself comes to realize that this is what he really does want regardless of what he thought before.  Now, given how the play treats him there aren’t likely to be that many Bertram fans, but then that works against the character that the play does set up for us to like, which is Helena.  Yes, she gets what she wanted, but it’s hard to be happy for her when it doesn’t seem like he’s someone worth getting and that she would have been better realizing that and just giving up on him.  Given how disreputable the play makes him and the fact that he doesn’t really seem to realize or repent of that, there is no happy ending here.  And if there is no happy ending but we don’t think that the characters deserve each other, then the play ends up not being fun.  Ultimately, then, this choice ruins the entire play for me.

And it would have been so easy to fix!  Simply have him be concerned about status not for his own sake, but for the sake of his mother the duchess.  Have the communications that she writes to him extolling the virtues of the match go astray, so that he thinks he’s protecting his mother’s reputation and status.  Follow up on what was implied and have it so that he runs off to help the ally in the hopes of gaining enough renown to ask the king for an annulment.  Have him meet Diana there and consider her a far better match, and also try to use that as an argument for the annulment.  If you want to keep the bed trick, have him be planning to sleep with her so that he can claim that he never consummated the first marriage but did consummate this one, meaning that honour would demand that he marry Diana.  When the trick is revealed, have him ruefully accept the marriage but be heartened when his mother finally reveals that she wanted the marriage all along.  Done this way, we can see that Bertram is a good person and deserving of Helena while still keeping the main elements of the plot where he doesn’t want to marry her and tries to get out of it until the very end.  Then, we can see at the end that he and Helena are a good match and see that themselves, and we can be happy that Helena, after all her troubles, got the marriage she wanted and deserved.  But since Bertram doesn’t seem to have very many redeeming qualities and Helena is portrayed positively, we don’t really think that she got much of a prize at the end of it all.

There’s also another Falstaff-like character here who has a subplot, but I didn’t find him interesting, and he has the same issue that Falstaff has in that he’s paired with a less than reputable Bertram.  If Bertram was honest and truly noble, the character could work — especially if Bertram lampshades it — but since Bertram isn’t a more sober companion who can comment on Bertram’s foible’s would have worked better and made it clear how Shakespeare wanted us to take him.

At any rate, because of that one element, as I said the entire play is ruined for me, meaning that I strongly dislike it.  There aren’t that many of these plays that I really, really dislike, but this is one of them.  And all of that is simply the result of making Bertram unsympathetic.

Up next is “Measure for Measure”, another comedy.  We’ll see if I like this one better.