Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

December 28, 2013

Review: Community

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:01 am

As a fan of surreal humor I can’t believe I missed this little gem for four seasons. Now I’m left in the uncomfortable position of recommending it as it goes into a fifth season with a major revamp.

I’ll have to plead that it is after all on network television, NBC to be exact, and who watches that anymore?

It has garnered much praise from film and TV critics but who reads them anyway?

I stumbled across it as NBC was running episodes back to back to get people up to speed for the fifth season, and was so intrigued I looked up the series website and caught a few more on streaming video.

However I had the time to do all this because I was home sick with one of those sinus infections that knocks reality slightly out of kilter and leaves you in the mood for surreal humor. So maybe it won’t be funny when I’m better.

Maybe it won’t even be there at all, maybe it exists only in the Darkest Timeline where the evil dopplegangers of the major characters live.

The major characters are:

Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a lawyer who lost his job at his firm because he falsely claimed to have a BA from Columbia. In fact, he doesn’t have a BA at all and somehow got through law school anyway.

He enrolls in Greendale Community College, a two-year college where he’s going to complete his bachelor’s degree and go back to being a scumbag lawyer.

He attempts to seduce a beautiful co-ed in his Spanish class, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) by inviting her to a fictitious study group. She’s an anarchist activist and cause junkie.

Either through accident or design, she invites another student to study, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), a Polish-Palestinian film student and all-around weirdo who sees life as a script.

Before you know it the group is real, the “Glendale Seven.”

Joining them are Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) a divorced mother of three and typical church lady, except there’s nothing typical about her.

Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), a high school football star who was on his way to a pro career via college when he separated both shoulders doing a keg flip. He’s Abed’s only friend.

And there’s Annie Eddison (Alison Brie), major brain and overachiever who was on her way to the Ivy League but developed an addiction to Adderall during finals week, gaining her the nickname “Adderall Annie” and a stint in rehab.

Annie was so unpopular in high school crossing guards used to direct her into traffic. She’s such an overachiever she was voted president of the Campus Crusade for Christ- and she’s Jewish.

Hovering on the outside of the group is Senor Chang, an unfrocked Spanish teacher turned student. Chang does a wicked Gollum imitation on occasion and appears to be reporting on a regular basis to a super-villain headquarters.

Then there’s Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) a millionaire who goes to community college because he’s bored.

Chevy Chase is leaving the series, but the fact is this crew of newbies has it covered.

“Community” is like “Scrubs” goes back to school. There’s a lot of riffing on pop culture references and it gets away with a lot of un-PC humor played with just the right light touch.

Barnes starts a blog called “Old White Guy” where he posts the most pompous statements Hawthorne makes on a regular basis. Then after he comes to see Hawthorne as a real human being he humbly apologizes and says he’ll take the blog down.

“What, 16,000 followers are you kidding? We can make money at this!” Hawthorne replies.

Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) is an occasional cross-dresser and has the hots for Winger. He’s also obsessed with wanting Glendale to be more like a “real” school. The study group are nonetheless his favorite.

Of course this crew of misfits bonds over the course of the series, and gets a lot of the rough edges polished off their personalities. Winger for example, seems to have developed a conscience and actually cares for the group he’s become the de facto leader of.

Each character seems to have an evil counterpart in the Darkest Timeline, which Winger insists isn’t real. Or is it?

There’s lots of pop culture references and hilarious sendups of academia in general and certain majors (education, psychology) in particular.

What gives the humor a certain edge in this reviewers humble opinion, is that while community colleges are still considered low-rent education, the open secret these days is that you’re more likely to graduate with a job and without a crippling debt load than at the more prestigious “real schools.”

And maybe that is what’s behind the surreal world-turned-upside-down humor of “Community.”

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

December 20, 2013

Lest we forget

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 6:16 pm

Note: This was my op-ed for Pearl Harbor Day.

“Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget – lest we forget!”
-Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional”

This last week saw the 72nd anniversary of the “Day that will live in infamy,” the attack by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.

Now the Empire of Japan is no more, and the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association disbanded in Dec. 2011, the 70th anniversary of the attack.

This year the occasion was marked by commemorative ceremonies and media profiles of some of the pitifully few survivors who remembered first-hand the day that plunged the United States into global total war.

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, a conflict that ripped Europe apart and remade the world order for almost a generation – until the next war remade it again.

After the “war to end all wars,” in Woodrow Wilson’s unfortunate phrase, French Marshall Ferdinand Foch remarked, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years.”

He was off by only a year.

Since the end of WWII the United States has fought only limited wars on confined battlegrounds in faraway places. We have never again mobilized civilian society to accept personal sacrifices of comfort. The number of families who have had to endure devastating losses is far fewer, and the experience of such loss now tends to isolate rather than unite them with their neighbors.

Subsequent wars and military actions have never had the same level of popular support. And until 9/11 we had never been attacked on our own soil again.
We do have veterans and we do honor them on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, but they are very few compared to the WWII generation. The number of veterans in congress is at the lowest level since WWII.

Perhaps this is not a bad thing. The atom bomb that ended the war with Japan made war unthinkable, or so we like to believe. We did manage to get through two generations of the Cold War armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons that were never used.

And yet I wonder, and sometimes I worry.

We live in a time when people have come to believe that war is an aberration, an interruption of the normal state of peace and prosperity.

Even a cursory knowledge of history shows that just isn’t so. This prolonged period of relative peace and extraordinary prosperity was won for us by men who knew it was not normal or inevitable.
That it had to be painstakingly built and vigilantly guarded.

Until now we seem to believe this state of things is eternal, when the lesson of history, repeated again and again, is that bad times always return.

On occasions such as this I think of Lee Harris and his book, “Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.”

Harris opened his essay, “The subject of this book is forgetfulness.”

“Forgetfulness occurs when those who have been long accustomed to civilized order can no longer remember a time in which they had to wonder whether their crops would grow to maturity without being stolen or whether their children would be sold into slavery by a victorious foe. Even then it is necessary for the parents, and even grandparents to have forgotten as well, so that there is not living link between the tranquility of the present generation and those dismal periods in which the world behaved very much in accordance with the rules governing Thomas Hobbe’s state of nature, where human life was “solitary, poor, nasty brutish, and short.” When parents have forgotten what that world was like, they can hardly be expected to teach their children how it was or what one had to do in order to survive in it.”

December 13, 2013

Review: Dracula

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:35 am

Drac is back. In a new series on NBC to be exact, staring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Henry VIII “The Tudors”) as the ever-popular count.

The count is by official count the second most popular movie character ever. Dracula has the lead role in an estimated 217 films, only barely edged out by Sherlock Holmes (223).

This is oddly appropriate. After the publication of “Dracula”(1897) by Irishman Bram Stoker, Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle sent him a warmly appreciative fan letter. Subsequent generations of writers have paired the two in fights to the death, and in one case (Fred Saberhagen, “The Holmes-Dracula File”) made
Holmes some kind of nephew of Dracula.

So given the plethora of adaptations and what would today be called “fan fiction,” how does this joint British-American venture differ from Stoker’s original?

In almost every way except the names of several major characters. In fact they seem to have borrowed from almost everybody except Bram Stoker.

That doesn’t make it bad necessarily. In fact, I was reviewing a series of episodes on the series website preparing to drive a stake through its heart when I found myself being oddly drawn into it, hypnotized by those compelling eyes, drained of all will, fascinated…
NOW CUT THAT OUT!

OK, it’s kind of a guilty pleasure.

As in the original, Dracula comes to London in the late Victorian era. Only this time he comes in the guise of an American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, complete with the American corn belt rasp!

HIs right hand man is R.M. Renfield Esq. (Nonso Anozie). Only this Renfield is a black man, and far from being mad and a slave, he’s a highly intelligent lawyer who is fiercely loyal because Dracula/Grayson saved his life from a bunch of bigots and treats him as a valued partner.

Once in London Grayson engaged the services of Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a journalist, not a soliciter, and meets Harker’s fiancee Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) who seems to be the reincarnation of his dead wife Ilona Szilágyi, who was killed by Dracula’s enemies in The Order of the Dragon.

That Mina plot wrinkle comes straight from Francis Ford Copolla’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1974). It kind of gets me because Ilona is my daughter’s middle name.

The Order among other things, keeps England vampire-free. The last time they had to deal with a vampire problem in London was eight years previously during the Whitechapel murders. Which they passed off as the work of a serial killer named Jack.

Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) is not a vampire hunter, but an ally of Dracula helping him in his scheme to wreck vengeance on the Order of the Dragon. To this end he’s trying to create a treatment that will allow vampires to endure sunlight.

Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) is a closeted lesbian with the hots for Mina.

And there are several non-canonical characters such as Lady Jane Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit) a member of the Order who hunts vampires with her martial arts skills when she’s not popping out of her Victorian corset-bustier.

Lady Jane and Dracula are having a torrid affair. She doesn’t know he’s a vampire, he suspects she’s with the Order. And there are hints that Lady Jane realizes that though still beautiful and definitely in great shape, she’s seeing the signs that tell her that won’t last. Unless…

Add to this, Dracula/Grayson is bringing to England a new technology which appears to be based on Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless electricity transmission.

The Order is heavily invested financially in oil and politically in imperialism to control the sources of oil. It is strongly hinted this conflict going to burst out in the First World War in another 20 years, so we know how that turns out.

It’s ironic that writers of subsequent incarnations of Dracula probably have more access to information then Stoker did about the historical Vlad III: Voivode (Prince) of Wallachia (1431–1476), House Draculesti, surnamed Dracula (“Son of the Dragon”), member of the Societas Draconistrarum (Order of the Dragon) founded in 1408 by King Sigismund of Hungary to fight the enemies of Chistendom.

What you can do with that it to make Dracula, not exactly evil, but a ruler and politician of his time: ruthless but capable, cruel but principled in his own way. And definitely an aristocrat. I can prey upon you because I’m a prince and that’s what we do.

“Dracula” has been categorized as horror, fantasy and in the genre of what’s called “invasion literature.” And in this case it’s not just an invasion of the supernatural into the mundane world, it’s an invasion from the horrifying past.

Vampires, martial arts, conspiracies, Victorian porn!

What’s not to like, as long as your friends don’t find out?

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

December 6, 2013

Review: Catching Fire

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 5:32 pm

“Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.” (“They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”)
– Gaius Cornelius Tacitus; 56 – 117 A.D.

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is the second film based on Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy, set in the dystopian future state of Panem.

“Catching Fire” was preceded by “The Hunger Games,” (2012) to be concluded with “Mockingjay” next year.

“The Hunger Games” was pretty good. “Catching Fire” is better.

The Hunger Games are a high-tech gladiatorial spectacle held yearly by the despotic state of Panem. Each year 24 tributes, one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 drafted from each of the 12 districts are made to hunt each other until only one is left. The Games were founded after a rebellion of the grindingly poor districts against the rich and decadent Capitol, which resulted in the destruction of District 13.

Collins has citied inspiration from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the tale of the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens Athens was obliged to send to King Minos’ labyrinth in Crete. Reviewers also note Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924), and the film “Gladiator” (2000).

Older science fiction fans might notice elements of Mack Reynolds now-obscure novel, “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Princes” (1964).

Panem is New Rome, the latest incarnation of the first western world-state whose rise, decadence, and fall still fascinates us 1,600 years after the sack of the Rome by Alaric the Goth, 560 years after the capture of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II. The name Panem is an allusion to the Latin “panem et circensis,” the “bread and circuses” with which the Roman Empire kept the masses pacified.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) survived the 74th annual Hunger Games. With help from Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District 12’s only surviving tribute, and fashion designer Cinna (Lennie Kravitz), they skillfully manipulated the audience with a phony star-crossed lovers story, forcing the masters of the games to allow both of them to live.

There’s a problem. For Peeta, it’s not phony. He’s in love with Katniss, who respects him but she’s kind of attached to Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) a boy back home.

There’s an even bigger problem. President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is seriously teed-off at their defiance. Snow tells Katniss she and Peeta had better toe the party line on their victory tour of the districts or her family…

Haymish tells her the same. Their act is now a permanent fixture of their lives. But he notes there could be worse things.

“If you live to be a hundred you’ll never deserve that boy,” he says.

But Katniss and Peeta are caught up in a rising spirit of rebellion in the districts, at first reluctantly. Snow decides they must be eliminated, in a way that destroys their image as heroes.

Urged by the enigmatic new master of the games Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow declares a Quarter Quell where the tributes will be chosen from a pool of all surviving winners.

District 9’s only surviving female winner is Katniss. The only males are Peeta and Haymich.

They must make alliances with other tributes, but who can they trust when all of them know that in the end there can be only one?

Katniss and Peeta must again win the favor of the mob with the help of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna, but this is a two-edged sword. They need the mob on their side, but the favor of the mob means the enmity of Snow.

All of this makes for a great story with dramatic tension to spare and great special effects that nonetheless don’t substitute for good plotting.

But there’s something that’s really starting to get to me about this story, and incidentally creating my own personal dramatic tension about whether I want to read the books now or wait till I’ve seen the final installment.

I know from experience that school children in this country know almost nothing about the appalling history of tyranny in the previous century.

They might know a man named Hitler killed a lot of people in their grandparents’ time. Seldom that Stalin murdered at least ten times as many, or Mao even more. Che Guevarra is just a face on a T-shirt to them.

They know nothing about the brutal technology of tyranny, how people are kept poor, fearful, without hope.

“The Hunger Games” trilogy is in fact a pretty good description of tyranny, though set in the future. It’s strange that young people should learn this from young adult fiction, but we may hope this will motivate them to learn some history.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

The Winter War

Filed under: Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:45 am

Last Saturday, Nov. 30, was the 74th anniversary of the beginning of a forgotten war, the Soviet invasion of Finland, called the Talvisota in Finnish, and the Zimnyaya Woyna in Russian.

The Red Army, which possessed three times as many soldiers as Finland, 30 times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks, poured across the border in 1939, three months after the beginning of World War II.

The ostensible goal was to take a strip of border territory the Soviets regarded as essential for their security. Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg) was only about 25 miles from the border. Some claim the goal was to totally absorb Finland into the USSR and make it a province of a Great Russian state again.

The Soviets demanded the territory and offered some in exchange. The Finns refused, the Soviets attacked without warning as they had Poland.

The Finns, though vastly outnumbered, had the home field advantage and high morale. The Soviets were hampered by Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 when the officer corps of the Red Army had been virtually wiped out, leaving only loyal or terrified subordinates in command.

Volunteers from Sweden, Estonia (where the language is essential a Finnish dialect) and America came to fight for Finland. They learned to improvise to make up for lack of materiel. Few now remember how the home-made gasoline bomb came to be named for Vyacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars.

But after four months of hard fighting superior numbers told. Finland had to cede the territory the Soviets demanded, and more.

The peace lasted 15 months. After dividing Poland between them the German’s turned on their former ally and attacked the Soviet Union. Finland saw this as an opportunity to regain lost territory and renewed hostilities, fighting alongside Germany.

This led to one of the greatest ironies of the war. Finnish Jews fought alongside the Wehrmacht, the grandfather of a Finnish friend among them. Several were nominated for the Iron Cross, but refused.

The way my Finnish friend put it was, “When the bastards are coming at you shooting, you don’t inquire too closely about the man next to you shooting back.”

Finland walked a tightrope throughout the war. Their war policy was to make it plain they were fighting the Soviet Union as co-belligerents of the Third Reich, not allies. They generally stopped military operations at their pre-war borders, they declined to advance to Leningrad to complete the encirclement of the city, and ceased operations that threatened the Murmansk route of American aid to the Soviets.

The Finns also flatly refused demands by the Nazis to take any anti-Jewish measures.

The end of the war saw concessions of territory by Finland, reparations paid to the USSR, and the lease of a naval base with right of passage to the Soviets. It also saw brief fighting with the Wehrmacht to expel them from Finland.

But they kept their independence and maintained it throughout the Cold War. They were not a satellite state like the countries of Eastern Europe, and though they had a communist presence in their parliament I can testify from personal knowledge their attitude towards the Soviets was one of open truculence.

When my parents traveled from Finland to Russia back in the 1980s their Finnish tour guide told them, “Some things are better in the Soviet Union. They have a better neighbor than we do.”

One sign of Finland’s commitment to being Western is that virtually all young people in Finland are fluent in English, far fewer in Russian though Russia is next door.

It’s significant also that private gun ownership in Finland is the fifth highest in the world, and in Europe neck-and-neck with Switzerland.

Since I was reminded of this anniversary I’ve been trying to think of lessons that might be learned.

One is of course, that life is complicated. The hammering the Red Army took from the Finns in the Winter War forced them to make significant reforms that put them in better shape for the next round. The Finns relationship with Germany went from enemy to co-belligerent to enemy again within the space of a few years.

Another is that sometimes you have to hold your nose and do something that stinks to survive, but you always have to draw the line somewhere.

But most of all I think, is the virtue of what the Finns call “Sisu.”

It’s hard to translate without being wordy, but it means: guts, toughness, strength of will in the face of adversity, never giving up or giving in despite repeated failure, resilience, grit.

Sisu!

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