Tuesday, August 4, 2020

A Confederacy of Dunces


John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the great books of the modern Southern literature. Toole, died at his own hand in 1969, but thanks to the work of Walker Percy and Toole’s mother, Thelma, the book was published in 1980. Toole posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Since then the book has become one of the most widely read fiction books about New Orleans and the South. 

 

Set in the early 1960s in New Orleans, the novel’s main character is Ignatius J. Reilly, a slovenly 30 year old man, living with his mother, who is convinced the world is arrayed against him. Well-read but utterly delusional, Reilly wages a solitary crusade against modernity. He decries the perversity of modern movies all the while spending most of his time parked in a theater seat. He sees himself as a modern day Boethius—a martyred philosopher of the Medieval period—railing against injustice. Reilly’s pyloric valve is a modern day Cassandra, warning him of upcoming dangers in his life. 

 

Reilly does not work or drive, instead relying on his mother for support. She indulges him on account of the death of his father 21 years in the past and because of Ignatius’s intelligence. Over the course of the novel, however, Mrs. Reilly falls in love and with the support of a new best friend conspires to have Ignatius committed to a mental institution. 



 Throughout Ignatius’s adventures in the French Quarter, Uptown, and the Bywater, he frustrates, confounds, and pillories a litany of characters that you can only find in New Orleans. There’s the owner of a pants factory who briefly hires Ignatius while dealing with the manipulations of his wife and an aging employee with dementia. Then there’s Angelo Mancuso, an inept New Orleans police officer who briefly attempts to arrest Ignatius. Throughout the novel, Mancuso finds himself unwittingly transformed into Reilly’s nemesis. There’s a parade of unsavory characters who call a French Quarter strip club their home. Along the way, Reilly torments everyone he meets with the not-at-all interesting story of his one trip outside of New Orleans—a Greyhound Bus trip to Baton Rouge. 

 

According to literary critics, especially those of New Orleans, Confederacy of Dunces contains the richest depictions of the city and its dialects found in modern literature. Currently, there is a bronze statue of Reilly under the clock at the 800 block of Canal Street (the site of the Hyatt French Quarter hotel). The location was the former home of the D.H. Holmes department store and the novel’s opening scene. The statue depicts Reilly, clad in his hunting cap, flannel shirt, and scarf, studying the crowd outside the store for “signs of bad taste” while waiting for his mother. 

 

Confederacy of Dunces is a modern classic and well-worth a read from anyone who will enjoy a good laugh at its central character. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Star Trek: The Next Generation Honest Trailer


Now that we're done re-ranking all of the Star Trek movies. Let's take a humorous look at nearly everyone's favorite Star Trek TV series--Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Star Trek Movie Rankings UPDATED: Part Two


Let's pick up where we left off last week, with the less successful Star Trek films.

Star Trek Into Darkness: The second of Abrahams’ Star Trek reboot is Star Trek Growing Pains.  Kirk’s arrogance and innate belief in his own abilities and decisions finally come back to haunt him. He also learns that command means he must place the needs of others above his own. Spock’s growth as a character comes from his attempts to shield himself from pain, while recognizing that sometimes one person can and must take action regardless of the consequences. While Benedict Cumberbatch offers a fun play on Khan, the film suffers, as did Abrams' Rise of Skywalker, from being a slavish imitation of a much better film.

Star Trek: Beyond: Beyond has everything you would expect from a Star Trek movie: a dangerous threat to the Federation, the crew enjoying being in each other’s company, an alien female lead, and our heroes coming out just fine in the end. It also highlights just how much better Star Trek is suited for television. Spock is sad, Kirk doesn’t want to be in Starfleet. Yawn. The film’s other big weakness comes from its villain. Idris Elba is a superb actor buried in alien-ish makeup and a blatantly obvious back story. The cast’s chemistry alone makes for an enjoyable movie, but one that lacks that the character elements that separate a great Star Trek movie from a run of the mill summer blockbuster.

Star Trek Generations: The first film adventure for the Next Generation crew is a mixed bag. The film slogs along while the Enterprise searches for a mad scientist trying to get caught up in a magical energy ribbon. His ruthlessness and appetite for destroying solar systems means the Enterprise must stop him. Along the way Picard enlists the help of Kirk, long since thought dead, but actually caught up in the energy ribbon. The film gives the original Enterprise a nice send off, featuring a warp core breach and a crash landing of the saucer section. Where the film fails is in its treatment of Kirk’s death. Kirk and by extension the writers in charge of the Star Trek universe had always known that Kirk would die alone. The presence of Picard at Kirk’s death did not make it any more meaningful or purposeful. It did not seem to serve a clear purpose at all.



Star Trek The Motion Picture: The first film featuring the Original Series cast suffered from a distinct lack of action and from being too long. The longest of the Star Trek movies takes its sweet time investigating a mysterious object (one of the Voyager space probes) hurdling toward Earth. The costuming of the film is ridiculous to the point of distraction. The cast seems decked out in Starfleet’s line of casual lounge wear. The additional characters left over from the planned reboot of the TV series and were incorporated into the film are tacked on and it plays that way on the screen. Tellingly they are both written out of the film by the end—leaving the Original Series crew intact. 

Nemesis: Nemesis again attempted to make Picard doubt his humanity and question the course of his own life. How did it accomplish this task? Introduce a Picard clone who has risen to lead the Romulan Empire. The fact that Picard clone has killed his way to the top while Picard himself abhors such behavior and the clone’s insistence that the two are identical leads to Picard doubting his own humanity. Similarly Data must deal with the existence of another android, identical to him apart from Data having the more advanced brain. Picard’s inability to recognize the differences between his own behavior and those of his clone do not fit with the character. In this nature/nurture debate, Picard comes down firmly on the side of nature, yet his own experiences across the Star Trek films and series argue otherwise. While killing off Data tugged at the heartstrings of Trek fans, the presence of an identical Data at least gave Star Trek: Picard a plot point to play around with. 

Insurrection: A war-weary Starfleet willing to set aside its principles to ensure its longterm survival? Great idea. Bad execution. Instead Picard and the Enterprise, despite having the flagship of the Federation at their disposal, seem outmatched at every turn while helping the inhabitants of a small planet fight off those who wish to steal their secret to everlasting life. Perhaps best exhibiting the problem of the film, at a key moment in the film, the fate of Picard and his crew lies in Picard’s ability to guilt trip an alien into helping him. Plot action through a stern lecture from Jean-Luc Picard hardly seems a successful way to advance a film. Also in the film, Picard falls in love, Data befriends a little boy, Worf gets pimples, and everyone on the Enterprise gets their groove back. 

Final Frontier: God is an evil space alien who looks like Karl Marx and needs a spaceship to leave his prison in the middle of the Galaxy. Along the way, Spock’s half brother brainwashes people by helping them confront and let go of their pain. Kirk, naturally refuses, arguing that he needs his pain. By the end of the film, Spock, McCoy, and Kirk agree that maybe there is no sentient creature known as God, but rather the spark of the divine lies in the hearts of mankind or alienkind or whatever. It is an overtly touchy-feely ending to a dreadful film. The less said about Uhura doing a seductive fan dance the better. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Star Trek Movie Rankings UPDATED: Part One


As we did a few weeks ago with the Star Wars movies, it's time to update our rankings of the Star Trek movie pantheon. Last time, we did rankings by Rotten Tomatoes score, but not this time. This is our personal rankings. Here we go from best to worst. Engage.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Wrath of Khan remains the best of all of the Star Trek films. Installing Khan as the villain gave the audience a preexisting and antagonistic relationship with the highest of stakes. The film features strong action and character moments. The Battle of the Mutara Nebula between the Enterprise and the Reliant plays like an old submarine movie as each captain must rely on his skill to survive. Kirk and Spock’s philosophical discussion about the needs of the many and the needs of the few highlights the core of their respective characters. Kirk always acted in the manner he thought best, regardless of the rules, and refused to accept the inevitability of death. Spock measured his actions carefully with the broader situation and when the situation called for it, sacrificed himself to save the rest of the crew. The film provided a strong blend of action and character moments that represented the best a Star Trek film could be.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: The final voyage of the Original Cast rebounded nicely from the debacle of the Final Frontier. The film, made at the end of the Cold War, pondered the cost of the overcoming the hatred and fear that defined the longstanding conflict between the Federation and the Klingons. With Spock instigating a reconciliation between the two sides, the film provides some nice character moments for Kirk as he must put aside his prejudices and accept Spock’s humane reaction to the Klingons’ plight. Indeed many of the humans in the film advocate letting the Klingons’ die, while logical and calculating characters like Spock propose a humanitarian approach. The film presages the work of Deep Space Nine by questioning the high morals that the Star Trek franchise had set to embody. Uglying up the reputation of Starfleet gave the franchise some much needed breathing room as its high minded moralism threatened to develop into merely lectures about contemporary soceity’s inability to overcome its own parochialism. Christopher Plummer delights as the Shakespeare quoting Klingon General Chang.  

Star Trek: First Contact: Like Khan, this film relied on a pre-existing villain known to fans of Next Generation: the Borg. Also like Khan, the film succeeded by balancing action with explorations of its central characters. The opening space battle and the fight with the Borg during a spacewalk are well-executed action pieces. Meanwhile, Picard must grapple with his guilt about his assimilation by the Borg and his almost blind desire to prevent their assimilation of his ship and Earth. Data, meanwhile, struggles with his duties and loyalty to his friends as the Borg Queen offers him what he desires most of all: a chance to be human. Ultimately, Picard offers to sacrifice himself to save Data, while Data rejects the offer of the Borg Queen and Earth is saved.




Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: The Voyage Home completed the Enterprise’s journey back to Earth following Spock’s resurrection. But no journey home would be complete without time travelling back to the 1980s and hammering home, in classic Star Trek fashion, an overtly environmentalist message: Save the Whales! The notion that a giant black cigar would come to Earth after not hearing from whales for two hundred plus years is an incredibly stupid conceit. Yet some parts of the movie work remarkably well. Watching Kirk and Spock interact in the 1980s produces some very funny moments, including when Spock gives the Vulcan nerve pinch to a man playing his boom box too loudly on a public bus. Chekov asking for the location of the “nuclear whessels” remains amusing to this day. Even Dr. McCoy got in on the action by chewing out the antiquated medicine of the 1980s or as he called it the “Dark Ages.” The film manages to be preachy, but immensely fun. 

Star Trek (Reboot): J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise understands the core relationships that defined Star Trek and employed them to create a summer blockbluster. The cast largely embody the traits of their characters without falling into slavish impersonations. Chris Pine portrays Kirk’s brashness well. Zachary Quinto manages to demonstrate Spock’s relentless logic while also providing a window into his struggles with his own humanity. The film also plays with key themes from the previous films, but spins them in interesting ways, suggesting that no matter what changes in the timeline, these relationships and themes recur. By the end of the film, the characters are in place where they need to be for future films. Additionally, Abrams never forgets to imbibe the film with a sense of humor and fun that attracted so many fans to Star Trek in the first place. Karl Urban’s McCoy and Simon Pegg’s Scotty carry much of the humor in the films to great effect.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: The Search for Spock struggled to balance the devotion of Kirk and the rest of the crew to Spock and incorporate other elements to the plot. The film begins well with Kirk and crew orchestrating the theft of the Enterprise to go and retrieve Spock’s body from the Genesis planet and reunite it with his consciousness (fittingly left in the brain of Dr. McCoy). The film drags with Christopher Lloyd’s Klingon villain. He appears out of nowhere and decides to kill Kirk and steal the Genesis device. Why? It’s never really made clear other than that he’s an evil Klingon. Most of the time spent on the Genesis planet seems to drag down the plot of the film. Even after retrieving Spock’s body and killing the villain the crew must still restore his soul. The film features the destruction of the original Enterprise and the death of Kirk’s son David at the hands of the Klingons. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Strangers in their Own Land: Book Review


In Louisiana, the pollution from the industrial plants that line the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has created “Cancer Alley.” Yet in election after election, Louisiana voters elect politicians who promise to protect the oil and chemical companies. As these companies ravage Louisiana’s environment, politicians decry the EPA and the Federal government. They espouse their love of the free market and small government while relying on the Federal government to supply over 40% of the state’s budget. As the state has given millions in tax breaks to industrial conglomerates, its residents suffer from staggering poverty, high obesity rates, underfunded educational systems, and low life expectancies. Arlie Russell Hochschild has termed this phenomenon “The Great Paradox.” From 2011-2016, Hochschild embedded herself among members of Louisiana’s Tea Party to better understand “The Great Paradox.” Her explanation brilliantly describes the feelings of alienation and cultural decline amongst those on the American right. 

During her research, Hochschild, a UC-Berkely sociologist, interviewed dozens of people, attended church services and Tea Party meetings. She divided her interviewees into different groups. There’s Janice the Team Loyalist—she attached herself to the values of the Republican party and credits them with all her successes in life. If the Republican Party supports oil and chemical companies, then she does too—even as she builds her new house as far away from the chemical factories as she can. There’s Jackie the Worshipper—she thinks that “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” (179). She believes this because in her own life she’s subordinated her personal ambitions to God and her husband. Like her wish for a new and better house, we cannot have anything we want. There’s Donny the Cowboy—the daring, individualist. He stoically endures all of life’s challenges including pollution. In the words of Tony Soprano, Donny’s “Gary Cooper, the strong silent type.” 

Hochschild describes the anxieties, fears, and emotions expressed by those on the American right as their “Deep Story.” Her interviewees see themselves in the middle of a line heading up a hill. On the other side of the hill is the American dream. They’re waiting patiently alongside people who look like them—white, Christian, some with college degrees. There are many people in line behind them. They’re poor, black, Mexican, women, immigrants, or not-Christian. As Hochschild explains, “It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You’re patient but weary. You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill” (136). Then the line stops moving at all and even starts moving backwards. 


Worst of all, the same people from the back of the line—the women, immigrants, people of color—begin cutting the line. That’s not fair, Hochschild’s interviewees think. How are they cutting the line ahead of us? It’s the government helping them with affirmative action. How did President Obama cut ahead? He was poor and black, so he must’ve gotten help or worse, he cheated. Now he’s helping others do the same. Those on the American right see themselves as compassionate and caring, but that doesn’t extend to line-cutters. They’ve faced their own problems, but they’re not complaining about it. There’s no government program helping them get ahead. So those on the right feel betrayed. They look at the president and wonder why does he dress that way? Why does he always talk about America’s problems? Can’t he see what a great nation America is? Why is it wrong to be proud of America? Why do I feel like a stranger in my own land? 

The believers of the “Deep Story” practice some deeply un-American beliefs. As Hochschild explains, her interviewees spoke often about Mexicans and Muslims, statistically small percentages of Louisiana’s population. They rarely spoke of African-Americans in their midst. Mostly they felt that they lashed out at Northerners for accusing them of racism. They believed that racism meant using the N-word or hating African-Americans. Yet they only saw African-Americans as the lenses of celebrity, athletics, criminals, or welfare queens. As Hochschild wrote, “Missing from the image of blacks in most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward” (147). This view of African-Americans reveals the systemic racism at the heart of this “Deep Story.” 

Some of Hochschild’s interviewees deeply believe in inequality. Janice the Team Loyalist wants to put people to work on highway construction projects with shovels and wheelbarrows. That way: “When people got home at night, they’d be tired and wouldn’t be out drinking or doing drugs” (159). Americans should repatriate the graves of American soldiers in France back to the United States. Then we could employ American boys to mow the graveyards. She supposes that war isn’t such a bad thing, especially since it would put people to work making missiles and uniforms. Handing out guns and ammunition to everyone in the Middle East is the best way to spread democracy. If poor women want to receive government support, she contends, then the government should sterilize them. The rest of America’s problems, she contends, could be solved by better “churching.” As Hochschild explains, “Underlying Janice’s reasoning is her idea about inequality. Some people may just be destined to remain at the end of the line for the American Dream” (160) and it’s not the job of the government or anyone else to help them to the front of the line. 

Hochschild's illumination of the American Right's Deep Story is a necessary first step in understanding and even attempting to bridge the political and social gap in the United States. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Revisiting the Independence Day Movies

In honor of July 4 (coming up this Saturday), it's a good time to revisit one the great blockbuster disaster movies of the 1990s and it's largely unnecessary sequel that tried to launch another Hollywood franchise.

The original Independence Day was a smashing financial success in the summer of 1996. It starred Will Smith (at the height of his popularity) as a brash fighter pilot out to save the world. Bill Pullman played a beleaguered American president who spawned the film's iconic moment--a speech delivered to a rag-tag group of Americans before their final stand against the aliens. Then there was Jeff Goldblum as a satellite repair technician/genius inventor who using a MacBook uploaded a computer virus into the alien mothership ensuring humanity's survival. The movie is both silly and a ridiculous spectacle, as outlined in the Honest Trailer below.



Then there was the 2016 sequel, Independence Day Resurgence. We reviewed the movie here shortly after it came out and there's some of it that's worth revisiting.

Resurgence starts out promisingly enough. Twenty years later, there's moon bases, a scarred African warlord who led an insurgency against the remaining aliens on Earth. Bill Pullman is battling psychological demons. Jeff Goldblum is there doing Jeff Goldblum things. When the movie focuses on Earth and the aftermath of the alien invasion, it hums along nicely. When the aliens show up, it goes off the rails.

There's a surfeit of characters who have precious little to do. There's a predictable veneration of China to appeal to Chinese government censors. There's a bus full of children driving around the Bonneville Salt Flats. And by the end, there's a second alien species who arrive with super-amazing technology to ally with humanity and take the fight to the aliens across the Galaxy. The only winner here is Will Smith, who wins because he refused to be in the movie in the first place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Star Wars Film Rankings UPDATED: Part Two


Last week we started our updated look at the Star Wars movies now that the sequel trilogy is complete.

Return of the Jedi: Jedi loses some points for the middle portion of the movie, which is slowly paced and spends way too much time on the Ewoks. The opening and closing acts (freeing Han from Jabba’s palace and the Battle of Endor), however, are quintessential Star Wars. At the beginning, we see Luke putting his Jedi skills into action. (The film also suffers from sexually objectifying Carrie Fisher in her slave outfit.) The end effectively balances the space battle above Endor, the fighting on the surface, and Luke’s confrontation with Vader and the emperor. It is a fitting emotional end to Luke’s journey and his father’s redemption. 

Revenge of the Sith: Revenge of the Sith may be the best of the prequels, but that’s like saying Sbarro is the best airport pizza option. In the end, it still sucks. The film’s opening space battle is enjoyable enough, but it still suffers from plodding dialogue and incredibly poor pacing. The sequel trilogy reduced Natalie Portman’s Padme from gun wielding intergalactic badass to weeping pregnant woman in three short movies. Her delivery of the line, “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart” is still painful to listen to The film’s emotion comes solely from Ewan McGregor’s ability to convey his distress at his friend's betrayal of the entire Galaxy.

Phantom Menace: This isn’t an argument that Phantom Menace is a good movie, just that it’s better than Attack of the ClonesPhantom Menace has a fun podracing scene—ripped off from Ben-Hur, but still fun. There’s also Liam Neeson doing his best with some truly clunky George Lucas dialogue (also another Lucas weakness). Yes, Jar-Jar Binks is terrible and a racist stereotype (one of several in the film). And if you watch the film in the Machete Order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6) you can skip Phantom Menace entirely and not miss a beat. The film’s climatic duel with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul is far and above anything in Attack of the Clones.  




Rise of Skywalker: Rise of Skywalker is bad. It's a jumbled mess of fan-service moments from a filmmaker disinterested in anything but reminding you of other better moments in other better films. It also goes out of its way to trash The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker packs so much fan-service into a nonsensical plot that it's downright insulting. Look a cell-block escape! Chewie gets a medal! The emperor is alive (?)! Luke lifts an X-wing out of the water! C-3PO and Chewie sort of die but not really! Let's give Poe a love interest and a super-duper extra evil villain armed with a fleet of planet destroying star destroyers! 

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Like the far-superior Rogue One, Solo tries to answer questions about the original trilogy that didn't need answering. Who cares where Han Solo got his name? Or how he got the Millennium Falcon? And why did we need a movie to show us that everything awesome that happened in his life came on one action-packed weekend? By the time--chronologically speaking--we get to Han Solo in a New Hope, he's less a galactic rogue and more a guy desperately trying to recreate his high school glory days. 

Attack of the Clones:  Clones drags on interminably (sensing a theme? George Lucas has pacing problems in his movies). The middle sections where Padme and Anakin escape back to her home planet are some of the worst written romance sequences ever put to film. Throw in a murderous side trip to Anakin’s home planet where he rescues his mom and murders an entire village of sand-people and you’ve got a disaster on your hands. Then there’s the inclusion of Jango Fett—because Boba Fett, the galaxy’s lamest bounty hunter, needed a tragic backstory?—who promptly gets his ass handed to him by a bunch of Jedi. The film’s battle scenes are simply a collection of CGI mumbo-jumbo as one giant CGI army fights another one.