Sunday, January 31, 2016

Batman Begins (2005)

      Batman Begins (2005) [D: C. Nolan. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, etc]
     A typically convoluted story about good and evil in Gotham City. Well-done CGI of the city, the usual slam-bang-boom, fire-and-crash destruction, plus Ninja-style fighting. It’s a good attempt at providing a psychologically plausible back story for Batman, whose parents were murdered (deliberately) in a mugging when Wayne was about 10 years old. It invokes chivalry, loyalty, courage (defined as accepting one’s fears), and of course duplicity and narcissistic self-aggrandizement among the evil doers.
     Does it work? The Batman of DC comics was more of an abstraction of the Knight. This Batman is human, the fights are staged to emphasise his vulnerability. He nearly dies learning the fighting skills he needs. Alfred has to rescue him a couple of times. He has to work through some pretty heavy (if a bit hokey) psychology to become the Dark Knight.
     The movie is a fable, abstract patterns of in/justice, good/evil, protectors/destroyers, and so on threaten to overtake the human story without which the fable becomes merely an essay dressed up as a story. The figures that represent or express these values risk their lives, which engages our sympathies (even the evil Ducard, who wants to destroy the world because compassion has upset the balance that he identifies as justice, is complex enough to make him believable.) Romances happen in a fantastic universe, here technology stands in for magic, and a wise scientist-inventor for Merlin.
     I liked this version of Batman. He’s not really a series character, though. I suspect the sequels will focus more on spectacular crashes and ingeniously cut fight scenes than psychology. ***.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Theatre of the Mind (2005)

      Jay Ingram. The Theatre of the Mind (2005). I re-read this because of a newsgroup thread about free-will, conscious vs conscious learning, etc. There’s obviously a lot of half-knowledge and mistaken assumptions out there. This book is 10 years old, but much of the research Ingram refers to is still not well known. Nor is it out of date.
      Two take-aways this time round:
      a) Our conscious mental life is like the glitter on the surface of the water.
      b) “Who can tell the dancer from the dance”?
     An excellent introduction to the problem of consciousness. Ingram doesn’t answer the central question, and doesn’t pretend to. He thinks there will always be a mystery at the core of consciousness, and I think I agree. ****

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Study in Scarlet (1933)

      A Study in Scarlet (1933) [D: Edwin Marin. Reginald Owen, Anna May Wong, June Clyde] One of the lamest Holmes movies I’ve ever seen. Terrible production values, dumb script, poor lighting and photography, and acting that would shame a high school acting class. Available as a free download, a waste of bandwidth. I watched the whole thing with a kind of horrified fascination: how could something this awful make it into the movie houses? BOMB

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Artists of Alberta (1980)

    Suzanne Devonshire Baker. Artists of Alberta (1980) A survey of 95 artists, published with the help of the Canada Council, and with a somewhat misleading title. Most of the people represented here are instructors, full or part-time, at university art departments or colleges of art, and a large proportion are “of Alberta” only in the sense that they now live and work there. It’s a puff-piece. U of A press produced it, it was well printed in Winnipeg, a stamp on the fly-leaf states “With the compliments of the Canada Council”, it was a freebie for somebody. Not me, I found it at the local food-bank’s permanent yard sale, paid a toonie for it, worth more than that, I think.
     The biographical and artistic details appear in a standardised format, and as far as I can tell the works represent each artist’s style and subjects. They’re all technically well done and interesting, but only a few engage me. I recognised a few names, Thelma Manarey and Norman Yates for example. Abstraction of one kind or another and conceptualism dominate; it’s a very 70s/80s collection. As a record of what was being done in Alberta back then, it’s useful. But like many such surveys, it’s more a snapshot of the market than of art. Many of the pieces could have been done by anyone. There’s not much sense of personal vision or passion here. The pieces are pleasant to look at, most would function well as private or public decor. A few decades from now, someone may be able to trace a nascent Prairie School.
     Still, the book is a keeper, and worth a second and even third look. **½

Josephine Tey. To Love and Be Wise

     Josephine Tey. To Love and Be Wise (1950) A classic, with a twist that the alert reader will probably see before the denouement. I like Tey’s satirical eye: here, she skewers an artist’s colony that’s established itself in Salcott St Mary, a nice little village in Orfordshire. They supply a nice field of suspects for DCI Alan Grant of the Yard. There’s also implicit meditation on the nature of love and marriage, shown, not told, through the various relationships, one of which is the driver of the crime. Like Austen, Tey believes that a good marriage rests on mutual respect as well as passion. Grant and Marta Hallard really should get married; maybe Tey would have manoeuvred them into this blessed state if she’d lived long enough to write more mysteries.
     As a police procedural, the book just barely passes. Grant’s relationship to his Sgt Williams is friendly as well as collegial. Commissioner Bruce can be testy, but is basically a decent sort. There are enough scenes of police at work to create the illusion, but Grant is really a private sleuth in police clothing. As such, he relies on intuition (“flair” Bryce calls it), and isn’t satisfied with a neat case if one or two little details niggle at him.
     A good entertainment. ***

Monday, January 18, 2016

Peter Robinson. Blood at the Root (1998)

      Peter Robinson. Blood at the Root (1998) A white supremacist dies in a back alley, kicked to death. The first indications are that three South East Asians are responsible; their arrest causes accusations of racial profiling etc. Things go from bad to worse. Banks’s marriage is falling apart; Sandra has recognised that they no longer have anything in common. Chief Constable Riddle hates Banks, and gleefully uses whatever he can to ride Banks, and finally takes him off the case. DC Gates is used by a fellow officer to get info on Banks and pass it on to Riddle. The case spills over into international drug trading, and covers the neighbouring patch as well as Banks’s. It’s the help he gets from an old colleague there that finally breaks the case, but there are enough dangling story lines that we will want to read the next instalment.
     Well done entertainment. The solution fits the clues, but the plotting is not as careful as in the other Banks novels I’ve read. Characterisation and ambience as well done as ever. **½

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Maeve Binchy. A Week in Winter

     Maeve Binchy. A Week in Winter (2012) Chicky returns to Stoneybridge, buys Stone House from the remaining Sheedy sister, and turns it into a boutique hotel. The book tells us the stories of the first week’s guests, in typical Binchy fashion: sketches that rely on plot lines the way a sketch relies on pencil lines. There’s the juvenile delinquent that becomes man, the fading actor comes to accept the company of ordinary folk, the girl deceived by a psychopathic manipulator, the woman holidaying with her  future mother-in-law who hates her, the young man unwilling to succumb to the family tradition and take over the business, and so on.
     Binchy’s characters are flawed and damaged, but for the most part prevail. Life, that is their socio-economic contexts and other people, treats them capriciously and sometimes cruelly. But most of them come to some safer harbour, and that is Binchy’s main appeal. She dispenses hope. That, and her remarkably clear and economical style. She can tell more in two or three sentences than many writers can say in two or three paragraphs. I’ve become mildly hooked on her, but not to the extent that I seek out her books. **½

Nostalgia on tap: Three by Ron Brown

     Ron Brown. Ghost Towns of Canada (1987) A compilation of Brown’s photos and research. Very good photos, OK history. The title implies a complete record of ghost towns, but there are a few gaps. The most noticeable one is the Coal Branch in Alberta, with Luscar, Mountain Park, Cadomin, etc.
     This is one of Brown’s first books. He’s an amateur historian with a strong streak of nostalgia. The book is a pleasure to look at and read. Very well printed. **½

     Terry Boyle & Ron Brown. Ontario Album (1998) Boyle and Brown present a survey of their collections of Ontario photographs. Their notes are complete enough to give one a sense of place and time. The photos themselves vary in quality, as one might expect, but the images show us what life in Ontario was like. Boyle and Brown have selected the most informative images, not necessarily the most common or popular ones. A good read for anyone who likes to indulge in nostalgia. Very good printing. **½

     Ron Brown. Disappearing Ontario (1999) Another of Brown’s compilations of photos, this time of the remnants of an earlier Ontario. He appears to want a proper program of identifying and preserving heritage buildings and other structures. This survey of what’s still out there makes a good case, especially since some of the buildings and bridges have disappeared, for example the pin-connected truss in Iron Bridge.
     There are a few errors, for example, the simplest truss bridges are not the “king’s” or queen’s” trusses, but kingpost and queenpost trusses. Unfortunately, lackadaisical maintenance has had more to do with the loss of bridges than active destruction, which is the most common fate of buildings.
     A good read, well printed, like Brown’s other works. **½