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    1. A review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'By Jeeves'

      Warning: this post may contain spoilers

      I watched the streamed version of 'By Jeeves' today. I have thoughts that I want to express.

      There’s a saying in show business: “If you have a good strong finish, they'll forgive anything.” (Well, maybe it’s only Rose in ‘Gypsy’ who says that, but it has wider applications.) This show was the opposite of that. I was going along with the badness of the adaptation, the absurdity of the plot, the silliness of the narrative framework, and the falseness of the characters – and then the ending came along and trumped everything else with its awfulness.

      For starters, the narrative framework was silly. Bertie Wooster is due to give a banjo recital at a local hall, but the banjo goes missing, so his valet Jeeves convinces Bertie to entertain the audience with a reminiscence. But rather than commit wholeheartedly to the story, Bertie and Jeeves keep popping out of it with references to bad props and lighting and music. At the times when the plot went along as normal, it was quite an enjoyable play, for what it was. Then Jeeves would appear with a car built from a sofa and some cardboard boxes, or a ladder going to nowhere, or a pig mask (more about that later), and destroy the mood. I wish the writer Alan Ayckbourn had committed to the plot, rather than framing it in this way. It felt silly. It set the wrong tone. P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories are comedies of manners, not farces (although they often contain farcical elements). The comedy is subtle, not broad.

      On the matter of tone, I noticed a distinct lack of the 30s slang which gave the original stories their flavour. Bertie spoke generic upper-class English in this play, rather than the lingo of his time and his culture.

      With regard to the story, I’m not sure where this plot came from. I don’t pretend to have read all the Jeeves and Wooster stories, but I do have the book that the setting for this play comes from: ‘The Code of the Woosters’. The backdrop of Totleigh Towers and most of the characters in the play come from this novel. But the plot is nothing like the book. It has elements that are reminiscent of Wodehouse’s stories, such as characters pretending to be each other (which was too over-the-top in this play), and Bertie having to steal something to create a diversion, but the plot itself is an invention of Ayckbourn’s (I assume).

      The scene near the end of the play with the whole household running around chasing a man in a pig mask, while singing about hunting and implying that they think it’s a real pig, was jarring. The pig mask came from the framing narrative, where Bertie’s trying to give a banjo recital but has to tell a story instead. Jeeves is stage-managing the story-telling, and produces a pig mask that he found in the back of the theatre for Bertie to wear when he acts out breaking into Totleigh Towers and pretending to steal a bag of swag because… who cares. He wears the mask as a prop to tell the story. But, in the story that Bertie is telling, the other people see a man wearing a pig mask, and start talking about a chauvinist pig, a real pig, and hunting wild boar. If the pig mask came from the theatre, then it wasn’t used in the original fake burglary, so the people wouldn’t have seen a man wearing a mask, so they wouldn’t have been singing “It’s a Pig!”

      I get the feeling that Alan Ayckbourn didn’t really understand the source material, and wrote his own play, using some names from the original stories.

      As evidence of this, Bertie Wooster himself was wrong. He was far too competent and intelligent. Situations kept happening to him, rather than being caused by him. He’s not supposed to be a sensible man surrounded by useless people; he’s supposed to be one of those useless people, but lacking the self-awareness to see himself as such. He’s supposed to be just as useless as his friends Gussie Fink-Nottle and Bingo Little. But he didn’t feel like that in this play. (I also wonder if the actor playing him wasn’t a bit too old for the role. Bertie seems like a man in his mid-20s to early 30s, whereas the actor seemed about a decade older than this.) I may be influenced by the fact that I’ve recently started re-watching the ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ television series: I think Hugh Laurie [actor] and Clive Exton [writer] had a great take on the character of Bertie, while this play missed it entirely.

      Other wrong moments in the play include the song “Half a Moment” which was far too romantic and sincere for this play, and the song “It’s a Pig!” which added a tone of absurdity (as mentioned before). And the song “What Have You Got To Say, Jeeves” was totally misjudged. Bertie turns on Jeeves, and accuses him of incompetence. That’s out of character for Bertie; he always knew that Jeeves was the smart one.

      Ah, Jeeves. Poor Jeeves. He might be the title character in this play, but it doesn’t do him justice.

      For one thing, where are his sartorial judgements? A running joke in the stories is that Bertie wants to wear a particular item of clothing, Jeeves advises against it, and Bertie wears it anyway. After the action is over, and Jeeves saves the day, Bertie stops wearing the item. It’s an indirect way of him acknowledging Jeeves’ intelligence and apologising to Jeeves for not paying attention to his advice. That never got a mention in this play.

      Then we get to the ending. The denouement was wrong. So very very wrong.

      In the stories, Jeeves is subtle, even Machiavellian, in his manoeuvres. He solves problems by manipulating things and people quietly behind the scenes. He gets a letter delivered to the wrong person. He distracts someone with a new romantic interest. He plays on people’s character weaknesses. In this play, he spins a prop fountain to move Cyrus Budge into Bertie’s position. Not only does he break the fourth wall to implement his solution (in the story that Bertie is acting out, the fountain would have been real and not able to be spun), but that solution is very uncharacteristic of Jeeves.

      And that’s just the beginning of the bad ending. Suddenly, all three sets of star-crossed lovers couple up, without any resolution. They just... get together. They literally run across stage into each others' arms.

      And then… and then…

      … the replacement banjo arrives and the play goes totally off the rails.

      I have a feeling that Ayckbourn and Lloyd Webber thought they were creating the proverbial good strong finish, after which audiences would forgive them for butchering the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Instead, they were jumping up and down on the corpse of those stories.

      Jeeves gives Bertie a silent banjo and tricks him into thinking it’s playing music that everyone else can hear. Then Jeeves suggests a full chorus accompany Bertie – at which point the entire cast comes on stage wearing costumes from 'The Wizard of Oz'!

      This is just further evidence that Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber never really understood the nature of the material they were adapting. They put cheap laughs into a play that’s supposed to be a subtle satire on the wastrel upper class of the 1930s. Like I said before, the Jeeves and Wooster stories are a comedy of manners, rather than an open comedy. They’re subtle comedy, rather than broad comedy. You don’t laugh at a Wodehouse story, you smirk knowingly - or, at most, you chuckle quietly. And I don’t think the writers got that at all. They wrote this play to get laughs, rather than smirks.

      Also, the use of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is anachronistic. The Jeeves and Wooster stories are set firmly in the milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. In the framing narrative, everyone in the hall listening to Bertie is dressed in the fashions of the 1930s. However, the ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie wasn’t released until 1939. Yes, the books were published 30-40 years earlier, but the costumes used in this play are from the movie versions of the Oz characters. As the most obvious example, one person comes out dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, complete with green make-up on her face, but the Wicked Witch did not have green skin in the orginal book: that only came from the movie.

      The ending is a shambolic climax to a play that didn’t know where it was going to begin with.

      Two minor notes to finish up with:

      • Someone needed to tell the actor playing Cyrus Budge how to pronounce his dialogue. It’s “stomach UPset”, not “stomach upSET” (that is, “upset” used as a noun, not an adjective). And “incandescence” might originally have been a French word, but it’s not pronounced in the French style.

      • It was a joy to see the actor who plays Paula in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ as Honoria Glossop in this. She managed to upstage Bertie in the one scene she had with him, and it was a delight to watch.

      6 votes
    2. Movie Monday Free Talk

      Warning: this post may contain spoilers

      We haven't had one of these in a while, and given the amount of time people are spending indoors, I figured it might be good to share some movie recommendations.

      I will post my own comment regarding some movies I've seen recently, but I wanted to also share some quarantine / pandemic movies that might be interesting given the strange times we find ourselves in. Warning: they are probably not a great way to take your mind off things, if that's what you are searching for, hence why I'm separating them from my other comment.

      • Contagion (2011) - Probably one of the more relevant movies, and certainly on people's minds. It's an interesting worst case what-if scenario, and actually tackles some of the political struggle with organizing around a pandemic.
      • Perfect Sense (2011) - Overshadowed by Contagion, which is arguably the better movie, but I liked the premise of this one: a disease that slowly takes away your 5 senses, one at a time. I didn't like the ending, but for a thought experiment it captured my attention. It threw in a love plot line which may or may not have been necessary when the reaction was more interesting, but it does help provide a ground floor experience of a more terrifying epidemic.
      • It's a Disaster (2012) - I have somehow managed to miss watching this movie, despite it being on my watch list for some time. A comedy, which may come in use in this trying time, it centers around a group of friends who invariably become part of a self-quarantine at their house.
      • Rear Window (1954) - A Hitchcock classic. Jimmy Stewart is confined to his NYC apartment due to a leg injury, and has all the time in the world to spy on his neighbors, where he becomes obsessive over a potential domestic dispute between a couple across the way.
      • The Lighthouse (2019) - Superb acting by Willem Dafoe. Two men, a seaman fresh to the trade and a seasoned veteran, are servicing the sole lighthouse on a tiny island as part of a contract. They are forced to stay longer than either imagined due to a storm passing through them. They get at their wits end with each other and their sanity slowly falls apart. Beautifully shot in black and white and with authentic vernacular, it really transports you to a different time period.
      5 votes
    3. Cellphone review: Umidigi F2

      I was recently in the market for a cheap used phone. I was looking for an Android device, preferably less than 3 years old, preferably with an unlockable bootloader and rootable, for $200 or less....

      I was recently in the market for a cheap used phone. I was looking for an Android device, preferably less than 3 years old, preferably with an unlockable bootloader and rootable, for $200 or less. I was looking at used Pixel 2's when I came across this weird Chinese manufacturer I'd never heard of.

      The Umidigi F2 is a bizarre device. I was blown away by the specs, and the seller was only asking $200CAD for it, so I took a chance. I've got to say, so far I'm pretty impressed.

      Quick Specs:

      • 6.5" IPS LCD, 2340x1080px, bezelless, w/ hole-punch camera, no notch
      • 6GB Dual-channel LPDDR4 RAM, 128GB Storage
      • Mediatek P70 - ARM Cortex A73/A53 Octo-core 2.0/2.1GHz CPU
      • 5 cameras, 32MP front-facing, 48MP rear, 13MP wide-angle, 5MP depth, 5MP macro
      • Dual SIM, MicroSD
      • 5150mAh battery
      • ~40 frequency bands
      • 3.5mm headphone jack
      • Stock Android 10

      At this price I was initially skeptical. There must be something wrong with it, some glaring flaw I wasn't seeing, and/or those specs must be fake. I'm happy to say though, they're real, and the device seems much more solid than I expected.

      I've had the thing a little over a week so far, and have only charged it once. On the first charge it lasted 4 days before I charged it, and still had 30% battery remaining after I'd spent a couple hours surfing the web and two hours watching youtube (total screen-on time was ~4.5hrs). After charging it I haven't been using it as much, but it's currently been running 3 days and it has 70% battery remaining. I've used it to listen to the radio for 3 hours this morning. Oh yeah, did I mention? Bizarrely, it has a FM radio tuner for some reason.

      So far everything has been smooth, the device performs really well, which is not something I expected from a Mediatek CPU. Rooting it went smoothly, and I've been able to tweak a bunch of settings via the EdXposed framework, as much as you can in Android 10 anyway. I did remove some background bloat, but otherwise the default ROM is very close to vanilla AOSP.

      The build quality of the thing is honestly not bad. I've used mid-range Samsung devices that have felt cheaper and more plastic-y than this. I have read some reports of bad touchscreens, but so far I haven't had any problems. There's also a DIY solution to solve that. Unfortunately, if it dies, this is pretty much my only option, since the warranty and support is pretty much nonexistent. At a quarter the price of a brand-name phone with similar specs though, I'm willing to roll those dice.

      So, other than warranty, what are the downsides? Well, so far the biggest gripe I have is there is no notification LED on it. So if I go to the washroom and come back I can't just tell at a glance if I've missed a call or text, I actually need to unlock it. Luckily the fingerprint reader and face unlock are both pretty reliable. There is no wireless charging, which I'm more or less okay with. The main reason I'd want that is if the USB port died, but again, this is the sort of phone that if anything is wrong with it you're pretty much meant to throw it out. The speaker is a bit tinny, and unfortunately it's mono. The cameras are bad. The 48MP camera does take 8000x6000 pictures, but they're grainy to the point where even if you resize them down they still look worse than something taken with a good 6MP camera. This seems to be a software problem though. The camera module is apparently made by Samsung, and people have said it's gotten better with every OTA update. As for that, there's been an update this month, but a lot of people are expecting it might be the last update they put out. Umidigi apparently has a bad track record of only providing updates for a few months.

      In conclusion, this is objectively a decent phone, and for it's price, it's exceptional. You sacrifice warranty, updates, any kind of support really, but you get some very decent hardware for $200.

      Official site: https://www.umidigi.com/page-umidigi_f2_specification.html
      Purchasable on amazon for fast shipping, purchase on aliexpress to save $50.

      9 votes
    4. On Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and other works

      I recently finished reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and prior to that I read his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. I was left feeling quite differently than what I was expecting to feel. I'm...

      I recently finished reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and prior to that I read his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. I was left feeling quite differently than what I was expecting to feel. I'm an outdoorsman, a conservationist and an activist. I spent a good portion of my time last year on The Colorado Plateau, much of it in the places Edward Abbey has been and discusses frequently in his work. There is a distinct emotional connection I feel to this land, so my mental conflictions are especially notable. I recently wrote a friend a letter, much of it including my thoughts on Abbey thus far, and I felt posting the relevant excerpt here would be a good conversation starter. Let me know what you think!

      "I just finished Abbey's Desert Solitaire, while I enjoyed many aspects of the work, it also left me feeling conflicted. I wholeheartedly concur with many (but not all) of his views on conservation. He challenged my views in some positive aspects as well, his disdain for the automobile in national parks, for example. Other views of his I cannot ignore or absolve him of. His views on traditional family values (read: misogyny) are quite apparent in The Monkey Wrench Gang and seep into this work as well. Furthermore, his views on indigenous peoples are outdated, even for his time. His incessant diatribe on the blights that impact Native Americans and other indigenous populations, blaming their own attitudes (victim blaming, if you will), while simultaneously railing against the federal government and The Bureau of Indian Affairs is at best hypocritical (while also patently racist).

      Edward Abbey's actions also do not reflect his writing. The man continually rants about the ongoing destruction of this Earth, he blames everybody (The National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the modern consumer, tourists, oil and gas corporations, mining companies, logging businesses and wannabe outdoorsmen) but himself. He went so far as to work for the NPS, while admitting their culpability in their own decimation. During his time there he constantly capitulated to the tourists, the modern consumers in their iron contraptions. Some federal employees I've met have set out to change their respective agencies from within, but what did Abbey do? He left. He saw a problem, railed against it, and left.

      So I ask: Why didn't he do more? It has been suggested that Ed had engaged in some less-than-peaceful activities, "eco-terrorism" they call it. I personally don't believe it, I believe that any actions taken were never near the magnitude of the happenings of The Monkey Wrench Gang. Ed's books were his personal fantasies, which while not a guide, a reference point. He prefaces Desert Solitaire, describing it as an elegy. Almost as if he is passing an extinguished torch on to our time. It is frustrating and demoralizing to say the least. While grateful to read his words and as much as I concur with his notions, I disagree with hits actions (or lack thereof). I finish this book left feeling angry."

      4 votes
    5. Book Recommendation: Anti-Social by Andrew Marantz

      I just finished Andrew Marantz's Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, and I think it's a book that would interest a lot of the people on...

      I just finished Andrew Marantz's Anti-Social: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, and I think it's a book that would interest a lot of the people on this site. Marantz is a journalist for the New Yorker who embedded himself with alt-right influencers and social media companies. This book is a compilation of all of those stories; part memoir, part retelling, part observation, part commentary.

      Despite its title, the book is not a one-dimensional hit piece. I actually strongly dislike the title as I feel it's a bit too barbed for a book that's rooted in extensive, thoughtful contemplation. The author is honest, open-minded, and critical. I hate the word "balanced" for all of the baggage it brings to the table, but it really feels like the best word to use, especially as an antonym for "unbalanced". He deftly handles a lot of different subjects here. He doesn't shy away from giving criticism where its due, but he's also not quick to judge, trying to understand the broader picture first before casting any judgments about it.

      I mention it here because I think it has a lot of relevance to Tildes as a site, as well as the type of people that have congregated here. It covers a lot of ground of direct interest to Tildes: the role of social media platforms to police speech and ideology; how the structure of social media creates influence; how bad faith actors can manipulate systems; how noxious ideologies continue to appeal and propagate. I also know that Tildes trends toward the left, and as someone far on that side myself, I appreciated this book for giving me what I feel was a fair and thoughtful window into the lives of certain high-profile people on the right. It's easy to think of them as a monolith, but I was surprised by the differences between all of his various character portraits. Marantz never loses the individual humanity of his subjects, even when some of them are abjectly abhorrent people.

      I should mention that the book is very US-centric, as that was where he focused his journalistic efforts. As such, readers outside the US might not appreciate it as much, but I still think a lot of what he shares is relevant no matter where you are located since we all share space together online.

      6 votes
    6. Don't trust online reviews (personal anecdote)

      I recently bought a product online. I wasn't able to find it in a bricks-and-mortar shop, so I had to buy it online to even see it, let alone try it. I received it, and it wasn't right for me. I...

      I recently bought a product online. I wasn't able to find it in a bricks-and-mortar shop, so I had to buy it online to even see it, let alone try it. I received it, and it wasn't right for me. I was able to exchange it for a different version, but even the different version wasn't right. So I returned the product and got a refund. All along, the customer service was excellent, but the product itself turned out not to be what I wanted.

      The way the product failed for me was connected to the "headline" description of the product. It wasn't a minor failure. It did something that they explicitly said it wouldn't do, which was one of the main selling features of the product.

      After the dust settled, I wrote a review of the product. I don't normally do this: I neither write nor read reviews. However, I know that other people do rely on reviews and, seeing as this product is only available online, and its failure was linked to a major selling feature of the product, I felt duty-bound to inform other prospective buyers that it might not suit some people. I gave it a 2-star (out of 5) rating, as well as writing up why it didn't suit me (while allowing that it might still suit other people).

      Since I submitted the review, I have checked the website (I'm an egotist: I wanted to see my words being published!). Other reviews with more recent timestamps have appeared, but my review has not appeared. I've now noticed that the lowest rating in their reviews is a single 3-star rating, with some 4-star reviews and lots of 5-star reviews. There are no 2-star or 1-star reviews. My only conclusion is that the company selects which reviews to publish - and which ones not to publish.

      I've always wondered if companies would post negative reviews of their own products. Now I know for sure that at least one company does not.

      18 votes