Sunday, 30 November 2014

Thanksgiving: The Most and Least American of Holidays

In the years I lived in Britain, Thanksgiving became one of my favorite holidays. For one thing, I liked the idea of a break from work at the end of November, which we didn't get in the UK - public holidays there are set in such a way that between the end of August and Christmas, there are no days off at all. But it also struck me as the perfect way, along with Halloween, to delay the ever-earlier onset of Christmas decorations: here in the US, it's rare to see Christmas decorations before the first of November.

In the UK, by contrast, restaurants start taking bookings for office Christmas parties in August - no joke. One year Travelodge's ads on the Tube claimed that "it's never too early to book" for Christmas parties, which is a tacit admission that, yes, in fact, it was too early.

Sasha and Malia totally saw through that one, Travelodge

Eventually I also started to appreciate the fact that it's not really a consumer-driven or religious holiday (although there are some religious underpinnings to the first Thanksgiving, of course). Sure, you buy a turkey and all the food, but there's no pressure to buy presents or candy, and the point is to get together with your family and give thanks for what you have. I used to joke (on the square) that they should introduce Thanksgiving in the UK, both because it's easy to transport and because it would give a much-needed long weekend in the fall.

So I was rather excited to have my first Thanksgiving back at home in ten years. It wasn't a big family affair, because my sisters and dad were living in Europe, but my mom and step-dad laid out a nice spread for me, which we did ample justice to on Thursday. As is traditional, we also left loads of leftovers, which I've been chipping away at since.

Me after four days of Thanksgiving leftovers

But it was the day after, when I went for a walk to a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, that I got a sense of what the holiday means to Americans. At the start of the weekend I read an article that references Philip Roth and his description of Thanksgiving as the day when everyone eats the same thing as everyone else. 

I'd never thought of it that way, but that is, in fact, what makes Thanksgiving special among other holidays - Christmas and Easter reference one specific religion, even if everyone else has started celebrating them to a certain degree, while Halloween and even New Years Eve are open to being celebrated however you want. The only days that come close to offering the same sort of togetherness are Independence Day and Labor Day, which mark the only other occasion when Americans are pretty much all doing the same thing and the majority of people aren't working (a great many holidays here are optional for employers to give, which stinks, even though my company's given me all of them).

In any case, as I walked to Peet's Coffee, I saw a bunch of other people walking over, alone or in groups, with that same relaxed attitude that I was feeling. I knew that everybody I saw was recovering from their own Thanksgiving meal the day before, and now they were settling in for the rest of the long weekend.

It's easy to say that Thanksgiving is typically American, but I don't think it is. America is such a big, heterogeneous and fractious country that it's very hard to feel any connection to the people around you, whether coworkers or neighbors. As that article I read that mentioned Philip Roth said, your neighbor could be a fugitive from the law, or a cannibal, and the first you'd know about it is the police showing up on your street one day.

Britain, on the other hand, is small and crowded and homogeneous. London may be one of the most diverse cities in the world, but even there everything is set up as if its only inhabitants were white, Anglo-Saxon and Anglican. Christmas is the same kind of meal as Thanksgiving, with a roast turkey (or goose, if you want to be Dickensian) and a set of rituals that everybody partakes in: pulling crackers, drinking too much, listening to the Queen's Speech.

But this togetherness permeates everything that the British do - everybody shops at the same places (in part because Britain is the land of retail chains, but still), they watch the same TV and every couple of years pretty much everybody gets together to fulminate against another inept display by England's national team - whether in football, rugby or cricket, or even just to complain about the airtime sporting events seem to command (as if the World Cup were crowding out vibrant British TV, but again, I digress).

I'm being a little reductive, of course. People in London do lead different day-to-day lives than people in Northern England, and the different social classes have their own sets of rituals. But I do believe there are more constants in British life than in American life, which is why Roth's quote is so striking. Your family may do Thanksgiving differently than mine (my senior year in high school we ordered it from a restaurant, and hung out in the jacuzzi as we waited for the delivery), but the important thing is that we all do it, and that it's one of the few things that we, as a country, choose to have in common.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ignore the Naysayers: Wayne Rooney is one of the Greats

Wayne Rooney won his 100th cap for England last week, in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia. I didn't see the match, but by all accounts it was a pretty dire display by England, starting with an own-goal from Jordan Henderson and only being salvaged by England waking up in the second half and finally playing like they were expected to. Rooney helped in this turnaround, by winning a penalty, which he then converted - this led to a fightback and England won 3-1.

What's interesting is that on the eve of the game, the BBC posted an analysis piece asking whether Rooney could be considered a "great", as he was also steadily climbing up the list of England's top scorers ever. He went into the Slovenia game with 43 goals, putting him fourth on the list. By the end of the friendly against Scotland at Celtic Park a few days later, Rooney had moved up to third, with 46 goals, putting him two goals behind Gary Lineker and three behind all-time leader Bobby Charlton.

The thrust of Phil McNulty's piece was, in fact, to look at whether or not Rooney had fulfilled his potential from his debut in 2003. There were a number of comments from the likes of Danny Mills, pointing out that Rooney's been playing at the top of English football for over a decade; and from Alan Shearer, who suggested that Rooney isn't in the same class as Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

But if you think about it, what makes those two players great? When people debate whether Rooney's a "great" player or not, the implication is that he hasn't helped England win any trophies. Lineker may have led England to its first semi-finals since 1966, and Jimmy Greaves may have the better goals-per-games ratio (44 in 57 games), but Bobby Charlton remains at the top because he's one of the heroes of 1966.

But, like Rooney, neither Ronaldo nor Messi has won a World Cup. Ronaldo's never led Portugal to victory at the European Championships, and Messi's Argentina has never won a senior tournament (although he was on the winning U20 and Olympic teams).

Admittedly, Rooney isn't quite up there with Ronaldo or Messi in terms of Champions League goals, or European honors. He does also trail both in terms of career goals at club level, and his Wikipedia page lacks a section detailing all the records he's broken, whereas Ronaldo and Messi's pages have long lists of records, many of which they share, such as scoring against all teams in their league or getting to 25 goals.

I'm not denying both are great players, but I'd just like to note that they each play for the only teams in Spain that are credible title contenders each year - it's easy to look world-class when your competition is leagues behind you. English football is slightly more competitive, as the top three or four teams have changed several times in the last decade (anybody else remember when Newcastle was considered a top- four club?).

I guess my point is, it's harsh to say that Rooney's not a "great" player just because he isn't as good as the two guys who win the FIFA Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year awards every year. He's not a prolific goalscorer, but he gets enough to help Manchester United challenge for the title (most seasons - although if United's poor form continues I wouldn't be surprised to see him pitch up at Chelsea or even Manchester City).

And I think Mills is right when he says that Rooney's been playing at the top of English football for over a decade. Rooney's not even 30 yet, remember, so he has a few years to go before he hits the decline that's currently plaguing his England teammate Steven Gerrard. It's likely, barring injury, that Rooney will also play in the 2018 World Cup, although I think it's fair to say that his last tournament in his prime will be 2016.

Rooney will probably never lift an international trophy (and neither will Ronaldo; Messi could still win a Copa America or something with Argentina). But he will surpass Bobby Charlton as England's top scorer ever, and his record will probably stand for a good long while. That strikes me as enough to seal Wayne Rooney's reputation forever.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Last night I caught Interstellar, Christopher Nolan's latest movie. It's been a pretty dispiriting year for me at the cinema, if I'm honest - 22 Jump Street is a pretty awful date movie, I've discovered - so it was nice to see something that had a sense of grandeur about it, and that wasn't based on a comic book.

I have a lot of time for Christopher Nolan, although I do think his output is variable. I loved The Dark Knight, for example, and thought Batman Begins was agreeable enough, if not the second coming of Batman that the reviews would have had us believe at the time. On the other hand, The Dark Knight Rises was gibberish, and Inception just annoys me the more I think about it, although that fight scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's walking on the walls and ceiling is ridiculously good.

So I'm pleased to report that Interstellar feels more like The Dark Knight than The Dark Knight Rises. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, for reasons I'll outline below. But first:

He's back!

Interstellar is just the next step in Matthew McConaughey's career evolution, playing pilot-turned-farmer eking out his existence with his kids and his father-in-law on a slowly dying Earth. Something impels him to go looking for a specific set of coordinates, by which means he unearths NASA and its plot to rescue humanity by finding a new planet to live on. Unfortunately, relativity being what it is, decades will pass back on Earth, while he experiences only a few weeks. These relativity effects are only intensified by the presence of a black hole near two of the candidate planets, and there are further complications when Matt Damon tries to kill everybody. In the end McConaughey goes into the black hole, where it's revealed that he's the one who gave himself those coordinates by manipulating 5-dimensional space. He survives to be reunited with his daughter, 100 years after they last saw one another, and then goes to forge humanity's destiny with Anne Hathaway on the final candidate world.

It owes a lot, as you can imagine, to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are some amazing shots of the astronauts' space habitat crossing Saturn's rings, or surfing the edge of the black hole's event horizon, that really hint at the vastness of space. There's even a psychedelic sequence where they travel through the wormhole to reach the planets - I wouldn't have been surprised to see a shot of McConaughey's pupils dilating, but thankfully Nolan forbore.

But it also does a good job of showing contrasting that vastness with the claustrophobia of an Earth that's edging ever closer to collapse. Instead of the wide shots in space, which typically have the ship or habitat as a little white dot in the bottom third of the screen, for the Earth-bound action Nolan sticks with tight shots - whether on an actor (for instance Jessica Chastain as McConaughey's daughter, who joins NASA) or on the wheels of McConaughey's truck as he drives away from home for the last time.

One good thing about Inception was the inventiveness of its visuals, from the way dream-Paris folded in on itself, to the above-mentioned fight scene, and Interstellar was another opportunity for Nolan to show off. The space shots I mentioned above were breathtaking, but so was the first planet the astronauts visited, a world covered by a few inches of ocean and plagued by enormous tidal waves caused by its proximity to the black hole. You get a hint of the waves' size when they first land, but almost before they know it the water's towering over them, and it was stunning, as was their fight to survive the second wave and get the hell off the planet.

The other nice effect is on the second planet, where they meet Killer Matt Damon. It's an ice planet, and as they come down they break the tip off a cloud that looks like what we'd get here, but is frozen solid.

I had very few quibbles with the plot in general (which has, unfortunately, become kind of rare for me), but I did object a little bit to the business inside the black hole, where McConaughey's floating around inside the backs of his daughter's bookshelves, communicating with her and his past self. That, and the fact that his sentient robot TARS also survived to explain what was happening, felt a little too deus ex machina. Or, to put it in terms the modern nerd would appreciate, "timey-wimey".

Possibly Nolan and his brother wrote themselves into a corner with all the black hole stuff. Also, it cut short a movie that was pretty intensely long - like the Dark Knight, it's hard to think what you'd cut to slim it down, but I was feeling the need for a breather after all that raw emotion of the previous two hours.

There was also Killer Matt Damon's bobby-trapped robot, which makes no sense in the context of a guy who expected never to see another human or get off the planet again. But sci-fi movies evidently have to have explosions, so there we go (and it killed the black guy, although thankfully, he was the second crewmember to die).

But apart from those two points, the movie was very satisfying, both emotionally and in terms of plot. McConaughey gets to see his daughter again, if briefly - because she's now over 100 years old - and the final shot, of Anne Hathaway returning to the colony she will share with McConaughey, gave me goosebumps.

Also, Nolan made excellent use of TARS, the wise-cracking robot. It was built to look like one of the black monoliths from 2001, but with points of articulation and displays. The effects where TARS rolled across the landscape or reclined to act as an HUD for the astronauts were well-done, and I liked that TARS didn't go crazy and try to kill the humans (although it did joke about human slaves for its colony, which was a nice touch).

So my verdict is: more of this, please. Interstellar is science fiction that, at least for the movies, doesn't stint on the science, but also doesn't forget that the action is driven by the characters. I'd be proud to have a movie like this on my resume.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

DC's killing it on TV, if not in comics

Despite my blog post a few weeks ago asking where all the good comics have gone, I have recently found myself consuming a lot of superhero-based TV. I mentioned at the time that the offerings were pretty hit-or-miss, and they are, but I'm starting to see the balance shift toward the positives rather than the negatives.

The main bright spot for me is the Flash, on the CW. The Flash has always been one of my favorite characters (ie, I've always wanted super-speed), and if this current incarnation has all the trappings of the CW, in the form of a ridiculously young and photogenic cast, it also reminds me of the Flash comics I used to read in high school, specifically from the years that Mark Waid was writing it. I can think of no higher compliment for a comics adaptation.

Specifically, when Waid wrote the character, there was a nice balance of the fantastic with the mundane, as we saw Wally West (who'd taken over from Barry Allen, but the distinction doesn't truly matter, does it?) balancing his superhero life with his personal life. A big part of Waid's run dealt with Wally living up to Barry's legacy, but he also did a good job of fleshing out the world around Wally, including the city he lived in and all the other heroes he interacted with regularly.

That's probably not a coincidence, as one of the people who developed the show is Geoff Johns, the writer who took over the comic after Mark Waid left. I never read Johns's run, but I know he doubled down on developing the setting, including turning Central City into a working-class, industrial city.

With Johns as one of the people guiding the ship, they've put together a nice ensemble cast (and much quicker than happened on Arrow), and there are enough nods to the comics to keep me curious about how they'll deal with characters like the Reverse Flash and other members of the Rogues Gallery.

Arrow's another one that I've grown to appreciate more as it's gone on - it frequently feels a lot sillier than the Flash, in a bad way, but like its spinoff, it's done a nice job of presenting minor characters from the comics as a way to keep the readers interested (for example, the most recent episode I saw featured a boxer named Ted Grant, who was, of course, also the superhero named the Wildcat).

Another one I've enjoyed so far was Constantine, which - at least in its first episode - does a good job of capturing the feel of the early Hellblazer comics written by Jamie Delano. John Constantine is probably the ideal character for a TV show, especially now that you can show a lot more gore than you could in the past, and I think that drawing on those early issues is a good choice by the TV show's creators.

I've been a little less impressed with Gotham, though. I was actually pretty excited by the idea of a pre-Batman police procedural, but I feel like the continuity actually weighs the story down in this case (I've gotten through the first four episodes, but have now given up). We've been shown a bunch of characters from the comics and the movies, but the fact that ten-year-old Bruce Wayne is present in every episode shows how long we have to go before we get to the good stuff.

I can't help thinking that they should have set it about a decade later, to just before Batman showed up. That was one of the strengths of what I saw of Smallville: we weren't actually that far off from the known history shown in the comics, but there was just enough progression each episode that you could see Clark Kent developing into Superman. There's no such feeling of forward motion in Gotham.

All of the shows referenced above are based on DC characters, which I find kind of funny. Marvel's done a better job transferring its characters to the movies, while DC's movies have mostly been disappointing (except for the Dark Knight, of course). On TV, by contrast, I stuck with Agents of SHIELD throughout most of the first season, but even the reveal about Ward and all the fallout from Captain America 2 couldn't persuade me to catch the season finale.

Thinking about it, I have a feeling that's because Agents of SHIELD draws on either much older or much newer material than I'm familiar with, whereas the DC shows seem to be referencing a lot more from when I read those comics. My favorite DC era being the late 80s, I was really excited to see the Suicide Squad pop up on Arrow last season, for instance.

In any case, I'm feeling a little more positive now than when I wrote my previous post, although my initial complaint still stands, in part because DC recently announced yet another giant crossover, called Convergence. I think they should just rename it "Constant Crisis", run it in place of all their comics, and just have done with it. At the very least, the TV properties aren't doing the same - yet.