movie star drool

Beowulf and Grendel


Yeah, Stellan Skarsgard running around on a rock as Hrothgar trying to lure out Grendel.  Pretty awful.

Beowulf has become a Glaswegian.

Oh, dear – now there’s an Irish priest, Father Brendan. 

And a witch (really?) who both looks and sounds out of place (Sarah Polley).

Welcome to Beowulf and Grendel, circa 2005.  It’s pretty bad and I’m totally going to throw some SPOILERS in this review…so consider yourself warned if you’d really, really like to watch this movie regardless of what I have to say.

You know, the most atrocious thing about this movie is the use of accents.  Skarsgard is Swedish and many of the second cast are of Norse extraction and they sound more like what you would expect to hear from a pack of Danes around 525AD.  Eddie Marsan, who has a London accent normally, does a very convincing Irish accent as Father Brendan. However, Sarah Polley brings an American/Canadian accent, Tony Curran and Gerard Butler are heavy on the Scots, and Ronan Vibert is Welsh.  So it sounds more like the Angles and the Saxons have come to purge Hrothgar’s kingdom of Grendel (who’s wearing a really terrible hairy suit that looks like rubber with fuzz on) instead of the Geats or any other Norse tribe.  The major actors in this film are all talented so the producers and director should have spent more money on the dialect coaching.  Or hired someone since it sounds like they spent no money at all.

The scenery of this movie is beautiful (Iceland subs in for pre-Christian Denmark) and is really the only redeeming thing.  The adaptation of the Beowulf poem is terrible.  It’s like the screenwriter tried to hew to the Beowulf storyline, but add some modern ethics for modern audiences, too (because heaven forbid an epic warrior be just that – a warrior), and Grendel’s sea hag-mom popped out of the sea and got him/her so the point of the movie remains unresolved.  The story really doesn’t move forward well and we’re stuck watching an increasingly intoxicated Hrothgar wax philosophical over the curse of Grendel (aka Troll, because that’s what they call him) that has befallen his kingdom…and then Hrothgar converts to Christianity.  Oh, and Grendel fathered a son because he knocked up Sarah Polley’s witch…is there supposed to be a Grendel II or did Beowulf’s funeral stele appease Grendel’s mini-me and avert all the bloodshed?

This movie could have been a whole lot better in many ways so if you want a good story read Beowulf in the Heaney translation or listen to an Anglo-Saxon language recording; if you want to watch a more entertaining movie watch The 13th Warrior (itself a terrible example of cinema but I find it entertaining).


Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, and JD Salinger, 1919-2010 (aka that "Saliva guy"* who died)

Howard Zinn died this week.  Howard Zinn is responsible for writing the second “grouchy” book I ever read – A People’s History of the United States (first “grouchy” book goes to And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts).  I picked up A People’s History because I was hoping it would have a little more background than the version of history taught in school.  Boy, was I surprised.  This was the first time I ever realized what “Banana Republic” meant, why Iran might not quite love the United States, how the “empire” of the United States was built.  Imperialism isn’t taught in high school (at least not in the mid-1990s), not even as a topic of debate.  I was righteouly angry, once again, that the people who make up the United States had been dumped on by an elitist government (and people who didn’t even live in the United States had been dumped on).  Grouch, grouch, grouch.

Does A People’s History have bias?  Yes.  However, if the purpose of the book was to get people thinking about the effect of US policies on the lowest echelons on society, those with the fewest opportunities available, A People’s History did just that.  Zinn used source material that brings the voices of Native Americans, women, and immigrants to the surface – he championed the history of those who were politically and economically disenfranchised. 

Zinn came to speak at the University of Iowa in the fall of 2005.  The IMU Main Lounge was packed front to back, standing-room-only in the doorways to watch a stooped, elderly man in a sweater vest and enormous reading glasses speak about “voice”.  Making our voices heard, becoming aware of voices that were silent.  It takes far more courage to speak out and do the unpopular thing than it does to stand by and remain silent.  Zinn even made a joke that he had never been introduced by a University president because he tended to rile up the students (the UI is no stranger to social activism; the students set up a tent city on the Pentacrest to oppose US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan).  Zinn signed books for quite some time after his speech.  When I got to the front of the line he commented on my dog-eared, battered copy of A People’s History, asking if the writing tasted good because I had obviously got my teeth into it (I said it tasted like brain food; he laughed).

Also, while we remember a man unable to remain silent we also remember a man who stubbornly refused his comment.  JD Salinger died only a few hours after Zinn; he was 91 (wow).  I don’t have any commentary or personal story for Salinger on the occasion of his death.  Because he hadn’t published or granted interviews in decades (rumor has it he kept writing; will we ever see it, I wonder?), his death doesn’t affect me quite as much as Zinn’s.  I put Salinger in the same box as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald – “wrote good books, will never get to meet” (as opposed to Kurt Vonnegut, who kept writing books and I would have got down on the ground to kiss his feet had I met him) – so it’s kind of like Salinger had died in 1980, the year of his last interview and long before I ever read The Catcher in the Rye.  However, I raise a glass to the work Salinger left behind and plan to dig out my copy of Catcher for a long-overdue reread.

*Overheard on my way into the bookstore this morning; one ditzy girl was commenting to another ditzy girl about how “some Saliva guy that wrote a book about baseball died and everyone is talking about it”.  A depressingly sad but unavoidably overheard statement.  I think I tripped over the rug while collecting my jaw off the floor.

stuff I read · Women Unbound Challenge

The Life of Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I remains one of the iconic figures of British history – the clothes, the china-white skin, the refusal/inability to marry, the events of her reign that shaped the future of her country.  Even during her lifetime the persona of Elizabeth, gloriana regina, overshadowed the woman Elizabeth.  I always thought she was austere, regal, scary….turns out she was capricious and hot-tempered in her private life.

Like all the other Weir biographies I’ve devoured over the past year this one is well-written and easy to read.  Alison Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I brings the private life of “the Virgin Queen” to the forefront.  Yes, Britain’s navy prospered during her reign.  Yes, she avoided open war with Spain.  Yes, she exhibited a tolerance of religion as long as subjects outwardly conformed to the Anglican faith; she also manged to gain the admiration and respect of Catholic rulers, a true feat when the Pope had declared her excommunicate.  But she really was an awful flirt and prone to jealous fits; her male courtiers didn’t usually bring their wives to court and she exacted revenge on those who dared marry without her consent (the wives usually suffered the most).  She also prolonged any marriage negotiations, most past the point of practicability, using myriad stall tactics and diversions to avoid committing herself to actually answering the nagging question: who and when would she marry?

Although Elizabeth is depicted as a strong ruler, one who tried to keep her spending down and rule with Parliament and her Council, she does seem to ascribe to the contemporary belief that a woman was incapable of ruling without a husband (sixteenth-century medical theory also opined that a woman required a husband to remain sexually normal and avoid mental intability).  I said “seems” because, as Weir points out, Elizabeth was known for keeping her own counsel.  Unlike her half-brother, Edward VI, she did not keep a diary and vascillated for quite some time before making major decisions.  She never seemed to express her personal opinions, only those of “the monarch”.  Weir brings up the idea that marriage in general may have been distasteful to Elizabeth (not surprising given the marital history of her parents, step-parents, and half-sister); it’s not unimaginable to think that Elizabeth never meant to marry but, knowing the decision to remain unmarried would be universally unpopular, invented her stall tactics to hide her true intention.  We’ll never know.

There is one thing about Elizabeth I think people forget – she was a scholar.  Her father and guardians had the good sense (and foresight) to have her educated very well, as befitted a “prince” (a word that comes up frequently since female monarchs ruling in their own right are so very rare).  Her education began very early and she was known to be a precocious child (I mentioned the Tudor precocity in my review of The Children of Henry VIII).  I am in awe of her education; rhetoric, theology, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, music and all started at an age where children of the twenty-first century are learning ABCs.  I wouldn’t have wanted to match wits with her in any circumstance but I would have loved to discuss with her the books she read.

Next up in the Weir obsession (almost over): Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley

Current book-in-progress: The Mathematics of Sex (needs to be returned soon)
Current knitted item: baby sweater
Current movie obsession: Peter Pan
Current iTunes loop: Filmspotting

reflection · stuff I read


Back in November Rebecca Skloot put out a tweet asking for readers/reviewers to contact her if they were interested in a book on the philosophy of illness from a professor in the UK.  I responded, got the author’s contact information from Rebecca, and a package containing Illness: The Cry of the Flesh arrived in December. 

Havi Carel writes about the phenomenology of illness from two perspectives: as a professor of philosophy and as a woman diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening illness.  In 2006 Dr. Carel was diagnosed with lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a sporadically occuring disease caused by spontaneous proliferation of smooth muscle cells in the lungs, blood vessels, and lymphatics; LAM strikes almost exclusively among women in their childbearing years.  There is no effective treatment available with lung transplantation recommended as a palliative treatment when a patient’s pulmonary function significantly declines.

Now, having read Dr. Carel’s book I’m sure she doesn’t appreciate my effortless ability to reduce her life to a summary of symptoms and dismal treatment options.  It’s a habit (sorry).  I’m researcher in hospital epidemiology and I can abstract a PMH/ROS (past medical history and review of systems) with the best of them.  I don’t usually see patients so I just sit in my office and read charts looking for quantifiable information – dates, numbers, symptoms – I can translate into statistics.  However, when actually working with patients (or even interacting with friends undergoing a significant illness) reducing a person to first a disease then to a symptom list and prognosis doesn’t do the ill person any favors.

That is exactly the point of Illness, to find a way to bring phenomenology into the normativist and naturalistic philosophies of chronic illness.  Phenomenological approaches to illness focus on the “experience of being ill: illness as it is lived by the ill person” (p 12).  This is actually quite useful because we all experience illness differently.  The same biological markers of a disease will cause quite different experiences in two individuals.  Dr. Carel uses the philosophies of Martin Heidegger and Epicurus to show how a phenomenological approach allows a chronically ill person to find health within illness and to allow oneself to be both ill and happy.  She also uses her own experience as a chronically-ill person to illustrate those concepts. 

Although it is a work of philosophy, Illness is meant to be read by people from all walks of life: layman, friend, colleague, healthcare worker.  The writing is clear, concise, and thoughtful.  Philosophical concepts are well-defined and illustrated with many examples.  The clarity of Dr. Carel’s writing is most apparent in Chapter 4, “Fearing death”; she uses the work of Epicurus (who argued that a fear of death is irrational) to examine how an ill person should prepare for death, how to have an fully-lived life while accepting one’s remaining time is limited.  While reading this section of Illness I kept thinking of my maternal grandmother who in all probability never read a work of philosophy in her life but would have agreed with Epicurus.  Grandma was diagnosed with mutliple myeloma when I was twelve and fought her disease for seven years but the treatment options ran out during my freshman year of college.  Did she sit around, moping and moaning that she had very little time left?  If she did, she never let us see it (I think her own mother would have come back to haunt her if she had).  We still had Christmas with all the trimmings, greeting cards on the holidays (the messages written in an ever-shakier hand), and those ever-present inquiries into how school was coming along (I spent a weekend studying calculus in the ICU when she was very ill one week; the first question she asked me was whether or not I’d done well on my last exam).  She never expressed any fear of “the undiscovered country” – she died quietly and with dignity.

This has been a hard review to write and I’ve been working on it for over a week; I very much liked Illness and am very grateful to Rebecca, Dr. Carel, and Acumen Publishing for the information and review copy.  Illness has made me reflect on professional and personal experiences and to look at my interactions with ill people in a different light.  We can all use a book like Illness – we all know someone with a serious illness and there is a great likelihood that most of us will personally develop chronic medical disease before we die.  I think Illness would be of great benefit to medical curriculae in particular. “Empathy” is always stressed during training but I think Dr. Carel’s work would help healthcare workers understand how to integrate empathy for the ill person with medical care for the biology of the actual disease. 

Current book-in-progress: What are Intellectuals Good For?, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Lightning Thief
Current knitted item: baby sweater
Current movie obsession: Gosford Park
Current iTunes loop: John Mayer

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesday: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:

– Grab your current read
– Open to a random page
– Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
– BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
– Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers

When George Naylor’s grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common.  Horses were the first, because every farm needed working animals (there were only 225 tractors in all of American in 1920), followed by cattle, chickens, and then corn.
~ Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Part Two, Chapter 3

stuff I read

The Children of Henry VIII

Remember my minor Alison Weir obsession last year?

It’s back – still going strong and able to keep me up reading late.  The next entry in Weir’s Tudor chronology was The Children of Henry VIII, a bit of a misnomer because Lady Jane Grey was most certainly not Great Harry’s child and Henry’s actual bastard children aren’t mentioned in this volume.  Perhaps The Heirs of Henry VIII would be more accurate but it’s not quite as catchy.

The Children of Henry VIII picks up the thread of each Tudor heir’s life in turn – Mary, Elizabeth, Edward, and Jane – before weaving their stories together at Edward’s accession on the death of Henry VIII January, 28, 1547.  Whatever was in the Tudor genes it made incredibly intelligent children out of all four of them.  All are noted to be precocious scholars, learning and becoming proficient at multiple languages, accomplished musicians (not so much Edward), and uncannily aware of the political and religious situations of the mid-sixteenth century.  Much was expected of Tudor heirs (they all had very esteemed tutors) but the natural ability was there.

This was the most engaging Weir, yet.  I think because the subjects were young and there is a lot of action during this period it makes the subject matter far more compelling.  Each of the Tudors are treated sympathetically but also matter-of-factly; quite a bit of information is given regarding Mary’s enthusiasm for rooting out Protestantism, her stubborn insistence that burning heretics will eventually bring the rest around, and Weir makes no excuses for that behavior while building sympathy for Mary as a traditionalist woman who desperately wanted to become a mother.  The most sympathetic character in the whole, messy succession drama is Lady Jane Grey.  Talk about being used as a political pawn; she would have been unbelievably happy to stay in the country, to read and study alone, rather than being forced into marriage and the crown, ultimately losing her life (and her head).

The Children of Henry VIII ends with the death of Mary Tudor in 1558.  The Tudor history picks up again with The Life of Elizabeth I and that’s where I’ll be heading next.

Bookclub · movie star drool · stuff I read

Speak (times two)

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak was on the schedule for January as the first book of the new year for our little bookseller bookclub.  I’ve had a copy lurking about on my bookshelves for a while and I’m so very glad it was Jackie’s pick for the group.  Speak is a book that always comes up in conversation with teens and teachers so I was happy to have a good reason to catch up on good YA literature.

Miranda Scordino narrates in the first person, taking the reader through her first year of high school, a year that was supposed to be fun but is now a mine-field of ostracism and indifference.  She is very frank in her feelings, her thoughts play out in prose, scripted dialogue, and lists (the “First Ten Lies They Tell You in High School” are, sadly, very true).  She gives her classmates and teachers nicknames (Hairwoman is an apt name) and she rebels against her parents efforts to “normalize” her.  The one thing from Speak that stays with me is Miranda’s voice – she has an authentic voice, she sounds like a young teen, one who has been traumatized but remains very observant of her school and peers.  Even though Miranda can’t “speak” about what happened she learns to begin expressing herself through art; the construction of the turkey-bone sculpture is a poignant scene.

Speak is a book that shows serious subjects – date rape and depression – presented in a format accessible to a younger audience.  It isn’t graphic either in imagery or in language, you can hear and see far worse at any movie rated PG-13.  When Miranda finally flashes back to the assault her memories are disjointed, all the images are jumbled together so we are left to fill in the gaps and imagine the worst.  What disturbs me the most about Speak is that no one really wants to get behind the changes in her behavior; her parents are absorbed in their work, outside of the art teacher the rest of the teaching staff aren’t concerned about her beyond her grade, her friends don’t even bother to ask why she called 911 and abandon her the same way the rest of the school does.  Miranda displays many of the symptoms of PTSD and yet no one seems to care that she has gone from relatively normal to withdrawn, depressed, and nearly mute in the space of a few weeks.  It does seem to be a common theme; one edition of Speak contains a poem Laurie Halse Anderson wrote based on letters she received from teen readers, some of them confessions of assaults that no one ever knew about.  Miranda helped them “speak” and it shows the power in the novel.

I also, for the life of me, really can’t quite figure out why Speak winds up being challenged/censored by school districts.  It is an honest book, but not graphically so; compared with The Lovely Bones, which opens with a graphic and harrowing scene of the rape and murder of a similarly-aged heroine, Speak does not fill the reader with terror.  Anderson comments on challenges often on her blog so I have developed a little insight – most challenges to Speak revolve around the assault, because it’s the S-word (omg, sex!) – but it still boggles the mind.  The focus of the book isn’t an overly graphic play-by-play assault sequence but Miranda’s journey back from the trauma of the assault.  Clearly, people are missing the point and they would rather have ignorant kids instead of intelligent ones who stand up for themselves.

Our little book group tends to pick books that have been adapted for the silver screen so we can have a chat-and-movie night (failing any adaptations of a chosen book we just pick a movie we want to watch).  Speak was adapted into a 2004 movie starring Kristen Stewart and an oddly-cast-but-works-very-well Steve Zahn as the art teacher.  Kristen Stewart was very good as Melinda; I’m impressed.  I ragged on her performance as Bella Swan because it was some pretty flat acting but this movie shows that she does have talent.  She also has far more emotional material to work with when playing Melinda as opposed to playing Bella.  The adaptation from Speak the novel to Speak the movie is one of the best I’ve seen in years.  The screenwriter manages to keep Miranda’s inner monologue and “voice” going throughout the movie which, being the focus of the book, goes a long way toward a faithful adaptation.  Anderson makes a cameo appearance as one of the cafeteria servers.

Current book-in-progress: What are Intellectuals Good For?, A Jury of Her Peers, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The Lightning Thief, and A Tree Growns in Brooklyn
Current knitted item: baby sweater
Current movie obsession: The History of Britain
Current iTunes loop: Glee!

movie star drool

Sherlock Holmes

After snivelling all morning over Harry Potter dying in World War I (see review of My Boy Jack) I took myself to the movie theatre for a good time with Sherlock Holmes.  I needed entertaining and got it in spades.

It was a fun two hours watching Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law solve an apparent supernatural mystery that threatened the very heart of British government.  The two leads had a very good rapport on screen, much akin to the Odd Couple, and clearly had a lot of fun while making this movie.  I liked the not-quite steampunk vibe used throughout the movie, the setting just on the cusp of exiting the Victorian age and entering the twenty-first century.  It also helped rough up the Holmes character, getting away from the stuffy plaid deerstalker hat and acknowledging the vices Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave to his sleuth and sidekick.  In addition, Guy Ritchie and the effects/stunt designers did a great job on two slow-motion action sequences when Holmes describes what he does step-by-step….and then does it (I would have liked to have that effect return later in the film rather than used twice in the first 20 minutes then no more throughout the remainder).

I was glad to see the Irene Adler character (played by Rachael MacAdams) wasn’t so ditzy as the previews made her out to be; some of the preview scenes were not in the movie so that did help.  Adler appears in only one Holmes short story and, while I thought the romantic development was cute, I was happy to see the intelligence of the character retained.  Mark Strong (who I really can only place as the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley in the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma) does crazy aristocratic villains very well and was a good addition to the story in the form of Lord Blackwood. 

My only real criticism of this movie is the actual plot.  While there is an actual story arc (beginning-middle-end) in this movie, I really felt like it was a two-hour teaser for the next Sherlock Holmes movie.  The introduction of the well-known Holmes nemesis/arch-villain Moriarty (which is no secret) makes it clear Ritchie always intended to make a follow-up to this movie.  That serves to make the Blackwood plot in this movie secondary to the Moriarty introduction needed for the next movie.  The movie is great fun to watch but I would have liked to see more closure with the Blackwood plot (i.e. the hangers-on seem to be left out).

Preview goodies (and there were plenty):
1.  Remember Me – New RPatz vehicle with Emilie de Ravin; jury’s still out on whether or not I care much about this one until I see Little Ashes (releasing on DVD this month)
2.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – I have no desire to watch some awful Nicholas Cage vehicle make a mockery of Goethe’s poem (Der Zauberlehrling) with some kooked-up “I’m going to teach you how to use your powers for good” modern garbage interpolated; also, Nicholas Cage looks pretty much the same as he does in every other movie he makes these days, i.e. he looks stupid
3.  From Paris With Love – Cue-ball-bald John Travolta as a shoot-’em-up CIA agent with Jonathan Rhys Myers playing baby-sitter…are you kidding?  Just…no.
4.  Robin Hood – Something tells me this Robin Hood will speak with an English accent (hahahahahaha), but, seriously, I think this looks to be a good time; plus there’s Cate Blanchett and Matthew MacFadyen
5.  Inception – Leonardo di Caprio kinda leaves me cold, however, this looks to be a really good psycholocial concept with some IMAX effects
6.  Clash of the Titans – Can you say AWESOME??!??!!? I love the 1981 version but I really want to see what it looks like with the CGI effects we have these days (bonus: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and all sorts of other cool people)

I arrived in the middle of Remember Me so I’m hoping it was the first one, otherwise I missed a preview for Iron Man II (which I was told was running in front of Sherlock Holmes – which makes sense with Robert Downey, Jr., playing the title character of each).

*Edit: I saw this again with a good friend because we were both bored….and there was NOTHING else at the movie theatre we wanted to watch.  It was a second viewing for both of us and this one definitely has re-watchability appeal; it was still a lot of fun to watch.