Full-blown film review: ‘Viking’

Viking film 2016

(I did a preliminary review of this movie yesterday. I’ve watched it a second time now, and am prepared to pontificate.)

Viking, a Russian film directed by Andrei Kravchuk and much anticipated by Viking buffs, arrived last winter with all the acclaim of the dog that did nothing in the nighttime. Critical response was mixed, and the film got almost no US distribution. The DVD is available, though, now, and you can own it. It’s worth viewing, but I expect you’ll agree that it’s a movie in search of an audience.

The film is based on the career of the historical Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev, the man who converted the Russians to Christianity and is revered as a saint. He did not come by his sainthood gently, though, as the film makes clear (the history here isn’t bad, considered in very broad strokes).

Vladimir (Danila Kozlovsky) is the youngest of three brothers, descendants of Vikings, and each the prince of a different Russian town, in the 10th Century. Vladimir is the least of them, not only in age but in status. He’s the son of a slave woman, and touchy on the subject. The eldest brother’s men murder the middle brother, after which Vladimir arranges the killing of the eldest. Now he’s the sole prince of all the Russ, but he has to prove himself worthy. He takes a high-born wife (Aleksandra Bortich) by force, and digs up and restores what they call “Father’s God,” a bloodthirsty idol worshiped by his late father, who was revered for his strength. Vladimir hopes to acquire that same strength, at the price of human sacrifice. Continue reading Full-blown film review: ‘Viking’

Pre-review: ‘Viking’

Viking film

(I’m calling this a “pre-review,” because I think this movie, for good or ill, requires another viewing before I pass final judgment on it.)

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have noted over time my anticipation of a Viking movie coming out of Russia. The film, simply titled “Viking,” arrived last winter, not with a bang but a whimper. It got very little distribution in the US. The other day I checked to see if it was available on DVD, and behold it was, on Amazon. So I have it at last.

And I’m bemused. It’s certainly an epic, and I think it succeeds on that level to an extent, with big battle scenes and special effects that worked for me (at least). The problematic part seems to be the (highly fictionalized) dramatization of the career of the hero, Prince Vladimir (the Great) of Kiev (Danila Kozlovsky). The real Vladimir was a pretty bloodthirsty character, who murdered his own brother in his pursuit of the throne. In this version, Vladimir is basically a nice guy, who sort of stumbles into his crimes (including raping the woman who becomes his wife, played here by the gorgeous Aleksandra Bortich), and he feels really bad after each atrocity. Eventually he finds peace for his soul when he converts to Orthodox Christianity, in what I consider a pretty successful evangelism scene in a cathedral.

And that points up the weirdness of the movie, a weirdness that may have doomed it with distributors. It’s a very Christian “message” film, one whose final scene is reminiscent of a Billy Graham production. Yet it also involves lots of gore and violence (heathenism is treated non-romantically, which I appreciated), and a couple of vigorous sex scenes with unabashed female nudity.

How do you categorize a movie like that? It deserves its R rating, and you probably won’t want to rent it for family movie night. (Wikipedia says there’s a family-friendly version, but it’s not offered on Amazon.)

In terms of authenticity – so-so. Better than the History Channel series, I’d say, but very much in that tradition, as well as the tradition of Game of Thrones, which may have been an inspiration for the whole project. As in the TV series, all the costumes involve too much leather and tend to be either brown or gray, contrary to the true Vikings’ love of bright colors. The armor tends to be leather rather than mail, even on chieftains. I’ll probably find many other mistakes on closer viewing, but that’ll do for now.

My overall (tentative) judgment is… let me watch it again. There may be qualities here I haven’t appreciated yet. I didn’t hate it, and it was actually better than I expected, after what I’d read of critical responses.

Netflix video review: ‘The Ranch’

The Ranch

Somebody recommended the Netflix comedy series, “The Ranch.” After all, it stars Sam Elliott, and he plays an unapologetic conservative.

Sam Elliott is always a draw, but he isn’t enough to sell me this spread.

Elliot plays Beau Bennett, patriarch of a ranch in Colorado. He’s acerbic and obsessive, working day and night to keep the failing operation going. He’s angry at everybody, and globally critical.

In the first episode his second son, Colt (Ashton Kutcher), returns home for a brief stopover. He’s a local hero because he was a football star and actually had a pro career, though it’s sliding downhill now. Realizing his father is in danger of losing the ranch, he decides to stay on, for which he gets no appreciation at all. He has many bad habits, and needs to grow up.

Danny Masterson plays the older son, Rooster, who stayed home like the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. He tries to be a peacemaker, but is generally ineffectual. He also seems to have a drinking problem.

Debra Winger plays Maggie, the mother, who divorced Beau but lives in town where she runs a bar.

Sound like fun to you? Maybe this set-up is comedy gold for normal folks, but for someone like me who grew up in a genuine dysfunctional home, it’s like a half hour of dipping sheep. I understand we’re supposed to be laughing, but I never even came close to smiling. There seems to be an idea abroad in the land that if you throw enough f-bombs into the mix, hilarity must inexorably ensue. This idea is wrong.

I didn’t even like Sam Elliott here. His character is – how shall I put it? – pretty much a donkey. I assume that through the course of the series we’ll be treated to moments suggesting that he actually cares for his family, somewhere deep inside. I gave it two episodes, but I’m not willing to put up with more of this abuse for the sake of such moments.

So I didn’t like it. Your mileage may vary.

‘The Aggrieved,’ by Brett Battles

The Aggrieved

I’ve been following Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn series for some time now. I’m not generally a reader of espionage fiction, but these books deal with a different kind of character, a guy whose job tends to be a throw-away in other books – the Cleaner. The cleaner comes in after a hit has been carried out, and removes the bodies and all the evidence. Jonathan Quinn is the best at his job, and his skills make him more than equal to various challenges he meets that take him outside the limits of his job description.

In The Aggrieved, Jonathan and his team face a new kind of challenge. In earlier outings they generally ended up trying to rescue somebody. This time, due an incident at the end of the last book (I’ll write carefully, so as not to drop spoilers), they’re out for vengeance. An important member of the team has been killed, and Quinn and company are singlemindedly pursuing revenge. Meanwhile their own relationships are strained, as guilt generates resentment among friends and even family.

This was not my favorite installment in the Jonathan Quinn saga. I think that was largely due to the revenge motivation, although the author makes it clear that the killer they’re pursuing deserves no mercy. The book seemed to me essentially a sequence of planned operations, some more successful than others, without a lot of human interaction – and most of what there was, was unpleasant.

I did enjoy a fairly new character named Jar, a female Asian computer geek somewhere on the autism spectrum. She was kind of fun.

If you’ve been following the books you’ll want to read The Aggrieved, but don’t start with this one. Cautions for the usual.

The Only Right Feeling Is Guilt

Writing from the British Isles, Brendan O’Neill describes an old man he remembers from his childhood neighborhood, one he says he in every neighborhood. One who is friendly and racist. What reminded him of this man is Lena Dunham’s support of an argument against sushi being prepared and served by white college kids. Because Asian food should not be made, served, or, I guess, eaten by non-Asian people due to the sin of cultural appropriation.

‘Barbecue is a form of cultural power’, says a writer for the Guardian (where else). It’s a tradition of ‘enslaved Africans’ and you insult those people when you peel the pork off a pig belly in some Hackney hangout. Eating, like everything else, is racism. Even tea is under attack. It’s a ‘boring, beige relic of our colonial past’, says Joel Golby, a writer for Vice, the bible of Shoreditch bores. You can’t even have a cuppa without being induced to feel colonial guilt.

(I wonder if Joel Golby is being honest there. He may just be griping over his own cup of tea.)

I was thinking that might leave us with a simple dietary rule: if your grandmother wouldn’t have made it, you can’t eat it. But even that doesn’t work. The sins of the past, if they cling to our food stuffs today, will never leave us.

There’s no logical end to this rationale. I saw Christophe Gans’s marvelous version of Beauty and the Beast this week. It’s a movie in the vein of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, though a step more edgy. If we apply to it this cultural appropriation logic, Gans was right to make his movie, because he’s and his actors are French and the original fairy tale was French, whereas Disney is a bunch of cultural thieves for making what may be the best animated movie ever and their new live-action edition is like a sushi taco.

I have a volume of the works of Chekhov behind me. It was printed in the US in 1929 by Black’s Readers Service Company. If I enjoy reading this book, am I guilty of taking from Chekhov’s culture? Is the publisher? Is the translator?

O’Neill’s point is that the old racist in his neighborhood is now the new racist in the college commons, both telling him not to eat that junk from another culture and stick with the meals his mama makes. And the old racist may being living by his creed, but the new one doesn’t have the time to think about it.  (via Prufrock News)

Don’t Talk About Your Book While Writing It

Nick Ripatrazone has released a book that he’s happy to talk about, but he won’t talk about whatever book he may be writing presently. He was advised not to many years ago and has experienced the life-sucking force of talking about his work since.

“Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, ‘to entertain a toothache.'”

I’m sure this is a truism, but I think it’s one I need to follow. Talking about my barely formed ideas lets the air out of them before they have a chance to float, and I’m full of momentarily promising ideas that haven’t taken flight.

But I’m sure some writers are able to talk about some stories or ideas they are working on without killing them. What’s been your experience? (via Prufrock News)

Multitasking Doesn’t Go Deep

Multitasking is a great method for shallow work, but in order to do something thoughtful, something perceptive that will last a while, you need to focus. Author Cal Newport calls this “Deep Work.”  The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania examines some of Newport’s thinking. This idea, they say, may not apply to every line of work. Creative work would benefit the most. Social media is geared to work against your focus, attracting attention to itself constantly.

Interestingly, [Marshall] Meyer says he suspects there is a link between lack of focus, and the natural selection that has led to the kinds of leaders and leadership style favored today. “In the last 20 or 30 years, there’s been a lot of attention to leadership, and the two characteristics of leadership that stand out are charisma and positive mood affect,” he says. “And that’s contributed in my judgment to the dynamic we now have where people are up, outgoing, and are consistently swamped with information and don’t focus and don’t have the time to focus. No one has thought about historic changes in personal leadership styles, and no one has thought that maybe the person who is by nature introspective and even a little depressed might make the best decision.”

For Your Spectation

My latest essay for The American Spectator Online discusses a recent event on the Minneapolis art scene. No, really.

Apparently it never occurred to anyone involved with the Scaffold sculpture, in the throes of their virtue signaling, to consult the leadership of the Lakota tribes about the matter. It turns out the Lakota didn’t care to see a huge scaffold erected in their honor. The first time, apparently, was plenty. The re-opening had to be delayed while the sculpture was dismantled (probably to be burned).

Read it all here.

‘Stand Firm,’ by Svend Brinkmann

Stand Firm

There are people you like, public and private, not because you agree with them particularly, but because you’re both against the same things.

That’s kind of how I feel about Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, by Danish author Svend Brinkmann.

Brinkmann argues that this whole modern self-improvement thing, with all its books and seminars and courses, has resulted not in greater happiness, but in greater frustration, because we’re never “improved enough,” and we’re constantly made to feel guilty about our many failures to “live in the moment,” “think positively,” etc.

Taking his cue from some tenets of classical Stoicism, Brinkmann recommends a new program, whose bullet points are:

1. Cut out the navel-gazing.
2. Focus on the negative in your life.
3. Put on your No hat.
4. Suppress your feelings.
5. Sack your coach.
6. Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography.
7. Dwell on the past.

That reads as parody, and in fact the book is often funny. But there’s a serious point too. What Brinkmann calls “liquid modernity” – the “flexible” approach to life that the self-help gurus require – is murderous to the soul. We need a place to stand. That requires some negative thinking and a focus on our duties to others rather than just to ourselves. We live in community with others, and we often need to deny our own “needs” in order to maintain our relationships.

I found it interesting that Brinkmann appealed to Stoic philosophy rather than to Christianity in his quest for a backward-looking discipline through which to resist liquid modernity. It reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which also looked to Stoicism for a similar purpose. I don’t know whether this choice reflects an unthinking modern prejudice against the riches of Christian thought, or just a (probably well-founded) assumption that if you talk about Christianity, people today won’t listen to you. I think the book is diminished by the choice, but I can’t argue that my way would improve sales.

I don’t agree with all the guidelines recommended in Stand Firm, but I enjoyed reading it and consider it a tonic for our times. And the English translation is first-rate. Recommended.

Uber than thou

I will never be the Ubermensch, alas, but I am currently living the Uber life.

You know about Miss Ingebretsen, my tastefully beautiful PT Cruiser automobile. She’s been teaching me hard lessons about having tastefully beautiful women in your life – they tend to be high maintenance. Recently I’ve been having Miss I. in the shop almost on a weekly basis. And that was just the preliminaries.

Last Saturday I was driving along 42nd Avenue North in Robbinsdale, on a routine jaunt to the grocery store, when Miss I. gave a discrete cough and shut down. Right there in the street. Wouldn’t start again, of course.

I had her towed to the garage, which was closed at the time, of course. Had to wait till Monday morning to tell the mechanics what I’d laid on their plate. Then it was Uber to work. Later the shop guy called me back: “I haven’t got any good news for you,” he said. Continue reading Uber than thou

‘From the Corner of His Eye,’ by Dean Koontz

Out of the Corner of His Eye

“The problem with movies and books is they make evil look glamorous, exciting, when it’s no such thing. It’s boring and it’s depressing and it’s stupid. Criminals are all after cheap thrills and easy money, and when they get them, all they want is more of the same, over and over. They’re shallow, empty, boring people who couldn’t give you five minutes of interesting conversation if you had the piss-poor luck to be at a party full of them….”

I did it again. Bought a Dean Koontz book I thought I hadn’t read, but I had. However, it’s such a sprawling, multi-threaded epic work that I’d forgotten most of it and didn’t tip to my mistake until I was a long way in.

From the Corner of His Eye is ostensibly about a remarkable, gifted boy who goes blind. But that boy, Bartholomew Lampier, actually occupies the stage for a small portion of the book, and much of that while he’s a baby. The real central character might be his mother Agnes, “the pie lady,” who has devoted her life to baking delicious pies, which she delivers to disadvantaged neighbors, along with groceries. Or it might be Detective Thomas Vanadium, former Jesuit priest and amateur physicist, who devotes his life to hunting down murderers, sometimes employing magic to apply psychological pressure.

One day in the early 1960s, a pastor in a small Oregon church delivered a radio sermon called, “This Momentous Day.” It focused on the career of the obscure apostle Bartholomew as an example of an individual who seemed undistinguished, but who in fact had eternal and world-spanning influence. Junior Cain, a murderer and a rapist, happened to hear that sermon. Somehow, within the foul fistula that made up his mind and soul, he came to believe that there was a man named Bartholomew – somewhere out there – who was bent on destroying him. So Junior makes it the obsession of his life to find this Bartholomew and kill him. Continue reading ‘From the Corner of His Eye,’ by Dean Koontz

Enchanting Nancy

Marly Youmans has three evocative poems on Education & Culture today. I find “Nancy at the River” enchanting in the way of missing someone whom you have deeply loved, though this was perhaps not quite that. Though the subject may have been delighted in, she may not have been deeply loved. But perhaps I’m being overly relative.

all is mystery, so pure/ And secret like a mythic flower bride
Who fades and blooms, or like a poem rhymed/ With unknown words that aren’t yet ever were

Youmans blogs here. (via Prufrock News)

Is Wolf Time coming?

Wolf Time

I’m very gratified that the good folks over at Grim’s Hall, one of my favorite blogs, have decided to host a multi-part discussion of my novel Wolf Time. It’s been a long time since I wrote that book, but there are some who think it holds up, and even has things to say today. Parts of it, I like to think, are prescient.

Here’s the first post in the discussion.

And here’s the second.

And here’s video of Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially arguing for at least a part of the Definition of Religion Act, a major plot element in Wolf Time.

The Man Who Ruined English Lit

Stuart Hall, the man who apparently helped bind English departments with useless political ideology, doesn’t appear to have read anything written in previous generations. Christopher Bray reviews Hall’s autobiography.

Patently a decent man who wanted a better life for everyone, Hall genuinely believed that by alerting his students to the ideological subtexts of their favourite TV shows or pop songs (at one point he claims to be able to hear ‘the less chauvinistic bits’ of Elgar), they might liberate themselves from the hegemonic ‘master codes of the dominant culture’. In fact, by teaching kids that it’s enough to read or watch or listen to what already interests them, cultural studies has served only to trap them in the straitened cell of the self.

Mercy. Who will pull the bucket off our heads, if not our elders? And if our elders are the ones who trapped us in buckets in the first place, what hope do we have for any of us? Is there anyone apart from us who can teach us the truth? (via Prufrock News)

‘By the Light of the Moon,’ by Dean Koontz

By the Light of the Moon

I bought this book by mistake. I knew a new Dean Koontz was coming out (I’ll review it soon), and somehow I got the idea that By the Light of the Moon was it. Once I had it on my Kindle I realized I’d read it before, and I expect I’ve reviewed it here before. But Koontz will bear a reprise, so I read it again.

Koontz isn’t a repetitive writer, but he does tend to give us recognizable types and situations. The setup in this story is classic Koontz. A mad scientist, Lincoln Procter, on the run from merciless killers, waylays three innocent people in an Arizona motel and injects them with a formula he’s developed. He’s not sure what the results will be, he explains, but they could be positive.

The three victims are Jilly Jackson, a female stand-up comic, and Dylan O’Connor, a traveling artist who is sole custodian of his autistic brother. Procter warns them that the men pursuing him will soon pursue them, to destroy the formula that now flows in their veins. Dylan, Shep, and Jilly set out on a breakneck race to save their lives, but are constantly waylaid, not by the bad guys, but by strange compulsions that start to come over Dylan, causing him to take action to prevent horrible crimes. Shep begins to exhibit a power of his own, a valuable one, but the difficulties of communicating with an autistic person add considerable dramatic tension.

Lots of fun, lots of excitement, some romance, and a measure of wisdom. Good book. I particularly liked the villain, Lincoln Procter (whose name, I think, is intended to echo Hannibal Lector). He’s an original kind of antagonist – a thoroughly bad and selfish man who thinks he can justify himself through constant self-criticism. I know people kind of like that (I’m one of them myself. There! I just did it again!).

Recommended. Cautions for language and intense situations.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture