Sushi, Without the Extras

How do you think he got the ideas for the Prince? From his cat, of course.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Mist

Having attended a preview of this film, I went hunting to find the collective reaction of other viewers and was absolutely flummoxed that there were positive reviews. Up front, I should tell you that this film is execrable. Darabont's vision of the Stephen King novella of the same name is fractured, both thematically and in terms of the film's execution. The novella may indeed have effectively tackled such significant issues of class, in-group/out-group rivalries, religion, and the nature of humanity, but the film does so only ineptly, trying to draw out too many themes to develop. Darabont's script is stilted, and the already unsteady writing is only further undermined by Thomas Jane's completely listless portrayal of the simple Mr. Drayton. Darabont squeezes in dialogue concerning all of these issues, but he fails to achieve any real depth of development. Brief, wooden discussions of the nature of man do not make either for entertaining viewing or intellectual stimulation. The one character who does stand out is the religious zealot whose seething hate and burgeoning megalomania turns the Food House into as warped and bloody a space as the outside world. Ably portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden, Mrs. Carmody is horrifyingly riveting. She whips up the denizens of the Food House into a religious fervor that rivals that of the Bacchae of old, but rather than leaving well enough alone, Darabont detracts from Harden's performance by focusing her hate on the store's only pretty blonde and consistently insisting that she's really is merely unstable. Hence, the viewer is predisposed to conclude that her rantings are simply that, and her rise to power in the Food House makes absolutely no sense. I suppose we're meant to conclude that humans are silly creatures, and eminently suggestible when frightened--Oh, wait, that's actually written into the script, in case you were too thick to get it.

I guess ultimately, my greatest criticism is that the film should have ended some 45 minutes before it did. Darabont allows himself too much masturbatory time in the converted world, and he caps it all off with an unfortunate ending that MIGHT have been shockingly ironic or moving if I'd cared about any of the characters in the first place. Rather than leaving the theatre thinking about Darabont's daring cynicism about the human condition, I left feeling unfortunately sticky and completely unsatisfied.

Then, I was shocked to read that many critics considered this film thought provoking. I was confounded; not only did I want those two hours of my life back, but I was profoundly depressed that the bar for American film-making has apparently been set so low. Darabont's film is poorly paced and poorly acted, and I for one was insulted by his apparent assessment of my intelligence. I guess I just have higher expectations and a better estimation of my own worth than some other writers...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Last King of Scotland

Right, so I finally saw the film, and to say that I'm horribly disappointed is an overwhelming understatement. The film features Forest Whitaker portraying a madman, a crazy Scottish white man, and enough stock footage of smiling African children to make one wonder if Suzanne Somers isn't somewhere in the background. Oh, and let's not forget the security man--the very image of the silent black savage that terrorized the nightmares of English colonialists. Finally, to end our parade of stereotypes, we have the noble African, who sacrifices himself to get the message out about Uganda, incidentally saving the idiot white man.

What I was hoping for was a nuanced character study of President Amin; what I got was a relatively ham-fisted deconstruction of Nicholas, the feckless white doctor. I walked away from the film convinced it was about fear; the white man's fear of the Other. The white man does go to Africa, where he becomes a killer, forsakes his Hippocratic Oath, and generally becomes little better than the tyrant who killed 300 000 Ugandans. When he finally notices the toll his relationship with Amin has exacted from him, he wants to go home--back to "civilisation" because the politicking and violence isn't "him". Granted, this impression may have stemmed from the discussion leader putting the rabbit in the hat by mentioning Heart of Darkness and the long tradition of colonial films purporting to be about a completely different culture but mostly being about the Crazy White Man. (See The Last Samurai, Apocalypse Now, Tears of the Sun) It's hard to draw any sort of real conclusions from the film, mostly because it lacks a real thematic focus. The film is clearly meant to present the viewer with real and important questions regarding race relations in Africa, the relationships African nations have with the rest of the world, and the rest of the world's relationships with Africa.

The dialogue makes clear that the British put Amin in power, and it's equally clear that the English--the white colonial power--are willing to force the doctor to kill Amin, rectifying the mess. The English diplomat/spy certainly comes off as being an unrepentant racist and general all around villain. Then, we have the image of the white doctor meandering through Africa as if he were on holiday, including an affair with a nameless African woman in the first 15 minutes of the film. We know there's something off about him because he's willing to attempt to talk the Missionary Doctor's wife into sleeping with him, and he's equally willing to pick up a gun and shoot an injured cow because it was annoying him never thinking that the cow might be the farmer's primary possession. Nicholas is also willing to buy into the necessity of violent tyrants in Africa, and one wonders if that's supposed to intimate to the viewer his views that somehow Africans are incapable of governance sans violence.

However, the film's depiction of the Ugandans isn't particularly favorable. From Kate's comment that "they danced the same way for Obote" as for Amin to the never-ending parade of smiling, waving urchins, we never see a positive imagine of Africans. In the film, the Ugandans are either trying to kill each other or are dancing. Although I've never been to Africa, I'm reasonably certain that Africans, in general, do more than sing, torture, and smile for the birdie. I can only imagine that Africans watching this film leave with a sour taste in their mouths because all the film does is portray stereotypical images of Africa: its poverty, its illness, and its lack of governance. The discussion leader rightly commented that none of the images of Africa were new; we've seen them all in a dozen films before. I'd go a bit further and argue that the portrayal of the Ugandans smacks of a particularly insidious form of racism and that the film certainly doesn't encourage useful discussion of governance in Africa. (I should mention that governance seems to be a theme in the film, though we see precious little indication of what goes on in Uganda during Amin's tenure.) In fact, the negative images of Africans are so pervasive that I really wondered if I agreed with Thomas that his country deserved better. Most of the Africans in the film are either the perpetrators of atrocities, helpless victims of same, or the aforementioned smiling, singing urchins. That doesn't scream "I deserve better" to me.

Forest Whitaker gives a brilliant and unsettling performance; he earned every inch of that little gold man they gave him for his work. Absent that performance, I would have left the room. However, I still would like to know what I should have taken away from the film. Am I to assume that all foreign intervention will end in horrible failure, to include mass murder? Am I supposed to walk away thinking that Africans aren't worth saving? Thomas saves Nicholas so that Nicholas can redeem himself, but I'm not certain he will even do that. The last we see of Nick, he's on the plane and has collapsed inward. Am I to walk away from the film wondering if a western white person can even survive in these foreign cultures (and savage--the President does have his wife dismembered AND Nicholas strung up by hooks inserted into his flesh)?

I walked away with no answer to these questions and even more despondent about Africa's future. If this is the discussion we're having as the international community about Africa, then the so-called Dark Continent will remain in its dark ages because we're still unable to engage the several nations and tribes on the continent in any sort of realistic way. Films like this one reinforce stereotypes of Africa all the while masquerading as important and nuanced portrayals of African life and culture, and in so doing, they contribute to the problem rather than the solution.

Nope, this is not a film I'm putting on the DVD purchase list.

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Good morning, welcome to work, and here's your gas mask.

I've had weird jobs before, where I got to do some strange things. I've worked with nutcases in prison. I've fondled antique weaponry. I've had to do research for a chapter in a book. However, my internship in the Regional Security Office is more than likely going to combine all of those skills and add more to them. See, my internship is in diplomatic security, which means that I'm part of the office that's in charge of security matters for the embassy, its personnel, and their residences, and obviously, one very key facet of all of that is counterterrorism.

I don't think it was until I signed for my gas mask and MK-1 injector kits that it really hit home that I wasn't exactly in Kansas anymore. I mean, sure, Brussels isn't exactly a hardship post, but it does provide its own unique security challenges. First off, there are three missions, meaning that whatever arrangements we make have to be tailored to each mission, which has its own individual needs and contingencies. USNATO isn't even located with everything else because it's across town. Then, there's the crazy situation in the office...everyone's either leaving, out sick, or coming in TDY. With one ARSO's departure, we're seriously going to be shorthanded as he takes most of the knowledge of the ongoing projects with him when he leaves for Chad. Of course, then, there's the construction in front of the consular section. Construction is always a security nightmare because all sorts of things can go wrong. Needless to say, it's literally crazy.

Anywhoo, Wednesday night saw us tromping around the inside of the Embassy throwing fireworks into the stair wells during a react drill for the Marine Security Guards. I got to wear a faux jihadi vest and carry a fake gun, and Stef had another one. He actually had a more impressive looking vest than I did, but he had no gun. The marines had to deal with us like we were real terrorists, which was fun. (They basically donned most of their full gear--one guy was wearing his shorts--and shoot us.)

After that, Thursday, I wandered over to a possible apartment as my housing kind of fell through. It was awful...1 bathroom for 10 people, most of whom were guys...tiny apartments and no light in the hallway. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting the Ritz, but someplace safe would have been nice. Needless to say, I turned that one down and am still looking for new housing.

Friday was uneventful--oh, and I've now seen an Aston Martin up close and personal-like. It's a very impressive vehicle!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Just another...Thursday

So, my mother informed me over the internet today that her house had been broken into last night via the magical internet, and it unsettled me. My father, who lives with his wife about two blocks up has also been robbed in the past year, meaning that it's likely that someone else on my sleepy little street in an even sleepier little town is turning into a center for crime. What's even more disturbing is that while the perpetrator took comparatively little, he did take my mother's revolver and did grab a kitchen knife to drag with him around the house. He would have used that on my mom, had she been home. I do not like this idea.

My mother doesn't feel victimized; she feels angry that the robber made a mess of her home. She's not upset about the loss of stuff, because that's all the roberry was about; rather, she's glad that she didn't come home to startle the robber with disastrous consequences. If anything, I'm more concerned about it than she is.

What's interesting about the situation is that it brought to mind a conversation I recently had with Patterson School graduates on the subject of the recent Take Back the Night march in Kentucky. One of the individuals was entirely perplexed as to why anyone would even bother to march for such a cause as clearly everyone knows that rape is bad. She wanted to know why there weren't marches about burglaries. Those can end in death as well, she argued, but what really struck me was that she wondered why rape was considered so much worse than burglary that we have to have marches about it.

I was completely taken aback that anyone could possibly make such a comment. Rape is about power. Theft is about stuff. On some level, theft and burglary are understandable: I'm willing to break into your home to take something whose sale will result in a profit for me. Fine and dandy. With rape, it's more vicious. The rapist receives nothing but the pleasure from his or her subjugation of another human being. How could this fundamental difference not be evident?

I was further shocked by the discussion about the inefficacy of marching. Why march when we all know rape is bad? It's not going to stop anything. Marching isn't about deterrence so much as empowerment. It's about bringing some peace to the victims and offering help to those who might not otherwise seek it. Of course we know that rape is bad, but there are still so many rapes that go unreported. If me marching down main street and chanting something stupid shows one other woman that it's okay for her to face what happened to her, then it's well worth the 20 minutes out of my life that's required.

The situation on Duke's campus just brings to light just how necessary such public intervention really is. No woman should have to suffer through what that poor girl did, even if she was a stripper. Fortunately, she was able to come forward, but there are so many women who don't, even in this day and age.

Take Back the Night.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


Yellow belt attained!

Now, I can work through yellow and pick up my blue...THEN I get a bo staff!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

V for Vendetta

I hadn't heard of this story until two weeks ago outside of movie trailers; then, a friend lent me the graphic novel, and I've been intrigued by it ever since. Alan Moore's novel has been hailed as "genius", and while I don't necessarily go that far, it is an impressive achievement. The movie is also hailed as being "impressive" and "thought-provoking". Apparently, my standards for "thought-provoking" are too high...because while I enjoyed the film, it did not live up to my expectations.

The script does diverge in significant ways from its source material. Evey's backstory has been reworked in the film, becoming unnecessarily detailed, and the Wachowski brothers dispense with both Rose Almond and the machiavellian Mrs. Heyer. While I don't miss Mrs. Heyer, as her sections are some of the least well done in the novel, Rose's lack forces the Wachowski brothers to pin the dirty work on Mr. Creedy in a way that practically reeks of deus ex machina. Gordon Dietrich goes from being a petty criminal and Evey's lover to a closeted homosexual who martyrs himself for laughs and good ratings. Finally, the brothers force America's War on Terror into the story, substituting Muslims for the Jews persecuted in Alan Moore's novel.

However, while some of these changes are good and some contrived, some alteration of the story had to be done as Moore's book dealt more with fears regarding Thatcher's conservatism rather than terrorism in a post 9/11 world. Interestingly enough, V's release had to be delayed due to the London subway bombings last year as it would have been inappropriate to show a film that features large portions of London being blown to bits in light of those events. V is a movie about violence, terrorism, being used to effectuate regime change, and while the discussion of the morality of doing so is central to the graphic novel, I am not persuaded the Wachowski brothers do that question justice during the film. A lot of V's dialogue is rushed, muffled by his mask, and almost drowned out in places by the film's score, so it's a little hard to put together exactly what's going on in his head. Evey's moral dilemma over killing is virtually eliminated because rather than going back to the Shadow Gallery with V after Lilliman's murder, she instead flees to Dietrich. Granted, there's a certain logic to that as she's terrified by V and the prospect of remaining with him for a year, but that decisions costs the Wachowskis a great deal in terms of the meat of the debate between V and Evey.

The dialogue is rocky in places, frequently becoming quite comical in its contrivance. While V has the silliest opening speech I've ever heard, featuring almost all of the "v" words in the dictionary, he seems to be aware of its silliness and playing with Evey. She, however, gets the Lamest Line Ever, when she waxes on about how V is the film's Everyman--immediately after we see what purports to be the entire population of London flood toward the Houses of Parliament wearing V masks. (Dude, Alan, Larry--we got the picture. Please don't pretend to be subtle with your symbolism, you'll hurt yourselves.) Personally, I thought her final speeches were as inappropriate as Depp's ending monologue in The Libertine--the writing was needlessly heavy-handed, and all of what she says is completely unnecessary.

She also cheats V out of the humanity Weaving's portrayal gives him. In fact, V is human enough to weep when Evey walks out on him. Despite the mask, Weaving is able to convey a wider range of emotion than does Portman, even in light of the intensity she shows during the Larkhill sequence. Unfortunately, even when she confronts V, the drama of that moment is heavily marred by Portman's struggle with her English accent--she fails, miserably. Her performance, so key to the story, is weak in lots of places, perhaps due to some awkward writing, and the moment she kisses V is very nearly lost, which is unfortunate.

Stephen Rea makes a believable Finch and throughout the film gives a very strong performance until the very end. Credit where credit is due, he almost steals the show, as it were, but again, the weakness of the script makes it difficult to realize fully.

All in all, V is a very pretty movie with some nifty action sequences, and Weaving finally manages to leave Agent Smith behind. (I never expected to hear "You must overthrow the government, Mr. Anderson" as I did with his Elrond.) It's pop philosphy with a comic book feel to it that makes for idle entertainment and constitutes a good first outing for McTeigue, the director. It'll probably even go into the DVD collection on my shelves when it comes to Wal-Mart at $9.00 a copy or so, but it was not the sharp thriller I was hoping it would be.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Presence of mind

Today marked the end of a rape trial back home, which is something of a momentous occasion. The perpetrator apparently forced his way into the victim's home, raped her brutally, and then forced her into the car with him. He proceeded to drive around town, making several stops at key sites around the city and raping her again at each stop. Fortunately, the young lady kept her wits about her, persuaded him to stop at a Taco Bell to get her something to eat, and jumped out of the vehicle while he ordered something from the drive through. The trial lasted four and a half days, and she was on the stand for five and a half hours. The rapist was convicted on five counts.

The worst part of it all is that I know this person. I can put a name, a face, and a person to the name of the victim. Obviously, that's the worst part for me. For her, she'll have to deal with this for the rest of her life.

The state in which she lives still holds to the death penalty and in fact sparked some of the most significant litigation as to whether the state should be allowed to take a citizen's life to date. Under the factors listed by the Supreme Court permitting the implementation is a violent crime committed as part of a kidnapping. So, do I think this man should die?

That's a tough question. On the one hand, the asking whether the state should be allowed to extinguish the life of a citizen is a valid one. Does the death penalty serve as an effective deterrent to violent crime? There's evidence on both sides of the question, meaning that at best, the answers are inconclusive. Does it save the state money? Not really. Inmates spend ages on death row until the appeals process is exhausted, and the sheer cost of the bifurcated trial is staggering. Does the state have the moral authority to execute a citizen--it certainly will not return this young lady's pre-rape mentality? I don't know. I'm not a moral philosopher, but what I do know is that I know the victim this time. I know her parents and sibling. It's somehow harder to find my way through this one, but the worst part about it is that ultimately, I'm not seeking justice for her. I'm seeking revenge for myself against this man who has introduced darkness into the periphery of my safe little life with my two cats and small living space.

Is that the real reason that the United States has maintained the death penalty for all of these years and is part of an ever-dwindling minority of nations that continues to terminate the lives of those it considers most heinous? Are we seeking some sort of vengeance for the mere fact that an individual crossed the line and broke the basic trust that keeps society functioning? If we think about the American democratic system as being divinely ordained, it certainly stands to reason. As was demonstrated in Salem, Massachusetts, the pilgrims clearly had little moral difficulty in sentencing their own to death because they had gone against God's order. If we consider American Democracy as being God's order and the laws by which it functions as being divine laws, execution of these criminals makes a certain amount of sense.

That's the rhetoric that appears in our foreign policy, but part of me wonders if such ideas apply to our domestic concerns. I don't believe so, but I wonder why the distinction exists. If we're part of the New Jerusalem in the one context...should we not be so in the other?

I should so sleep now.