Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I had never bothered watching this film before because it has a reputation as being not particularly good compared to the other Indiana Jones films from the ’80s. That just made it a candidate for my list of films I own but hadn’t seen; but having watched it now, I’d have to agree with the consensus.

In one sense this is a little surprising: individual scenes are well done, Harrison Ford is plenty charismatic, and the kid sidekick thing works quite well. So this review is more a list of reasons it doesn’t quite hold up.

First, the first act busted-deal-into-chase-scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It sort of explains how Indy, “Shorty”, and girl-of-the-film Willy get dumped into the actual crisis, and I suppose the idea of diamonds – lost in the deal at the beginning, given up on with maybe-noble motives at the end – gets introduced.

Second, there’s a little too much indulgence in the gross-out factor. From disgusting food to bugs everywhere to the details shown of the cultists’ ceremonies, there’s a lot in here that seems calculated to scare the audience, more than actually do anything for the plot. Although it’s not just the audience, which brings up the biggest problem.

Willy’s character doesn’t have a very clear role in the film. All the nonsense she goes through ought to get her some recognition or credibility. But actually her reactions throughout are played for comic relief: she’s not part of the group really or clearly outside it. Similarly, despite one scene which evidently used up the film’s entire allowed stock of sexual invitation and innuendo, she’s not a convincing love interest – or even a lust object. The way she’s mostly ignored makes her detestation moments more convincing than her flirtations; on the flip side Indy does mostly ignore her, seems interested only to the extent she is, if that, but also can’t seem to let her go. It’s unsatisfactory story-telling all around. The “fortune and glory” bit might have been used to develop that somewhere, but it really shows up a bit late in the film to build around. It also doesn’t help that Willy and “Shorty” mostly ignore each other completely.

In sum: the introductory act is very good; the fight/chase act starting with Indy’s rescue is quite good; it’s all the middle dramatic bit that really just falls flat. Probably was worth watching once.

Review: Scrooge

Scrooge is a musical version of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. The film from 1970 is a lot of fun although there’s a lot of over-acting and the music is for the most part second-rate. Albert Finney is quite good as Scrooge; the Cratchitts are all very well acted, and are a convincingly happy family. Marley’s Ghost – played by Alec Guinness – is rather a disappointment, though the costuming and effects perhaps are mainly responsible. Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present is rather better, though his seasonal trinketry, much like the other effects, is cheap and a bit dated. The director was also perhaps a little too enamoured of flying wire effects.

But that’s about it for the negatives. It sells the story – which benefits from the exaggerated tropes of musical theater. Actually my favorite thing about the film might be that the period costumes – although I rather doubt a consistent period is achieved – actually are carried off as clothes being worn and not just costumes. There is, I think, often a little disbelief that people would ever have actually worn such outrageous old fashions; in this film, especially during the party scenes, the effect really is something like, “Oh, those clothes really would be worn by real people.”

About the only memorable tune in the thing is the instantly recognizeable ear-worm “Thank You Very Much”, which gets some startling use the first time it shows up – a bit of black comedy one doesn’t quite expect but which very much works – and sets up the later reprise quite well also.

I’m not sure it’s quite a Christmas classic but it definitely invites a re-watch or several.

Ideas & Stories Part 4 – All Men

Part 0
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

In the previous most recent part of this series, I discussed the groundwork for re-asserting a view that in human fairs family must be the primary consideration and form in which to interpret the legitimacy of human activities and political structures. Yet this seems to conflict with the statement, taken in some form to be dogma by virtually every form of American politics today, “All men are created equal.” But – here we run into the problem that that phrase itself is, to some extent, an equivocation. There were unresolved tensions even as it was written.

While tacitly accepting the theoretical validity of that postulate, almost anyone today finds some shortcomings – at a minimum in its realization, but also in the actions of the men who approved it in the Declaration of Independence, and commonly even in the words it was written in. Without getting too far into the weeds, I am going to list some of the – at times competing – connotations bound up, even at the time of its publishing, with that phrase. This is merely those things that seem evident to my limited knowledge of the period: an expert could no doubt improve the list or even divide it differently.

1. Local Self-Government. The nature of the rest of the Declaration suggests that “all men” should be taken to mean something like “each self-recognizing independent society”. Not in quite those terms Jefferson does write that the colonies desired “to assume… [a] separate and equal station”, that is, the Declaration recognizes a change in status taking place – first claimed, and in the event then proved in war. Government is in the next paragraph claimed to be “the right of the people”, but not individual persons; but “the People” are seen not as all subjects of the British crown but particularly those American people represented by their Congress who authorized the Declaration. The key to this image is the fascination of the Founders with the Mediterranean city-states of antiquity.

2. Each Person. The English tradition of militating for civil rights; the Christian and especially Protestant insistence on individual conversion; the Enlightenment cogito: each of these and likely other influences can be linked to a strong – if often theoretical – insistence on the dignity and independence (ideally) of the individual, not on grounds of family or nation or accomplishment or anything but a common humanity. I think from the modern point of view it is easier to view this as more influential than it in fact appeared at the time but the influence of Locke and others cannot be denied.

3. All Free Men. It is evident historically that the American Founders for the most part would have expected – whether on theoretical, theological, or habitual grounds – some persons to take part in the governing of society and some not to. The ways this division can be represented are numerous, and – I want to emphasize – that it represents injustice inherently is not always clear. The contrast of the free man to a slave is obvious; but I also include in this category property owners compared to renters; recognized citizens compared to non-citizens; and, speaking generally, any rules put in place that state such-and-such a changeable status must be secured to participate in the government.

4. All Males. Because of the natural authority of fathers, monarchies and aristocracies (or if we wish to be less complimentary, oligarches) have generally tended to be male, with women holding a minority of these positions of authority in the historical record. The democratic ideal militates against this: but it is clear enough that few – indeed, hardly clear that any – of the Founders were advocates for pure democracy, however essential it seems to the modern world. In any case – even setting aside active suppressions of female involvment in politics – the mental habits and practical expectation would have been a continuation of a male-dominated, if not male-only political classes Europe would have been most familiar with.

5. All Whites. It is not clear that “race” had developed, at the time of the War for Independence, into the theoretical construct we would recognize today, or which we read defenses of even sixty years later. But the conditions – primarily America’s native tribes or nations being pushed away from land claimed by the colonies, and enslavement and trade mainly in Africans for the benefit of those descended from Europeans – which would harden into the next centuries’ racial theories were already practically in place.

Where the first two categories I outline here seem to me to illustrate the theoretical tensions, the later three cannot be forgotten as habits of thought. I have left out, but not forgotten, the idea of the head of household or head of a family, not because I think it was truly ignored, but because I think it was to some extent an assumption so used to being taken for granted socially that it seems to me to have been overlooked practically – not that I am an expert on the period. To the extent it had separate political import, that seems to me to have been very little, because of the social or legal assumptions that such a head would be male; but I am not actually familiar with the laws of the period themselves.

One could no doubt break down the possible connotations further. My point here is that the Founders had, to varying degrees of detail, considered these claims: but they had not resolved them, historically speaking, and certainly they were not prepared to treat particular conclusions as absolute principles. The Constitution in fact left citizenry to the states, and pushed even the end of the slave trade out to a convenient-seeming deadline which primarily served to further establish a more or less clearly delineated slave population. American political crises have been created mainly as the country seeks to resolve these conflicts.

Review: Paprika English Dub

I decided this year that I would use my Spring Break to, among other things, watch all of the movies I own but have never watched. Since people give me them and I really don’t watch many movies, they stack up a bit.

This is not one of them. Paprika, Satoshi Kon’s animated masterpiece exploring themes of dream, reality, control, and maturity, is one of my favorite films. However, I’d never taken the time to watch the dub, so this is a quick note by way of preface to the actual project. (No plot spoilers ahead: some references to characters is made.)

Overall I thought the dub was fine. My chief complaint is that it provides explicit interpretations here and there where the subtitled form – and, I assume, the original Japanese – leaves implications to be drawn out by the viewer. Sometimes this results from differences in the translations, but there are also additional lines or at least phrases here and there.

Some of the differences seems inexplicable: why “line of action” (subtitle) but “action line” (dub)? (And while the concept makes sense – it’s explained as the imaginary line between camera and subject – neither phrase seems to be, on a quick web search, the term actually used in English.) Other differences seem like there’s a probable explanation, but the choice might not be justified. For example, the (friendly) criticism of a character’s weight is, “It’s not the outside the counts, but there’s a limit to that too,” in the subtitles, which sounds like a proverb. The dub has something like, “…but there’s a lot of your outside,” which makes me suspect the Japanese proverb also has a pun the dubber was trying to capture or replicate. I don’t speak Japanese myself; I admit a preference for the subtitled line, with its possibility of varied applications.

One thing the dub emphasizes in contrast to the subtitles is the maturity theme, simply because of the voices (or accents) chosen for the characters. This I suspect was replicating the original Japanese voice-acting, which hadn’t quite registered the same way. The “childlike” side of Tokita is really brought out more by the dub, as is the insufficiency of the Paprika alter-ego. For instance, her response, “Run?” to a threat near the end came off previous (watching only subtitles) as a sort of humorous only-option-left; the effect in the dub more brings out he out of her depth the situation is.

I don’t know how directly Kon was involved with the dub. I suspect not very closely, because as noted above it does seem to draw with much harder lines where Kon – both stylistically and particularly in this film – tends to leave things blurred, and up to the viewer’s interpretation of his implications and suggestion. I’m also not sure how closely they consulted native English speakers: there are certainly lines here and there which sound odd to my ear, without obviously being attempts to capture cultural connotations, and the approach to nicknames and honorifics feels a little uneven.

I don’t watch many dubbed films – honestly, many foreign films at all – so it’s hard to say how it ranks as a dub. It certainly captures the overall tone of the film: you are watching the same movie, so on that count it’s a success. I’ve listed above virtually every quibble I had with the translation. I don’t know how I’d rank the film if I’d seen only the dub: not likely as a favorite, simply because the occasional auditory oddity takes me out of the story a little – but it’s still quite good.

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

Earlier this year I undertook to re-read Dostoyevkey’s rather long novel. In theory I had gotten through it before, although it took a few tries, so I knew what I was getting into and I took precautions: I made sure I would in fact read it within a month or so, and made sure to get from the library the newer translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, rather than attempt the slog through the older one again. As a matter of fact I had virtually no recollection of the text after the first hundred pages or so.

The book remains a puzzle. The beginning is a terrible bore; the end is a terrible muddle; and the events in the middle are simply terrible. The story is – as the introduction suggests – clearly unfinished at the end of this one volume, which makes it hard to judge where the plot might have gone next, but this is then the only judgment to pass on the novel: incomplete.

The opening third of the book seems to set up a philosophical contrast. The elder Zosima with his advice of love and humility, to – in the more Biblical phrase – carry other people’s burdens, to consider oneself a sinner, the sinner, is contrasted with Ivan’s proud supposal in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor that in organizing society a class of overlords could carry sin, could take away guilt, from the masses. As a protest against God, Ivan’s description of the suffering of children is much more effective; placing his Inquisitor knowingly in the presence of Christ the claims of saving society amount to blasphemy, a claim that men could do what the Christian faith says Jesus has done already.

But it is hard to see how this in any way relates to the actual plot, such as it is; and in contrast to either philosophy’s grand intentions, Zosima’s disciple Alyosha accomplishes nothing of note, while Ivan for all his posturing can only be said to flee impending unpleasantness. One could perhaps wonder from the ending whether Dostoyevsky was preparing or implying something like the parable of the two brothers – the one who claimed obedience and did nothing, while the other who refused his duty actually carried it out.

On this point is rather obscured in the actual plot – by “plot” I mean the things that happen, as opposed to merely being talked about: jealousy, murder, flight, guilt, arrest, trial. Dostoyesky tells it rather well, only this is where things are left unfinished. Alyosha’s side-quests – well, one doesn’t expect all parts of a real life to fit together neatly, but other than the fact that Dostoyevsky’s narrator has decided to tell about a whole family it’s rather unclear what they have to do with anything, and if two brothers get such detailed treatment of their activities why not the third? It’s all rather tangled to contemplate.

In tone, half the book one gets details of thought and conversation but nothing happens – even things that do “happen” are buried under the tide of philosophic reflections; while in the other half – the half, or not quite, in the middle – lots of things happen with virtually no comment at all. The book is not quite the one thing or the other, and leaves the reader confused. None of the main characters are admirable, but their vices are too petty to themselves to pitiable to be really villainous. The philosophy is unclear and in any case lies dead on the page. Other than an account of what we’d mostly like life to really not be like – despite a creeping suspicion it often is – it’s not clear to me what exactly one is supposed to get out of this book.