Tuesday, March 27, 2007


A couple things today:

Leaving aside my disappointing view of 300, Pan’s Labyrinth was a lot of fun, although why anyone would think it’s okay to take their children to a rated R “fairy tale” is beyond me. However, there were two scenes that struck me as artificial. (Spoilers ahead) First, when Ofelia (that’s a loaded name) has finished taking the treasure guarded by the Pale Man, but then stops and eats some grapes. A genuinely terrifying scene ensues, but throughout you’re left wondering, what the hell do you think you’re doing, girl? I have read that because she was sent to bed without supper the night before, she may be simply too hungry to resist. But I would think the paintings of the Pale Man eating children adoring the ceiling, as well as the pile of children's shoes in the corner, would be enough to quell any hunger pangs that emerge.

Second, the final test, where Ofelia must sacrifice her own life to save her baby brother. There was nothing in particular that set me off about that scene, except that it was so transparently obvious what was going on, it felt tacked on. A little too easy a test for someone who would be a true believer of the fantasy. Now, as for whether or not Ofelia’s fantasies are real, I would say (and the director has as well) that they are (at least within the context of the movie), chiefly because the director did not set up a larger meaning for Ofelia’s actions, even within the fascist-democratic civil war. If it was not real, the most that could be said for her behavior was 1. it got the manifestly evil military captain to neglect his duties and 2. it was a girl coping with a horrible situation. Neither of these, however, really relates back to the central themes of the movie.

Also, Gloomy Sunday. I enjoyed it, although I might have enjoyed it even more if I knew German. Some clear instances of overacting and melodrama, but a compelling story nevertheless. Definitely worth a shot on Netflix, although perhaps not in the theater (if it’s even available). Also, I got to see both 300 and Pan's Labyrinth in theaters that serve alcohol. I have to say that's a singularly enjoyable experience.

And finally, for those with fond memories of Legos and Mario Bros., an unholy (or cool) union of the two.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Even as a young Satan worshipper

...that is to say, Dungeons and Dragons role-player (Advanced, 2nd edition), I didn't go around wishing death on people.

I can't wait till these notebooks come out in the US.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Good boys (300 review)

Whatever it is you think about Frank Miller’s stories, it’s what you’ll think of the movie 300. Both of them being macho, blunt forces. I won’t actually venture much of an opinion here, as I think an audience’s opinion in these sort of cases is pretty much set in stone. I had a bit more pep before seeing it, but now having done so I can’t help but think whatever I said and thought was probably overwrought, equal to the outsized enthusiasm of the movie’s fans, and their righteous indignation at the equally overbaked (though mostly fair) critical reception, but more than this movie actually calls for.

I say this much: It was enjoyable, and quite often beautiful, if awkward and uneven. Still too timid by half, though sacrificing much less to visual fidelity with the graphic novel than other adaptations have…as people seem to confuse that with being faithful to the story.*

And also I have no reason to doubt the director and filmmakers when they say they didn’t mean any sort of Iraq commentary with it. It just means they’re sort of stupid. Either they’re dim, as they were genuinely oblivious to what adding “...politicians just send warriors to their deaths…” and that sort of line adds, as well as getting all that talk about Country and Freedom and Free Men (a little cute, historically speaking, coming from Spartans) from a computer program that punches it in...or cribbing from Braveheart...and what reaction that would garner. Or they’re kinda dim, and they saw the reaction coming and couldn’t come up with anything better to say. Weak sauce, folks. **

But let me follow Jonny America’s lead and leave you folks with a discussion question that thinking too much brought up. Frank Miller probably meant it his original work more as a straight meditation of warriors and heroism, but the filmmakers added a lot of Freedom and Country and Free Men stuff—but who cares about that? ’cause who’s against that?—But why ever appropriate history to this end, if one believes a story requires as much modification (it didn’t even, really) to tell this sort, or any sort of tale? It’s not as if that many historical field fans really pop out for these things and sell that many more tickets. (In 300, there are so many visual cues as to who is evil, that even in lowest denominator it seems unnecessary.) So what out it? Are there any noncommercial benefits that makes this sort of lazy storytelling worthwhile? ***

* Bit claustrophobic too, but such are the limitations of filming green screen and indoors…you can always sort of tell. Legend had that too…which come to think of it, Ridley Scott would be pretty good for this sort of thing.

** I don’t think it’s irresponsible, per se, to make a war movie in this climate and not have anything to say, just as it’s not irresponsible to make a movie about Marie Antoinette and talk about modern ennui, but it seems foolish and wasteful, and a bit willfully oblivious.

*** I want a slightly more complex answer than “It’s easier to film.” (Lazy storytelling also being cheaper.) Probably, that’s all there is though. Well, that and the public has only a small interest in knowing history.

Monday, March 19, 2007


I was going to write a post about Pan's Labyrinth, but I'll save that for next week after I've seen 300. Instead, I've lately come across a couple pieces/encounters about Taiwanese independence and what it means for China and the U.S. And mostly, I've been pissed with what I've read.

A number of my friends are pretty pro-China, or at least pro-the Chinese position on the issue, which disturbs me a bit because they work for various organs of the State Department. The standard refrain I get from them (and many more within the policy community, though probably not the majority) is that the DPP and other "nationalist" groups on Taiwan threaten stability in the region, by which they mean closer ties between China and the U.S.

This seems backwards to me, and it arises mostly because people within that segment of the policy community are so resigned to the fact of Chinese military aggression that they somehow see the political maneuvers of Taiwan's leaders to be threatening. The only reason a move towards independence by President Chen is threatening is because China makes it so, by pointing missiles at Taiwan which threaten quite frankly the highest value concentration of computer and image hardware innovation in the region, if not the world. And because the U.S. has a legal obligation to come to Taiwan's rescue if it is attacked. But the fundamental issue here is not that people in Taiwan want the chance to make their voices heard (that's not really threatening to anyone), but that China hasn't renounced the use of force. People in that part of the policy community take Chinese belligerence as a given, as the status quo that needs to be accommodated, rather than something that can be negotiated.

And to that extent, they typically fail to recognize how Chinese belligerence is part and parcel of its strategy. It's a curious dynamic: the U.S. essentially rewards China for its threats. Consider, whenever China sees a Taiwanese move that could threaten its hope for long-term reunification (changing the country name on passports to Taiwan, revised history books, etc.), it talks about launching missiles. The U.S. reacts not by denouncing the threats, but by admonishing the Taiwanese for their actions. China, in a limited sense, gets an international veto over Taiwanese policy, no matter the issue. When Taiwan protests Chinese actions on the same issue (like all the preconditions Beijing attaches to final status negotiations), the U.S. doesn't say anything. It's the willingness to use force that is the decisive factor here, and essentially, anything that pisses off China, no matter how idiotic or insignificant a slight, is considered to be the fault of the Taiwanese for not recognizing the "realities" of the situation.

Now, I fully understand that a move towards Taiwanese independence, given China's stated response, is a bad idea. What I don't accept, however, is blame being placed on Taiwan for the situation across the Strait, which often happens when I talk with these individuals. The Taiwanese public has full moral and legal authority (under both domestic and international law) to declare themselves independent. That has to be accepted as a baseline, I think, for any meaningful discussion of this issue. It's when people forget that, when they start blaming Taiwan for China's response, that I have big issues. It's one thing not to want a war between the U.S. and China. It's another to blame Taiwan for China firing missiles at the U.S.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Human Rights in the United States

Another edition of China’s not-so-hotly-anticipated "Human Rights Record of the United States" was released early this month. The release was given its customary and cursory acknowledgment by the Washington Post, among other news papers, websites, and news aggregators. As is mentioned in all of these media sources, the release is based almost totally on U.S.-based media reports, press releases, and Human Rights organizations (many of which have been frequently criticized in Chinese media and censored), and as in the case of earlier such reports, everything is surprisingly and responsibly cited and documented with thorough in text citations.

Is there anything especially revealing inside the report? Nothing in particular. The folks at the Chinese State Department clearly busied themselves with internet search engines for several weeks, mining U.S. and international media sites for negative press about the United States. Since so much of the material came from U.S. media sources, no United States resident would find any of the information here to be fresh or new.

The Iraq War and the War on Terror was a goldmine of information for this year’s report with a year of news on secret prisons and mistreated detainees. It provided a great springboard to jump into some of China’s favorite foreign policy themes: violations of sovereignty, interfering in other country’s affairs, and hegemonism. There was also mention of the increase of U.S. internal surveillance and incursions on peoples’ rights to privacy.

Some reoccurring themes that have appeared in the last few reports such as U.S. high crime rates, racial discrimination, high rates of incarceration, sexual discrimination, police brutality, high rates of poverty, and poor healthcare coverage, return again this year.

In contrast the U.S. report on human rights in China focuses more on issues that Americans associate with human rights, addressing mostly judicial concerns including unfair trials, detainment, torture during police detainment, freedom of speech, religion, and movement, and also on things such as human trafficking. It is a long long dry read in spite of its thoroughness. Things that do not show up include crime, access to healthcare, and poverty statistics.

So what do you think about China’s criticism of the U.S.’s human right’s record? In some regards it reveals an approach to human rights very different one from the west—i.e. a focus on social stability over individual freedoms. Or is it just poor spirited tit-for-tat where they just wrote down everything they could find in the newspaper?

Friday, March 16, 2007

out of my way, narrative structure (Syriana is easy)

So David Denby has this article about the team of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga (director and writer respectively of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel), who's creative association is now ending. In the middle of this he gives basically gives a primer on past and present formal experimentation in film, and how mainstream complicated or shuffled time structure has become--in modern filmmaking, pretty much unarguably initiated by Pulp Fiction, and including Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Memento, and the like. All of them playing with the abillity of film to turn all the moments in front of your eyes into "now". One more example:
"Syriana" made sense in the end, but you practically needed a database to sort out the story elements; the movie became a weird formal experiment, testing the audience's endurance and patience.
Before looping back to a point about the pair of auteurs mentioned above, basically that being their work culminated intentionally difficult liberal guilt whinging--no wait that's the audience, as foreigners they're haranguing instead. The production of Guilt Pornography, an easy avenue for mental flagellation and cleansing. The two fellows getting found out when they venture out of Mexico, joining Lars Von Trier for formal experiments mired in simplemindedness. To differentiate their puzzle box constructions holding only simple points, he mentions a new film, The Lives of Others, with apparently multiple strands, presented in chronological order, via cross-cut of the parallel lines. Complexitiy in a simpler package. And here's where I try tp return to my topic.

Wasn't that Syriana? I won't debate whether or not it was confusing to folks. But I do I recall it being multiple plotlines presented in straight chronological order, each one getting a clear segment of time, and trading off to the next one. In straight sequence. Four that I can remember: George Clooney in an updated LeCarre, Matt Damon (the speech delivery system for the never named Peak Oil theory) as an anguished then inspired advisor to Alexander Siddig, Jeffrey Wright's lawyer entering corporate shenanigans, and two boys entering a madrassa. A few small subplots: father/son relationship, strained relationship with myopic (Hollywood-style) wife, drunk dad. The purity of the future suicide bombers could not be sullied with a subplot, or properly translated instruction either. In voice they chant promising death and destruction, in subtitle aspirational cultural chauvanism.

But I'm sullying my point with my whinging. Syriana was made up of each segment lasting longer than normal (a shot, or even a short sequence), but most given equal time, and in order yet. Where's this impression of structural complexity coming from? They just threw too many balls in the air, and people lost track (got bored), and then confused. But the complexity isn't there in the structure. Probably, then, the endurance and patience wasn't there in the audience either.

*Would you look at that, 8:56 AM. Looks like blogger doesn't involve itself in daylight savings.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I'm doing it again. Duvall posts, then I post soon after, removing the craftsmanship of his words from public sight. Or something. All I have to say is: "Green"?

Two things. I was in Turkey on vacation, as Duvall mentioned. But before getting to that, I have to admit that I was kind of surprised by the whole Department of Justice/Gonzalez thing. Aren't political appointments meant to be...well, political? I heard that the main reason this has come up is because of the timing - happening in the middle of the term and all that - although of course the suspect reasonings for the firings are politically problematic. But, I don't think they're institutionally or legally problematic. After all, if you're an appointee, you serve at the whim of the president (no matter how stupid he is). The real failing here was a lack of political acumen, in that Gonzalez and Miers (and whoever else) could have done things quietly, or they could have taken a different approach ("it is our prerogative to fire within the Executive", which of course it is). Don't get me wrong though. Gonzalez is a prick, and I'm enjoying seeing him twist in the wind. But still.

Anyway, Turkey. Despite the fact that there was evidently a roiling scandal with a Turkish writer suggesting that Ataturk might be gay (he was thrown in jail for that), my girlfriend (from here on, GF) and I didn't see any protests or political gatherings, outside of an International Women's Day celebration (yeah, I didn't realize that was last week either). A couple observations:

  1. The street cats are really friendly and, by and large, clean. GF often scratched their heads, and they proceeded to crawl into her lap for my stroking.
  2. Istanbul is very clean. In fact, most of Turkey (what we saw of it at least) was. It was not, however, as cheap as I expected. Obviously not European prices, but we're not talking Asia here either.
  3. GF noticed that whenever I introduced her as my "girlfriend", Turkish men would ignore her. If I introduced her as my "fiancee" (don't worry, that hasn't happened yet), they paid attention.
  4. I can definitely see why Turkey feels that it is European. Istanbul especially has that feel of old world Europe, a certain melancholy of having lived in the shadow of former glories.
  5. Great food in Turkey, although the cheaper places were generally better. Also, great fish, which was surprising upon first seeing that, but it does make a lot of sense.
  6. Muezzins are very much like Jewish cantors. You would hear the adhan roll through Istanbul, as each mosque got its guy on the loudspeaker. But like cantors (the few I've met), they don't get many chances to sing for prolonged periods of time, so instead they take to drawing out every opportunity and making it as "colorful" as possible. That, and competing against each other in making the longest, most complicated musical runs that they can. On loudspeaker. Five times a day.
  7. GF and I love borek.

Obviously, things have changed.

Isn't this nice? I think this template provides structure, without constriction; color, without epilectic seizures. I did make sure to change the title color to something more annoying though.

I don't know where people get the wherewithal to codify their ruminations into coherent spiels regularily. I don't do anything and I still can't manage it. Well, here I type again, making promises for content hoping that will make it so. Let's try a weekly bag, eh?

If wishes were horses I'd have a cow.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

I know you only too well...

I hear that Chengora fellow is taking a trip, meaning its about time to pull some weight and post something. So..one second, coughing fit...let's have at it.

I went on a long trip recently, and had the opportunity to view a couple of the past year's near best films on a long, long ride between nations. One was The Queen: eminently watchable. Actors delivering fine performances that are explained in thick metaphoric detail or in pure exposition mere minutes later. The other was The Departed, the now best picture and Martin Scorsese's route to heavyweight title, contender no more. A great weight of expection has been lifted, and the man can now concetrate on his next masterpiece. But I have to ask...is that it?

Less than ideal circumstances: small screen, crowded on a plane, and I have a great deal of affection for the HK original Infernal Affairs. I think I've accounted for the surroundings and my biases, and this movie just didn't feel like the best of anything...an above average thriller with strangely awkward execution. (Awkward is better than predictable, but still...) This isn't too much of a surprise, the plot, which is what both versions keep, really just is above average, a good premise with one strong twist.

But let's cover what The Departed got right, and what it improved:
Boston is a much better setting than a fake, though stylish, HK underworld. It's very much a character here, and like the strong ensemble cast, it's a broad and colorful thing. The acting was the same; it wasn't always to my taste, but it was solid. Considering I liked Jack Nicholson, who has irritated me everywhere except About Schmidt, when he was asked to play someone small, the movie was a triumph. Everybody seems to get a scene where they act like a Boss Tweed cartoon, though that's true in Scorcese films since Gangs of New York, when that was relevant. And the rest of the casting was good, though Tony Leung and Andy Lau are probably better leads.* Lastly, they completely rewrote the women for this version. Since the female roles in the HK version were just vehicles for popstars, that couldn't help but be an improvement. Combining two flimsy roles meant only one piece of dead weight instead of two. The new Harvard hottie, object of triangular desire and Leo's reason to take off his shirt is still an underwritten cliche herself, so maybe that's not a improvement as much as a wash. Two ciphers = one cliche? Convinient plot spring in both versions.

And those things are all practically gimmes. How come this movie wasn't better? Or at least the same? It certainly started with stronger characters. Since the principals are so much younger than Lau and Leung, we don't have the disconnect of and stay with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon almost throughout. No interlude of Justin Timberlake playing one Leo (which really, is what HK loves).

And yet, is Leo doing pensive really ever going to be stronger than Tony sulking? And as Boston recedes as the movie chugs, and with the color and character, the plot juts up front and center. And the plot needs propulsion, which by style isn't what Scorsese's preference. The pacing in the second half just suffers for it. Scenes drag from having new exposition tied to them. There's one where Damon/Lau needs impersonates a lawyer, tricking a criminal to giving up info. And now, where the Asian cops said "Wow!" and leave it be the Americans say "Hey! He just impersonated a lawyer! That's illegal!" Well, duh. Foreshadowed twists now have signposts...for this one let's just say you don't have to actually explain all aspects of the sting. Out loud. This isn't confident filmmaking--and much as I'm praising their product by comparison, it's not as if the HK audience is that much brighter than anyone else, so that kind of dumbing down is disappointing.

In the end though, if you're not going to keep adding to it, it's all about execution. Predictably weak actresses aside, the HK version had two leads with more oomph (let's call the rest of the cast comparisons a wash), but simply more assured execution. It was less ambitious, but it just never got confused about what it wanted to do. Both versions have dumb endings that try to reassure the audience sense of right, instead of seeing through the setting they've built. Though the HK theatrical ending, if cut one scene short, would be strongest version.

I've said this before, each time I see another interesting misfire out of Scorsese (though the Aviator was boring more than interesting). He needs to relearn how to edit and cut the fat, so we see sinew and not bloat. Let the color scenes can inform just the actors, instead of everything. Or he needs to sign with HBO or something and make a Ken Burns length mini-series. Enough noble failures. Ahh well, this post took too long.

*I kept reading Mark Walhberg was good, and he was certainly entertaining and funny...but he was inconsequential, no?