The West Wing

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

I got done a few days ago watching my way through the whole of the West Wing. That’s 7 seasons, 22-24 episodes per season, 45-ish minutes per episode, so some 160 episodes, some 100-odd hours of TV.

That’s a lot of TV time. Imagine if I’d been writing all that time?!

Anyway- I really enjoyed it. It was like being with the crew of the Next Generation’s Enterprise again. The West Wing is the ship, the staff are the crew, and the adventures come to them in the same way the Enterprise went to the adventures. Politics, action, even military stuff, bad guys, tensions, a soap-opera edge with love interests and character development, with a liberal/enlightened world-view throughout.

Of course I loved TNG. I grew up watching it- I always figured I had more to learn from Jean-Luc than from hitting the streets outside. And recently, I felt much the same way about TWW (The West Wing). This, or be out in clubs/pubs/bars? Clubs are not nearly as interesting as TWW.

There was some fluctuation in the quality of the show, for sure. Seasons 1-4 were under the stewardship of the series creator- Aaron Sorkin. They were great, comfortable, generally warring against the religious right, and finding their feet.

Season 5, after Sorkin left, they took the crew/staff in the direction of incompetence and failure. It wasn’t fun. Josh made a severe mis-judgement that meant he was getting cut out of the loop, Leo had had a heart attack and was spending most of his time looking tiny and weak tucked up in bed, and Martin Sheen was dealing with bad MS. Everyone became weak and kind of useless.

That could be good- but it just lasted too long and was too endemic. One reason we like these characters is because they are good at what they do, they always pull it out of the hole- like Jack in 24. They’re one step ahead.

Not in season 5.

Season 6 pulls it back with presidential primaries, and season 7 rolled it home with the elections, with some great casting including Alan Alda and a lot of others- for a breath of fresh air.

Now I’m watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It feels like a re-tread of West Wing season 1 so far- the same battles against the religious right framing the shows premise, some of the same lines, the same pressures, the same scenes and set-ups. Still, it’s fun, though I can already see why it was canceled. It tries to take itself seriously with the show Studio 60 as a serious instrument for culture change- but it’s just a comedy show. Sure comedy has an impact- but not nearly as much as the agenda from the White House. So, it’s a step down in relevance/importance from TWW. Plus- it’s a re-tread.

Into the Wild

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

I first heard about the book ‘Into the Wild’ from my Global Issues teacher, when I was taking a Gap Year in a US high school back in 1999. She said I reminded her of the main character- Christopher McCandless.

At the time I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know anything about Christopher McCandless. I wondered why she compared me to him, generally I thought it was a positive thing- she said he was a bright young guy who sucked the marrow out of life- but there was an edge to it that I didn’t quite understand. I respected her though, her class was probably the most eye-opening class I ever took, so the comment stayed with me.

Years later I got the book- an excellent book by Jon Krakauer- and found out the ending. He dies. He’s this intelligent, gifted, athletic, seemingly loved and pampered kid, but one day he gives away his study-fund to Oxfam, leaves his car and burns all his money, and just lights out.

The mystery is- why? Why would this kid do this thing, to himself, to his family?

At first I thought he was heroic. After reading the book, I was awed by the way he lived the short life he had. He really sucked out the marrow, travelling the Western US, leather-tramping the roads, hitch-hiking, meeting wacky characters and forging new connections, always seeking and finding new experiences, enriching his life and his mind.

More recently, I started to think of him, when I thought of him, as a bit of a jerk. As immature and even selfish. Why hurt your parents like that? Why be so irresponsible with your own life like that? For what- spiritual learnings? What is that worth to the family that care about you if you die acquiring them?

That’s how I came to the movie. And for the first hour or so, the movie even reinforces this belief. He is incredibly cavalier with his own life. He blocks his family out completely. He has turned down everything they ever gave him, everything they ever made him, and decided to re-do it all for himself.

But why?

The movie answers these questions. They’re answers that speak to my own situation- why I’m in Japan. I’m not angry at my parents like Chris was. I’m out here in Japan, re-inventing myself, doing things for myself, because I didn’t know how to fit in and belong in England.

I’ve written about it on these pages before. It’s nothing really abhorrent. It’s just- not knowing who my people were. Not feeling like I was myself. Not knowing what I wanted, or where my space was to do it. So, I’m here, still searching for those things.

What my Global Issues teacher said about me and Chris being similar is true. Both looking for ourselves, for reality, for a new heritage and control over ourselves and our environment.

His final revelation- as shown in the film anyway- is one I felt myself when setting out on my proposed ‘bike tour around the world!’. It’s the reason I quit, and came back here, hoping to share my life with my then-girlfriend. But not everyone is on the same page at the same time, and that didn’t work out.

Anyway- is this a good movie? It certainly captures the spirit of Chris McCandless. It’s long, but it pays off. It shows us his reasons without over-explaining. Most importantly though- it shows us Chris as reckless carefree vagabond dominating the landscape, dominating people’s hearts, moving through and leaving inspiration and hope in his wake. We see that and while we may tsk at how reckless it is, we love him for it. His spirit is indomitable.

Then we see him brought low, and eventually to death. But even then, he comes through.

I would have loved to have met him. If he’d lived, I think he would have become a wonderful, empathic, understanding, caring man. It’s a tragedy he died.

There Will Be Blood

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

A movie about a psycho. A psycho so badly damaged/deranged/lunatic that he can’t love anything, can’t value anything, and drives everyone and everything away from him.

It’s hard to say much more because to say much more infers the ending. When dealing with such a bastard- is there any hope of salvation? Of atonement or forgiveness?

Well, I won’t say. But I’ll go so far as to say that both atonement and forgiveness pre-suppose contrition. And in this man we see no contrition. We see only black madness staring back out at us. We see someone so afraid of failure, so afraid to be nobody, so afraid to be somehow lesser than other men, that he will rampage rough-shod over those weaker than himself just to show to himself that he can.

He’s a devil waiting to be stopped. It’s almost as if he behaves so wickedly just to see if God can stop him. Will God strike him down? Will God do something to punish him, cast him low, make him repent of his sins?

The biblical tone of the title is right. This is a movie about religion. And it’s a movie about charlatans, and morals, and oil, and riches. But most of all, it’s about the chaos that bubbles underneath it all. The chaos that anyone can tap, that anyone can use for their own ends. It’s about violence, and the will to use it, suddenly, calculatedly, as a weapon. It’s about the will to power.

Thomas Anderson is a smart cookie. In Magnolia he was showing us how weak people can be manipulated. He showed us weak people are made weak by other weak people abusing them. He told us the worst crime we can commit is to abuse people weaker than us.

And that’s in this movie too. We see several instances of hatred, bile and rage splintering out of the Day-Lewis character and into other characters, who then go off the rails and splinter into hatred, bile and rage themselves. It is corrosive. The Day-Lewis character is a cancer.

It’s a good movie. Perhaps a great movie. Nowhere near as much fun as Magnolia. It’s dark and suspenseful- chiefly thanks to some powerful and bold suspense music over some of the extended sequences- reminiscent of the use of music over extended tracts in Magnolia, but much bleaker in this movie. Perhaps this is a grown-up version of Magnolia.

It’s certainly bleak. I felt down after watching it. But perhaps, not all bleak. The Day-Lewis character doesn’t manage to destroy everything.

The Shop Around the Corner

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

What a great movie.

James Stewart is just so darn likable. Affable. Put-upon but bearing up. Gets riled if he has to. Talks straight, shoots from the hip, sticks up for himself. Gives the bad guy a bloody nose. But also sensitive. He’s a willowy guy- not so strong to look at, but he works hard, and he sticks to it, and he makes it come out right.

I’m trying to think of our modern day equivalent. I suppose Tom Hanks has pulled it off in the past. In You’ve Got Mail, the remake, he was perhaps a bit show-offish. But a movie like Forrest Gump, which I loved- he came through a lot like I described above- just slow-witted. Basically, a decent person.

Hugh Grant would be another.

But neither of them has quite what Stewart did. That basic decentness seems to have grown out of the times- difficult times, where you had to work hard, and no-one would help, and if your dreams got crushed- well, you had to just cowboy up and take it. I’m thinking of both Shop Around the Corner, and It’s a Wonderful Life here. Hugh Grant often plays loafers with trust funds, not hard-workers. Tom Hanks- well, hmm. Has he taken on comedies with such sad depths like Stewart did?

But it’s not only in character that the film excels. There are also some fantastic lines. Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) dogs Stewart throughout, wittily, and his comebacks are delightful. For example-

Klara Novak (Miss Novak): Well I really wouldn’t care to scratch your surface, Mr. Kralik, because I know exactly what I’d find. Instead of a heart, a hand-bag. Instead of a soul, a suitcase. And instead of an intellect, a cigarette lighter… which doesn’t work.

Alfred Kralik (thoughtfully): Well that’s very nicely put. Yes, comparing my intellect with a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work. Yes, that’s a very (thinking of the right word) interesting mixture of poetry, and meanness.

And one more, after him saying her illness was ‘only’ psychological-

Klara Novak: Mr. Kralik. It’s true we are in the same room, but we’re not on the same planet.

Alfred Kralik (again, thoughtfully): Uh Miss Novak, although I’m the victim of your remark, I can’t help admiring the exquisite way you have of expressing yourself. You certainly know how to put a man back on his planet.

How could you not like a guy like that? Takes an insult and just keeps on coming. Speaks of huge inner confidence.

And what an expressive face James Stewart has.

And what an ending to a movie. Sock suspenders!

Harry Potter- The Deathly Hallows

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

I’m definitely feeling mixed about the end of Harry Potter.

It didn’t go the way I wanted it to, and hoped it would. But is it still something I can love? Can I forgive it, or explain it away, or just learn to see things a different way?

I wanted Voldemort to have redemption. I felt pity for him. I suppose I believe- though Rowling says it’s Harry’s choices that differentiate him from Voldemort- that Voldemort never really had a choice. Or if he did, it was rather a choice between:

a- Stop expecting any kind of attention, love, or respect, and just accept that you were born into a world that doesn’t care and doesn’t want you, and won’t give a crap when you die, and perhaps will cause that death itself.

or b- Get out there and DEMAND something, if not love, then at least FEAR and RESPECT.

I was feeling that Rowling’s series was set up to teach us the value of love, and how to raise children. The bad people and kids in HP were ALL victims of some messed up childhood. Dudley was spoiled and shown no guidance. Malfoy was shown guidance in the wrong direction. Snape was abused and disparaged. Voldemort was ignored.

Of all of them, Harry had it the best. Yes he was alone, and lived with a family that didn’t ‘love’ him. But at least they didn’t abandon him. Whatever they did to him, it wasn’t enough to ‘break’ him- after he’d been imbued with the SERIOUS love that his mother and father gave him right from his birth. Whether he could consciously remember that love or not- his subconscious would remember what it was like- and I feel- give him strength.

And then his mother died for him. That would not only give him mental strength he didn’t know about, it also saved his life numerous times.

So he had it pretty good. Then when he came of age, he plunged into the biggest most accepting family ever, Hogwarts, with the steady hand of Dumbledore watching over him, with Quidditch on the side, with best friends and a following of fans- that was pretty sweet for him.

Sure he had had some bad luck in his life. The Dursely’s. His parents died. But compare that to Voldemort.

Nobody cared about Voldemort from the start. Nobody loved him. Nobody would have died to save him. Nobody could raise him, because there was nobody who could give him guidance, because nobody around when he was a boy understood his gifts. Nobody was stronger or smarter than him. No punishment on him would ever stick. He would never come to understand that hurting another was bad, because until Harry came along, no-one could ever physically hurt him due to his magic.

Of course they could hurt him mentally though. By ignoring him. Isn’t that about the worst thing we can do to someone? In tribal societies, even worse than death or some other punishment would be exile. You fall off the edge of the world. What kind of life would it be with NO connection to everything that had ever mattered?

Voldemort came into a world where he was already an exile, with no roots, and that didn’t understand him and couldn’t give him any guidance. Presumably he was moved from place to place, a problem child no-one had the means to deal with.

So is it any wonder, when Dumbledore happened upon him and tried to take responsibility, that he wasn’t interested? Why should he trust Dumbledore, when no-one had ever stuck by him before?

I have complete sympathy with Voldemort through every stage of his life. And I do not think he deserves to spend the rest of eternity agonized with a fraction of a soul, suffering for mistakes he never knew any better about.

Even Harry himself looks at the despicable baby Voldemort in the white space after he’s been Kedavra’d, and feels like a coward for doing nothing. And so he should. If it’s anyone’s responsibility to step up to the plate and make things right for Voldemort, it was him. He who had so much more than Voldemort had ever had. And by more- I mean of genuine love, and friendship. Voldemort never had that.

Harry should have died to save Voldemort’s soul. Because Voldemort’s soul was not evil, and did not deserve to be punished forever. Of course Voldemort’s body had to die, as we would kill a cancer in our body, but not his soul.

Because is a cancer a root cause, or a symptom? Surely it’s a symptom of something else. Something at large in the world, or in the body, or in our genes. Is it Voldemort’s fault then that HE was the one that was turned, by the world, by the body, by his environment, into a cancer? How could it be?

So how does punishing for eternity the cancer help the body at large? It doesn’t. It’s like blaming all the ills of the world on one person, and making him pay, when he was only ever just a focus point for the disease. Was everyone sweetness and light before he came along? Were there no anti-muggle feelings before he came along?

Of course there were. He just corralled them into one unit. One family.

Harry should have died trying to delve into Voldemort’s past, into his soul, trying to find one spark that was still salvageable- and asking that spark- ‘are you happy with what you’ve done?’

Then the spark- in the image of a child Voldemort, perhaps before he goes into the cave to permanently damage those children for the first time- would look at the spread of his life, and say- no. I’m sorry for all of that.

Then Harry would hug the spark, the first human warmth Voldemort ever receives, and the remorse would begin, and all the soul fragments would come rushing back into him, and the pain would be enormous and cleansing and the world would feel it, and after, he’d be gone.

And Harry’s work would be done.

I wanted to see that so bad.

Instead we get Harry’s happy life in the epilogue. Seems selfish. Is he out there- trying to prevent another Voldemort from being ignored and abused as a child? Perhaps, but we get no image of that. We should have. Where is the effort to make sure this kind of thing never happens again? Not just for the sake of the people the next Voldemort would kill/hurt, but also for the sake of the next Voldemort itself.

Find the root cause in society and stub it out, rather than wait for the cancers to come roaring out. Or at least try.

I could talk about this at length.

Other small points-

Harry beat Voldemort on a technicality. He had completely by chance happened to disarm Malfoy earlier. And this meant- through weird and new wand mechanics- that he was the true owner of the Elder wand. So that’s how he beat Voldemort? That random chance? Makes me pity Voldemort even more- he tries and tries and does everything he can think of, and Harry just lucks out again and manages to win through sheer chance. Again. One reason I never liked the first book too- Harry beats Voldemort by doing nothing more than just exisiting, and having once been loved. Makes it seem like there is NOTHING Voldemort can do to beat him.

The sword of Gryffyndor- why was it in the sorting hat? Didn’t that goblin make off with it? Did he return it? I doubt that. Was it the ‘ghost’ of the Gryffyndor sword? I’m not a fan of that either.

I did enjoy this book though. I’ve tried to talk myself round to think- well- if Voldemort was utterly destroyed by the final duel- then maybe it’s OK. After all, every one of his 7 parts of soul were destroyed- doesn’t that mean that his soul also was dead? So there would be no snivelly disgusting baby in the white space- there would just be nothing. No Voldemort soul left.

That would be OK. I can understand that. He was so far gone there was nothing for it but total annihilation. We’d like to redeem him but it’s not possible- that kind of vibe. But seems to be precluded by Dumbledore suggesting Voldemort will return to the white space, and that it will go badly for him there. I’d like to have seen even Dumbledore stepping up then, saying- ‘I’ll take care of it, Harry’. Or someone, someone!, at least TRYING to heal the sickness that was Voldemort, rather than just coming together to wipe him out.

I think I’ll just have to believe that Voldemort was completely destroyed for me to feel like I really like the books.

Life on Mars

Mike Grist Book / Movie Reviews Leave a Comment

Just finished the season 2 finale of the UK TV show- Life on Mars. Completely took me by surprise by being totally kick-ass. I did not expect any of that. From the way it was, and had been, I hadn’t expected anything as ballsy, powerful, or moving as that to round it off.

At the end, and he’s standing there, and the camera’s revovling around him, I was on the edge of my seat going – “Come on! Do it! Go Sam!”

Suffice it to say, it rocked, and did not disappoint. Also, what excellent music.

I read on Wikipedia they’re making a spin-off of it too, with the same ‘guv’- Hunt (Glenister something or other), and the same basic idea of someone in a coma/mad/whatever as his DI. I hope it turns out better than Torchwood was reputed to.

Also they’re making an American version. Like the Office. Doubtless they’ll find a way to stretch it out beyond 2 seasons, as they have done with the Office- which is still going strong in the US at season 4 now. I watch it, and it’s still really funny.

In fact, I think I prefer the American Office to the British one. Partly because I’m sick of Ricky ‘smug annoying git’ Gervais, thinking he’s all that, and doing that as David Brent.

Steve Carroll in the American version is so much more vulnerable, and less consciously nasty. Makes him more sympathetic, a tragi-comic figure. It’s nice and often leaves you with a fuzzy feeling, where the UK version never did. The UK version was just kind of bleak and depressing.

Shogun Boardgame

Mike Grist Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Shogun arrived!!

I ordered it from a guy in the US, through Am totally psyched to play it. It’s in great condition with all the pieces intact. It cost $65, which is not bad seeing as it’s been out of production for like 15 years. Shipping cost $45.

Here’s a photo of the board-

We used to while away long hours when I was a kid playing this. Damn I’m psyched.

Raises the question- what games did you play as a kid?

For me:

-Shogun (all-day marathon sessions with Joe and some kid called Martin, maybe the Asif kids from next door, and perhaps my dad too?)

-Talisman + expansion sets (I was ALWAYS Warrior of Chaos cos he got to invoke the Gods after every kill, and often get an extra strength. At least, I played him until friends/family said it was unfair and I couldn’t be him anymore. I was pretty pissed, as you can imagine.)

-RPG’s led by my Dad. Most memorable moments- Vampire rats. And the time the bad guys were torturing the good guys, but we didn’t realize they were so bad, and did nothing, so Dad had to keep on upping the torture ante to make us realize who the bad guys were. Around the time they were torturing kids- we twigged.

-Muscles and marbles! Me and Joe invented this game, based on these little 1.5″ figures that came in a wide variety of muscled shapes and sizes. We went at either end of the ceramic tile hall at my Dad’s house, set the guys up like ten-pins, and bowled marbles down to knock them over. We played that game A LOT. Most of the ‘muscles’ had names. I wonder what became of them all. Dad?

OK, how about you guys?


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