Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

November 30, 2012

The Hobbit is coming – at last!

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:16 am

Note: This is cross-posted from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent.

Our local movie theater website says “The Hobbit” will premier in a midnight showing on Thursday, Dec. 13.

Oh boy, for Tolkien junkies this has been a long wait indeed.

It’s hard to believe it’s been about 11 years since the first installment of “The Lord of the Rings.” I know it is because my son, now 11, was a baby when it came out.

My apartment in Warsaw is eight floors above the entrance to the Kino Bajka movie theater where we saw “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

“Kino” means cinema in Polish, and “Bajka” very appropriately means fairy tale.

We had arranged to put the baby down, and have my sister-in-law stay over while we attended the midnight show. We had bought advance tickets – and then discovered we’d made the idiot mistake of going to the midnight of the next day. Midnight marks a new day you know. So we had to see it in shifts.

Same thing for the second part. We saw it in London while staying at my sister’s apartment, taking turns while the other stayed up with a now very active toddler. Saw “The Return of the King” in Warsaw, and wondered, “What do we do now?”

Well now we have another decade or so of Tolkien movies. Of course I’ll review it, and I’ll have some controversial things to say about them (from a safe place in hiding of course) but given Peter Jackson’s track record I really don’t think we have anything to worry about.

And believe me, given the disappointing Ralph Bakshi attempt, and the disastrous but mercifully forgotten Rankin/Bass abomination*, some of us had reason to be worried before we saw Fellowship.

But here’s the cool part, my children will get to experience the series more-or-less in story order.

I’ll take them to see “The Hobbit” and they’ll be able to catch “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy on DVD, or maybe special showings in the theater once “The Hobbit” is out.

I don’t know when that’s going to be though. When we got the video and played Fellowship we had to turn it off at the battle on Weathertop amid the ruins of Amon Sul. My son freaked when Frodo was wounded by the Nazgul and started crying “Frodo, Frodo!” He still hasn’t seen the trilogy all the way through.

Yeah, it was that scary.

My son is old enough, and a monster movie junkie, so no worries. My daughter is only six though… we’ll see.

* To be fair, Rankin/Bass did a not terrible animated Hobbit.

November 28, 2012

Note to readers

Filed under: Op-eds,Personal — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:24 am

I’ve been neglecting this blog, not from disinterest but because I’ve been busy elsewhere, namely working on a self-syndication venture and movie reviews and my professional blog published at the newspaper whose vineyards I toil in. I have cross-posted some, but they involve different audiences and have different requirements. I’m somewhat more constrained in my professional blog for example.

However a newspaper group has offered to pick up my blog and I have accepted their kind offer to give my writing more exposure. I am of course hoping that exposure eventually translates into more money, and not merely notoriety.

I am going to do a lot more cross-posting, but I will label the source of each post with links to the original where appropriate.

Are we getting soft?

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:13 am

“Though dissenters seem to question everything in sight, they are actually bundles of dusty answers and never conceived a new question. What offends us most in the literature of dissent is the lack of hesitation and wonder.” – Eric Hoffer

Are we getting soft? I sometimes think so about this time of year, before I head off to the gym to toughen up with all the other people who indulged during holiday season.

I wish mental toughness were as easy to come by.

Because I’m an opinion columnist, and because I’m opinionated, I spend a fair amount of time on discussion groups, both professional and amateur. Lately though I’ve become less interested in arguing my opinions than I am in asking tough questions.

I have my opinions of course, and who does not? But more and more I’m concerned about questions I don’t have firm opinions on, only disturbing questions and a sometimes terrifying uncertainty.

I like to bring these up and see what insights other people might have.

It’s depressing. I’m finding that though a lot of people are perfectly prepared to defend their position, they are not willing to consider tough questions and get angry with you if you bring them up and threaten their firmly-held certainties.

Here’s an example from Israel. Several acquaintances on a discussion thread condemned Israel for the way they treat the Palestinians in their midst. Keep in mind this is a sample issue. I’ve had the same discussion about a number of other issues.

I realize it can’t be fun to be Palestinian. But I had some questions.

OK, admittedly the Israelis come from European stock who moved to the territory of present-day Israel where they weren’t wanted by the indigenous population – rather like our ancestors did. One might wish the U.S. had taken them in if nobody else would, but done is done.

Question: Does anybody seriously doubt the contention that if the Palestinians unilaterally disarmed and quit attacking Israel there would be peace and a gradual reduction on the odious restrictions the Israelis impose on them?

And that if the Israelis did the same – there would be six million dead Jews in fairly short order?

Question: Given the morally ambiguous circumstances of Israel being where it is, do we and should we acknowledge some kind of loyalty because they are also members of Western Civilization?

Question: When you have a society with an alien population which regards itself as at war with the larger society, is there any way to survive other then methods which are repugnant to free men? I mean requiring all members of the other group to carry separate ID, restricting where they can live and move about, requiring permits to work in certain areas, restricting their rights to possess arms, and a lot more that we’d quite rightly find intolerable.

And can a society remain free for some while others are subject to this kind of discrimination?

I’ve been crew chief on a gang of manual laborers – but I’ve never had to make a rule that nobody on the team approaches me within thirty feet without getting a gun pulled on them! (Example from an Israeli security expert.)

Question: If Israel in a long-term untenable position militarily (what Iranian President Ahmedinejad called a “one-bomb state”), then is the solution to invite all Jewish Israelis to immigrate to the U.S.? (And by the way, what about the white South Africans?)

The disturbing thing is, once past the initial claims: “Israel is doing the same thing to the Palestinians the Nazis did to the Jews, Israel is waging genocide against the Palestinians,” etc, nobody is willing to consider the questions.

I don’t mean disagree. I’ve made it plain I am not making rhetorical points. Though I have my opinions I am at this point genuinely interested in other people’s answers, and I say this as plainly as I can.

Doesn’t work often. The questions are either ignored, or attacked. Doesn’t do much good to keep returning to the questions either. Eventually someone will say they’re stupid questions.

No they’re not. They’re tough questions and they require some tough-minded thinking. And that’s where I fear we are going soft.

We have made certain courses of action unthinkable. Worse, we have made it unthinkable to ask the questions.
We see on the news every day that the world is still a dangerous place. To live and be respected in it requires a certain tough-mindedness I fear we are losing.

Bio: Steve Browne is an award-winning reporter and columnist who entered journalism by accident while living and working in Eastern Europe from 1991 to 2004. He is the author of two books for English students: “Word Pictures: English as it is REALLY Used,” published in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Novosibirsk, Russia, and “English Linguistic Humor: Puns, Play on Words, Spoonerisms, and Shaggy Dog Stories.” In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights. He is currently living in his native Midwest, which he considers “the most interesting foreign country I have ever lived in.”

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November 27, 2012

Review: Skyfall

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:08 am

First of all lets get this out of the way. Yes, it’s very good and you should go see it. No, I’m not going to reveal any spoilers, it’s that good.

“Skyfall” is the 23rd James Bond film by Eon Productions, released in the 50th year since “Dr. No,” and a pretty serious reboot of the second-longest, second-highest grossing film series in history.

Bond has achieved the status of a generation-spanning cultural icon. The character was born out of the World War II service of author Ian Flemming, who once took an idea from fiction and helped create Major Martin, Royal Marines, “The Man Who Never Was.”

(A plan to divert German forces from Sicily to Sardinia by dropping a corpse into the sea near Spain with false documents.)

After Flemming was demobbed he told a friend he planned to write the greatest spy novel ever. That novel was “Casino Royale” and the rest is history.

Bond has been often imitated and parodied. My favorite imitator is James Coburn’s “Derek Flint.” My favorite parodies are MAD Magazine’s “OO7 the Musical,” set to the music of “Oklahoma,” and Sol Weinstein’s “Israel Bond,” secret agent Oy-oy-seven of the Israeli secret service M33 1/3.

But in recent years the series had become imitative and a parodic of itself. During Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond I only watched them on TV.

Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan restored some of Sean Connery’s gravitas, but even these relied heavily on fantastical gadgetry.

Then came Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale,” and I was blown away. Craig was tough, but not superman. He came out of fights battered and bruised, but his opponents didn’t come out at all.

“The Quantum of Solace” was disappointing, and some of us feared this was a final flash in the pan before the series faded into irrelevance.

Wrong. The first thing you notice in “Skyfall” is the absence of the classic dum-dah-dah-dah-dum-dah-dah-dah beat and the view down the rifled barrel of a gun as Bond shoots and the screen bleeds red.

The credit roll after the initial action sequence is classic Bond visual fantasy, with theme song by Adele. It sets you up for the Shanghai at night scenes a little later, which produce a similar surreal effect from the neon of the city seen through the windows of a glass skyscraper.

Gagetry is kept to a minimum. The new Q (Ben Whishaw) looks like a nerdy grad student, but can back his brag that he can do more damage from his computer than Bond can in the field.

The Bond girls have smaller than usual roles, the real Bond girl the action revolves around is M (Dame Judy Dench) whose past has come back to haunt her.

MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) appears at the beginning to be window dressing, to set Bond up for his decline into an alcoholic fog, but in the end is revealed as a new regular.

Beautiful, mysterious Severine (Bérénice Marlohe) is utterly convincing as poised and cool on the surface, barely concealing the stark terror underneath.

Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) comes on-screen as the kind of bureaucrat Bond despises, until the chips are down and he displays guts and a depth only hinted at. New regular.

And there is a villain, and oh what a villain! Silva (Javier Bardem) is matchless among Bond villains, making his incredibly complex plans within plans actually seem plausible.

There are plenty of allusions to classic Bond, the old Aston-Martin makes a final appearance.

And did they allude to “the old fashioned ways” from Vadim’s “Barbarella” on purpose?

What surprised me was, “Skyfall” is not a super-weapon of the kind in “Moonraker” or “Goldeneye” but a lodge in Scotland where Bond grew up, and in which the climactic action takes place. A battle which Bond, M, and a figure from his childhood Kincade (Albert Finney), must fight with hunting guns and ingeniously improvised weapons.

And without beating you over the head with it, there’s kind of a point stuck in there too. M tells a parliamentary committee that today’s enemies have no borders, but live in the shadows. That classic intelligence work and black ops are not antiquated.

And there is a wonderful epitaph for the British Empire from a poem by Tennyson she recites to them, that might apply to Bond himself.

“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

And as Bond returns to duty you hear that dum-dah-dah-dah-dum-dah-dah-dah and look down the rifled barrel and spreading red to the promise Bond will be back.

November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and World War II

Filed under: Hard Science,Science,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:06 am

Note: cross-posted from my newspaper blog at The Marshall Independent.

I just came across a fascinating article on a device currently in development that might have kept the New York subway tunnels from flooding. (Well, fascinating for infrastructure geeks like me that is.)

“In all, seven New York subway tunnels and two commuter train tunnels flooded during Monday’s record flooding. Some of the tunnels were flooded from track to ceiling and “it is still too early to say how long it will take to restore the system to full service,” the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates the rail systems, said Wednesday.”

The device is basically a big inflatable balloon plug, and the idea was originally to protect tunnels from terrorist gas or firebomb attacks. Tests have been conducted with high-pressure water though, proving it would be effective in flood emergencies.

The fascinating thing to me is, I happen to know that this has been done before. To be precise, during World War II.

My son’s late godmother, and my daughter’s namesake, was an Englishwoman named Judith Hatton. She was among other things, the widow of a Russian spy from the KGB department known as SMERSH (“Smiyrt shpionem” or “Death to spies”) that James Bond used to tangle with – and that’s not even the most interesting thing about her.

During WWII she was the youngest censor at the BBC. Her father was an engineer who helped develop a way to protect the London subway tunnels from disastrous flooding.

During the Blitz this was a serious worry. Literally tens of thousands of people slept in the subway stations which were used as bomb shelters by the people of London. The danger was, three tunnels go under the Thames River. The Luftwaffe used to drop sticks of bombs on the river, hoping to rupture one of the tunnels, which would have flooded most or all of the system causing huge loss of life.

The solution was to install gates at either ends of the tunnels under the river. I’m not sure but I believe they were drop gates that could be slammed shut in seconds if needed.

Of course, if there were trains in transit under the river… The term in medicine is “triage.”

Judith was actually in a train in transit under the Thames during an air raid. Evidently during raids, the tube trains would stop moving for the duration. According to Judith people were cheerful and brave, telling jokes and sharing smokes and having a jolly good time sharing the very English camaraderie of tough times.

She told me once she actually considered telling people about the gates on either side of them ready to drop if the tunnel ruptured, but then just shrugged and thought, “Oh why spoil the fun since there’s nothing we can do about it anyway?”

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