Monday, 5 March 2012

An aside comment on the "Best Star Wars Film" debate

While I don’t want to wade too deeply into the argument, seemingly initiated by Kevin Drum’s rather absurd notion that Return of the Jedi is the best of the six* Star Wars films, regarding the relative merits of the various films in the series (see also: Doug Mataconis at OTB and Seth Masket), I do want to raise a minor point in response to Dan Drezner on the politics (or lack thereof) in the triology:

The conundrum that political scientists face is that even though the original trilogy contains the better films, the second trilogy has the better politics. There are no politics in Episodes IV-VI, unless one counts Vader and the Emperor’s wooing of Luke. In the prequel trilogy, however, there are lots of parliamentary machinations, tussles between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor, Anakin’s lust for power, and Darth Sidious’ grand strategy for converting the Republic into an Empire.

To a political scientist, that’s good stuff. To human beings interested in enjoying a film, it’s tissue paper without things like strong characters, a good screenplay, and decent plotting.

While I’m slightly sympathetic to Dan’s argument here, the reality is that the politics of the prequel trilogy are, in a word, silly, even leaving aside arguments about whether one would plausibly construct an elective, term-limited monarchy in which the only valid candidates for office are teenage girls, or what sane society would elect the likes of Jar Jar Binks to high office (ok, maybe that one is more credible). Sure, there are depictions of politics, but only within the context of political structures that make no sense, such as the Senate of the Republic (there’s a reason that real legislatures don’t have membership sizes in excess of the population of a mid-sized city) and the Jedi Council (there’s also a reason that real legislatures governing groups of people in the millions have more than a half-dozen, self-selected members).

Slathering on a layer of thinly-veiled BusHitler allegory doesn’t exactly help matters either, if only because in 20 years nobody will get the point Lucas was belaboring—to illustrate the point, imagine if Lucas had taken a 20-minute detour during Empire Strikes Back to establish some boring parallel between the political ascents of “black mayors” Walter Washington and Lando Calrissian, perhaps by giving Lando a bunch of long-winded, boring speeches that paralleled the racial politics of the early 1980s, and then imagine how that would play today.

The other problem of course is that the politics depicted in the prequels is boring. Politics of course need not be boring (for example, the writers of Parks and Recreation manage to make politics entertaining on a weekly basis), but in the hands of Lucas—who’s obviously more interested in the prequels in advancing plot only to serve as a scaffolding for spectacle rather than having the CGI elements there in service of a sensible plot—most of the politics gets reduced to tedious speeches and arguments in what seem to be shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from academic department meetings. In the hands of a skilled writer (or, perhaps more charitably, a writer who cared) I have no doubt the political machinations promised in the prequels might have been interesting; as presented, the Wikipedia summaries of them are positively life-like by comparison.

* Part of me wishes there were only three, but that might edge into the territory of Frequent Commenter Scott’s denial that the sport that is played in the American League qualifies as “baseball.”

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Roamin' Roman

Roman Polanski is a self-confessed child rapist who deserves to rot in jail.

All this is to say that I really, really don’t get why anyone other than his attorney is defending the guy. The dude was 44 at the time of his offenses, so his indiscretions were only “youthful” in the sense that he wasn’t collecting social security at the time.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Choosing the wrong denominator

Matthew Yglesias demonstrates innumeracy in action:

We got an interesting experiment this weekend as Bill Maher’s anti-religious screed Religulous and David Zucker’s right-wing satire An American Carol both opened. The two films were about tied in terms of total revenue but Carol was on three times as many screens, so basically Religulous was far more successful.

I think this mostly reflects something I wrote about a couple of years ago — the moviegoing audience is very demographically similar to the Democratic Party voting audience. It’s disproportionately young, disproportionately childless, and tilted toward residents of big cities and away from residents of rural communities. Conversely, the audience for television news is demographically very conservative (older, white, and a bit more prosperous than average) which is one major reason TV news coverage tilts right. The big screen audience for what looks like a witless screed against God is just a lot bigger than the big screen audience for what looks like a witless screed against Michael Moore.

Actually, since total revenue for both movies was about the same, it would appear that the “big screen audience” for crappy polemical Bill Maher movies is about the same as the “big screen audience” for crappy polemical David Zucker movies. Further, since I’d guess Carol probably played in theaters with lower ticket prices on average than Religulous, the former probably did a little better in terms of the total audience.

Yglesias also makes the rather faulty assumption that the per-screen average revenue would remain flat as screens increased. This result only obtains if moviegoers don’t select theaters based on what movies are playing at them or if screens are very distant from each other geographically; while surely there are some people who just go to the movies to see something without deciding beforehand which movie to see, I doubt there are enough of these people to ensure Maher’s movie would gain a substantially larger audience, except in the relatively uncommon cases where the film just isn’t on at any theater in a metropolitan area and there is a substantial number of people who want to see it.

Besides, all the discerning moviegoers were at Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist this weekend anyway.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Academics on screen: not that pretty

In an apparent continuation of my recent movie-going kick, I went to see Smart People Thursday evening. Most of the reviews I’ve seen have rightly praised Dennis Quaid’s performance as a stereotypical “bitter prof” who, for added measure, also bags a former student, just in case we hadn’t wandered too far into stereotype territory yet. Without giving too much away, Quaid’s character (naturally a member of the species “tenured deadwood” who’s too lazy to even remember the name of a student he’s had in multiple courses the prior semester) ultimately gets involved up to his eyeballs in academic politics at its most petty seeking a goal he really has no desire to achieve except to spite his colleagues, who he hates to the last man and woman, and who wholeheartedly reciprocate the feeling. Clearly screenwriter Mark Jude Poirier has spent far too much time around academics.

I thought most of the remaining cast did admirable jobs as well. I’ve seen some criticism of Ellen Page’s character, Quaid’s cynical daughter Vanessa, being essentially another riff on Juno McGuff, which seems a bit unfair to me; other than being high school kids who aren’t as smart as they think they are (that last part may be redundant), there isn’t a lot of commonality; Vanessa strikes me as Tracy Flick meets Mary Richards, complete with the bad dinner parties, with a dash of Alex Keaton for good measure (left unexplained is how Vanessa picked up the apparently-recessive Republican gene in her family), while Juno’s at least a partially-functional wannabe hipster. I also enjoyed Thomas Hayden Church’s turn as Quaid’s loser brother Chuck and the small role played by David Denman, formerly Roy on The Office.

The only character I really didn’t get was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, who to my mind hasn’t done anything worthwhile on the screen since 1995 or so (I count her role in L.A. Story as the ditzy So-Cal skater girl SanDeE* as the apparent pinnacle of her acting career, although she was also pretty good in Extreme Measures); it’s certainly not all that clear why Quaid would be be drawn to Parker’s character except out of sheer laziness in finding someone else to date, although her character’s motivations are somewhat clearer. The vague feeling she’s going to go blab it all in the next scene in graphic detail to Samantha, Miranda, and whatever-the-hell-Kristin-Davis’-character-is-called doesn’t exactly help either. But my Parker issues didn’t detract overly much from the film, which really doesn’t dwell on her character much anyway, as this movie operates on the rule that the female romantic lead has no scenes that don’t in some way relate to her romance with the male lead, a rule which I think I read in the blogosphere years ago but can no longer find. So, overall, I recommend the film.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Apatow scores again

I went to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall this afternoon; I think I found it funnier than the dozen-or-so people I shared the auditorium with, but it was somewhat hard to tell. Jason Segel doesn’t range too far away from the ground tread by Marshall Erickson, his character on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, but he’s stretched more in the past—most notably as the creepy sorta-ex-boyfriend on Judd Apatow’s under-appreciated masterpiece series Undeclared—while Kristen Bell has a bit of fun spoofing both herself (try not to think of Pulse while she describes a particularly awful piece of Sarah Marshall’s œvre) and the “CSI” genre with Billy Baldwin and (briefly) Jason Bateman. On the Apatow scale, I’d rank it pretty highly; my current ranking runs something like:

  1. Superbad
  2. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
  3. Walk Hard (tie)
    Forgetting Sarah Marshall (tie)
    Talladega Nights (tie)
  4. Knocked Up (which I found amusing but not hilarious)
  5. Anchorman (which I really didn’t get at all)

Considering that the top five movies on that list are among the ten funniest movies of the past decade, that’s hardly a bad list for FSM to be on.

The other thing I’d note is that clearly Segel has most heterosexual guys’ dream job. He gets to make out with Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell in the same movie, and he gets to make out with Alyson Hannigan every week. Personally I’d try to figure out a way to get that job without having to go full frontal in two scenes, but I suppose sacrifices must be made.

Update: Reader Brian Baggett reviews the film, as does Alan Sepinwall (whose work I’ve enjoyed since his NYPD Blue reviews on Usenet in the 1990s).

Also, Ezra Klein quibbles with part of the ending of the film. Potential minor spoilers follow:

Friday, 7 December 2007

Free movie

When mom and I went to see The Darjeeling Limited, among the previews was one for Juno. Surely a comedy with Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, and Rainn Wilson in it can’t be bad? Mind you, I reserve judgment on Jennifer Garner’s current comedy chops, although she did OK in 13 Going On 30, and I’ve yet to see anything lead actress Ellen Page has been in.

Anyway, I guess the studio really wants to build some buzz for the movie, because they’ve got oodles of free screenings listed on the movie website, even in flyover country (including New Orleans). I’ll certainly take a free ticket for a movie I was planning on seeing anyway, particularly on a night when the competition for my entertainment attention span is the Poulan Weedeater Bowl or whatever reality crap they’ve used to replace everything worth watching Tuesday nights.

Friday, 11 May 2007

QotD, ex-bosses edition

“What most professors want is for students to validate their pathetic life experience.” — Michael C. Munger, as quoted in the film Indoctrinate U., via Margaret Soltan’s University Diaries (who is less than enthused by the film overall).

As a contingent faculty member, all I can say is that quotes featured in QotD do not necessarily represent the views of Signifying Nothing, its owners, advertisers, or the potential tenure-track faculty-member who generates all of the content. But it’s still funny…

Monday, 26 March 2007

Weird freebie of the year

A textbook called Looking at Movies mysteriously arrived for me today. I say “mysteriously” because I don’t teach any classes that have anything to do with film, although I’ve always wanted to teach a course on depictions of politics in the mass media—not a “politics of film” course per se, more a course looking at how the political system is portrayed in a variety of movie and TV genres.

Certainly one segment would be on speculative fiction, wherein most political systems shown are implausible or ridiculous (the new Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 being far less absurd than most). It’s a shame there’s no movie of Clarke’s Songs of Distant Earth, for its “Jefferson Mark-3 Constitution” would be worth some serious mockery, although I suppose wags might say after the 2004 election that any two randomly-selected Americans would have made better candidates than the two foisted upon us by the GOP and Democrats.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Your sci-fi geekery quotient for the week

A few sci-fi items worth a look:

  • Steven Taylor has links to video and stills comparing the “old” and “new” special effects in the newly remastered Star Trek episodes. I’ve gotten to see some of the new episodes in syndication and they look very good; it’s a shame we’re not getting them in true HD, at least in St. Louis, but I suppose that will follow in due time. (I hold out no hope at getting them unedited except on DVD.)
  • Ilya Somin further chronicles the massive plot holes in the six Star Wars films, while the Baseball Crank looks at the problems of the second trilogy (Episodes I-III) in greater detail.
  • The “original, unbelievably crappy trailer for Star Wars.” Certainly it sucks by today’s standards… then again, most 1970s trailers suck by today’s standards.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Mom and I went to see Stranger Than Fiction this afternoon after lunch at Huey’s; the movie was really great, and Will Farrell is actually quite talented in a relatively low-key role that finds him as the object of the humor rather than the cause of most of it (as was the case in Talladega Nights and most of his earlier work). Plus having what amounted to a private screening at the Malco Paradiso was quite nice.

Tuesday, 8 August 2006

Afternoon entertainment

I went to see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby at the movie theater a stone’s throw from my apartment at the Galleria this afternoon; except for the $6 matinee ticket, and perhaps the relative invisibility of Andy Richter’s role (I think he may have managed one line in the whole film), it was quite enjoyable, and probably more consistently funny than the film it will be inevitably compared with, Farrell’s Anchorman, which I found more “weird” than “humorous.”

For what it’s worth, it seems that the crowd here was rather less turned off than that in “Clerksville” by the more outlandish characteristics of Sacha Baron Cohen’s character.

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Odds and ends

My brief return to Durham to administer some finals and pack for my big trip has been a tad hectic—I’m currently in the calm between finishing up the grading for my southern politics class (who produced almost uniformly excellent final examinations) and having to assess 60 methods exams that I will administer tomorrow and Friday.

I mostly enjoyed my visit to Saint Louis University—the travel was about as painless as air travel can be, and my soon-to-be-colleagues were uniformly pleasant and supportive. I remain somewhat unentralled with the prospect of spending a year under the microscope as an internal candidate for a potential tenure-track position, although perhaps at least I am two years wiser than my previous time doing that and also have quite a bit less invested in the idea of staying, at least at present. Nonetheless I bought some SLU swag: a hat (black), a refrigerator magnet, a window decal, and a lapel pin, as well as suitable gifts for the parental units.

Perhaps slightly more importantly, now I have feedback from two audiences on the strategic voting paper I’ll have the opportunity to work on some revisions before sending it out again. Alas, I’ve gotten no real advice on a venue—it’s already been rejected at APR, and I think even with some revisions (primarily in terms of the battleground/non-battleground dichotomy and possibly the sophistication measure) it isn’t a Top 3 piece, which probably leaves the options looking like Electoral Studies, Political Behaviour, PRQ (although I already have a manuscript there), or maybe QJPS. I hate worrying about these things.

Life otherwise goes on. I got CC’d on a report on the Next Big Thing for the Duke undergraduate political science program—it still seems awfully unstructured to me, but then again, who cares what I think? They are going to require a stats class of students, but it will be a general ed stats class so I’m not at all convinced it will be particularly worthwhile unless followed up or accompanied by a scope-and-methods class in the discipline proper. Really getting how to use stats to analyze substantive questions in politics is a hard thing, and I don’t think stats classes aimed toward a broad range of majors really accomplish much beyond annoying students with what will seem to them like a “useless” math requirement.

Outside the academic realm, I watched Shopgirl after getting back Tuesday and quite enjoyed it. I do agree with critics who say that a different actor from Steve Martin should have done the narration, but it was only a minor issue. Jason Schwartzmann definitely made the Jeremy character work; I think the early encounters between Mirabelle and Jeremy are even more satisfyingly (and hilariously) disastrous on film than they were in book form. Dropping the Vietnam subplot was fine, as was ditching the shift in venue from LA to San Francisco late in the book; neither did that much for the original narrative.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

Anamorphisize this

You know, if you were going to go to the trouble of remastering a movie for DVD, including adding 5.1 Dolby Surround sound, you’d think it would be trivial to master the DVD in anamorphic mode so I’d get more than about 300 lines of effective vertical resolution on my 16:9 HDTV. Grr.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Catching up with… Whit Stillman

Greg of Begging to Differ provides an update on the whereabouts of writer-director Whit Stillman, whose films Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco (which seems to be out of print) rank among my favorite films of the 1990s; I’d have to agree with Greg that Barcelona is my absolute favorite of the three, but all three movies are definitely worth renting.

Friday, 3 February 2006

For your amusement

It’s Serenity, but with Muppets.

Sunday, 4 December 2005

Bad sign

I can tell my downstairs neighbors are currently watching The Big Lebowski; I can only hope it’s because they always have their volume set way too loud, because otherwise I shudder to think what they think of me.

Saturday, 1 October 2005


Ok, so there’s this movie out. I think you’ve heard of it. You should go see it.

Then (and only then) should you read Julian Sanchez’s review and Amber Taylor’s spoilers. They’ll still be there when you get back from the theater.

Oh, one more thing: Firefly Kaylee > Serenity Kaylee.

Monday, 26 September 2005

The perfect shill

Hei Lun of Begging to Differ was equally unimpressed with the hidden quid pro quo connected to the free passes to see Serenity. Quoth Hei Lun:

I’m not saying that I’m highly principled and not-for-sale at any price, but it’d sure take more than $9.75 for someone to tell me what to write on this blog.

It’s not quite $9.75 in this neck of the woods (Southpoint, which I assume is the most expensive place in Durham, is $8.25 after 6 p.m., and $6.25 before 6), but, yeah, my price is a bit higher than that too. Plus I really didn’t want to drive to Raleigh during rush hour tomorrow afternoon…

Thursday, 22 September 2005


The fine folks at Universal Studios are giving out free passes to preview screenings of Serenity to bloggers. Pretty sweet, if you ask me.

þ: Glenn Reynolds and Dan Drezner.

Friday, 26 August 2005

Bags of sand

In lieu of actual content, I will give some advice. Go see The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the funniest movie I’ve seen in, well, a long time.

Otherwise, meh. Everything is up on the walls here, and most everything is unpacked except a couple of boxes in the study. The stuff I’m taking to the office will get over there tomorrow. Syllabi are close to done. The cable company is coming out to install the extra outlets I need after Labor Day. And, college football season is nearly here. So it could be worse.

Sunday, 17 July 2005

Crash this flick

My soon-to-be-ex-colleague Suzanne and I went to see Wedding Crashers on Saturday afternoon and laughed our butts off, followed by an early dinner at Amerigo, where I think Suzanne was disappointed by her meal and, while I enjoyed the lasagna, I tend to think that Old Venice and Bravo! are better choices for Italian in Jackson.

Wednesday, 29 June 2005

An actress with a different sort of talent

Presumably this will air as part of ESPN’s World Series of Poker coverage… so, if you’re avoiding spoilers, don’t look below.

Sunday, 5 June 2005

Real women have curves (but don't tell Disney)

Amber Taylor and Hei Lun Chan of Begging to Differ have uncovered yet another reason not to bother with the new Love Bug movie: you won’t be seeing as much of Lindsay Lohan as you might have figured—no pun intended:

Disney technicians were forced to go through numerous scenes – especially those showing the actress jumping up and down at a motor racing track, reducing her breasts by two cup sizes and raising revealing necklines on her T-shirts.

That must have been a hardship tour. Both linkers think this problem could have avoided during production; Taylor with technology, Chan with casting:

If Disney wanted a teenage blonde without big breasts for the movie, why didn’t they just cast Hilary Duff?

A question for the ages, to be sure.

Meanwhile, given Lohan’s recent emaciation (documented by Taylor), someone really ought to get her to read up on the health benefits of having body fat (þ: Instapundit).

Thursday, 19 May 2005

Revenge of the Sith

Finally, George Lucas has done something that doesn’t fuck up the franchise. Revenge of the Sith is far, far better than the other prequels and I would put it ahead of Return of the Jedi simply because there are no Ewoks. One downside: he places a gratuitous shot of Jar-Jar Binks in towards the end. Anything to frustrate the fans…

Saturday, 14 May 2005

Review of Crash in five words or less

Not Magnolia, but very good.*