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Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Casual Critic — Adam Braver's Mr. Lincoln's Wars

I've had a difficult time figuring out what exactly I think of Adam Braver's debut novel, Mr. Lincoln's Wars. Described as historical fiction, which I don't recall ever reading before at least as an adult, the text subtitled "Novel in Thirteen Stories" offers interesting enough reading but struggles to solidify its value.

The strongest aspects of the stories, which I'm not convinced equate to a novel at all, are the presentation of various opinions offered from fictional characters on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Without having done much research on the book or Lincoln, I pretty much assume the stories are at least grounded in fact. (Otherwise, the book has zero value.) Reading about the frustration on both sides of a fairly protracted war was a side of the North that was a bit eye-opening for me.

Braver portrays Lincoln as somewhat tortured over the death of his son Willie. The human side of our 16th president, depicted as roaming the White House night after night and trying to help his wife cope at the same time, left me wondering about the power we give to one man.

The story behind John Wilkes Boothe's assisination stood out from the others. I never really thought about how convinced individuals in the South were that Lincoln was ruining our country by freeing the slaves. But, it obviously makes complete sense, and the portrait of Boothe drives the point home quite well. (For the record, I'm saying it makes sense that the southerners felt that way based on the fact that they tried to form their own country over the issue. I'm not agreeing with their stance on slavery.)

Braver also examines, in separate stories, the night of Lincoln's death from Mary Todd's perspective and the president's autopsy. Both, for reasons other than the obvious, were quite sad. Mary Todd is forced to essentially stand aside while official business is tended to, and you almost get the sense that she wished her husband hadn't risked it all to free the slaves. The irony of this is highlighted by the fact that she sought comfort from their black servant on the night Lincoln was killed. The story of his autopsy again reduced Lincoln to one of us, as do the stories focusing on his pain about Willie, in the end no more or less a man than anyone else despite his place in history.

Decent reading, Mr. Lincoln's Wars nonetheless kept begging the question of how much balance there was between "historical" and "fiction." It also walked an odd line between a children's tale and very adult language. Read it for fun while looking for something better.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Casual Critic — West Wing

There it was, right there in the Labor Day weekend version of the Inquirer's "Unconventional Wisdom." (My apologies to the author as I never wrote down her name, wrongly assuming I could get it in proceeding weeks. The column is apparently written by a different writer each week.) I could finally stop hiding. I wasn't the only one! I was free to admit it.

I, too, watch the West Wing marathons.

Holidays. Mondays. That week-long one they did, which was just freaky. Even just the daily reruns.

I admit it. I feel like I know more about how our government works because I watch the show. I followed the West Wing election more than Bush-Kerry. I'm fascinated by the prospect of seeing the show's entire cast change this season, though I'm guessing Jimmy Smits beats Allan Alda and retains most of the regulars. (They gave it away, if I'm right, by making "Leo" his V.P. candidate.)

Yeah, I know, it can't possibly really be what it's like . . . right? But watching the little things is the amazing part of the show, and the reason reruns are so popular. You pick up little things that must have some basis in reality. The bartering that gets bills, funding, and whatever else approved or not. The total, almost 24-hour a day commitment made by the staff. The lifestyle the President of the United States endures.

I thought the last couple seasons were a bit down by West Wing standards, and I don't get why they skipped a whole year of Bartlett's second term, but the show is still the best on T.V. The assassination attempt and kidnapping of Bartlett's daughter are two of the most intriguing sequences of episodes. The humor/wit of the first season is unmatched by later seasons or other shows.

The show's move to Sundays this season could signal the beginning of the end. After all, cast changes spell doom for most shows, and they're attempting at least a massive shuffle, if not overhaul, of the cast. If it survives post-Bartlett, it might be the most fascinating thing to see (if not watch) from television in years — an entire change of characters.

For the record, I'm guessing Santos wins, but is assassinated at the end of the season. It let's all the current main characters "move up," except Bartlett (and C.J. gets shuffled around), and stay on the show.

I haven't bought any T.V. show DVDs, but as far as television goes, you can't ask for more than the West Wing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Casual Critic — Cold Play's X&Y

Having seen their album, X&Y, on the Billboard charts for a while, I figured it was time to test myself as a critic and give Cold Play — a band I'd never heard of before — a listen. A quick Google told me they are one of the hottest bands in the world, and this was their much-anticipated third album.

The first song I heard was a precursor of the biggest problem I had with the album — the lyrics were nice, but "unearned." It's filled with lines like "I never felt this way before," but we never know why he's just so damn emotional. Lines like this clutter the album, and singer Chris Martin has a dramatic quality that, given these lyrics, comes off like some kid immitating a grizzled rock star.

"A Message" offers words like: "Your heavy heart / is made of stone / and it's so hard to see clearly / you don't have to be on your own." I'm not sure what the hell this means, and the acoustic guitar and drama-ridden voice make me really not care. I was a senior in high school when the song that went ". . . what would you say / if I took those words a way . . . " was cool, and this felt like a weak, way too late version of it.

“White Shadows,” “Speed of Sound,” and “Square One,” are the best X&Y offers, along with “Fix You” as the one song with lyrics that make sense. The others don't reach that lofty standard, but they at least don't depress the hell out of you. “What If” is close to these, but the words just go no where.

Look, I'm not a snob about song lyrics, but gimme something! “The Hardest Part” never explains anything. Like the many of the others — including “Talk,” “Low,” and “X&Y” — it just mashes together a bunch of clichés. “Twisted Logic” and “Swallowed in the Sea” end up as loud songs with the same problems.

There is a U2 quality in the sound of a couple songs, but I probably shouldn't sully Bono and the boys by mentioning it. Even if you're looking for something new, leave this for the true fan of Cold Play.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

The Casual Critic — Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore almost deserved credit for one thing — he essentially makes no suggestion that Fahrenheit 9/11 is an unbiased look at President Bush's reactions to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But, he even screwed that up by calling his film a documentary.

“Documentary” is defined by as “[p]resenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.” Calling Fahrenheit 9/11 a documentary is like calling The Casual Critic scholarly work, and I got a better shot at making that stick than Moore does using his description.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is an attack on President Bush, plain and simple. I don't necessarily have a problem with that (and certainly the events in the Gulf Coast after Hurrican Katrina make it even easier to question Bush). While I support the war in Iraq, I have never voted for any Bush. In fact, my biggest problem with 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was that he made the war a campaign issue. But, I digress.

I don't even dispute Moore's facts. He suggests Bush had business ties to Bin Laden, and that the family of Bin Laden has business interests that benefit from a U.S. defense build-up. He questions Bush by pointing to events that took place after September 11th, such as Bin Laden family members being allowed to leave the country, the area Bin Laden was thought to be in being ignored for two months, and a Taleban rep being allowed to visit our country.

The problem is Moore gives the film a smartass tone, offers zero context, draws some idiotic conclusions, and plays the same type of games he claims the Bush Administration is playing. He disgustingly put Iraq in the role of sympathetic figure, which is a joke. He also fills his film with plenty of facts that, while making Bush look bad, have little to do with 9/11.

Let's start with Moore's criticism of Bush's immediate reaction upon being told of the attacks. The President was told of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center while at an appearance with young children, and Moore rips him for a slow reaction. Being whisked out of that classroom would have done absolutely nothing but traumatize a bunch of kids and create dramatic video. Typically, Moore uses the slow reaction to mock Bush, and never even mentions a possible alternative reason for the calm reaction.

The list of nonsense “issues” Moore has with Bush is extensive. He points to Bush being on vacation too much, compares Bush's salary as president with his business interests, and compares the war to the non-war depicted in George Orwell's 1984. Moore flat-out says Bush was looking to roll back civil liberties, and compares examples of poor border patrol and holes in airport security with abuses of the Patriotic Act. He even blames Bush for poor behavior of troops, and mocks press coverage of the war. According to Moore, the Terror Alerts are merely propaganda to keep us all scared and supporting the war. Worst of all, Moore uses — in every sense of the word — a mother who lost her son in Iraq speaking out against the war to punctuate his film.

Farenheit 9/11 is filled with shots of members of the Administration about to go on camera looking odd or confused, shows “support” of Bush in the form of the airheaded Britanny Spears, and offers clips from the TV series Dragnet to mock things Moore doesn't like. Regardless of your opinion of the war in Iraq, Moore fails miserably at producing anything better than a latenight skit. I'd say skip it, but wouldn't want to add to Moore's paranoia. So, I'll just point out that this sucks.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

The Casual Critic — Rory O'Shea was Here

I will fully admit I am prejudiced regarding the worth of films like Rory O'Shea was Here (aka I'm Dancing Inside in the U.K.). As a disabled individual, I compare the lack of films, books, art, etc., devoted to people with disabilities to the same issues faced by African Americans years ago. Any film even attempting to portray disabled characters in a realistic, non-cutesy, way is worthwhile.

Rory O'Shea (James McAvoy) moves in at the Carrigmore Residential Home for the Disabled, and begins to bond with Michael Connolly (Steven Robertson), a young man with severe Cerebral Palsy whose speech is so impaired few can understand him. Rory has Muscular Dystrophy, and is a free spirit not about to conform to the docile life prescribed by the home. He understands Michael quite well, and lures him out of his shell into the world outside the home. The two ultimately strong-arm Michael's public figure father who abandoned him after his mother died (as well as a government agency) into providing them with their own place. Leaving the home behind, they face life on their own along with a personal aide (Siobhan, played by Romola Garai), whom they pull out of nowhere.

Though a bit predictable, O'Shea does a solid job of dealing with the fight almost anyone with a significant disability goes through to find the same respect automatically given those considered "normal." There are some truly funny moments in this story that remains refreshingly focused on the friendship between two young men. The film avoids sap, and never falls into cliché mode.

One of the most poignant moments of the film occurs at a party to which Rory and Michael accompanied their assistant. Michael attempts to make his affection for Siobhan known, only to be thwarted. After Michael departs what becomes an awkward scene, Rory positions himself behind a microphone to voice his friend's desire. Siobhan's response is to simply push the microphone away.

The following scene shows Siobhan telling Michael she only sees him as an employer, while Rory interprets for Michael from the other room. Powerful in many ways, the scene shows a bond between the two friends that I'd gamble few ever experience, and faces the issue that people with disabilities have the same sexual urges as the rest of the world.

My only problem with the film may be my own unfair desire to get more out of such films, simply because they are so rare. I'm not sure most viewers (assuming people not already familiar with people with disabilities would bother to watch) get Michael's seemingly awkward approach to showing Siobhan how he felt. He's never had any experience with women. I also think they could have made Michael a touch more understandable for the sake of the film. I have the same problem with my speech, so I'm certainly not questioning the reality they displayed. But, I’m usually able to eventually understand other people with speech impairments, and making this fictional character slightly more understandable may have helped viewers empathize with him even more.

I could go on and on with what I wanted more of, but I think that's more about the rarity of films like this one than any true flaws. It's worth mentioning that the acting of McAvoy and Robertson is incredible, never once giving a false moment to their characters.

Make a point to see this film. It offers up a reality not seen enough in entertainment, especially when the sap is left out.