Monday, November 22, 2010

Potter VII, Part 1

I actually enjoyed this movie more than I expected to. Whatever the commerical advantages, artistically speaking it was probably a good idea to break the overstuffed final book of the series into two movies. Compared with the other installments, rather little actually happens in this film, plot-wise. One horcrux is located, obtained, and destroyed, but aside from that the movie is essentially a sequence of hair's-breadth escapes. These are handled effectively. The mood is dark throughout, in keeping with the trajectory in the novels.

The acting limitations of the principals remain a problem. The child leads of the Potter movies, like their fictional counterparts in the books, find themselves thrust into adult roles by circumstances beyond their control. Alas, in fiction such a transformation can be pulled off with a stroke of the author's pen or computer mouse; not so easy for real-life child actors. But perhaps this liability is also an asset. We need never be distracted by the star power of the wooden Mr. Radcliffe or his sidekicks. And there are signs of growth, even for Mr. Radcliffe. The film's pivotal scene-- Harry's little dance with Hermione, alone together against the world in their flimsy tent-- is tender and revealing of character.

Some critics have griped that we don't see enough of the series' real actors in Potter VII: Rickman, Fiennes, etc. Helena Bonham Carter is more in evidence, and seems to have been born to this kind of role (Cf. Sweeney Todd), although her lovely and expressive face is usually obscured by that unkempt mop of witch-ly locks. To the extent that these movies work, it is not because of the stars, or the exciting scenes of stuff blowing up, but in spite of them; we have to be convinced that something much more important than a thrill is at stake here. That was the triumph of the books, and the movies come closest when they approach that seriousness of purpose, and that sense of wonder or dread. I for one look forward to seeing the final chapter... if not to the obligatory epilogue, which was something of a blemish on J.K. Rowling's remarkable achievement.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Capsule movie reviews

T.A.M.I. Show: Highlights include the Beach Boys in all their twisted pop glory, and Lesley Gore belting out the amazing proto-feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me" and the always wonderful "It's My Party." Marvin Gaye is in good voice on some bluesy straight-ahead soul numbers, but you also appreciate how well served he would be a little later by the Motown songwriters who allowed him to capitalize on his falsetto come-on. Smokey is good of course, but as always a little "pitchy" live. The Stones? Merely watchable.

The James Brown performance is justifiably famous. Given his importance as a great bandleader and inventor of funk and everything that would follow, it's easy to forget just how great a singer he was. He could dance too. His intensity, work ethic, professionalism, and raw artistry just blow everyone else off the stage.

The Book of Eli: Denzel eats a cat.

White: Fine but not outstanding Kieslowski effort. I.e., only ten times better than most movies.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Viking blood brothers

Here I am at a recent Santa Clara University event with my colleague from the Chemistry Department, Thorsteinn Adalsteinsson. He's the more sophisticated fellow on the left drinking his beer from a glass. There was no coordination on facial hair or apparel.

Thorsteinn does interesting work involving chemistry in and around tiny droplets of oil, among other things. He also has amusing things to say about his home country of Iceland.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Schools, Skills, and Synapses

James Heckman's "Schools, Skills, and Synapses" is the most important, depressing, and possibly hopeful economics article I have read in some time. It won't come as a big surprise to those who follow Heckman's research, but it is a fantastic summary of his current thinking as well as a ton of work by others. It is rich in empirical savvy, theoretical clarity, and interdisciplinary creativity.

The article is important because it is a compelling explanation of the increasingly polarized economic prospects of Americans; depressing because the causes are deeply rooted in social trends that we cannot, and probably would not want to, reverse; hopeful, because we actually know cost-effective ways to address the problems; doubly depressing because there's little indication of the political interest, let alone will, to do anything.

Heckman's core argument is that the skills leading to lifelong success are both cognitive (smarts) and noncognitive (motivation, etc.), are formed very early in life, are acquired more in the family than in the schools, and are distributed increasingly unequally between advantaged and disadvantaged American children. The rest of the story is complex and subtle, and needs to be heard and understood.