Saturday, August 27, 2016

Ave, John!

Another year older and wiser, John McCrarey is celebrating his sixty-first. His blog post's title almost sounds like a Scottish accent: "Yoo're sexty-woone!"

"Star Trek Beyond": review


"Star Trek Beyond," directed by Justin Lin (of the "Fast and Furious" franchise) and written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung (who makes a cameo as Sulu's male life-partner), is the third movie in the rebooted Trek franchise and the first not to be directed by JJ Abrams.

The story takes place in roughly the third year of the Enterprise's revolutionary five-year exploratory mission, which was the subject of the original 1968 TV series. At this point, captain and crew have become old hands at encountering new worlds and new civilizations, but as Kirk puts it in his captain's log, the days are starting to run together, and the crew could stand to get some R&R. After a diplomatic mission involving tiny, paranoid aliens goes south, the Enterprise docks at the newest, largest, and most advanced starbase the Federation has: the Yorktown, a massive, spherical installation housing millions of Starfleet officers and civilians from dozens of different worlds. While there, Kirk ponders leaving the Enterprise for a vice-admiral position while Spock considers a life of diplomacy after hearing news of Ambassador Spock's death.*

Their musings are interrupted by a desperate plea for help: an alien woman named Kalara claims she is the lone survivor of an attack that occurred in a nearby nebula; her crew has been taken. Kirk and the Enterprise crew saddle up and plunge into the nebula, which is largely uncharted space, arriving at the planet Altamid, where they are quickly ambushed by a swarming fleet of tiny alien vessels that literally shred the Enterprise into tattered bits, causing the crew to abandon ship. The aliens, led by the burly, angry Krall (Idris Elba) and his henchman Manas (martial artist Joe Taslim of "The Raid: Redemption"), manage to capture most of the Enterprise's crew, but the bridge crew reaches the planet's surface in a somewhat scattered manner: Scotty finds himself alone; Spock and McCoy crash-land, but Spock is severely wounded; Kirk and Chekov are paired up; luckless Uhura reaches the surface while trapped with Krall himself. Scotty eventually encounters warrior-woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, previously seen as the deadly, legless assassin in "Kingsman"), who has some idea what Krall is doing. Jaylah, who has evaded Krall's minions through the clever use of holographic technology, shows Scotty that she lives in what turns out to be an old, abandoned Federation starship: the USS Franklin, first ship to make Warp 4. The rest of the movie involves learning the details of Krall's dastardly plan: how he knew so much about the Enterprise to be able to attack it and overcome it so quickly and successfully, why he hates the Federation so intensely, and what he plans to do to strike a major blow against it.

In "X-Men: Apocalypse," there's a joke about how the third movie in a series is usually the one to fall down. That wisdom holds true for "Beyond" which, while entertaining, is weighed down by story and visual problems. The rebooted Star Trek series has, up to now, borrowed many of its story beats from Nicholas Meyer's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." I could see one or two Meyers-like tropes in this movie as well: Kirk and McCoy having an early heart-to-heart over drinks was one. It also borrows from "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" and "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" in terms of what happens to the Enterprise. Pegg and Jung have written a story that does its best to break away from the older films, but the plot still clings, somewhat, to the cinematic past.

In terms of actual story problems, the main issue for me was figuring out what Krall was about. We get this information in bits and pieces, and the picture that finally emerges hinges on a major plot twist that I won't reveal here if you're planning on seeing the movie. Suffice it to say that Krall's characterization is oblique. In almost every Trek movie, an effort is made to give every crew member a moment to shine; "Beyond" generally succeeds at this, but Uhura, although she gets to show off some hand-to-hand fighting ability, is pretty much wasted as a communications officer. Unlike in "Star Trek Into Darkness," where Uhura shows off her Klingon skills, we see nothing of her linguistic ability in "Beyond." Later, the Enterprise crew's solution for defeating the alien-swarm fleet is a corny excuse to show off the awesome destructive power of the Beastie Boys' music. Kirk's use of Jaylah's holo-tech is reminiscent of Quaid's use of a hologram in "Total Recall," but as in the 1990 film, holo-tech introduces logical problems, such as why Kirk's holo-facsimiles kick up dust and produce sound.

The above-mentioned visual problems come from Justin Lin's direction and the film's editing. I'll tip my hat to Lin for his fearlessness when it comes to huge sets: he's clearly comfortable with the grandiose, and to that extent, "Beyond" has some impressive visuals, the Yorktown starbase not least among them. But Lin's manner of editing battle scenes is somewhat confusing, and there were moments when I simply wasn't sure what was going on until the action had resolved itself. Confusion is the kiss of death when you're trying to build tension, and quick-cut editing often leaves the viewer unable to get his bearings when things get hectic. Contrast Lin's style with that of George Miller in his amazingly impressive "Mad Max: Fury Road" (lovingly reviewed here). Miller managed to build tension and create a frenetic environment, but he also controlled the visuals such that the viewer was never confused as to who was doing what to whom. Lin could take lessons from Miller on that score. Lin also has a bit too much love for sweeping, swooping, Peter Jackson-style tracking shots to establish a scene. These types of shots aren't bad in themselves, but overusing them can become annoying, especially once the viewer starts noticing the repetitiveness.

There were things the movie did right, though. Spock and Uhura begin the story by breaking up for reasons that have little to do with their love for each other and more to do with Spock's sense of obligation toward his destroyed homeworld. Narrative-wise, this is actually helpful in that it keeps the Spock-Uhura relationship from gumming up the plot for much of the movie—at least until Spock feels the need to go rescue Uhura despite his severe abdominal wound. (Interestingly, McCoy informs us that Vulcans keep their hearts where humans keep their livers. Good to remember if you're a sniper trying to kill a Vulcan, but illogical from an evolutionary standpoint because a Vulcan's rib cage offers far less protection for the heart.) The Spock-McCoy tension is kept humorously alive (watch for the "horseshit" joke); Chekov, unlike Uhura, gets more opportunities to be useful. The biggest surprise for me was Mr. Scott's expanded role (although, really, that shouldn't have been a surprise given that Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, was a co-writer of the screenplay): he becomes something of a father figure to Jaylah, eventually nudging her to join Starfleet. Finally, I have to give the movie credit for one absolutely ballsy artistic move: there's a shot near the end of the film in which Spock looks pensively at a photograph of the old, pre-reboot Enterprise bridge crew. Yes: William Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelley as McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, and Walter Koenig as Chekov. The scene was almost a dare, forcing the viewer to compare his experience watching the rebooted movies to his experience watching the older films. For me, the photo produced a pang of nostalgia for the old crew, and I wonder whether that was the point.

In terms of themes, "Beyond" continues the idea, established in the second movie, of the Enterprise crew as a sort of extended family. This gets tied into notions of unity through diversity—something that Krall is adamantly against after decades of bitter experience. The E pluribus unum theme may be one reason why Star Trek films don't resonate in the Korean market: Korea is still a fairly xenophobic culture that has a hard time digesting the level of cooperation and acceptance of alterity** shown in Gene Roddenberry's universe. I did find it ironic, though, that Krall would despise the virtues of acting in concert given that his preferred method of space battle involves the use of coordinated swarms.

"Star Trek Beyond" is watchable, but it's about what you'd expect for a third outing. The screenwriting shows glimmers of joy and genius, humor and pathos, but the story problems do tend to muck things up for the inveterate thinkers in the viewing audience. I'd cautiously recommend seeing the movie once, but I can't say I'm all that keen to watch it again.

ADDENDUM: regarding the whole "Oh, noes! Sulu is gay!" flap that resulted when it was revealed that "Beyond" would show Sulu meeting his male life-partner (the press releases say that Doug Jung's character, Ben, is Sulu's husband, but this is never mentioned in the film; Sulu and Ben are simply shown walking with their arms around each other's waists, with Ben holding a little girl who is, I assume, their adoptive daughter): I couldn't give a damn about this. Sulu is gay—so what? George Takei, who played the original Sulu and who is openly gay, expressed some mild disapproval about portraying Sulu as gay because, in Takei's opinion, Sulu's sexuality was never part of Gene Roddenberry's original vision for the character. Takei was ripped apart on social media, where he was accused—by fellow liberals utterly blind to irony—of homophobia. I found this absolutely hilarious. One of the greatest modern champions of gay rights—a homophobe!

ADDENDUM 2: I'm not sure, but during the movie, I thought I heard mention of the Kzinti as enemies of the Federation. If so, then that's a very cool nod to Larry Niven's Known Space stories. The Kzinti are a race of tiger-like aliens who are so impulsive in battle that they constantly lose against more level-headed, strategically thinking human forces. One on one, however, no human can ever hope to beat a Kzin. They're Chewbacca-level strong.

ADDENDUM 3: Singer Rihanna made a lovely song, "Sledgehammer," that's been marketed with "Star Trek Beyond." I find the song beautiful, but the lyrics, ostensibly about a woman's inner strength following a breakup, have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie. (Spock and Uhura's breakup is amicable; Uhura takes no sledgehammer to Spock's heart.) Rihanna's video, however, is a major Trek tie-in: it initially depicts her as some weird priestess-figure stranded on the surface of a planet and performing strange, evocative rituals as she sings. At the video's end, she becomes a huge, goddess-like face floating in space, toward which a tiny Enterprise can be seen flying. I'm not sure whether I was supposed to laugh, but I found the video cute and funny and maybe even a bit self-deprecating because of the over-the-top role that Rihanna plays in it. Watch it here.

ADDENDUM 4: In the comments, Charles contends that Krall's use of attacking swarms isn't ironic vis-à-vis his hatred of the Federation's valuation of unity-through-diversity. As Charles rightly points out, swarm members aren't truly individuals, and the Federation's unity plays up individuality, not drone-like thought and behavior. I replied to Charles's comment by saying the irony still obtains because Krall specifically attacks the idea of unity. Krall bitterly rails against the way the Federation makes peace with and cooperates with former enemies, which could mean he's anti-diversity, thus supporting Charles's point. But this is undermined by the fact that Krall is using alien technology that not only prolongs his life but is also mutagenic: if he's open to literally changing his own race to survive, how xenophobic can he be? My point is that it's not obvious that Krall's beef is against diversity, per se, but he definitely has something against the concept of unity. So I'm not quite ready to delete my swarm-irony sentence.

Another point: were the swarm craft piloted or unpiloted? I believe they were piloted. In the initial attack on the Enterprise, many swarm craft crash into the larger ship, then open up to allow individual soldiers to board and attack the Enterprise's crew. The soldiers don't exhibit swarming behavior. According to Wikipedia, the craft are repurposed drones left over by the previous alien occupants of the planet. Who are these soldiers, speaking an alien language (which Krall, a native English speaker, has learned)? Their fighter craft move as concerted swarms, but as soldiers, they move individually. Manas, Krall's henchman, is—I think—of the same original race as Krall (still trying to avoid spoilers!); these other drone fighter pilots... are they also of the same race? Do they have the same origins? If so, why do they speak in an alien tongue? There are more story-related problems here, but if Krall is allying himself with individuals who happen to use "cyberpathic" (Spock's term) swarm tactics when fighting space battles, then I'd still say the irony obtains.

*You'll recall that, in the rebooted Trek universe, there are two Spocks—the older Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy and referred to as "Spock Prime" by Trekkies; and the younger Spock, played by Zachary Quinto. The 2009 film showed how Spock Prime ended up in the rebooted universe's timeline. To its credit, "Star Trek Beyond" features no time travel.

**This is a fancy postmodernist word for "otherness."

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ave, Charles!

Charles, recently back from Scotland, gives us a distilled account of his whisky walk.

(See what I did there?)

"Trek" tomorrow

My buddy Tom had said, before his month-long trip out to the Philippines and the States, that upon his return, he was planning to get tickets from his lawyer friend to a grand showing of "Star Trek Beyond" in one of the huge theaters over at Lotte World Tower Cinemas in Jamshil. As usual, though, he forgot all about his big plans once he was back, so I'm going to hit the movie alone tomorrow morning, before it leaves Korean theaters entirely. ("Trek" films never do nearly as well in Korea as they do in the West. Mike Hurt wrote on this long ago.)

For some weird reason, "Beyond" isn't playing at the Tower tonight, but it is tomorrow—probably a reflection of how the cinema is juggling a slew of domestic and foreign films. That juggling, combined with the movie's rapidly declining ticket sales (Naver Movie tracks ticket reservations and displays them, weekly, as percentages; currently, "Beyond" tickets are being reserved by only 6.29% of all ticket-reservers), means I need to see the movie this weekend or risk waiting for it to come out on video. Sorry, Tom.

unwontedly cool

What a morning! Almost no humidity, and temperatures are in the 70s. It's 72°F right now (22.2°C); we won't even crack 80°F (26.7°C) today, according to my weather app. Tonight's walk ought to be mighty pleasant. Maybe I'll finally do the 28-staircase thing.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Braai Republic, sausage plate

Chorizo, boerwors, pork, beef, and excellent, light slaw.


So I've finally been to Braai Republic, a South African grill joint that sits a bit off the main street in Itaewon (website here). The place was nearly empty when my boss, my coworker, and I lumbered in around 5:30PM. The owner of the place, who was seated with some chums just outside the entrance, greeted us with a hearty, "Whoa, three big guys coming our way! I'm scared!" Braai's interior (braai is Afrikaans for "barbecue" or "grill") was much smaller than I'd thought it would be; the place seated about fifty. As my coworker noted, this is why you have to call ahead to make reservations, especially on traffic-heavy days.

A young lady led us to our table and seated us next to a pair of Western ladies who were deep in conversation and doing an excellent job of ignoring us. They were the only other patrons in the place, which had only just opened for dinner at 5PM. Despite that fact, the kitchen was a bustle of activity; I suppose the cooks were prepping whatever the ladies had ordered.

We got our menus; my boss and coworker ordered a lamb-chop plate that came with sides of slaw and rough-mashed (almost smashed) potatoes; I ordered a sausage plate (was it called a "meat plate"? I can't remember*) that came with no sides except pickles, so I ordered a separate side of slaw. You see my meal above: it consisted of eight fat sausage links, all cooked to perfection, pickles, dipping sauces, and slaw on the side.

I have to give Braai Republic a hearty thumbs-up for the simplicity of the operation. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, but the menu, and the culinary concept behind it, is very no-bullshit, don't-fuck-around modest and direct. There's an almost frighteningly Spartan purity of purpose here, and it's obvious the owner and his crew take great pride in the product they're putting out. The name Braai already tells you that you're here for grilled meat, and my large plate cost only W17,000, which I deem a very fair price, especially by Korean standards. (The slaw, a large plate, was W3,500.)

My boss commented that the menu doesn't really feature a wide variety of items—but he intended this as a compliment: as he further explained, having few items meant the menu could stay simple and focused, with just a few plated elements being served in different permutations and combinations. (My boss didn't use the words "permutations and combinations." I doubt he remembers high-school math.)

So I had a meal that was hearty, rib-sticking, and reasonably priced (the company credit card took care of the tab; I'm not complaining). I'll definitely be back at Braai again, but it'll be tempting just to stick to the sausage plate I had this time around. Those lamb chops looked quite mouth-watering, but my coworker told us that Braai also serves a surprisingly filling lamb tenderloin on Sundays.

All three of us blew through our meals so quickly that the owner jokingly wondered aloud as to why we were leaving so fast. I told him (truthfully!) that we were going out for coffee. To be clear, we weren't in any hurry to escape the place; we had simply concentrated on eating almost to the exclusion of conversation. We did truly enjoy the food, however rapidly we dispensed with it. Braai serves up a nosh that even I find satisfying, although I'm probably going to order some mashed potatoes along with my meat and slaw next time.

Definitely worth the trip.

*An older menu, whose image I found online through a Google search, lists a "banger platter," but I don't think that's what my meal was called. Or was it?

antsy at the office

Yesterday afternoon, the boss very suddenly stated a desire to go out to dinner somewhere. Not being one for short-notice activities of any short, I locked up and immediately said I couldn't because I had to do my evening walk. I also noted that dinner before a walk would throw the timing of my bowels off. Exasperated, the boss asked when I'd be able to do dinner. "Uh... tomorrow?" I replied. I asked him what had brought this on, and he said he was simply sick of being in the office. I told him that, if he still wanted to go that same evening, along with my coworker, he was welcome to do so, but the boss said, "Nah... all three of us should go."

So tomorrow has become today, and I expect we'll be heading out of the office early to go somewhere for dinner. One possible destination is the new branch of the Shake Shack, which recently opened in Gangnam. My coworker says, however, that the Shake Shack is always crowded at all hours. This makes sense: Gangnam is a bumpin' district with tons and tons of neverending sidewalk traffic. I was also warned by the butcher in my building's grocery that the new Shake Shack actually sucks. I asked the butcher what, specifically, was the problem—price? portion size? quality? "All three," he said. Small portions, mediocre meat (as a butcher, he'd know), and jacked-up prices. With all that going against it, I suspect that the Shake Shack is out as a destination.

Alternative dinner destinations will probably be somewhere in the Itaewon-Noksapyeong-Gyeongnidan area. Furriner-land. There's a Mideast-themed sandwicheria called Casablanca that my coworker praised; I've also seen some very good writeups of the place online. Aside from that, I don't know where else we might go, but I imagine we'll be discussing possible eateries in the next hour or so.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"Sherlock Holmes": review

A week or so ago, I watched both 2009's "Sherlock Holmes" and 2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," both directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes, as well as Jude Law as Holmes's faithful aide, Dr. John Watson. The first movie pits Holmes against a friendly rival and maybe-lover, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams); it also pits Holmes against the snaggle-toothed Lord Henry Blackwood (Mark Strong), an apparent practitioner of the black arts who seemingly comes back to life after having been executed and pronounced dead by Dr. Watson himself. The second movie finds Holmes going head-to-head with his arch-nemesis from the Conan Doyle* novels: none other than Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, who took to the role with an almost vampiric delight). Readers of the Holmes stories will know that Holmes and Moriarty came to physical blows at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland; Conan Doyle had intended to kill Holmes off at that point, but the public outcry was such that he brought Holmes back for further adventures. Guy Ritchie set out to tell some old stories in a new way; rather than delve into the respective mysteries laid out in these two movies, I'd rather concentrate on two aesthetic questions:

(1) Did I like what Guy Ritchie had done with the Holmes character?
(2) How did Ritchie's treatment diverge from, and compare with, the books'?

This might cause a walkout among my blog's five readers, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Ritchie's updated take on Sherlock Holmes. The wacky English director responsible for the stylistically aggressive** 2000 movie "Snatch" brought an updated, amped-up, sped-up, light-hearted sensibility to Conan Doyle's somewhat staid approach to describing Holmes. Creating a modernized Holmes is no mean feat, especially these days, when reboots of Holmes abound in the form of Dr. House, the TV series "Elementary," or even the rebooted "Sherlock" starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Ritchie succeeds at creating a Holmes who is at once relatable and yet more or less his old 1890s-era self.

Ritchie was one of the first to transfer the use of music-video techniques to the big screen. Like Zack Snyder, Ritchie varies the action from normal speed to super slo-mo, and he deftly shifts between bright overexposure and dark shadow. When Holmes hits someone's face with a jab, the punch takes an eternity to land and results in rippling facial muscles, balletically flying droplets of sweat and saliva, and basso groaning. Ritchie also includes plenty of humor to keep us awake; both movies feature funny, rapidfire repartee between Holmes and Watson (also rebooted to be more of an equal with Holmes, but more on that in a bit). Downey, who is no stranger to doing English, Australian, and other accents, handles British pronunciation and intonation capably, if not perfectly. The moments when he has to speak French don't come off quite as well; Downey is obviously much less comfortable in that language, mushing his vowels and consonants. The role calls for someone who is as much a physical actor as a dramatic one, though, and Downey fits the bill. In terms of visuals, pacing, tone, and casting, Ritchie's films are a success. I'd chalk both Holmes movies up as a guilty pleasure: I probably shouldn't like them (Conan Doyle purists wouldn't), but I do.

In terms of how far Ritchie's vision of Holmes diverged from Holmes's portrayal in the books and short stories, I'd say that Ritchie remained remarkably faithful to the literature in some ways while taking great liberties in others. As briefly mentioned above, one of the major changes was how Holmes and Watson relate to each other. If you've read the short stories and the two or three novels that Conan Doyle wrote, then you know that Watson most often finds himself in the role of chronicler, but that Holmes is generally dissatisfied with the way Watson depicts him. Holmes, who is intellectually arrogant and socially retarded, bluntly claims that Watson routinely misses the essential points of the cases that Holmes solves. Holmes further complains that Watson tends to exaggerate and embellish—a complaint that Watson himself often chafes at because he is at pains to create as faithful a recounting as possible. Overall, in the literature, Watson comes across as level-headed and generally submissive, so it's interesting to see how, in Ritchie's version, Watson is more of an equal partner in Holmes's adventures than he is in the books—someone unwilling to take Holmes's flak, and who can go toe-to-toe with Holmes verbally, sometimes even acquiring the rhetorical high ground.

Ritchie's treatment of the cases themselves is actually fairly close to the spirit of the books. Conan Doyle only rarely ever gave us true technical insights into how Holmes solved his cases: unlike Agatha Christie's excellent stories, in which hints are dropped along the way so that readers have a chance to solve the problems themselves, Conan Doyle preferred a more deus ex machina style in which Holmes's methodology remains obscure but everything comes together at the end, when Holmes explains most of his insights in one big speech. (One major exception to this is "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual," in which we see Holmes using logic, and even trigonometry, to solve a case. This story stands out for the inside look it gives us into Holmes's approach.***) High above the Thames, on the still-under-construction Tower Bridge, Holmes gives a big, explanatory speech to Lord Blackwood at the end of the first movie—complete with flashbacks to remind the viewer—and the effect is very Conan Doyle-ish.

The movies also play up certain aspects of Holmes's life that don't get much play in the books, while also downplaying others. First and foremost is Holmes's fighting ability: in the stories, Holmes mentions his familiarity with a martial art called baritsu, which is likely a bastardization of an actual integrated martial art of the era called bartitsu, which involved Japanese-style hand strikes, below-the-waist foot strikes, grappling moves, and the use of certain gentlemanly objects, like canes, as weapons for self-defense. As it turns out, when the fight choreography was designed for the movie, it was modeled around a martial art that Robert Downey, Jr. actually practices: wing chun, which is the same art that Bruce Lee studied before Lee went on to invent jeet kune do. The version of wing chun that we see on the screen is rather slappy in nature (in Japanese, these quick, distracting strikes are called atemi, and they are usually the lead-in to heavier, more damaging strikes), but is laced with legitimate kung fu moves. Several scenes show Holmes mentally anticipating the sequence of blows and blocks he'll need to execute in order to bring his opponent down; fight-choreography junkie that I am, I liked this aspect of the films. I don't think Ritchie specifically plays up Holmes's cocaine addiction (in the books, Holmes takes cocaine intravenously, as a liquid), but Holmes is shown consuming fluids not meant for consumption, including one that Watson claims is for eye surgery. Meanwhile, Holmes's obnoxious habit of playing the violin at all hours is reduced, in the films, to his merely plucking at the instrument.

A word about some other characters: we get an eyeful of Irene Adler in the first movie, and a healthy dose of Mycroft Holmes (Sherlock's eccentric-genius older brother, ably played by Stephen Fry, who is a welcome sight, except when naked). Mycroft doesn't get the characterization he deserves: in the books, he's a genius-level detective who prefers to solve his cases in an armchair way; unlike his younger brother Sherlock, he has no taste for adventure. The filmic Adler is more like the Adler of the books: we know she's clever because Conan Doyle asserts this, but we never really learn how she has managed to outsmart Sherlock Holmes. Professor Moriarty is just as opaque on film as he is on the page; in my opinion, after having heard so much about Moriarty the arch-nemesis over the years, I had expected Conan Doyle to give us a villain fleshed out in every detail, but in fact he's one of the most disappointingly vague baddies I've ever encountered. In the books, what we learn of Moriarty comes to us through Holmes, who very generally describes Moriarty's reputation and some of his accomplishments, which include the building of an enormous and interconnected spider's web of crime that infiltrates London and much more. In the second movie, Moriarty is shown to be a mean fellow who doesn't flinch from Jack Bauer-style torture, but as in the books, we're given only the merest glimpse of his actual genius. I'm not sure I should blame Guy Ritchie, here, for not giving us more with Moriarty, but I do somewhat blame him: this was one area in which Conan Doyle could have, and should have, been improved upon.

So, yes: I enjoyed both films. Purists will prefer the old-school Holmes with his ridiculous magnifying glass, his cloak, and his double-billed deerstalker cap—the tropes by which the classic Sherlock is known, even to people who have never read the stories. I watched Guy Ritchie's two films and didn't miss the old-school Holmes at all. Your mileage may vary.

*It's common for many writers to refer to Arthur Conan Doyle as either "Doyle" or "Conan Doyle." Wikipedia has an interesting entry on how legitimate it is to use "Conan Doyle" since, technically, "Conan" was a middle name and not part of a hyphenated surname (e.g., "Conan-Doyle"). Common usage—and the man's own idiosyncratic usage—make "Conan Doyle" permissible, and whenever I type the man's name, that's what seems to roll out most easily for me. You're free to say and write "Doyle," though, if that pleases you.

**I borrow this phrase from another reviewer who was referring to Baz Luhrmann's frenetically paced and visually kaleidoscopic "Moulin Rouge."

***My review of Conan Doyle's books and short stories is here. Amusingly, I noted, upon rereading, that in that review, I tended to write "Doyle" and not "Conan Doyle." I guess what rolls out most easily can change over time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

skip this post

This post is just another in a long line of bitching-and-moaning posts about the summer heat and humidity. Korea's in East Asia, not Southeast Asia, but the heat and humidity are nevertheless oppressive during the four-month-long summer. Walking outside, even at night, is no longer a pleasure; whether I'm out doing a creekside walk or inside my building doing a staircase trudge, it all feels like work, and I have no motivation.

I've truncated my creekside walks: taking my own advice, I now stop after staircase #14, then just walk on back. This has the dual benefit of both cutting my walking time almost in half and preserving my feet from the aches and pains of a routine five-plus-hour, thirty-plus-thousand-step walk. These days, my walks are under 20K steps, but I still sweat as if I were doing the full megawalk. I guess the summer heat is good for something.

I have, however, had the wild thought of doing the creekside staircases on the way back—something I've never done. That would bring me up to twenty-eight staircases: fourteen out and fourteen back. The total number of stair steps in such a walk would be more than the number of steps I do when walking three times up my apartment building: around 1800 steps as opposed to around 1600. I'd also be guaranteed to sweat out even more water weight. To be honest, I'm not keen on pushing myself to do such a walk, but I might try it, anyway, out of morbid curiosity. My only worry is that the creekside staircases aren't as safe as the staircase in my building: the wooden steps are often creaky and/or tilted and/or warped, and the railings are often shrouded by drooping tree branches, which means I often walk down the center of each staircase. If I get dizzy from doing twenty-eight staircases, I'll have nothing to hold on to, which could be a problem. Again, we'll see. I might give the 28-staircase thing a try tonight. Or not. I may need to psych myself up for this.

Fuck, it's hot. I hate Korean summer.

*This would be twenty-eight full-size staircases—another daunting prospect. On my megawalks, I normally do thirty-three staircases, but after #14, the staircases shrink down to a half or a third of the size of the first fourteen.

Monday, August 22, 2016

today's lunch: sliders 3 ways

To celebrate my having paid off my second major debt, I decided to throw a slider party at the office. With beef chuck still being on sale at my building's grocery, I bought 980 grams, asked for it to be ground up into hamburger, then took it back to my place to make sliders. I was able to make ten; the plan was to bring nine to the office so that we three guys could eat three each, so I ate the tenth slider right after having cooked it. It was juicy and delicious. I also brought along a ton of sauces and trimmings so that my boss and coworker could make American, Tex-Mex, Argentinian, or Italian sliders as they saw fit.

Here's the spread (my coworker had already taken one burger):

Above, you see Costco bread, beef slider patties, mayo, barbecue sauce, ketchup, jalapeños, chimichurri, fried cheddar cheese, fried Parmesan cheese, pesto, Gorgonzola, Tex-Mex-style mushrooms (lots of cumin), sweet pickles, chili, spaghetti sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and thick-cut bacon. A person could make the burger at least four ways according to a standard flavor profile: American, Tex-Mex, Argentinian, or Italian.

Here's what I did—I started with American first:

Above: slider with pickles, tomato, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce.

Below, I went Tex-Mex: chili, cheddar wedge, and jalapeños. I also added a hunk of thick-cut bacon (see it under the cheese?). I must say, the bacon was a surprise: my grocery was selling it for fairly cheap (by Korean standards, anyway), and it was a generic brand, but it turned out great when I cooked it in the microwave and finished it in a pan.

Finally, I did Italian—pesto, Parmesan wedge, and tomato:

My boss ended up having only two sliders, so my coworker gobbled four. I had three.

My apologies to all you onion-lovers, but I hate onions, so I didn't think to include any. I got no complaints from my fellow diners, so I don't think the absence of onions was tragic.

And a good time was had by all.

POST SCRIPTUM: the fried-cheese wedges tasted great, but instead of being crunchy, they were thick and leathery—a bit hard to chew. I'm pretty sure the problem was that they were all too thick, and I had containerized them before they'd had a chance to cool completely. This means that any remaining steam was trapped inside the container with the cooling cheese, destroying any crispness and turning the cheese leathery. It's a bit of a Catch-22, though: when the cheese is thin and crispy, I often find that it tastes too burned. Too thick, and you get the textural problems I had. My solution, next time, will be to cook the cheese thick again, but to (1) let it cool completely before containerizing, and (2) cut it into thin strips for easier eating. Otherwise, everything tasted amazing.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Last Days in the Desert": review


"Last Days in the Desert" is a biblically themed film directed by Rodrigo García and starring Ewan McGregor as both Jesus and Satan. It tells the non-canonical story of one final temptation of Jesus as he's leaving the desert to return to civilization: on his way out after having put himself through a forty-day trial, Jesus encounters a small family: a father (Ciarán Hinds), a mother (Ayelet Zurer), and a son (Tye Sheridan). Persuaded by the father to accept the family's hospitality, Jesus elects to stay with them a while, helping the father with a house-building project (Jesus does have carpentry skills, after all). As time goes on, Jesus learns that the son has ambitions that would lead him into the big city (Jerusalem, in this case) while the father intends for the son to remain in the desert and to carry on his work. The mother, meanwhile, is sick and dying. On top of all this, Satan seems not to be finished with Jesus: he is portrayed here as a constant companion, unseen by others but seen by Jesus, quietly mocking and hectoring the prophet, occasionally lying as is his wont, occasionally providing answers that seem quite honest.

Artistically speaking, the movie sits somewhere on the spectrum between Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" and pretty much anything by Terrence Malick, whose movies are nothing if not meditative. There's conflict, symbolism, and pain in "Last Days." The family that Jesus encounters is obviously a metaphor for Jesus' own internal struggle: the father, while present, is hard and distant toward his son, a sensitive boy who likes making up his own riddles. (The father tells Jesus that he himself dislikes riddles.) Satan reveals much about himself, but we're never quite sure how much of it is a lie. In a vulnerable moment, Jesus asks Satan what it's like to stand face-to-face with the Father, and Satan's reply is chilling: "There is no face. There is no face." Satan also mockingly asks Jesus whether people a thousand years hence will even care about what Jesus has done, and the film's final scene—in which modern-day tourists snap photos of themselves at a cliff's edge that Jesus had visited—seems to reinforce the idea that Jesus' efforts amount to little more than vain striving. The movie is quiet, and quietly bleak.

"Last Days" could be read as a demythologized version of part of the Jesus story: Satan can be chalked up to a hallucination; there are no miracles (Jesus attempts to heal the mother, but she rejects his ministrations); when Jesus' suffering, death, and burial occur near the very end, there is no resurrection. As with Mark Salzman's fantastic novella Lying Awake, the movie's approach to spirituality is fairly Zen: emphasis is placed on ordinariness, not on cosmic drama. The movie is also mostly about the dialogue—Jesus' exchanges with Satan, as well as Jesus' exchanges with each of the three family members.

In all, I found "Last Days in the Desert" to be a thoughtful drama. It's not quite as intense as Scorsese's take on Christ, nor is it quite as dreamy as a Terrence Malick film, but there is a subtle depth to be found here. The story might resonate with non-Christians to the extent that it's been demythologized; as with many such films, God Himself never puts in an appearance, which is consistent with God's increasingly apophatic role as we move from the Hebrew Bible—the Tanakh—to what Christians call the New Testament.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

From the "Kubo and the Two Strings" soundtrack comes this charmingly updated version of The Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

"Kubo" has been released to great reviews in the States; it'll be in Korea soon, I hope.


Friday, August 19, 2016

does the Brexit represent the will of the people?

I've heard the media-supported narrative that the Brexit was a revolution fueled by the old. At the same time, I saw articles in the early aftermath that said the stats don't bear this narrative out. Here's another article in that vein.

And just a reminder: all that's happened thus far is a vote for the Brexit, not the event itself. The actual Brexit will be a years-long process that probably won't begin at all this year, and maybe not even next year. If the Brexit is truly a revolt by the old, it's likely that many of those oldsters won't live to see the grand exodus begin in earnest. And that's a shame.

While you're at it, enjoy this: "Unemployment Falls After Brexit [Vote]."

"ParaNorman": review

I watched my second Laika production last night: "ParaNorman," the story of another eleven-year-old kid involved with the supernatural. Long story short: I liked this movie a hell of a lot more than I did "Coraline." "ParaNorman" is plenty weird and quirky, but those elements aren't nearly as much the focus of the film as is the plot itself: I found the plot of "ParaNorman" to be much more sensible and coherent than that of "Coraline." The rules of magic are easier to follow in this film; most of the ghost-and-witchery-related exposition is front-loaded at the beginning of the story.

"ParaNorman" tells the tale of young Norman Babcock who, just like Odd Thomas and little Cole from "The Sixth Sense," sees dead people: ghosts all over town who know that Norman can interact with them. At school, Norman is a social pariah because of his ability; at home, Norman's father is frustrated with Norman's tendency to make a spectacle of himself every time he reacts to supernatural events (including talking with Norman's dead grandmother, in a nod to "The Sixth Sense"). Norman's crazy uncle, Mr. Prenderghast, finds our protagonist and babbles that Norman will henceforth have the duty of protecting the town from the dead—a duty that Prenderghast himself had fulfilled up to now, but can no longer fulfill because his poor health has put him in mortal danger. Sure enough, Prenderghast dies shortly after his encounter with Norman, but his spirit finds Norman in a restroom cubicle and finishes the spiel he had begun while alive.

Norman is tasked with finding an old book—currently clutched in the hands of Prenderghast's corpse—and reading the text aloud at the grave of a witch who had been executed in the 1700s. Along for the ride is his tubby friend Neil; we also meet Norman's nemesis Alvin, Norman's sister Courtney, and Neil's hunky-but-dim older brother Mitch. Alvin, being a jerk, prevents Norman from completing the book-reading ritual before sundown, as Prenderghast had commanded. It turns out the ritual wouldn't have worked, anyway: Norman was at the wrong gravesite. Zombies—objectively real and not merely a seeming figment of Norman's imagination—erupt from the earth at the location of Norman's botched ritual; the malign spirit of the witch dominates the sky as an evil, tendril-clouded thunderstorm; everything goes haywire. Norman must somehow solve the zombie problem and the witch problem to restore order, and these efforts occupy the remainder of the film.

As I wrote above, "ParaNorman" was much more enjoyable than "Coraline" was. Part of the reason for this is that it was damn funny. There's plenty of visual and spoken humor for the kiddie crowd, but at least half of the humor is aimed at the adults in the audience, and it all works together smoothly. I laughed out loud throughout most of the movie, whereas I laughed not at all while watching the lugubrious "Coraline."* I also felt that the resolution of "ParaNorman" was much more emotionally compelling—a tribute to Norman's bravery and to the power of gentle compassion. In all, I heartily recommend "ParaNorman."

(My friend Steve Honeywell offers a well-written, and more detailed, review here.)

*Granted, "Coraline" is a horror-fantasy while "ParaNorman" is a horror-comedy, so there may be an unfair, apples-and-oranges aspect to this comparison. That said, I can only go by my experience, and laughter is one metric for how much I enjoy a film.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

ça y est—c'est fait

It is accomplished.

I've put in the "pay off" request with OneMain Financial, so after the request processes through in a few business days—first at OneMain, then at my bank—I'll have completely paid off the second of my four major debts. Everything is proceeding perfectly on track per my unsinkable budget, which really is a well-oiled machine. Although making that budget was one of the more boring things I've done, I also think it's one of the most important, and I'm very glad I did it. It makes up for the terrible life-choices I had made in my youth, and it resets the crooked tent pole of my life back to the vertical. Freeing myself from the OneMain debt means giving myself $250 a month of extra breathing room, which is now added to the extra $213/month of breathing room that came when I paid off my car earlier this year.

I chose this debt-payment strategy because it made psychological sense to me: chop away at my smaller debts first, saving my larger debts for last. This lets me feel a sense of accomplishment as I work my way upward while also allowing the savings to gain momentum by freeing up progressively more cash with every successive payoff. As things stand, I'll have almost $10,000 in the bank by this December; by August of next year, that total will have ballooned to $15,000. By December 2017, that will have gone up to $27,000.* By the time my budget "ends" (it never ends, really) in December of 2019, I'll have almost $40,000 in the bank. At that point, if I continue saving at the same rate—and with no major debts to hold me back any longer—I'll be saving at an insane rate once I'm in my fifties.

*The reason for the seemingly sudden jump has to do with how Korean companies (at least those involved with education) handle severance pay. In the 90s, the rule was that, for every year that you worked, you'd receive one month's pay as part of your severance. In other words, if you worked at a given company for five years, then decided to quit, you'd be paid five months' severance pay. That's not a bad bit of cash, although it's undoubtedly less than you'd be getting, over time, if you had a more American-style retirement package.

Many schools and educational institutes (like hagweons, including the one I'm working for now) have reinterpreted the rule to mean that you'll be paid one month's salary every year, pending renewal of your one-year contract. Mathematically, this works out the same, but the difference is that you get paid at renewal; the severance money isn't saved up until the very end. I've built that fact into my budget such that, once a year, my savings will suddenly jump because I've effectively been paid double in September or October. (My contract ends on my birthday, August 31, so I'd expect my extra month's pay to happen in either September or October, depending on how quick the finance office is. That office is often asleep at the switch when it comes to any sort of non-automatic payments, so Murphy's Law suggests that I won't get my pay boost until October.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"Coraline": review

I re-watched "Coraline" last night. The film is a Laika production (the same group producing the upcoming "Kubo and the Two Strings"), and is directed by Henry Selick, from Selick's screenplay, which is adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline. The story centers on eleven-year-old Coraline Jones, a spunky tween whose family has just moved into a spooky mansion called the Pink Palace Apartments, an enormous house that has been divided into several living spaces. The Joneses occupy the central living space; above them lives an eccentric, over-the-hill Russian acrobat who talks to his mice; below live two equally eccentric—and eternally bickering—British ladies who own a gaggle of frisky black terriers. Bored out of her mind and unable to engage her parents' attention, Coraline goes exploring. She encounters Wybie, a bizarre boy of roughly the same age, and dislikes him immediately, but Wybie proves quirkily interesting. As the story unfolds, Coraline falls asleep, wakes up, and follows some mice to a mysterious door that leads to an entirely different universe—one populated by people and beings that have buttons for eyes. Coraline's button-eyed mother, in this universe, calls herself "the Other Mother," and unlike in Coraline's boring real-world existence, her alternate parents pay attention to her, cook only the best food, and let her have all the fun she wants. A black cat from Coraline's real world follows her into this alternate universe, where it acquires the power of speech and acts as a sort of Greek chorus, warning Coraline that she's in danger, and that the Other Mother is not who she appears to be.

Let's talk first about what "Coraline" gets right. The film doesn't pander: the plot is complex and will require kids to think hard and keep track of events. The visuals also eventually reach a level of intensity that will scare much younger kids: this isn't anything like the stop-motion-animated "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" Christmas special that we all grew up on: this is the full darkness associated with typical British children's stories. The eccentric characters that populate the plot are bona fide eccentric, and the mansion is the animated equivalent of a standard horror-movie mansion, with all the requisite nooks, crannies, shadows, and extradimensional portals. One nice touch is the obstreperous carpet at the beginning, which almost always has a wrinkle in it, no matter how many times Coraline tries to stamp the wrinkle smooth. The interactions between Coraline and her parents (who are writers) also strike me as emotionally valid; kids around Coraline's age will relate to the frustration of dealing with stupid, inattentive parents.* I can also see Neil Gaiman's ontological murkiness infused throughout the story: to what extent are all these events merely part of a dream? Could all of this simply be happening inside Coraline's head? (Gaiman uses the same trick in his novel American Gods, in which we're never quite sure what ontological status those gods enjoy: are they merely figments of the imagination? If so, then how are they affecting real-world events?) There are mature and heady themes floating in and through the story (feminism among them; the movie easily passes the Bechdel Test), so no one can accuse "Coraline" of being just superficial fun and games.

But despite all the positives, I didn't really get into "Coraline," and I'm still trying to figure out why. Part of the problem may be that the animators went full-on Tim Burton with their storytelling and their visual aesthetic. I had originally thought that "Coraline" had been either directed or produced by Burton, but as far as I can tell, he had nothing to do with this film. I suppose "Coraline" belongs to a "Burton wave" of stop-motion animation that focuses on misfits and marginals, the good-hearted ugly and the well-intended bizarre. Burton's style is fairly charming, but I wasn't charmed by the characters in "Coraline." Coraline herself is rendered in a way that I found visually unpleasant, and hunched-over Wybie even more so. Same goes for Coraline's father, and for the talking black cat. The musical score, which often relies on vocals, was also somewhat annoying. Deeper than these problems, though, was the problem of how the film dealt with magical reality. In any fantasy, including a horror-fantasy like "Coraline," when you employ magic, the rules for that magic need to be consistent, otherwise the viewer has no idea what to expect next. In a story with consistent rules for how magic works, the storyteller can build suspense. "Coraline" relies too heavily on exposition to explain what's going on and why, and the rules of magic in the alternate universe have been left so vague that I often wondered how on earth Coraline was able to decide on a specific course of action. This, to me, was a far more annoying problem than the musical score.

That said, "Coraline" isn't a bad film; it's just a film that didn't hit me the right way. I won't say that I don't recommend it, but I also can't say that I give it a thumbs-up. You have to have a certain aesthetic sense, I think, to appreciate the movie.

*It's only years later that kids realize just who, exactly, had been stupid and inattentive. Unless they have the misfortune of being born to shite parents.


My buddy Charles is back from his boozy hiking trip across the wilds of Scotland, and he and I are meeting up for dinner. I've proposed a second shot at 9 Ounce, near his campus, so we're meeting there. More later.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

more on the way

Fear not: more movie reviews are on the way, including ones not on the original list. I saw "Coraline" years ago but didn't review it, so I ordered it on Amazon Prime to rewatch, and I've also ordered "ParaNorman." Both of these movies come from the animation house Laika, which has released the tremendous-looking "Kubo and the Two Strings," a movie I've been dying to see ever since I saw the first preview trailers a few months ago (have a peek). So you could say I'm Laika-ing up before "Kubo" comes to Korea.

Meantime, expect reviews of:

• "Sherlock Holmes" (2009)
• "Machete"
• "Machete Kills"
• "The Expendables 3"
• "Last Days in the Desert"
• "Coraline"
• "ParaNorman"

Coming soon to a monitor near you.

Monday, August 15, 2016

inauspicious holiday

August 15 is Liberation Day in Korea, where it's known locally as Gwangbok-jeol (光復節, 광복절: light-healing-day*). President Park Geun-hye apparently gave a speech in which she laid out terms for getting along better with North Korea; commentators are describing her speech as "blasting" the North, but I don't see it that way. You don't have to speak in an incendiary manner to offend the oversensitive, easily angered North; I found Park's words to be fairly mild, but South Korean media, which often see things from the North's point of view, thought Park was being provocative.

Absent from the speech, as usual, was any mention of America and other nations' role in liberating the peninsula, which was released from Japanese subjugation at the end of World War II, in 1945. This is a shame, but I've gotten used to—as John McCrarey once described it—quietly saying You're welcome to the peninsula on this day. I strongly suspect that Korean children from the 1990s onward have been implicitly taught that Korea somehow liberated itself; the idea that Korea was liberated by a foreign power is meant to be quietly tucked away and not referred to publicly. Ideally, it should be shut out and forgotten.

A person I follow on Twitter recently tweeted a pic of a poem titled "Liberation is a Cruel Hoax." The poem reads in part:

But this otherwise glorious and joyous date still mocks our dreams
and aspirations as one people.
We cry out for our unrequited liberation from our unacceptable fate.
It doesn't matter where we live. We are all exiles from our memory
of the Land of Morning Calm, once in one piece even under the
brute force of a savage neighbor.

So the poet seems to be saying, "Under the Japanese, at least, we were united," which is, I suppose, a reference to how the peninsula was split into North and South by other global powers. The poem expresses a wish for reunification. I agree that the North-South split is a bad and painful thing, but is the poet, perhaps by extension, wishing for a return to the bad old days of Japanese occupation? I'm no longer a cheerleader for reunification. Germany has made it work, sort of, but I don't think Koreans are psychologically in the same place as Germany. Koreans in general have a much more pronounced grievance culture that prevents them from moving forward in certain areas, and an inability to let go of the past doesn't bode well for any sort of future sociocultural progress.

I don't think of Liberation Day as an auspicious holiday for South Korea. The day is an uncomfortable reminder that Korea was liberated by foreign powers; it did not gain freedom on its own. That's a sore fact—one that Koreans these days try their damnedest to ignore, but in ignoring that fact, they simply turn it into the unspoken elephant in the room. If Koreans are, as I suspect, rewriting history to make it seem as if they somehow liberated themselves, then what separates Koreans, morally speaking, from Japanese textbook writers who have been whitewashing Japan's role in World War II?

Believe me, I love South Korea, and I want to see it happy and prosperous. But I also want to see it being honest about its past, and being grateful—just once a year—to the people who fought and died to help make current prosperity a reality, not a cruel hoax. It is indeed tragic that a South Korean-style economy and a South Korean-style political system are not regnant across the entire peninsula, but 50 million people have taken the reins of their country's fate and made their land into a global power; meanwhile, above the DMZ, 23 million people have chosen fatalism instead of throwing off the shackles of oppression. That's the fault of those people, not the fault of the powers that divided Korea into North and South.**

*Gwang is the Sino-Korean word for "light." Bok refers to healing or recovery, as in the verb hwaebok-hada, i.e., "to heal." The word jeol normally refers to a season (as in gyejeol, which refers to the four annual seasons), but can mean a particular measure of time—a period, a point, a day, etc.

**But if the Japanese occupation is any indication, North Koreans may be constitutionally incapable of throwing off the yoke of oppression and must instead wait passively for foreign intervention to liberate them. Self-liberation could be too much to expect.

"Weiner": review

Man, that was brutal. I cringed pretty much the whole way through "Weiner."*

"Weiner" is a documentary film by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg that chronicles the most painfully awkward moments of former Congressman Anthony Weiner's life. You may recall that Weiner used to be a member of the US House of Representatives for New York (9th District). A sexting (i.e., sexual text messaging) scandal erupted in 2011 when photos of Weiner's "bulging underwear" surfaced online and were spread all over social media. Weiner had apparently been sexting with around six women over the course of several years. Ultimately, he resigned from Congress, but in 2013, he resurfaced as a Democrat candidate for mayor in the 2013 New York City mayoral race. "Weiner" documents the ex-congressman's unsuccessful bid for mayor while a second sexting scandal erupts around him. As other reviewers have observed, one of the most incredible points to note is that the documentary team was still allowed to film everything even as Weiner was imploding a second time.

The documentary gives us a good look at Weiner's personality, which is a weird-but-compelling mixture of pugnacity and smarts. Weiner is a passionate debater on the floor; he can be arrogant and cold, but off the floor, he can also be self-deprecating and caring. In person in a public forum, he can be amazingly charismatic. In a sequence that happens later in the film, Weiner is shown campaigning in front of a crowd that initially wants him just to go home; through a combination of brutal self-honesty and humor, Weiner ends up winning the crowd over, and people are loudly applauding and cheering by the end. I was impressed, in spite of myself, by the man's drive and charisma.

The problem, of course, is that Weiner's drive and charisma are of a piece with his randy online behavior: the good and the bad both flow from the aphrodisiacal nature of power and celebrity, even if that celebrity counts as little more than infamy. The story of Anthony Weiner is, in many ways, the story of many men in positions of power and authority—men who end up abusing those things to take advantage of women, or of anyone in a weaker position. Weiner, as a married man with one child, caused plenty of collateral damage in his marriage; that damage spread even to his campaign staff, who had to deal with the fallout from Weiner's reckless behavior. Whom the gods destroy, first they make proud.

Weiner's wife is Huma Abedin, who works as one of Hillary Clinton's closest aides. Much of the documentary focuses, naturally, on her, but she tries her best to put up a brave front in the face of all this scandal. In one candid moment, she says her life is like "living a nightmare," but through it all, she elects—bizarrely, in my opinion—to stick by her husband's side and help him with his mayoral campaign. One newscaster is shown as saying that Huma is living in an abuse dynamic, making excuses for her unscrupulous husband. Others suspect that she is too attracted to power to let go of Anthony, but this explanation begs the question of how and why divorcing him would endanger her position at the side of Hillary Clinton (Mrs. Clinton is indirectly cited as quietly encouraging Huma to separate from Anthony).

Weiner's most candid moments come during formal sit-down sessions with the camera, much as happens during those "diary room" shots you see on reality-TV shows, where a reality contestant confesses his or her deepest, darkest feelings to the camera and straight to viewing audiences. Weiner is at his most candid—and, arguably, at his most eloquent—during these scenes. Externally, at least, he seems willing to take full responsibility not only for his misdeeds but also for the damage those deeds have done. At the same time, his actual pattern of behavior suggests that something pathological might be going on: he might claim to love his wife and child, but he seems willing to get right back into sexting. (Some time after this documentary had been released in theaters, Weiner was recently caught in yet another bout of sexting. Weiner claims to have been aware that his sexting partner was a "catfish," i.e., someone trying to entrap him, but the actual content of the sexting dialogue shows no such awareness. Weiner later bitterly blamed the media, Rupert Murdoch in particular, for trying to ensnare him.)

This was a painful documentary to watch, but it thoroughly engaged the rubbernecker's reflex, making it impossible to look away from the inexorably unfolding disaster. The film also raised as many questions as it answered. In particular: was it truly possible for a man as obviously intelligent as Anthony Weiner to be so consumed by lustful impulses that he would sabotage his career over and over again? I suspect that only a clinical explanation would suffice. The same could be said for long-suffering Huma, who comes off as a victim, but who makes the conscious decision to "stand by her man," to use the Patsy Cline lyric that Hillary Clinton mocked before her own husband's randiness became the top story of the day, for many days. (For what it's worth, I give Anthony Weiner more credit than I do Bill Clinton for actually fessing up and acknowledging responsibility for his actions.) Huma's case could be seen as a window into the mind of Hillary Clinton, an inveterate politician who undoubtedly weighed her options in considering what to do about Wild Bill vis-à-vis her own future.

As to the question of why Anthony Weiner allowed the documentarians to continue filming while all was collapsing around him, I suspect that this, too, was an ego-driven decision. On some animalistic level, Weiner (as he openly admits in the film, in reference to a basic desire of all politicians) craves attention, no matter what kind. Some of us are like that: ego-affirmation comes only through the reactions of others, be those reactions positive or negative. It's how we know we exist. Others of us have no such needs.

Weiner, the man, has had trouble finding and keeping work since his 2013 mayoral flameout. His most recent sexting scandal occurred while he was working as a consultant at a PR firm. His stint there lasted only two months. "Weiner," the film, is hard to sit through, but I highly recommend the harsh light it shines on a riveting person, and on the damage that that person did—and probably still does—to the people around him.

*Disdaining Germanic rules of pronunciation, Weiner pronounces his name "wee-ner," not "vhy-nah." He could have cut the ridicule down by half simply by following German phonetics.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Can We Take a Joke?": review

"Can We Take a Joke?" is a documentary film directed by Ted Balaker and featuring insights from comedians Pen Jillette, Gilbert Gottfried, Adam Carolla, Lisa Lampanelli, Jim Norton, Heather McDonald, Karith Foster, and Christina Pazsitzky. Sponsored by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), an organization that primarily defends the free-speech rights of university students and professors, the documentary explores the trouble that many standup comedians find themselves in, these days, as they face modern American "outrage culture," i.e., a culture in which people are easily offended by the sort of humor that used to be considered merely off-color. The film strongly contends that pro-free-speech liberalism from the Sixties, especially as pertains to Lenny Bruce and the cultural climate he created, has become a repressive monster that is now the ideological opposite of what it used to be. This problem is especially prevalent on college campuses, where students these days (often termed "crybullies" or "screaming campus garbage babies") will actually shout down people whom they consider to have opposing, or at least politically incorrect, points of view. The irony seems to be lost on these kids: university is supposed to be where a student confronts ideas that are foreign to him or her and debates them on the basis of their merits. College was, ostensibly, to be about a supposedly liberal value: the free exchange of ideas without fear of repression. Now, however, repression is the primary mode of interaction.

I found the documentary to be most enlightening, but a trip over to Metacritic shows that the film currently has a 49 score, indicating "mixed or average" reviews. Given that most movie critics for newspapers skew liberal, it's no surprise that they see the documentary as "biased" and "one-sided"—terms that surfaced repeatedly when I surveyed the various critical reviews of the film. I had to laugh: most documentaries skew wildly liberal—completely unashamed of their own bias—yet receive heaps of praise from this same journalistic establishment. A single not-so-liberal documentary shows up, and the critics execrate it, thereby proving how deaf they are to their own hypocrisy. Michael Moore, at least, has the honesty to make his agenda clear when he does his documentaries. He crafts his films according to that agenda, not according to any principle of objectivity. He has shown, in fact, that media people can safely and freely do away with any pretense of objectivity. Journalism, meanwhile, still labors under the delusion that its methods remain even-handed. The fact that this isn't true is one of the worst-kept secrets in American culture, and "Can We Take a Joke?" is just one attempt to declare that the emperor has no clothes, and that the self-delusion must end. If not—if a free exchange of ideas is no longer possible—the larger culture is doomed.

Personal note: it's an axiom among conservatives that "liberals eat their own." Based on what I've seen, I think this is very true. When Robin Williams died, there were video tributes to him that clearly showed his delight in making ethnic jokes. Many of the voices and impressions he did involved accents and utterances that were cartoonish distortions of the cultures he targeted. Quite a few liberals were vocal in posthumously bashing Williams for his perceived racism and bigotry—a charge that Williams himself would have responded to with confusion and hurt. I might not agree with Williams's politics, but I respect his liberal self-consistency in believing that there are no sacred cows, a comedian's doctrine that the great George Carlin also subscribed to. (Carlin mercilessly skewered conservatives, but he also famously targeted people on the left like environmentalists, users of politically correct language, and liberal race-baiters.) "Can We Take a Joke?" begins with a montage of comedians apologizing for having made offensive jokes that hurt the feelings of such-and-such demographics. The irony: these comedians are mostly liberals themselves. Liberals eat their own, and as several comedians in the documentary bitterly note, Lenny Bruce would not recognize today's America.

"Hardcore Henry": review


According to the Wikipedia trivia for this movie, the eponymous Henry in the brutal, non-stop actioner "Hardcore Henry" was played by around ten different actors. The only other major stars are Sharlto Copley ("District 9," "Elysium," etc.) as a series of "Jimmy"s, Danila Kozlovsky as the villain Akan, and Haley Bennett as Estelle, Henry's maybe-wife. The movie most resembles a first-person-shooter (FPS) video game in its speed, intensity, and insistence on a Henry's-eye-view of all the action. Henry is literally a point-of-view character in this film—the only such character.

As the film begins, Henry wakes up in a lab, two of his limbs missing. The female scientist attending him says she's an expert on memory, and that she understands Henry may be confused as he remembers almost nothing previous to waking up. She calls herself Estelle and claims to be Henry's wife. Henry is also unable to speak; it turns out that he was involved in some sort of disaster—a firefight, an explosion, or something—that ripped away body parts and left him barely alive, hence both the memory loss and the muteness. Henry receives a robotic arm and leg, along with artificial skin for the arm, but doesn't have time to receive his speech module before the lab is attacked by the evil, telekinesis-using Akan (apparently a mutant; his telekinetic ability is never explained). Henry and Estelle manage to escape Akan, but Henry discovers that the lab is actually aboard an airship, so the only way down to the ground is an escape pod. He and Estelle climb aboard the last remaining pod, crash-landing on the streets of Moscow. Akan's goons quickly find Henry, who manages to escape, but he does so without Estelle, who is captured by the goons.

From this point on, the film is about Henry's attempt to figure out who and what he is and to recover Estelle while avoiding Akan's minions. Henry receives help from a series of people who are all called "Jimmy" (and all played by Sharlto Copley). Each Jimmy has a distinct look and personality, a fact that itself becomes a clue as to what larger plot is afoot. Along the way, Henry figures out that he's made for combat: he's an expert at hand-to-hand fighting and can use any weapon that comes into his possession. Henry's first task is to find a power cell so that he doesn't deactivate/die within the next thirty minutes. This proves to be a grisly task, as Henry has to dig into another man's chest cavity (and into his own) to retrieve and install the cell. From then on, it's a chase, with Akan's minions ever in hot pursuit.

Questions loom for Henry: who is Akan, and why does he want Henry dead? What is Akan's larger purpose? Who is Estelle, really? Who are these Jimmys who keep appearing in rapid succession, and why are they trying to help Henry? Most important: who is Henry himself?

"Hardcore Henry" was filmed almost entirely with GoPro cameras—the tiny, lightweight ones that you strap to your head to record a first-person perspective while skiing (watch this amazing video) or performing other stunts. The technique works marvelously for most of the film, but the frenetic nature of the film's action sequences left me feeling numb by the beginning of the third reel. And despite the intensity of the first-person action, which includes confusing gunfights and some dizzying parkour stunts, there was an overall lack of suspense: as a viewer, I knew that Henry would have to survive to the end of the film because the only perspective we have on anything is Henry's. That's a bit ironic when you think about it: FPS-style filming is supposed to ramp up the intensity, but instead ends up leaving the viewer reassured that nothing seriously bad will ever happen to the protagonist.

The story does a good job of slowly expanding our knowledge of Henry's world. Friendly characters appear (Sharlto Copley shows off his versatility and his comic chops in playing a series of different characters), leave a little bit of tantalizing information, then get killed off. The action is comically over-the-top, which suits me fine. As I get older, I prefer to have a story accompany the action, but I'll still indulge in some good, stupid fun now and then. I enjoyed the parkour scenes, which did add some high-wire-ish tension even if they couldn't help with the larger narrative problem mentioned above. By the end of the movie, not all of our questions have been answered, but most of them have.

The movie is directed by Ilya Naishuller, a Russian who is part of the new wave of cartoonish, CGI-heavy, Russian-inflected action movies spearheaded by the likes of Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, who produced this film (Bekmambetov, who is as unsubtle as Joel Schumacher, made such films as "Day Watch" and "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"). There's a definite sense that the Russians are trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood, and this isn't necessarily a good thing. "Hardcore Henry" provides enough story and humor to remain interesting for the duration of its running time, but it is an exhausting experience, and the final major action sequence is disappointingly repetitive.

The movie currently has a 51 over at, but I hear it got raves in Russia, where it enjoys a 78% approval. All in all, I'd call the film entertaining, but even though it's already short at 96 minutes, it could probably stand to shave some of those action sequences down a bit to make the film even leaner and meaner.