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TV shows: Survivor – how do you win?

August 25, 2016

Australian Survivor is on! Yay!!

I always loved (American) Survivor but over the last few years it’s been increasingly buried in horrible timeslots, so I’m coming back to the franchise after many years’ absence. The first two episodes have aired.

(Spoilers ahead.)

How do you win Survivor? After any elimination, it’s usually pretty easy to see what the ejectee did wrong.

In the case of Bianca, she started her scheming too soon. She is probably quite right that the alliance of girls is going to end up being strong and a factor in play; she might be right to wish she could break up the alliance, but sometimes moving aggressively just antagonises other people who would have otherwise left you alone. She also trusted the wrong person, trying to get him on side. Better to relax with a safe ‘elimination’ with Peter and hope to survive long enough to deal with alliances later. Try to more naturally build alliances by just befriending people and hanging out, without coming across as too strategic.

That said, I’ve got to say, people get eliminated for so many different reasons. If you were coming into the game, it’d be hard to know how to play things. For every strategic error that gets someone eliminated, there’s an opposite error that gets someone else eliminated.

For example: “He should have changed allegiances when he could and joined that other alliance.” vs “He shouldn’t have changed his allegiance; it meant nobody trusted him.”

 

Or: “She moved too soon to try to turn the others against him.” vs “She needed to try to turn the others against him.”

Or: “He shouldn’t have given up the idol; he got out immediately.” vs “He should have given up the idol; it would have gotten him a strong ally.”

When all is said and done, winning Survivor requires a lot of things, and luck is one.

Still, it seems to be a general rule that if you are able to easily click with the others in your team in a kind of effortless way, not attracting attention or getting on people’s nerves, then (as long as you’re not physically a total liability) you’re likely to make it through the first few eliminations. Bianca didn’t click, while a couple of other girls on her tribe did. It’s a shame as I’d much rather watch her, trying to make things happen. I had no sooner thought ‘she’s one of my favourite contestants so far’ than she was gone.

I’ve probably only once seen someone play ‘perfect’ Survivor – that is, reading everyone else perfectly, getting everyone else on board, backstabbing at just the right moment to keep alliances together yet keeping trust, knowing who to take out when, being decent at challenges, etc. That was Rob in Survivor: Redemption Island. Seeing him play so perfectly was impressive, but it was also one of the most boring series of Survivor I’d ever seen. You need upsets to make things interesting.

 

It’s fun to try to guess a winner from the start, though a bit hard at the moment as I haven’t even heard every character speak. However, I’m going to guess Kate, just as a kind of random guess. She seems cool, is good at challenges, etc… well, she’s as good a guess as any other. I’ll also put in a ‘maybe’ for El or Brooke. I might make another guess after I’ve gotten to know the contestants a bit better.

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Games: Pokemon GO

August 16, 2016

I’ve been playing this mobile sensation lately, so here are my thoughts.

Overview of gameplay (for anyone who doesn’t know already…)

In Pokemon GO, your character walks about on a map (using GPS) and as you walk, you might encounter random Pokemon popping up. There are (probably) 150 different Pokemon – all different creatures with different skills – that can be caught, but you have to go looking. As you progress through the game, the Pokemon get stronger (and harder to catch) and you can participate in battles against the Pokemon of other players.

This isn’t a game you can play just inside your own home. As the name suggests, you have to go out your front door and go find the Pokemon.

Firstly, there are Pokestops (give you essential items and can be used to attract Pokemon) and Pokemon Gyms (can be used for battling and earning coins) which are fixed at real world locations. For example, there might be a gym at your local church and a Pokestop at the mural next to your local cafe. You can’t access these unless you are physically right next to them. So you have to get out there.

Secondly, walking is rewarding as you’re usually more likely to encounter Pokemon if you move around. There are also eggs you can get that hatch after you’ve walked (or very slowly driven) a certain number of kilometres, so the game also works like a pedometer.

Thirdly, getting out there doesn’t just mean walking around your own neighbourhood. You have to travel around your whole city, if not beyond. Different areas have different concentrations of Pokemon. If I only played Pokemon Go in my own neighbourhood, I’d end up with a vast army of Ekans. I can also get lots of Growlithes, Geodudes and Sandshrews, among others. However, given that there are 150 different Pokemon to collect – and filling your Pokedex (Pokemon Index) with as many different Pokemon as you can is the closest this game has to a goal – walking up and down your own street is not going to get you far.

This is a game that is much more rewarding for urban players; rural Pokemon Go players report walking hours without seeing anything, having to drive miles to the nearest town with a single Pokespot, etc. Even within cities, there are pockets that are pretty dead and others – usually the ones with dense populations and lots of visitors anyway – that are happening.

Connection to original Pokemon

Pokemon GO has netted a lot of players in their 20s and 30s who grew up on Pokemon; it has the nostalgia factor. That said, it’s certainly different from the original RPGs.

So how does this game resemble/differ from the original Pokemon RPG?

Both feature the same 150 Pokemon creatures, which you have to wander around and catch with Pokeballs. The more different types you can get, the better. You can use your Pokemon to battle others, and different Pokemon have different types, so different Pokemon will be stronger against certain opponents (eg, water Pokemon have an advantage against fire Pokemon).

Apart from the fact that Pokemon Go offers virtually endless terrain to explore, there is a lot less to it compared with the original. The original Pokemon had a story (well… sort of) with a few mini quests, lots of characters to interact with, a quest to follow (beat the 8 gym leaders and become a Pokemon Master) and some strategy involved in choosing which Pokemon to have on your battling team, which moves to give them all, etc. It did involve a few periods of level grinding – you had to get your Pokemon strong to face the gyms – but generally you could steadily make progress through the game.

Pokemon Go doesn’t really have a purpose – instead, you endlessly catch whatever you can, and catching things gives you experience points that can help you level up. As you level up, you can catch stronger Pokemon and get different items. But there is much less strategy involved. Even the ‘fighting’ is a lot less interesting, as you have less control over which attacks your Pokemon have and you cannot really battle other players, only AI.

In Pokemon Go, I suppose the goal is whatever you make it. ‘Catch as many different Pokemon as possible to fill up your Pokedex’ is probably the biggest, and is the goal I’ve taken for myself. ‘Get to the highest level’, ‘take over gyms’ and ‘get the optimum level Pokemon possible’ could be others. And it’s quite possible there will be more features and aspects of gameplay added in the future.

Where I’m coming from

I was a big fan of the Pokemon franchise about 15 years ago. I haven’t played too many of the recent games though. SoulSilver was the last one, and that was partly for Japanese practice.:) Still, the nostalgia factor helped to get me in.

I’ve also been a person who rather dislikes mobile phones for causing a distraction and interrupting ‘real life’. I have always tended to get the cheapest phone and then used it as little as possible. For the last three years I had only one app on my phone – a Japanese dictionary – and never used it for Facebook. This is partly because I use the Internet so much at home, so that when I go out, I want to leave it behind entirely.

That meant that these two weeks playing Pokemon GO make the first time I have walked around with phone in hand, constantly checking it.

Another thing is that I’m always reading about the latest fads in pop culture – I read Cracked, and Facebook, and see lots of references to various video games, superhero movies, big name series, etc – but usually don’t play or watch any of them myself. When I heard about Pokemon Go, I was enjoying reading about it – particularly those ridiculous stories of people walking into things (one guy even drove into a school – I mean literally o_O) or congregating in ridiculous numbers while playing – but wasn’t thinking of having a go myself.

My experience

I really enjoyed this game at first. When I first set off walking around the block and came across a Geodude down my street, or an Ekans outside my house, it gave me a kick! I was catching ‘real’ Pokemon in the real world! I felt like a character from a game or TV show come to life. That was rather fun.

It was also fun because, starting from 0 Pokemon, it wasn’t too hard to find a new type you’d never caught before, and to start filling in new entries on the Pokedex. Collecting games are always quite fun, and Pokemon also gives you intermittent random rewards – not knowing what kind of Pokemon you’ll get from an egg, for instance, or encountering a random Kangaskhan by the beach – that keep you coming back.

Playing this game, I have found myself walking a bit more. I usually find it boring to walk without a purpose, but Pokestops fill ordinary suburbs with ‘destinations’ to aim for. Instead of just having a coffee in my office building, I’d walk down the street to a cafe so that I could catch a few in the process.

I also enjoy, if I’m in an area with lots of Pokestops, noticing the people around me playing it, talking about it, etc. I haven’t been to any of those settings with hundreds of people all playing, but even just seeing fellow players around on the street is fun, and makes me feel part of the club. Participating in a pop culture fad for once.

Having started the game a few weeks after it came out, I did wonder if I’d left it too late, particularly for fighting. All the gyms seemed to be full of Pokemon over 1000 CP – and there was I with a collection of Pokemon with CP in the double digits. I am now at level 20, so I have caught up enough to participate – there are usually a few lower-level gyms around – if not to be a particularly tough contender. As time goes by, it does get harder for new players, I think.

(One thing I notice is that a lot of the stronger gyms are held by Dragonites, which is surprising when you consider how rare Dratini are. I have about 600 Pokemon but have only one Dratini. I have heard that there were originally places you could go and find ‘nests’ of certain Pokemon – including Dratini – but these were reconfigured. That might be one disadvantage to coming in late.)

Being able to compete in gyms properly is good, but for the most part, the further you progress in the game, the less rewarding it becomes. The guy on this thread got it right – scaling is off. As you get to higher levels, you encounter lots of higher level Pokemon – which are harder to catch – but do not offer you any advantages at all in terms of XP etc. So as you get to a higher level, not only does it get harder to GET XP, but you also have to get MORE XP to get to the next level.

Also, once you’ve taken the game to all the various areas where you usually hang out, it gets hard to find and catch anything new. I can keep taking my game to the places I frequent, but while at the beginning of the game, I could find several new Pokemon in a walk down the street, now I might find, say, one new creature in two hours of active, constant hunting. The rest is busy work, catching endless Pidgeys and Rattata and Paras.

The ‘getting out there’ aspect is a bit overrated too. After the first few days, being attached to my phone wore thin. I mentioned that I have walked a bit more, but at the same time, have done so without appreciating the world around me as much as usual. In the last fortnight I haven’t been for any walk without my phone in hand, and it’s not refreshing. Looking at my phone so much gives me a headache and makes me feel less normal. And by that I’m not saying it’s silly or embarrassing to play Pokemon; what I mean is that I don’t feel natural, not quite human, but someone living in an artificial sphere, disconnected from the world around me and always slightly distracted. Not living in the present moment. Can I really say that it’s getting me out and about in the real world?

Instead, I started to feel like it was more of a compulsion, or addiction, to keep checking the phone and catching things, even if I didn’t really feel like it, just to make ‘progress’.

If I was part of a more social scene with it, I might feel differently.

I think at this point, there is no more incentive to ‘level up’ or catch Ekans number 75. I’ve gotten over 80 Pokemon in my Pokedex – my initial goal. I might just check for Pokemon if I happen to go to a new part of town. The last couple of days, I’ve had a couple of bus trips or walks *without* constantly looking at the phone, and it has felt good.

 

Anyway, it was good fun for a while.

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Games: Banjo-Kazooie

June 5, 2016

Banjo-Kazooie is a fun 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64. I still can’t think of the Nintendo 64 as coming out that long ago, but this game came out in 1998 – geez, I was still in high school. This was definitely my favourite, and most replayed, N64 game.

You star as Banjo the bear and his loudmouthed bird companion, Kazooie, on a mission to rescue Banjo’s little sister, who has been kidnapped by Gruntilda, an evil witch. You have to venture into the witch’s lair, but it will take a lot of adventures in different worlds to progress through to where the witch is waiting for you.

Some of the worlds are typical video game fare – there’s a beach level, a snow level, a desert level, a forest level – but even these are full of unique touches and fun designs. The snow level, for example, isn’t just snow – it’s a Christmas-filled winter wonderland – and the whole level is dominated by an enormous towering Christmas snowman you can climb. The desert level has hot sand and pyramids, sure, but it also has lots of little puzzles, mazes and secrets in its various pyramids. The forest level has a unique design that lets you travel back and forth through different seasons to see the woods at different times.

The music is fun throughout, and one nice touch is that it adapts to what’s going on around you. So for example, you’ll be exploring Treasure Trove Cove, and the same basic tune plays, but once you get near the pirate ship, it takes on a distinct sea shanty flavour. If you swim, it gets muffled, as if you are hearing it underwater. If you fly high above the cliffs, the music fades as the wind picks up.

Another cute touch is that everything in this game talks – everything. Collectables will introduce themselves to you and explain what they are. You can talk to buckets. Eggs. Toilets. Notes.

Collecting things is a big aspect of this game. In each level, there are ten jigsaw pieces (needed to open subsequent worlds), 100 musical notes (needed to open doors within Gruntilda’s lair and thus get closer to rescuing your sister), 5 jinjos (little creatures to save – doing this gives you one of your ten jigsaw pieces) and 2 honeycomb pieces (to give you extra life bar). You do not need to get every item on every level, at least at first, but to beat the game, it will profit you to have almost all of them.

The moves are fun, since Banjo and Kazooie work as a team. You mostly control Banjo as he runs around, but most of your moves also use Kazooie somehow. You can get Kazooie to carry Banjo – she’s much better at running up steep walls, for instance – or even fly, once you learn how. Banjo’s jumps can be boosted through Kazooie’s wing power, and the bird can also shoot eggs, bash enemies with her beak, etc. Meanwhile, Banjo also has somersaults and punches, so there’s no shortage of ways to kill things.

These moves are not all available from the beginning of the game. As you progress, you’ll be able to learn new moves. Occasionally, this will mean going back to a previous world to complete a task requiring that move, but on the whole there isn’t too much back-tracking.

I really liked the difficulty level of this game. That is, it’s not super difficult – there are a few tasks you may need to try more than once to get them – but there aren’t many parts that will get you really frustrated and stuck. For a not-very-frequent gamer like me, it is challenging enough to be enjoyable.

Dying has one main penalty – you have to start the level over again and collect musical notes again. (There are 100 notes to collect on each level. The more you find, the better, as it’ll help you progress through various doors in Gruntilda’s lair.) So there is an incentive to not die; this adds to the challenge level somewhat.

The size of the levels was good, I thought – complex enough to explore and take some time to discover new things in them, but compact enough that doing so didn’t feel like a tedious task.

These aspects of Banjo-Kazooie’s gameplay I’ve just mentioned – all of which I liked – are probably the main reason I never much liked the sequel, ‘Banjo-Tooie’. The sequel was very similar in style and gameplay, but the worlds were bigger, more challenging, and the game was less linear. I found it too frustrating. I kept getting disoriented and lost in the worlds – compared with Banjo-Kazooie, it was harder for me to get a handle on where things were.

I also kept encountering things I couldn’t do – you can’t rescue this Jinjo yet because you haven’t learned this move. You can’t open this door yet because… well, you can’t. You can’t do this because you need to go to another world first. I felt like I was constantly being blocked. The number of new moves I was supposed to remember was getting a bit excessive. And I’ve never much liked boss battles.

All of which mark me as not much of a gamer, I suppose, which is true enough. I tried to play Banjo-Tooie a couple of times – each time perservering for several hours – and never really enjoyed it. It’s worth saying, though, that this sequel was a big hit with fans and more people seem to consider this sequel the better game.

I, for one, would still recommend the original though.

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Taking the JLPT (reflections)

June 2, 2016

I wrote the following thoughts last year after taking the JLPT N1 test for the first time. Since writing it, I’ve gotten my results (pretty bad – well, terrible, actually – just under 25%, which, given that the entire test is multiple choice, is less than the law of probability should dictate if I had merely guessed all the answers at random. Ha ha ha.)

Since I’m constantly studying for one JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) level or another, I sometimes go onto message boards where fellow test takers post, to see how other people are doing and to get ideas. I really shouldn’t. Inevitably, there’s at least one person on the thread who says something like:

‘Yeah, going from no Japanese to passing N1 should be achievable in a year if you work hard enough! I did it.’

‘I have no problem with vocab because I got through a 3000-card vocab deck in a month. Just did a hundred new words a day, it was no problem.’

‘I finished ‘Remembering the Kanji’ in about three months, so I have a couple of thousand kanji behind me.’

‘In my opinion, the grammar section is always the easiest and is the one you should focus on first, because there aren’t that many expressions to learn, and if you really try you can master them in a couple of weeks.’

I don’t know if these people are all amazing savants, or if they don’t have jobs or other things that take up mental energy in their lives, but I always want to cry ‘how?! how can you do that?! I can’t do it!!’

I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonably decent learner, but I confess myself thoroughly outclassed… I spent a year going over and over the grammar, trying to commit it to memory, using flash cards, mnemonics, readings, repetition – and even then I’d say I only have a hazy idea of it all; I don’t know all the nuances of how expression x differs from y.

Learning vocab through Memrise

This year I decided to put heaps of effort into improving my vocab, because it has been a weakness that’s consistently let me down. In a year, I got through about 2500 words (half ‘N2 level’ ones I hadn’t learned before, half ‘N1 level’ ones). Every night I’d go through them. I’d frequently have 200+ cards to review each night, and often more. Why? Because I’d forget them. I’d confuse them. I’d forget them again. I’d make a typo. And so the same words would come up again and again and again. The more new words I tried to take on, the more I’d confuse the old ones. Eventually, I did succeed in remembering most of them, but it took a lot of effort – certainly I wasn’t ‘mastering’ 100 a day…

On this year’s N1 test, actually, quite a few of the vocab words were words I knew, or at least recognised. Several of them were words I’d correctly identified in Memrise five, ten, fifteen, twenty times. And yet I realise I got a lot of even these ‘familiar’ words wrong on the test. Either I made silly mistakes, or I didn’t realise such-and-such a word written in hiragana was the same as that word I’d memorised as a kanji word, or I knew the basic meaning but didn’t know how to properly use it in a sentence.

This is a good reminder to me that I need to read a lot more widely and get the reinforcement of interpreting these words I learn through Memrise. It’s no good just learning words in isolation. I may be able to regurgitate the correct answer when I see the familiar word description on Memrise, but that doesn’t mean I truly know the word.

I must say that I have seen improvement in my reading etc, even though I didn’t perform well on the test. I’ve been gradually reading my way through a Harry Potter book over several months, and I’ve noticed myself able to pick out more and more of the words I’ve learned through my flashcards. It’s really helpful. After all, passing a test is not the only (or most important) indicator of ‘success’ in language learning.

While learning the vocab has helped me with my reading, the reading has also helped me solidify some vocab. To give a specific example, I recently read the word ‘台無し’ in Harry Potter. I had learned this word through Memrise and knew the meaning was ‘spoil’. However, I somehow assumed it meant ‘spoil’ as in ‘spoil a child’, ‘indulge someone’. By reading it in context, though, I realised it meant more like ‘ruin’ and could be used for other things.

This year’s test

This year I took N1 for the first time. It took me three goes – three years – to beat N2, so I didn’t honestly expect to pass N1 on the first try; it is a difficult level that requires a lot of varied knowledge of Japanese.

I was still a bit disappointed with myself, though. I had done okay on some practice tests and dared to think I had a small chance of passing. However, at N2 and N1, the practice tests always seem to be a lot easier than the real test.

A few areas I was disappointed with:

After working on them over and over again, I’d finally committed all the N1 grammar expressions from my grammar book to memory. Yet it seemed like only about 10% of the grammar questions included any of those expressions at all. I felt the same about N2 (I pounded the grammar study and found many of the grammar questions covered other material), but at least with that one it was more like 50% of the grammar questions used unfamiliar expressions, rather than 90%!

After working a lot on my vocab and (by extension) kanji, I felt that I was in good stead for the kanji/vocab section for once. And indeed, a lot of the questions on there used words that I had encountered before. But as I mentioned, I just couldn’t seem to remember them clearly and I think I made a lot of mistakes.

I didn’t finish the reading – had to guess about 8 questions that I didn’t have time to even look at.

On the bright side, though, the listening section was actually not too bad. Not a great deal more difficult than N2’s listening, I thought. What’s far more important is that I came out of the whole test feeling a surge of motivation to study for next year. And that’s the whole point of JLPT for me. It encourages me to work harder and gives me specific things to learn, which helps me improve my Japanese.

JLPT N1 and N2 vs lower levels

When I did both the (original) level 3 test and the new N3 test, I felt that the actual test went well. I had done a number of practice tests before the real thing, and I found that each time, the real test was actually, a little easier than the practice tests had been.

I have found the opposite with N1 and N2. I’ve used a number of JLPT textbooks and practice tests, and I always do much better on that material than on the real test. The practice tests aren’t hard enough. It’s not only me who says this; a lot of others taking the tests seem to find the same thing. I think the problem is that practice tests usually draw from typical lists of N1 grammar etc – so if you’ve learned all that grammar, you can do them – whereas the real ones seem to draw from anywhere. Also, the higher the level, the more there is to draw from. You could just be unlucky. If you know 1990 kanji, and the test happens to cover 10 you don’t know, well, tough bikkies.

I’ve also, probably, found N1 and N2 harder because I haven’t been living in Japan while studying for them. It’s all been pure self study, with some conversation practice with a private tutor. That means I’m not getting that incidental study that happened when Japanese was all around me. It makes it all the more important to read more and listen more to Japanese things.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I’m still plugging away and I’ll probably take the test again because, ultimately, it’s good fun and satisfying to see myself slowly, slowly progress along the long road to fluency and literacy in a language I’ve always enjoyed.

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Book vs Movie: A Long Way Down

June 2, 2016

It’s been a while since I wrote a ‘Book vs Movie’ where I’ve been really down on the movie, but I have another one here in ‘A Long Way Down’, movie adapted from the Nick Hornby novel.

The novel is one of my favourite books and is very funny, sarcastic, cynical and engaging. It doesn’t go in for sentimentality, so when I saw ‘heart-warming’ written on the DVD, I was already pretty sure some changes were coming.

Cuts

Now, naturally, with any book – especially a book like this one, full of short scenes and loads of dialogue, including each character’s inner voice as they narrate – there’s no way to include all the scenes and dialogue, unchanged, in a movie version. Things need to be cut, modified and made more cinematic. Still, I think the biggest problem with this screenplay is it takes too many shortcuts. It tries to convince us of things it hasn’t really shown us. There are many examples of this; I’ll just choose three:

1. The scene where they all meet on the roof and have one ridiculous exchange after another, and get some idea of what the others are like, and the whole thing descends into farce – this is possibly the most important scene in the book, and it’s cut significantly. The characters barely interact at all; JJ only gets a couple of sentences out before the scene ends. The problem is, this scene (and the ones following it) is the one thing they all have in common and which supposedly sets up their relationship for the rest of the movie. Without it, they’re just a bunch of strangers.

2. The movie never really convinced me that any of these people wanted to kill themselves.  When we saw Maureen’s life, it was small, yes, but they focused mostly on her love for her son. Jess was messed up, yes, but far less than in the book. We are told that Martin experienced humiliation and disaster, but that could have been conveyed so much better if we’d actually seen a few scenes from his life – the way his ex-wife spoke to him, for instance, or him on his crappy cable channel show that nobody watched. We saw little of JJ’s life and sense of failure and frustration – in fact, we never really know why he’s unhappy.

3. Jess’ father is speaking to her and Martin, trying to work out what to do. He hardly says anything, she leaves, and then Martin tells him he didn’t handle things well. In the book, this scene goes on for a lot longer so we can actually see the conversation go wrong (although in the book, it’s Jess’ father himself who concludes he messed up; Martin, who, after all, barely knows him, is less critical). If the movie is going to remove all the part of the scene where the father mishandles the conversation, why still end the conversation saying he messed it up? This is a small and unimportant example, but there are lots of similar changes where bits and pieces are taken from scenes in the book but not quite tied together properly.

Random actions

A similar issue is that although most of the main events from the book take place in the movie, there’s less sense of why they take place.

For example, in the book, the fiasco with the angel and the media coverage happens because Jess sees a way to make a quick buck and ignores the others telling her not to do it. The others fall in out of a kind of grudging loyalty to her. This is in character for her and is just one of several impulsive, stupid things she does which the others have to deal with. In the movie, however, it’s Martin who suggests it – Martin, supposedly the responsible adult, who cares deeply about his public image and no need of the money – and then a couple of weeks later he is complaining about how he feels humiliated.

In the book, we hear what Maureen would wish for if she could wish for anything, and we learn how small her hopes are. She wishes she could travel somewhere; she never has. This leads to them going on a holiday together; the purpose was mostly to grant Maureen a respite and show how starved of new experiences her life was. (It also shows that the four group members actually don’t really get along very well.) In the movie, they have the scene where Martin asks the others what three wishes they’d have granted – and the only real reason for this scene would be to hear from Maureen, but they specifically DON’T have Maureen answer – and then they all go on holiday together for no reason.

Humour extraction

There were lots of lines changed to make them less funny. I won’t bore you with a whole list, but here’s just one example. Martin tries to explain why he slept with an underage girl.

In the book: ‘She told me she was eighteen. She looked eighteen.’ This is funny because as he says it, it’s such a weak justification, it shows Martin up perfectly for what he is. In the movie, he says he thought she was about 25. Okay, it works if you’re trying to establish Martin as less of a creep, but there’s no humour in it.

Characters

How about the choice of actors for the characters?

I like Toni Colette as an actress a lot, but by having her as Maureen… well, she seems younger, more with it, less conservative than Maureen – and a lot of the humour of Maureen’s character came from her being so different from the others. The things that made Maureen distinctive as a character were lost. That was one of the big attractions of the book – how four such completely different people could come together.

Pierce Brosnan was a big mistake, I think; possibly the biggest problem in the movie. I can believe Pierce playing a daytime TV host or a bit of a sleaze, but the problem is that Martin is the funniest character in the book, with an endless supply of sarcastic, world-weary responses to everything. The actor needs to be really good at comedic timing and at delivering a line in the right way to get laughs. Someone like Hugh Grant could do it (though he already played one of Nick Hornby’s sarcastic characters in About a Boy), or the main male actor from Philomena… Pierce Brosnan has some strengths as an actor but he’s really not very funny, and this once again takes away one of the best aspects of the book.

I wasn’t familiar with the actors for Jess or JJ before seeing this movie. JJ was a bit different physically from what I’d imagined (‘pale and skinny’, he describes himself, with long hair) but otherwise seemed to occupy the role pretty well, although once again, didn’t get nearly as much humour or funny lines as JJ in the book does.

Jess was probably the best of the four in terms of bringing her character to life. She wasn’t nearly as psycho and aggressive as in the book, but that seems to be a trend – making all four characters less distinctive, taking away their main quirks or flaws or issues. Still, she had an energy to her.

Conclusion

There were a lot of other changes. In a way, I actually liked it more when the movie completely diverged from the book. Having JJ’s love interest be a reporter, having a bit of romance between JJ and Jess, Maureen in the hospital, JJ on the roof, etc – this was all completely fabricated for the movie, and I actually liked it more, because instead of feeling annoyed at their failing to get scenes from the book right, I could watch to see what was going to happen next, which is more the feeling you want to have when watching something.

In conclusion though, I think the movie removed a lot of the elements that made the book so good – made the humour less funny, had more non sequiturs and irrational behaviour, made the characters  less distinctive – so yes, I was disappointed. ‘About a Boy’ and ‘High Fidelity’ were much better movies of Nick Hornby books.

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TV: Frontline

September 19, 2015

Frontline was a terrific Australian comedy series written and directed by those masters of Australian comedy, Santo Cilauro, Jane Kennedy, Rob Sitch and Tom Gleisner. It follows the workings of a television current affairs program, in their attempt to get the big stories, win the ratings and placate the egos of various on-air talent.

Frontline was filmed to look like a real ‘fly on the wall’ documentary – so that you feel you’re watching a real office in action. The people look like real people – nobody’s too made up or impeccable (unlike a lot of American shows where everyone feels slightly unreal).

Some of the main characters include:

Mike Moore, the presenter of the show. He’s quite good when he’s doing exactly what he’s told, but when he tries to think for himself, look out! Naive and ignorant, Mike has to be constantly ‘managed’ and manipulated by other characters, who try to keep him away from the real running of the show as much as possible.

Brian/Sam/Proussy, the executive producers (in different seasons of the show) are only focused on one thing – ratings. They’re good at what they do, but cynical and unscrupulous, ready to throw anyone under the bus so long as it gets them their numbers.

Emma, the producer, and the one who really makes things tick. Smart, quick-thinking and good with people, Emma has the skills to be executive producer herself – or even on air as a reporter – but she gets overlooked and seems to be stuck where she is. As one of the few morally grounded characters, she often protests the less ethical actions of her co-workers.

Marty, the male Frontline reporter, is often responsible for the more aggressive, ‘foot in the door’ journalism techniques. He’s also the most sarcastic person in the office, and Mike is a particular favourite target of his.

Brooke, as the female Frontline reporter, presents a softer, more feminine approach – on camera, at least. Off camera, she’s ruthless and bitchy – that is, unless she has some ulterior motive for being nice to you. She is, however, a capable reporter and quite unfazed by the moral grey areas she often has to step into.

The show is full of irony and hypocrisy:

  • While Frontline has an ongoing campaign vilifying a professor for publishing ‘racist’ data, Mike’s every comment constantly reveals him (Mike) to be ridiculously racist himself.
  • The news crew forcibly push their way into an old lady’s house while commiserating about the crook who had earlier invaded her house.
  • The EP scolds Emma for feeling sorry for a police officer who lost his job for drink driving because “you break the rules, you pay the price.” Later it’s revealed Brooke did the same thing but they’re covering up for her because “we all make mistakes”.
  • The crew, trying to interview someone and camping for hours outside their house, are pipped by a rival network – and so, resentfully, turn their footage into a castigation of the media invading the privacy of this poor family.

Characters are constantly doing morally shady things, but the fun part of the show is that they usually get their comeuppance. For example, in one episode, Brooke stands by the show’s decision to show footage of women in changing rooms (as part of a feature on shoplifting), smugly saying that those women forfeited their right to privacy when they broke the law. Later, a rival program gets footage of Brooke herself getting changed, and gleefully airs it, taking the same self-righteous tone as Brooke did when she presented her own piece.

Most of all, Frontline shows up the worst aspects of current affairs ‘journalism’; this is where, as a teenager watching this show, I first got a real understanding that the media could distort things and that not everything on TV could necessarily be taken at face value.

Everyone is unscrupulous.  In one example, the press mob a grieving widower who doesn’t want to speak to the media. He asks them to leave, and reporter Marty shows some genuine sympathy and agrees to leave him in peace – then sneakily films the man as he lets down his guard for a few seconds.

In another example, when they want to portray someone as shady and uncooperative, and the man unexpectedly welcomes the crew into his house to answer their questions – which is not what they wanted, or expected, at all. So in the film editing room, they run the film in reverse – so it looks like the man is shutting the door on them – and make it look like he has something to hide.

In a third case, a priest who has been accused of sexual assault agrees to be interviewed (after Frontline persuade him by convincing him that they really want to make sure they represent him fairly). When the priest unhesitatingly states that he didn’t assault the girl, they edit the footage to give him a long pause before he says he didn’t do it – so that his denial will sound more suspect.

One other example is when they are running pieces on a girl who was lost in the desert and then found. They have been steadily focusing on what a wonderful person she is. Then, after a rival network steals the story and they are looking for another angle, they decide to turn on her instead. If they raise suspicions about just how this girl survived in the desert so long, they could make her into a villain rather than a hero – perfect!

This kind of shonky practice, all in the name of ratings, is par for the course at Frontline.

Through all this, the only member of the team who really sticks up for fairness and decency is Emma, the show’s producer and voice of reason. Emma is pretty much always right – and every time they ignore her, they may get good ratings but end up in hot water – but is rarely heeded.

I’ve just been reading through the scripts for seasons 1 and 2, and watching my way through season 3 again. I think I slightly prefer reading to watching, because Mike can get annoying in large doses (he’s a great character but quite insufferable!). All in all, it’s one of the more cleverly written shows I’ve seen, and although it’s quite old now, you can still get it on DVD.

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Books: The Count of Monte Cristo

August 23, 2015

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas, is the famous classic of a good young man, Dantes, who is wrongfully accused by his enemies and imprisoned without a fair trial. Naturally, the thoughts of the young man, living all alone in his wretched dark cell, turn to revenge against those who sent him there…

I finally read this rather fat tome – a modern Penguin translation which is literally twice the size of the original translation I’d unwittingly bought, not realising that earlier edition was heavily edited and abridged. I think the abridged version gets through the action more quickly, but naturally it doesn’t do so well at building reader suspense and interest by giving you that extra insight into character motivations, personalities, etc.

(Spoilers for first part of book ahead.)

The first quarter of this book focuses on the plot against Dantes, and then the poor man’s experiences in prison – the long years spent waiting for a chance at freedom. While in prison, he learns a great deal from a fellow prisoner – knowledge which will empower him later in the story – and in particular gains knowledge of a fabulous fortune hidden on a rock in the sea, Monte Cristo.

Once Dantes is free, he immediately sets about recovering this treasure. With the prodigious wealth he now has, he has the power to track down former friends and enemies to reward or punish them. But his punishment is sophisticated and his traps long and well laid. Each of the treacherous men responsible for his imprisonment has Achille’s heels and other crimes in their own pasts… and the newly named Count of Monte Cristo proves himself remarkably good at finding out about other people’s skeletons in closets…

This book is sometimes described as a ‘children’s book’, but isn’t really (nor was it, apparently, originally intended as one). There is a great deal about fashionable society life (which younger children would be unlikely to find interesting), not to mention slow building of intrigues and webs of relationships, violence, affairs, quite a lot about the general misery of life, etc…

If it were considered a children’s book, you can see why in the fate of the Count himself. The prison break, the discovery of a fabulous fortune, the transformation into a near god. To go from a simple sailor to prisoner, wretched and destitute, to one of the wealthiest and most brilliant men in the world, pouring out millions left and right, always in command of every situation, able to do whatever he wishes, knowing everything about everything (and everyone) – it’s all quite fantastical.

(Lots more spoilers from now…)

Melodrama and death

Another point in favour of its being a children’s book is the melodrama; ie, how vividly most characters act out their emotions. Every character takes every misfortune very strongly to heart. No doubt, the characters all suffer heavy blows – great financial loss, the public humiliation/dishonouring of themselves or family members, deaths of family members. But they all respond to them by wallowing, fleeing overseas, loud dramatic wails, despairing monologues, fainting (especially the women), and by embracing death.

This last one really stood out to me, because it’s a recurring theme: if something goes wrong, life is no longer worth living.

Examples include:

-Dantes’ father, who refuses all care and food in his despair over his son, effectively killing himself

-Fernand (admittedly, he had good reason)

-Mercedes, who suggests, the last time we see her, that she will not linger much longer before dying, alone and sorrowful (but why? I can see that she’d be very upset over all that has happened, but she has Dantes’ forgiveness, enough to live on, a loving son who will ultimately look after her…)

-Morrel, who immediately wants to die once Valentine is dead, despite having a number of friends and family members whom he loves and who love him

-the Count himself, near the end of the story, and then Haydee, who doesn’t want to live without him because she loves him

And numerous other characters who at some point speak or think of death as a way out of their dilemmas.

This fatalism (failure/loss = no future) keeps cropping up despite the fact that a lot of the key characters in this story have, in the past, through their own hard work (and ruthlessness) transformed their own fortunes before. The Count has gone from imprisonment and destitution to wealth and power. Danglars and Fernand both went from being fairly poor non-entities to becoming men of prestige. Caderousse had good fortune drop into his lap several times, including when he was at his poorest and most despairing. And numerous characters have met new friends, new loves, etc. In short, the characters’ own histories prove that one’s present despair isn’t necessarily permanent and irrevocable. Where there’s life, there’s hope, right? The Count almost says this at the very end of the novel, and certainly all characters in this book could benefit from that perspective.

I suppose there is one difference: in the matter of shame. Before, they were poor but their names were clear; there was no obstacle to prevent their rising… Once shamed, though, they seem to feel they can never recover. I suppose the rich and influential all move in the same circles, and once cast out, they’d be rejected by former friends and associates with long memories…

I guess some of this despair is due to the melodramatic tone of the book, and some to the cultural attitudes of the day. One recurring attitude is that shame is worse than death, and shame can never be overcome. For example, all characters take it as a matter of course that any offended gentleman has the right – nay, the obligation – to duel and thus kill or be killed. A man who didn’t do this would be considered a coward. It is far better to murder (though killing in a duel is not considered ‘murder’) than take an insult. Clearly, shame and honour were powerful social forces.

Speaking of which, some character actions are rather over-the-top. One of the most ridiculous wrong-headed over-reactions (to this modern reader’s mind) was Albert’s response to his father’s public condemnation. Basically, his father committed a terrible crime, betraying someone who had trusted him and causing the deaths of a number of people. This fact was first hinted at by a newspaper, then widely publicised thanks to the efforts of the Count. Instead of Albert being horrified at the extent of his father’s crime and its effects on poor innocent people, he rushes out to insult and challenge his former friends to duels. He really wants to kill his newspaper editor friend, and then, the Count. Shouldn’t he, rather, be upset with his father?

Part of the rationale for his anger is that it’s none of the Count’s business; if his father Fernand *did* betray and kill people, why should the Count take it on himself to publicly disgrace him that way? Firstly, his father brought it on himself; the Count was not ‘disgracing’ him; Fernand had already disgraced himself with his vile conduct. Secondly, even without knowing about the Count’s past with Fernand, it’s clear that it *is* the Count’s business – the man Fernand betrayed was the father of the Count’s adopted ‘daughter’. Shouldn’t he care about her well-being? Why are the feelings of a murdered girl, who suffered, became a slave and faced exile thanks to Albert’s father, so much less important than Albert’s own wounded pride?

Another ridiculous series of actions came from the Villeforts. Surely, Madame Villefort, if you kill off four family members – all previously healthy – within a few weeks, you must expect people to realise something is suspicious. You should also, naturally, expect your husband to be unhappy about this. Finally, Villefort does find out, and rather than have her go to the scaffold, he would have her poison herself – so as not to shame the name of Villefort. How does that work? Wouldn’t it be better for him to denounce her, so that at least blame would fall on her and not on himself? Surely if *five* family members all died and Villefort alone was left alive, everyone would suspect him? Isn’t there a bit of shame attendant on having five people mysteriously die within a month??

Then, Madame Villefort kills herself and the beloved son. Now, note that this son is the reason she killed all those people. She would do anything for this boy; she killed four people just to get more money for her son (not that he was destitute in any case). Would someone take such desperate measures against someone she loved so much? Her final message was that she wanted him to be with his mother. Surely she would realise that Villefort also loved his son and would take care of her if she could not. Why deny the little brat a chance at life? Did you just want to get square with Villefort for making you kill yourself? Or were you just crazy from your own imminent doom and really did want him to ‘stay with you’?

Other thoughts

On the whole, I enjoyed this story. I think I liked it at its best in the first quarter – the drama kept moving steadily at that point, with several sympathetic characters. I liked the character of Dantes, an upright and innocent man. Although he suffered a terrible fate, he had moments of hope and help while a prisoner, which stopped the reading being too grim.

Later, when he become Monte Cristo, he became a far more enigmatic, ruthless, competent – and less likeable character. It’s natural that Dantes would want to equip himself to take down his enemies – learning about poisons, training himself in fighting, looking into the lives and histories of the men he wanted to destroy – but his excessive level of competence and learning in every single area made him less convincing as a person. Clearly he was more of a legend than a ‘human’ and that was the point; he was such an item of mystery to all those around him. It’s understandable, though, that his experiences would have brought darkness over his life and character.

It was good once he spoke to Mercedes and the two acknowledged each other. This was the first time Monte Cristo revealed himself once more as a real person; he was moved; he could have his mind changed; he showed self-doubt. This made him a more interesting character in the end. He really thought of himself as an agent of God’s judgment, but even he learned to somewhat question himself.

Once the story changed to focus on Monte Cristo rather than Dantes, it took a while to get going again – lots of introduction of new characters, all with various positions in Parisian society – and intrigues gradually being revealed. Over time, we started to see how different characters fit into the overall narrative. It was fitting that every one of the men brought down by Cristo was really brought down by his own sins; in some cases, Cristo just had to bring a few elements together – a hint, a new acquaintance, a message to the newspaper – and watched the events play out.

I tried to consider which of the four men who destroyed Dantes’ life most deserved their punishment. Of these pretty ghastly people, who was most culpable? I lean toward Danglars. He originated the idea and got the others together; none of it would have happened if not for him. Also, unlike Fernand (who loved Mercedes) and Villefort (who was protecting his father), Danglars had no motivations or considerations of love; his emnity was purely about getting gain for himself and bringing down someone he envied, just because he hated him. Caderousse was an accomplice and should have helped save Dantes, but was not really responsible in the same way the others were – he was just a nasty, weak, greedy man.

So, did Danglars get the worst punishment? Not exactly, but I think he was punished very fittingly – taking away all the stature and wealth he’d sold his soul for – and having to experience a bit of imprisonment and fear of his own.

I think that on the whole, if I were to compare this with the other ‘big fat classic novel by a French writer’ I’ve read, Les Miserables, I probably slightly preferred Les Mis – the action and characters kept me firmly glued to find out what would happen next; there were more engaging protagonists. However, Les Mis did have a lot of filler and random unimportant chapters to skip over. The Count of Monte Cristo, while long, introduced everything for a purpose; while a few bits were a bit slow, none of it felt pointless. Some parts do start to feel a bit repetitive though, like everyone’s dramatic moaning and crying and falling into despair.

In conclusion – just personally, I liked it, didn’t *love* it.

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