Monday, March 29, 2010

'Freedom', American-style and Canadian-style

Ann Coulter at the 2004 Republican National Co...Image via Wikipedia
Of all the things in the world there are worth talking about, Ann Coulter is not one of them. I have next to nothing to say about a person so ultimately empty that she seemingly requires controversy merely to exist.

No, but her little sojourn in Canada did raise an interesting question. Rather cleverly, she managed to turn the whole dismal affair into a discussion on 'free speech'. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but 'freedom' must be one of the next-to-last.

I'm saddened to see other Canadians rally around the cause of 'free speech', because as Ann Coulter and a good many Americans define it, free speech is no good thing at all, and nothing to lament Canada's so-called lack of. The plain and simple fact is that, by American standards, we do not have freedom of speech in Canada. We have, instead, freedom of speech by the standards of the rest of the civilised world. In Canada we acknowledge that freedom exists within carefully defined limits, and that these limits are required because of the existence of people, like Ann Coulter, who push those limits, claiming it their 'right'.

Worldwide, freedom can only exist when balanced by responsibility, and when people refuse to take responsibility for their own words, when they refuse to engage in the self-censorship that any intelligent adult knows is a necessary part of public discourse, uncontrolled freedom leads to anarchy.

In English-speaking Canada we obsess about the little ways that we are superficially different from Americans, silly things like linguistic peccadilloes or malt beverages, all established around an unspoken feeling that, ultimately, we're pretty similar. Clearly Americans feel the same way, or else Ann Coulter might have been less surprised when she came up here, presumably expecting more or less the same as she might find in her home country.

The fact is, though, that in many ways Canada and the USA are profoundly different, and I think the American fascination with pure, uncontrolled freedom goes hand-in-hand with the American knee-jerk distrust of government in demonstrating the depths of that difference. There is no topic, I think, that can delineate Americans and Canadians more clearly than the Westboro Baptist Church's so-called 'right' to picket the funerals of dead soldiers or of dead gay Americans. I have discussed this very thing on many an occassion with Americans, and I'm constantly stunned by how intelligent people will, time and again, insist that these belligerent imbeciles be allowed to disrupt funerals and traumatise the mourning - why? In the interests of 'free speech'. To think that any so-called 'right' that gives the picketers power over the mourners in these tragic farces is something worth cherishing is, in my opinion, sheer ridiculousness. If that's freedom, you can have it.

Canada and the USA are parallel experiments in nation building. When I was younger, I sometimes mourned the relative lack of inspirational ideals in Canada. As often claimed, 'peace, order and good government' has nothing on 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' as a motto to wave a flag for or to die in war for (perhaps why we rarely do either). But ultimately, when it comes to day-to-day quality of life, peace and order really do triumph over an uncontrolled, unlimited 'liberty'. For decades, the American government and American conservatives especially have been able to use the single word 'freedom' as an amazing tool: in 'freedom' they can justify everything and excuse everything. With 'freedom' they can shout down all opposition and defend any action. Ann Coulter is just one of many Americans who presumes that American ideals are, or at least ought to be, global ideals. But the fact is that the USA represents a ridiculous extreme of laissez-faire uncontrolled freedoms, an extreme that the rest of the world recognises as dangerous. If Ann Coulter was surprised to discover that, she shouldn't have been. She was, after all, in another country. When in Rome... shout loudly about how much you hate the Romans, I guess.
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Friday, March 26, 2010

Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page eight

Michael IgnatieffImage via Wikipedia
This is page seven of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

So, the results to the last question then:
  1. Entered electoral politics in 1980 as a member of the so-called "Small Party". Elizabeth May.
  2. Never changed parties, but father was a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and grandfather was an Union Nationale cabinet minister. Jack Layton.
  3. Ties to current party go back to 1965, but rather inconsistently until 2004. Michael Ignatieff.
  4. Was a Young Liberal before being elected as an MP for three different parties. Stephen Harper.
  5. Was a member of the Workers' Communist Party of Canada for three years. Was first elected to parliament as an independent. Gilles Duceppe.
Duceppe's Maoist history is yet another surprising fact about him. Harper the Liberal surprised me too.

So that's it for now. Seven questions is hardly comprehensive, and my resources (mostly Wikipedia or their own party websites) hardly exhaustive. Still though, some brief portraits of five people who in different ways each break the mould of Prime Ministerial candidate.
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Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page seven

This is page seven of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

The book list:
  1. "Charlie Johnson in the Flames". Michael Ignatieff.
  2. "Homelessness: the Making and Unmaking of a Crisis". Jack Layton.
  3. "How to Save the World in Your Spare Time". Elizabeth May.
  4. "Question d'identité". Gilles Duceppe.
  5. Is currently working on a history of hockey. Stephen Harper.
If that looks like an elitist slam at the PM for making such a non-intellectual book, it's definitely not. Learning that he's writing about hockey (if it's true) actually increases my estimation of the man. Ignatieff, of course, has a list of writings to rival Stephen King's in length, and this is one of three fiction novel's he's written. The other three have written tomes pertinent to their, and their parties', fields of interest.

Party loyalties are an interesting topic, in that fully four of these five candidates are older than the parties they represent. Shifting allegiances are to be expected, I guess.

So last question: which party résumé belongs to which leader?
  1. Entered electoral politics in 1980 as a member of the so-called "Small Party".
  2. Never changed parties, but father was a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and grandfather was an Union Nationale cabinet minister.
  3. Ties to current party go back to 1965, but rather inconsistently until 2004.
  4. Was a Young Liberal before being elected as an MP for three different parties.
  5. Was a member of the Workers' Communist Party of Canada for three years. Was first elected to parliament as an independent.
Once you've guessed, cliquez ici.

Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page six

This is page six of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

The religious info:
  1. Allegedly, a lapsed Catholic, now atheist. Gilles Duceppe.
  2. Anglican, and studying to be a minister. Elizabeth May.
  3. Belongs to the Evangelical 'Christian and Missionary Alliance', and attends regularly. Stephen Harper.
  4. Russian Orthodox, though in own words not a 'church guy'. Michael Ignatieff.
  5. United Church of Canada; "I don't practice as frequently as I should". Jack Layton.
I have to admit that the 'evidence' I found of Gilles Duceppe being atheist is all rather sketchy - mostly other people calling him one. But he's certainly no lover of religion, as a lot of his quotes will attest. We have had one non-theist PM, Kim Campbell).

Here's something interesting: the candidates are all published authors. Nice to see quite a literate bunch running for the office of PM. Match the candidate with one of the books he/she authored:
  1. "Charlie Johnson in the Flames".
  2. "Homelessness: the Making and Unmaking of a Crisis".
  3. "How to Save the World in Your Spare Time".
  4. "Question d'identité".
  5. Is currently working on a history of hockey.
Once you've guessed who wrote what, click here.

Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page five

This is page five of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

The skinny on the spouses:
  1. Hong Kong. Olivia Chow, wife of Jack Layton.
  2. Hungary. Zsuzsanna Zsohar, wife of Michael Ignatieff.
  3. Montreal, Quebec. Yolande Brunelle, wife of Gilles Duceppe.
  4. Turner Valley, Alberta. Laureen Harper, wife of Stephen Harper.
  5. unmarried. Elizabeth May.
I wish I could find the city in Hungary where Zsuzsanna Zsohar was born, but I can't. Still, the fact of her being Hungarian shows up in most reports mentioning her, as does Jack Layton's wife and fellow caucus mamber Olivia Chow's being born in Hong Kong. No points again for guessing that Yolande Brunelle, Duceppe's wife, is from Montreal or that Laureen Harper is from small-town Alberta. Elizabeth May is a mother (a grandmother, in fact) but I see no evidence of her ever being married.

Interesting to note: two of the five, Layton and Ignatieff, have been divorced. And also interesting that of the four married males, only one (Harper) has a wife who took her husband's surname.

Moving on then: what religion are they, and how religious are they?
  1. Allegedly, a lapsed Catholic, now atheist.
  2. Anglican, and studying to be a minister.
  3. Belongs to the Evangelical 'Christian and Missionary Alliance', and attends regularly.
  4. Russian Orthodox, though in own words not a 'church guy'.
  5. United Church of Canada; "I don't practice as frequently as I should".
Once you've guessed, click here to find the answer.

Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page four

Jack LaytonImage via Wikipedia
This is page four of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

Anyway, that wide selection of cities of birth plays out as follows:
  1. Montreal, Quebec. Gilles Duceppe.
  2. Montreal, Quebec. Jack Layton.
  3. Hartford, Connecticut. Elizabeth May.
  4. Toronto, Ontario. Stephen Harper.
  5. Toronto, Ontario. Michael Ignatieff.
An odd list, and it does little for the notion of Canada-wide representation that of five leaders, there are only two Canadian birthplaces: Toronto and Montreal. No points for guessing Ignatieff is from Toronto, but a surprise to find that Stephen "The West Wants In!" Harper was not only born but grew up in Hogtown. Or that Mr. Hogtown himself, long-term Toronto city councillor Jack Layton, was in fact born in Montreal. Again no points for pinning Duceppe in Montreal, but Arnold Schwarzenegger might be intrigued to find that Elizabeth May, candidate for Prime Minister of Canada, could be President of the USA sooner than he could (foreign-born Canadian prime ministers are not unheard-of. The most recent was John Turner of Surrey, England) - I could also say that May is one of two PM candidates who self-identifies as an American...

So moving on to a list that is actually an easier one: where were their spouses born?
  1. Hong Kong.
  2. Hungary.
  3. Montreal, Quebec.
  4. Turner Valley, Alberta.
  5. unmarried.
Click here to find the answers.
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Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page three

Original description by Ted Buracas: Stephen H...Image via Wikipedia
This is page three of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

The skinny on the middle names:
  1. Evans. Elizabeth May.
  2. Gilbert. Jack Layton.
  3. Grant. Michael Ignatieff.
  4. Joseph. Stephen Harper.
  5. none. Gilles Duceppe
Prize for geekiest middle name goes to Jack (John, of course, to be exact) Layton. I can't be 100% sure Duceppe doesn't have a middle name or, as a French-Canadian, five or six. But I can't see any anywhere on the net.

Carrying on with 'basic inormation', this next question is nowhere near as easy as I'd have thought it would be. Where were they born?
  1. Montreal, Quebec.
  2. Montreal, Quebec.
  3. Hartford, Connecticut.
  4. Toronto, Ontario.
  5. Toronto, Ontario.
Big list of choices, isn't it? Well, click here once you've decided.
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Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page two

Gilles Duceppe, the Leader of the Bloc Québécois.Image via Wikipedia
This is page two of a quiz. If you're flying in here from a Google search or something, click here to go to page one.

So, the answers to question one:
  1. Born 30 April 1959 - aged 50. Stephen Harper.
  2. Born 9 June 1954 - aged 55. Elizabeth May.
  3. Born 18 July 1950 - aged 59. Jack Layton.
  4. Born 12 May 1947 - aged 62. Michael Ignatieff.
  5. Born 22 July 1947 - aged 62. Gilles Duceppe.
Interesting that all five are, broadly speaking, the same generation. Aged between 50 and 62 counts as actually a relatively young bunch in the plutocratic world of politics. Also interesting is that the Prime Minister is (by a fair bit) the youngest of the bunch. For a man who's already been PM for a few years now, 50 is remarkably young. No points for picking Ignatieff as a boomer, though Duceppe doesn't seem a typical boomer.

Moving on then, to a perhaps simpler question: what are their middle names?
  1. Evans.
  2. Gilbert.
  3. Grant.
  4. Joseph.
  5. none (as far as I can tell).
Click here once you've decided.
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Canadian Political Leaders Quiz: page one

Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of CanadaImage via Wikipedia
So Canada has five mainstream federal parties. Each of them has a leader at the moment who, if nothing else, is an interesting character. You could make an argument that confidence in party leaders has never been lower than it is at the moment (and you could make the case that there's never been a bunch of leaders less inspiring of confidence), but the truth remains that they are interesting individuals. That does not necessarily mean good candidates for Prime Minister, but at least it's something...

So seven questions, then. How it works is that each question is in five parts. The correct answer to one of the five is 'Stephen Harper'. The correct answer to another is 'Michael Ignatieff'. Another is 'Jack Layton', another is 'Gilles Duceppe' and another is 'Elizabeth May'. In short, match the leader to the choice that describes him/her.

Question one: simply put, how old are these folks?
  1. Born 30 April 1959 - aged 50.
  2. Born 9 June 1954 - aged 55.
  3. Born 18 July 1950 - aged 59.
  4. Born 12 May 1947 - aged 62.
  5. Born 22 July 1947 - aged 62.
Click here once you've decided in order to see the answer...
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The 15 Best Flags of the World

There's just something I love about flags. I'm not sure what it is - I hate flag-waving, and I hate the grotesque respect afforded them. But as iconic, rectangular 'logos' for countries or other geographical entities, they intrigue. And as with logos, they can have good designs or bad. I've picked out 15 here - that I don't claim are the best ever (despite the title of this entry), merely that I happen to find aesthetically pleasing.



I think this might just be my favourite flag. Every time I see it, I'm drawn to how unique it is. It's really a bold, appealing design, but it barely even makes sense. It's not a horizontal line dividing yellow from blue, because the blue makes a comeback on the right hand side. It seems to be an almost square yellow-blue flag with fat blue borders on either side. And that row of stars - that runs right off the flag, actually cutting two of the stars in half-how cool is that, and how decently does it subvert the bunch-of-stars flags that populate so much of the world. Gorgeous.


My other favourite national flag, and also in blue and yellow, this is one of several pretty cool central Asian flags. The central motif - of an eagle stretching its wings around the sun - is gorgeous in itsstylised way. And as a special bonus - like Belarus and Turkmenistan - we get a patch of tapestry running up the side. Stately and elegant - a flag to be proud of.



In east Asia, flags definitely subscribe to a kind of 'Asian' aesthetic. A good amount of flags from this region have what you might call a 'minimalistic approach' - in fact, in a good many cases, they seem to be logos centred on single-coloured backgrounds. The flower is apparently 'Bauhenia blakeana', a name I've never heard of before, but its five-ponted design nicely imitates the star located within each leaf. It's sleek, it's traditional and futuristic at the same time, and it's red-and-white, which I think inevitably makes nice-looking flags.


I could have compiled my entire top ten from the flags of Japan. Japan is broken into little areas called 'prefectures', and each prefecture has its own flag. The vast majority of these are beautiful and fully in keeping with the design aesthetic I described above. They might veer too close to corporate logography, but they err on the side of taste by inevitably being, well, tasteful. I've included three here, starting with this clever variation on the Japanese national flag, with the rising sun transformed into a kind of spiral that gets included on Wikipedia's 'list of flags with flowers', but I have no idea how it can be a flower.


The light blue of the UN as opposed to the standard darker 'blue' shade, this flag features three angular shapes that almost resemble capital As in a particularly chubby font. They are, apparently, mountains, among other things (symbols tend to have more than one meaning assigned to them on flags), but what I like about it is how far it deviates from round or crest-shaped flag symbology and, again, the similarity to a typographical font.


While this flag comes dangerously close to looking like a proposed logo for John Deere or some agricultural products company, it actually features a stylised rendering of the Kanji for 'Tochi' - part of the prefecture's name. The Kanji itself looks like this:

Stylisation of Asian logographs is, obviously, something I know nothing about, but I can, well, see a connection. For me, it's not just the park-ranger vibe I get from the flag so much as the way it combines the Asian aesthetic I've been discussing with a slightly more traditional heraldry. Apparently, according to 'Flags of the World', it represents 'improvement and active motion' (as opposed to inactive motion?), but I don't see it at all.


Alone in 50 states, New Mexico bears a flag with a sleek, modern design, as opposed to some of the more garish American flags that exist. The red and the slightly darker-than-normal shade of yellow evoke the desert and the sun to me, though apparently it's meant to be the colours of the Spanish flag. The symbol is a sun symbol of the Zia Indians, with is a good tribute to the area's original inhabitants, but it's also a very beautiful symbol, evoking hands stretching out in all directions.


I decided to check the Flags of the World site to figure out the symbology of this flag, but the description there is so filled with gibberish (including the phrases 'growing mighty trees' and 'cup holding light' that I couldn't bear to even finish the paragraph. The CIS is an organisation that was formed after the collapse of the Soviet Union to give the now-independent republics an association with which they could maintain their ties to one another. So it's the way forward after the fall of communism in the eastern bloc.

Which is interesting, because what I like most about this flag is the way it evokes, to me anyway, some of the more abstract sculpture of 60s and 70s Soviet art. The iron curtain hid some awesome works, which by now have been tossed into the dustbin of history. But I can imagine this flag depicting some granite statue with a name like "Friendship and Co-Operation of All Cultures" erected in the town square of some city in Siberia.


The white background of my blog is doing us no favours here, but what you're missing is, of course, white stripes (not the Detroit garage band) at the top and bottom of this flag. I think the white stripes alone are enough to catch my attention here - you'll note I have very little interest in tricolour flags, but whte-green-white is very pretty and, in some way, very refined and 'polite' too. The symbol in the middle is not two mountains, Yamagata - 33%, but two 'mounds'. And if you ask me what that means, I'll not be able to answer, except that a 'kurgan' is a mound, apparently, in addition to being the name of a small Russian oblast on the border with Kazakhstan. Just to prove that vexillology is not without humour, due to an outburst by a politician in the local Duma, this flag is known as the 'woman swimming on her back'.


Nunavut, the chunk of the Arctic belonging to the Inuit people, is one of the most remote and sparse places out there - it makes neighbouring Greenland seem like the centre of global action by comparison. But it appreciates its iconography and has taken the traditional inukshuk Inuit stone sculpture and turned it into a symbol of Inuit culture and, by extension, of Canada as a whole so potent that it was chosen as the logo of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It's a striking symbol here, daringly going from the very top of the flag to the very bottom and this being the instrument separating the flag's Vatican-like yellow and white halves. Plus, there's a cockeyed blue star. Because why not?


Zamora is a province in Spain (in Spain, a province is an entity smaller and less imprtant than a 'region' - Zamora is in the region of Castile and Leon). This is, according to Flags of the World, one variation on the Zamora flag - the one it accepts as the standard does nt have the points on the right side. It's merely one green stripe on top of eight red stripes. It is much less striking. This variation is actually in this shape: it's not got triangles of white on the right, it has fabric cut into triangular shapes. So the fact that I'm the only person in history to compile a list of cool flags and not include Nepal is not that big a deal - I, too, have a non-rectangular flag.

But it reminds me of coloured pencils, which is why I like it. In fact, it seems to be telling us some message about certain pencils sticking out from the rest of the pack. How very profound.


As much as I appear to admire a kind of modernity and lightness in my flags, the opposite can be true. Montenegro may be a new country, but this flag is saturated with the sands of time - you'd expect to find it buried in a crypt from the Middle Ages. I love me a two-headed bird, and thought long and hard about putting Albania's flag on this list, but this beauty has a two-headed eagle in gold, and the red-and-gold design of this flag gives it a gorgeous pomp-and-circumstance that crummy old yellow could never hope for (sorry, New Mexico). A flag like this is wasted on a republic - it needs to wave behind an ornamental throne, preferably bedecked in golden tassels (the flag, not the throne). The golden-coloured border just adds to the ceremony, while also balancing the colours well. And hey - how cool is a border on a flag?


Odd how few of the flags I've chosen are national flags, as opposed to subnational (or, in one case, supranational). Having just, apparently, turned back from the civil war that constantly threatened to split the country in two, Sri Lankans can now marvel at the way their flag tells their national story - the very cool lion-plus-sword-plus-leaves on, er, is that maroon in colour? Anyway, that symbol is the flag of the Sinhalese people who are the majority in Sri Lanka. If you take a pair of scissors, you can use this flag to make the yellow-bordered historical Sinhalese flag of pre-colonial Ceylon. But as an added bonus, you get a green stripe and an orange stripe to represent the unheard-of Muslim minority (it must be very minor) and the Hindu minority, the Tamils, who have been fighting for independence for ages. I love how they're included on the flag, but kept separate from the main, Sinhalese part of the flag. I also love how the lion is actually brandishing its sword toward the minorities. All in all, it's a flag that resembles no other flag on the planet, yet its disparate parts somehow cohere to make a flag just as unique as it is striking.


One more bordered flag, the flag of Limousin, a historical province of France, has a very high 'WTF' value that endears me to it. The repeated symbol is describes as 'ermine spots', which just sounds to me like a staining problem related to, perhaps, house-training a weasel. It kind of looks to me like a stylised Whirling Dervish, but the awesomeness is how the design repeats with no consideration whatsoever of the border of the flag - it's as if the flag designers bought a very large roll of ermine-spot fabric and just had to cut it to meet the flag's specifications. That thick red border is what does the trick, though.


We're back to Russia for another oblast and for a flag that blows the WTF factor right off the scale. The Flags of the World page is no help, and I think I'm glad of that - I'd kind of like this flag to remain an enigma for me. What I see is a bullwhip resting on a mound of gold. Which could have some very exciting story behind it. But what I see most of all is, seemingly, a larger and more complete picture creatively 'cropped' to create a flag with no connection whatsoever to any traditions of vexillology I know of. This is the flag as abstract art, and I hope the people of Voronezh are filled with pride when they see their oblast's flag flying...

Incidentally, Voronezh is located in the so-called Central Black Earth region of Russia. How's that for an awesome name? 'Central Black Earth'? I just might name my son that.
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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions: Ah, the Artistry

Happy GilmoreImage via Wikipedia
I'm not much of a movie person, but I've just been perusing the 10+ year collected works of Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, and am completely amazed by just how bad, not to mention critically reviled (not always the same thing), the movies tend to be. I've decided, being bored, to look at all of the movies this venerable studio has created, and to look in each case at the Rotten Tomatoes page for it. Recall that Rotten Tomatoes aggregates critics' reviews and tallies what percentage give positive reviews. So a movie with a 50% rating has had as many praises as pans ('praise' is an exaggeration - merely more positive than negative). So a number over 50 can vaguely be considered a critical success, where as a number under 50 can be considered a critical failure. Enter Happy Gilmore...
  1. Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo: 23% 
  2. Little Nicky: 22% 
  3. The Animal: 30% 
  4. Joe Dirt: 11% 
  5. Mr. Deeds: 22% 
  6. The Master of Disguise: 2% 
  7. Eight Crazy Nights: 13% 
  8. The Hot Chick: 21% 
  9. Anger Management: 43% 
  10. Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star: 22% 
  11. 50 First Dates: 44% 
  12. The Longest Yard: 31% 
  13. Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo: 10% 
  14. Grandma's Boy: 16% 
  15. The Benchwarmers: 12% 
  16. Click: 32% 
  17. I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry: 13% 
  18. Reign Over Me: 63% 
  19. Strange Wilderness: 0% 
  20. You Don't Mess with the Zohan: 36% 
  21. The House Bunny: 39% 
  22. Bedtime Stories: 25% 
  23. Paul Blart: Mall Cop: 34% 
  24. Funny People: 68% 
It takes, frankly, a serious dedication to crap to pull off a résumé like this. In 24 films, fully two get above 50% in critical acclaim, and both of those are examples of the evident fact that Sandler sticks his company logo on anything he stars in. Actually, these two apparently bear the brand 'Mr. Madison 23', apparently a brand dedicated to Adam Sandler films that aren't crap. So if we discount those two, then in 22 films, the highest acclaim goes to '50 First Dates', which at 56% disapproval is still a bomb. Check out 'Strange Wilderness', a movie for which Rotten Tomatoes was unable to find a single complimentary review.

Adam Sandler, you do have some talent and charm. But it's tough, excepting perhaps Uwe Boll's company (hmmm... I smell follow-up blog entry), to imagine a production studio more critically reviled.
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