The Matrix Revolutions
I knew this was going to be bad. I only watched it because I was bored on the plane and I wanted to see just how bad it was.
Everybody in the world already knows that Matrix: Revolutions is bollocks. I'm writing this post just to satisfy my desire to rant. It will contain spoilers.
First Matrix was good because it was built around such a simple, surprising, and flexible metaphor. The Matrix is the mass media, or it's religion, or overreliance on technology; whatever allegory you like. It's the unquestioned life, the false paradise, sugar-coated slavery. The real world is a war-torn hellhole where life is short and full of struggle and suffering. You are offered the choice to live in the Matrix or to join the fight against it, the easy thing or the right thing, the pleasant illusion or the unpleasant truth; what do you do? That's powerful stuff, man. Mythic. Woven together with this are themes of fate vs. free will, the nature of humanity, man vs. machine, etc. Plus inverted cyberpunk tropes, scary robots, and cool martial arts battles. Hooray!
Oh ho, here comes a sequel (Reloaded + Revolutions is really a single sequel story spread across two movies)! Are you excited? Are you ready to outdo the first movie? Expand the universe, put the characters through the wringer, reveal all secrets and destroy the matrix forver? Ready for it? Here we go! This is what happens in the sequel, boiled down to the essential plot points:
The evil robots are drilling down to Zion with a giant drill to kill everybody. Agent Smith goes rogue and starts turning everybody he can find in the Matrix into more copies of him, because he's, like, a virus or something, I don't know how he got that way.
Then Neo goes to the machine city and talks to the boss robot sea-urchin-with-a-face-made-out-of-swirling-mini-robots, points out that Agent Smith will take over the whole Matrix and then infect the machine city, and offers his virus removal services in exchange for Not Killing Everybody Please. Then Neo has a really long, fake, Dragonball Z style fly-around-and-punch-each-other-through-buildings fight with one Smith while the other Smiths just watch. He wins, so the boss robot calls off the giant drill. The end.
That's it? That's it. No character development, no new philosophical themes or even deeper exploration of existing themes, not even a satisfying resolution to the plot. Will the sky ever be cleared, will the Matrix be destroyed, will the machines find an alternate source of power besides humans, will the human and machine civilizations learn to live in harmony, can the rest of the humans adapt to life outside the Matrix? I sat through almost five combined hours of sequel and I don't know the answers to these questions any better than I did after the first movie.
Between the two sequels there's maybe 30 scattered minutes of interesting new content. The intriguing suggestion that Zion and the rebellion against the Matrix are part of the Architect's even larger plan (so even by fighting the system you are still part of the system) was raised but then dropped and never mentioned again. The battle in the Zion dock between the human mecha pilots and the invading squidbots is kinda cool (though it really bothered me that the mecha design leaves the pilot completely unprotected).
I'm having trouble even remembering what filled up the rest of the running time of these movies, so inessential was it. Pointless filler plotlines and video-game style fetch quests involving keymasters, gatekeepers, the Source, the Trainman, the Merovingian (lamest villian ever) and so on ad nauseum. The not-particularly-interesting concept of "rogue programs" in the Matrix is introduced and driven into the ground; said programs get more screen time than most of the human characters, and the the humans still trapped in the Matrix (remember them? the ones you're trying to free?) are forgotten completely. Trinity is killed, then brought back to life, then killed again in an insultingly anticlimatic way, then gives a dramatic death speech that goes on so long it becomes self-parody. Secondary and tertiary characters we don't care about are introduced and then killed off. The Oracle drops vague hints. There is a lengthy rave sequence. A lot of people jump around in slow motion while shooting and/or kicking each other.
Most of all, there's talking. Not philosophy, not character development, just... talking. A lot of drivel about whether A knew B was going to do C, or whether W was fated to happen, or whether X already knows the anser to question Y deep in his heart, and whether or not he's ready to know Z. You may remember the theme of "fate vs. free will" from the first movie? The sequels don't do anything new with that theme, but they do erect giant flashing neon signs around it, in case we missed it. Also the movie makes damn sure we know that Trinity LUVS Neo A Lot and Neo LUVS Trinity Too and they are B.F.F. and in fact Trinity LUUUUVS Neo so much that she doesn't even care if she dies! They tell us this over and over again, and yet it remains unconvincing. (This is why the idea of "show, don't tell" was invented.)
Most offensive of all is the fawning adoration for The One. Much screen time is devoted to having all other characters remind us that Neo is The One and talk about how darn SPESHUL he is. Every character who agrees with and believes in Neo is vindicated, everyone who disagrees with him or doubts him is shown to be foolish. He can see without his eyeballs, shoot real robot-killing lightning, and go Super-Crucifix-Saiyin, and the only explanation is that he's Just That Special! All the other people are worthless compared to him. When they die, it's OK, because The One is the only character who matters, and the rest of them were just there to take bullets for him and inform the audience of his Specialness.
Seriously, Wachowski brothers, we GOT that you were recreating a messianic myth the first time; you didn't have to go all third-century Christian apologia on us. And you certainly didn't have to forget about everything that made the first movie good and replace it with a double-length pile of wanky Neo fanfic.
Watching American movies in China
Sunday night in Beijing, we met up with some of Sushu's old friends from a teacher training program she did a couple of years ago. After dinner we went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The movie theater was in a very posh, expensive, heavily westernized section of town. There were a lot of foreigners hanging around that area; it seemed like almost half the people going to the movie theater were foreign. As Sushu's comic points out, movie theaters are very much an "imported luxury expense" kind of thing.
The way movie titles get translated to Chinese is really interesting. Chinese doesn't have anything like Katakana. You can't just write a sound without also giving it a meaning. So you have a choice: pick characters that sound like the title and mean something crazy, or pick characters that mean approximately the same thing.
Here's how they render Harry Potter into Chinese. It's a sound-based translation: "Ha-li-po-te". The meaning is something totally nonsensical like "Kazakhstan reasoning special wave".
There were lots of other movie posters there, so I got a kick out of seeing how various movie titles get turned into Chinese. Transformers is "变形金钢", meaning "Shape-change-gold-steel". Except "Gold-steel", jin-gong, is the name for Buddhist temple guardian statues. So Transformers are really "Shape changing guardian statues". That's crazy awesome.
Star Trek is something like "Universe Wandering Voyage Ship", and Up is rendered as "Flying House Circumnavigation Adventure".
A story about a fish with a human face, who wants ham
I just saw Ponyo with Sushu. It was good! It's very cute and sweet. It's obviously a lil' kid's movie, like Totoro, but that's quite alright with me.
The story is kind of like a much, much trippier retelling of The Little Mermaid, set in and around a rural Japanese seaport town. I was wigging out on the natsukashii factor, because the backgrounds looked sooo familiar. The crooked mountain roads, the tunnels, the fishing boats, the grungy seaport machinery... It was practically "Kamaishi: the Movie". But a Kamaishi where prehistoric fish from the Devonian period swim through the treetops and where a freaky wizard with too much eyeliner commands living waves like giant blue amoebas.
And the colors, oh man, the colors! They're gorgeous. The backgrounds are all soft, inviting colored-pencil drawings full of verdant green, shimmering aquamarine, deep indigo, shocking crimson, and radiant gold. The animators were having way too much fun. Watch the way they animate liquid surface tension: it's completely wrong, but it looks awesome.
This is my favorite kind of anime: the kind with bizzare and intensely dreamlike goings-on are anchored in reality by the mundane details of everyday life in small-town Japan. It's something Miyazaki does very, very well.
The Giant Wheel Formation: Would it work in real life?
There's an epic movie called Red Cliff, based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which came out in China and is coming out next month in America. It looks pretty bad-ass! It's like the Lord of the Rings but based on real events! They had it on the airplane flight to/from China but there were no English subtitles so I gave up trying to watch it (in favor of trash like Dragonball: Evolution, sadly). I am looking forward to seeing a subtitled version.
You see that giant wheel formation? It's at about 1:19 in the video I linked to above. There's a whole army in a huge elaborate freakin' wheel formation, with spokes and counter-rotating inner circles and all kinds of craziness.
Me (watching the video): What the hell are they doing? What's that giant wheel formation?
Sushu: It's a JUN. When the enemy tries to attack the formation, they are forced to enter an ever-changing maze of traps and counterattacks, and they get all confused and dispersed.
Me: That's an utterly ridiculous strategy that would never work in real life.
Sushu: It did TOO work in real life! Sun Tzu wrote all about it in "Art of War"!
Thus begain a three-days-and-counting argument between us about whether or not the giant wheel formation is effective/realistic. (That's right, our marital arguments are about ancient Chinese military tactics. We're such nerds.)
Sushu grew up reading Chinese historical epics where jun featured prominently in climactic battles, so she's convinced that it is A. awesome and B. totally the way to win.
Although I can see how it makes for a cool story, I have a hard time believing that it wouldn't be easily defeated by a much simpler tactic. Why would you enter the enemy's maze at all? That's what they want you to do! Why wouldn't you ignore the whole ring-around-the-rosie and detour around them to take the city (or whatever your objective is)? Why wouldn't you mass a cavalry charge into a single point on the ring and overwhelm them through local force superiority while the majority of their manpower is tied up in human maze-walls all the way on the other side of the circle, where they can't counterattack effectively?
Then again, all my ideas about military tactics come from games, so what do I know about realism anyway.
Anybody else have any thoughts on this? Sushu, do you want to correct anything I got wrong about your argument?
Edited to add: Sushu's response here.
Red Cliff rocks!
Finally got to see Red Cliff, a John Woo movie based on a (fictionalized version of a) famous battle from the warring states period of Chinese history (circa 200 AD). It kicks a lot of ass. Sushu blogged about it here.
The Red Cliff battle is just one chunk of a much longer epic called the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. So this movie is like if they made a film of just the Helm's Deep battle from Lord of the Rings and nothing else. Even so, it was still five hours long... in the Chinese edition. They cut out about half of it to make a two-and-a-half hour American version. If you care about stuff like that you might want to seek out the DVD version. The stuff that they cut out includes a lot of scenes of the Han emperor feeding birds, Kongming helping to birth foals, etc.: parts that humanize the characters and establish that they have a life and an identity outside of their role as warriors. Without those humanization scenes, and not being real familiar with the original story, it's sometimes hard to keep track of who's who. Especially when the characters have their armor and helmets on, which makes them hard to tell apart. (Sushu's tip: focus on the facial hair!)
I talked to some Chinese people who didn't like the movie because they thought it wasn't very faithful to the original story.
But if you're not so concerned with accuracy and you just want to see martial arts butt-kicking, woven together with grand battle strategies and counterstrategies and dirty tricks by brilliant generals trying to predict each other's moves, then Red Cliff is hard to beat. It is a beautifully choreographed ballet of glorious violence. It's the kind of gleefully unrealistic movie where one named character is the equal of hundreds of nameless mooks.
Even the whole elaborate wheel formation comes off a lot more plausible in the movie than I guessed from the preview. The strategists even acknowledge that it's "an outdated formation", but "still quite effective in the right circumstances". They even hide it behind a dust cloud so the enemies don't know what they're getting into.
There's this bit where Zhou Yu leaps in front of an arrow meant for his lord. He rips it out of his shoulder, looking really pissed, and spots the mounted archer who shot it charging towards him. He runs straight at the mounted archer, jumps up in the air over the blade that's swinging towards him, and stabs the guy with his own arrow in the back of his neck, killing him. The whole audience burst into applause at that point. It's just that kind of movie.
I will not watch it in a tree, I will not watch it in 3D
Some of my coworkers (the few who aren't on vacation) were gushing about Avatar: The One Without The Airbender today.
Meh. Judging by the trailer and reviews, I think I've already seen this movie, and it was called "Fern Gully". Except I doubt it will have Tim Curry as a demonic singing oil slick, so it's not going to be as good.
Whether the native culture is tiny fairies or CGI Na'vis, the basic plot is still "White Liberal Guilt: The Movie". It's like, "Hey, obvious Native American analogues! Your culture is all wiiiise and myyyystical and totally grooovy! It sucks that the evil colonialists / white guys are taking your land with their superior technology! Wouldn't it be great if there was a heroic white guy who joined your side thanks to (magical shrinking / dubious telepresence technology)? He could spend a few montage sequences learning the ways of your culture and then somehow be way better than you at all your own traditional warrior skills that you spent a lifetime practicing! Then he could save you all cuz you're too incompetent to do it yourselves! Whoops, totally didn't mean to imply that he's better than you since he's from the colonizing race. Um, anyway, in summary, we love your culture or at least our close-to-nature stereotype of it and we totally feel bad about kicking you off your land so please don't hate us. Bye."
I've seen that movie (see also: Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves) more than enough times already, thanks.
It also annoys me that people keep raving about the special effects technology being some kind of revolution in filmmaking. What revolution? We've had green screen since the 40s, 3D since the 50s, and shallow, flashy special-effects-driven blockbusters since the 80s. A revolution in filmmaking would be a science fiction movie that put more effort into the plot than the visuals. Wake me up when Hollywood does one of those.
P.S. "Unobtanium"? Seriously? You literally called it "Unobtanium"? Why not set your movie on Planet McGuffin and have a secret weapon called Chekov's Gun while you're at it?
Story structure: A theory about tension
What is "tension"? It's the force that makes us want to keep reading/watching a work of fiction. Without tension, the audience loses interest.
You've all seen that graph in English class that shows time on the x-axis and "Tension" on the y-axis? And it's got, like, rising action, then climax, then falling action and denouement. You know the one I'm talking about? Good.
That graph is completely unhelpful because it doesn't explain how to increase or decrease tension. How do you create it?
My theory is very simple. Tension is really just questions. The audience has a question in their mind, so they'll keep watching/reading to find out the answer.
Let's look at some examples from one of my favoritest movies ever, The Princess Bride, which is a nearly flawlessly paced movie. (Spoilers ahead, but really there is no excuse for you not to have seen this movie a hundred times.)
At the beginning, when Buttercup and Wesley are all lovey-dovey, there are no questions, so there is no tension — which is why the kid rightly declares the book boring! In fact at this point in the movie, the only tension is between the kid and his grandpa, because the only question the audience has to go on is:
Will grandpa win the kid over with this story?
Once we hear that Wesley is murdered by pirates, the story in the book starts generating questions, and therefore tension, of its own. As the kid says: "Murdered by pirates is good!" From that point on, we can easily map out the entire plot just in terms of the questions that are being introduced to the audience's mind, one after another:
- Now that Wesley is presumed dead, what will Buttercup do?
- Will she get married to Humperdink despite not loving him?
- Who are these men who kidnap her and what is their plan?
- Will Buttercup get eaten by the eels?
- Who is the man in black?
- Why does he want to get Buttercup back from the kidnappers so bad?
- Will he succeed?
- Will they reach the top of the cliff before he catches them?
- Will he fall off the cliff?
- Will Inigo ever find the six-fingered man?
- Who will win this swordfight?
- Will Humperdink catch up with everybody?
- Can the man in black beat the giant?
- Which glass has the poison?
- Why does the man in black seem so angry at Buttercup?
- What will Buttercup do about it?
- How is Wesley still alive?
- Now that we know Wesley's alive, will he and Buttercup end up together?
- What's the deal with Wesley saying he was the Dread Pirate Roberts?
- Can they survive the Fire Swamp?
- Will they surrender to Humperdink?
- Will Humperdink keep his word about not harming Wesley?
- Will Buttercup really get married to Humperdink knowing Wesley is alive?
- Can anyone rescue Wesley from the Pit of Despair?
- What's the deal with Humperdink's evil plan?
- What will Inigo and Fezzik do now that they've found each other?
- Will Humperdink keep his word about sending out his ships?
- Can Wesley survive the machine being turned to 50?
- Can Inigo and Fezzik find him?
- Will Buttercup really kill herself if she has to marry Humperdink?
- Can Inigo and Fezzik convince Max to bring Wesley back to life?
- How will they break into the castle when it's so heavily guarded?
- Will the wedding be finished before they can break in?
- Can Inigo catch the six-fingered man?
- Can he beat him? ("Are you still trying to WIN?")
- How can Wesley beat Humperdink when he can barely even move?
- How will they escape the castle?
- What will Inigo do with the rest of his life?
Some of these questions, like "Who will win the swordfight?" last for only a single scene. When the question is answered, the scene ends, and the next scene introduces a new question to replace it and raise the tension back up.
Other questions last for much longer, and keep tension going throughout the whole story. In particular, "Will Buttercup get married to Humperdink?" is in question for almost the entire length of the movie; that question is the main plot. Later on it is also joined by "Will she get back together with Wesley?" and "Will Inigo get revenge on the six-fingered man?" which of course all resolve at about the same time, in the climax. Right after that, the very first question resolves as we find out that the kid not only enjoyed the story, but learned to tolerate kissing scenes. The end!
Note that between scene tension and long-term tension, the audience is never left without at least one question to wonder about; each plot point pulls you right along to the next. Which is one of the reasons this is such a perfectly paced movie. (Variety in the type of tension is also a factor, but that's a whole nother article.)
So to create tension, you have to have:
- Two (or more) different outcomes coexist in the audience's mind
- Both outcomes seem possible and plausible
- The audience cares which one will happen
On the scene level, tension comes from the audience imagining different possible outcomes for the scene. On the whole-story level, tension comes from the audience imagining different possible endings for the story. Of course the tension will fail if the alternate outcomes aren't plausible or if the audience just doesn't care.
For instance, it's pretty obvious that Wesley and Buttercup have to end up together, because that's what happens in fairy tales. The only way to keep up the tension is to introduce obstacles that tilt the scales the other way by making it seem impossible for them to get together, like the fact that Wesley is Mostly Dead, or that the clergyman already said "Man and Wife". Without these obstacles, the bad ending is implausible, thus no tension.
Or, the other way to fail would be if we just didn't care about the question. For instance, if Inigo hadn't been such a cool character, and hadn't been so driven, and if the six-fingered man hadn't been such a sneaky bastard, then maybe we wouldn't have cared whether Inigo got revenge or not, which would have sucked the tension out of that whole subplot.
Storytelling failure is when your story spends time answering questions that the audience wasn't asking and didn't care about!
Finally, resolution and endings: Answering a question resolves the tension, by turning one possibility into reality and destroying the other possibilities. When the last source of tension is resolved, your story is over! (And if there are still pages to go, the audience is going to wonder why.)
Therefore, the question that you make the audience ask at the beginning of the story establishes what the story will be about. Either you have to end the story by answering the same question you originally asked; or else you have to pull a switcheroo: introduce a new, *bigger* question as you resolve the original one, and end by resolving the bigger question. There's an axiom I read somewhere: what a story is about is defined by the biggest unanswered question asked so far.
Somebody doesn't like Batman!
Isaac's is the first negative review of The Dark Knight I've seen.
Thing is, I can't really argue with any of his criticisms. It's just a question of how much those things bother you, I guess.
Kick-Ass tries to have it both ways
Saw "Kick Ass" last night. I wouldn't have gone to see it of my own volition but Sushu likes it when I go to movies with her. We went to a drive-in. Yes, they still have working drive-in theaters in a few places in California. We can make out in the car like 50s teenagers! Then we can go get a chocolate malt at the soda fountain and listen to Buddy Holly records. Woo!
So anyway the movie was OK and had some pretty funny parts, but it did two things that really annoy me. (Spoilers ahead)
One: Mixing realistic violence with "violence ballet".
Whenever Dave gets beaten up, it's shown in horrible realistic detail. It's as bloody, traumatic, and painful as that sort of thing would be in real life. It's totally de-glamorized. It's like "Here's why it's stupid to try to be a superhero: picking fights with thugs puts you in the hospital or gets you shot dead."
But whenever Hit Girl is killing mooks, it's all shot and choreographed to look awesome. She's leaping and twirling around elegantly dispatching mobster after mobster; we never see the mobsters suffering, they're just out of the game. It's even set to a groovy soundtrack. It's what I call "violence ballet" - divorced from the consequences of violence, it's like watching a dance. A dance that leaves bad guys dead. See also: kung fu movies, John Woo gunplay movies, that scene in Serenity with River, etc.
Putting these in the same movie is deeply weird. It's like first the movie says "I'm a Serious Realistic Movie here to make you feel guilty about enjoying glamorized superhero violence by deconstructing it"... "Oh, and by the way, here's some glamorized superhero violence for you to enjoy. Don't feel bad about these mooks dying, they're just mooks." It's like they're trying to have it both ways.
Two: You lied to me and you snuck into my room? I guess I'm in love with you now!
I hate it when movies do this, and they do it all the time: Creepy, stalkerish behavior by the male lead towards his female love interest gets rewarded with her undying love. It makes me wonder if any Hollywood writers are women. Or if they're all men, whether they've ever met any women.
The romantic subplot in this movie is really tacked-on, and so the girl doesn't get any character development of her own. She's barely a character, in fact; she's basically a prize for the guy to win. That's another thing movies do all the time, and it bugs me.
But what really takes the cake is when Kick-Ass sneaks in through her window at night, in costume, to confess his love for her. She reacts, as any sensible person would, by screaming and spraying mace in his eyes (or was it hairspray? whatever). But then he takes off his mask and reveals his secret identity and does an extremely awkward love confession, and also reveals that he's not really gay (there's this weird subplot where she thinks he's gay for some reason, and she has always wanted a gay BFF, and he plays along with it because she lets him be around her when she's naked and, like, rub tanning oil on her and stuff).
So let's see, he A. has been lying to you in order to see you naked, abusing your trust; B. he snuck into your house in the middle of the night, disrespecting your privacy and personal space; and C. he's just revealed that he leads a secret double life where he dresses up in a wetsuit and picks fights with thugs, which by this movie's own ethos is a sign of extremely dangerous, self-destructive mental illness.
He's basically just admitted he's a liar, a stalker, and a violent, suicidal crazy person.
If I was her, I would have been like "Get the hell out before I call the police, and I better never see you again, you sick fucker". But in the movie she's like "awesome, let's have sex".
I shouldn't have to explain how the prevalence of this trope in movies fills our culture with terrible role models for young women (see also: Edward and Bella), but at the risk of pointing out the obvious let me remind you that Sexism Hurts Men Too: Our pop culture is telling our teenage boys that if they're a Good Person Deep Down Inside and if they keep doggedly pursuing the same girl long enough, ignoring her disinterest, then the universe is guaranteed to reward them with sex!
Again, the movie seems to be trying to have it both ways: Deconstructing the trope (she reacts realistically, freaking out and spraying him) but then later playing the trope straight. Same as it does with deconstructing superhero violence ballet but they playing it straight.
Fists of Fury as a Jiang Hu scenario
I watched Bruce Lee's first movie, Fists of Fury, with Sushu recently.
(Fists of Fury is not the same as Fist of Fury, an entirely different movie also starring Bruce Lee. Fists, plural, is also called The BIg Boss, and is also known by its Chinese title 唐山大兄 (Tang Shan Da Xiong) meaning "Canton Big Brother". Of course neither movie has much to do with fists anyway, since Bruce Lee mostly kicks people to death. Confused yet?)
Anyway, whatever you call it, Fists of Fury is a really well done movie. The dub is TERRIBLE (and such inappropriate background music!) but the kung fu action is great; except for a few fake high jumps, all the fighting is entirely believable and convincing. More importantly, the plotting is excellent. It's very tight, tense, consise, and well-structured.
I've been thinking about what this movie can teach us for Jiang Hu - that's right, I've started thinking about Jiang Hu again! - not so much in terms of the kung fu fighting, but rather in terms of how to set up a situation that gives people a lot of interesting things to fight about. The scenario creation rules, if you will.
Spoilers follow, but the movie's 40 years old so whaddya want?
Bruce Lee is moving to a new town to work at an ice factory along with some of his family. Dialogue reveals that he got into a lot of trouble by starting fights in his old town, which might be why his family had to move. He's made a Very Serious Promise to his grandparents not to get into any fights.
Gee, how long do you think that promise is going to last?
There's an early scene where honorless thugs beat up and take advantage of good honest people. Because of his promise, Bruce Lee has to watch and do nothing about it. There's a closeup on his face so you can see how bad he feels about that.
Lessons already: Promises are very serious. We can put characters into dynamic situations right out of the starting gate by creating them already enmeshed in a web of promises to important relationships. You get interesting internal conflict when such a promise goes against a character's sense of justice. As the audience, we know that of course he's going to fight eventually! So the question on our minds is: what's going to be the thing that makes him so mad that he breaks that promise? Even though we know what's going to happen, the situation creates tension because we don't yet know why or how.
Continuing with the plot:
The existing power structure (in the form of the ice factory management) is thoroughly corrupt. In fact, they're using the ice factory as a front for a drug-smuggling operation. The factory managers play the same role as a corrupt provincial magistrate or an occupying foreign power might play in other time periods: the initial situation is one where bad guys hold all the cards. We see how bad they are, and we want to see them taken down a peg so that justice can prevail. But since the political power is in their hands, justice can't be restored just by talking to people or by appealing to legitimate authority. A hero has to arise to restore justice with his fists. And we get to root for the underdog, which is always fun.
The bad guys have a hierarchy, with the Big Boss at the top, some henchmen under him, and an endless supply of nameless thugs at their command. The Big Boss is the greatest both in political power and in kung-fu power. There's a scene early on that establishes this by showing him practice-sparring with some of his men. (We see him hide some long, nasty daggers in his boots, which of course we know we'll see him use later.) Is it realistic that the factory leader also happens to be a kung-fu master? Probably not. But it sets the stage for an epic showdown at the end, so we go along with it.
The good guys have their own hierarchy of sorts, with a benevolent big brother figure named Hsiu (or Xu) Chien watching over and protecting the poor, honest, hardworking factory men. These men make up a group called, in Chinese, a 帮 (bang) - like a labor union but not as organized; such groups are a staple part of the Jiang Hu world. Bruce lee is a newcomer to the situation. These relationships are established in a few short lines of dialogue before the plot moves on.
The workers discover quite by accident that their factory is a front for a drug-smuggling operation when Bruce knocks a big chunk of ice off of a railing, and it breaks on the ground, revealing a bag of white powder hidden inside. This is the spark that sets off all the potential conflict in the situation. It's the "Bang" - this time in the Sorceror sense, not the labor-union sense.
From this point, the whole movie is nothing but an ever-escalating series of reprisals. The men who saw the drugs are brought into the manager's office, where he offers them bribes and offers to bring them on board the operation in order to secure their silence. They refuse, and so they get "disappeared". The rest of the factory workers try to find out what happened to them, and they get stonewalled. They protest, and management clamps down on them. These reprisals can't end until one side is thoroughly defeated in one-on-one combat.
I can see just how this would work in gaming - a scenario would be created before play that set up the relationships between the groups involved, with plenty of potential conflict; then at the start of play, the GM throws out the Bang with the drugs; and from there on, the GM needs only to play the bad guys as they respond to the protagonists' actions. You'd need a system that encourages escalations; then the rest of the story flows out naturally as a sort of chain reaction.
Some of the fights in this movie start with a series of show-offy displays of kung-fu awesomeness and flashy tricks. They're not intended to do damage, but to intimidate. They're warning shots. (It's like bucks locking horns in mating season -- they don't want to actually fight, they just want to prove that they could win so that the other deer will back off.) I wonder how this could be made to work in a game context? Narrating them would be tons of fun, but does it somehow give you an advantage over just attacking immediately? (Maybe if the opponents' actual kung fu power levels were in fact concealed from each other? like poker hands? And so you do a move that shows some of your cards, in order to convince the other player to fold... but you might be bluffing... )
A big contrast is shown between the character of Hsiu, who is a real wuxia, and Bruce Lee, who is more of an ambiguous anti-hero. Hsiu is completely dedicated to his bang from the beginning, and always willing to fight to protect them. Bruce is reluctant to betray his "no fighting" promise, but he's also just not particularly heroic.
At various points, the bad guys try to bribe various good guys with money, power, liquor, and sexy prostitutes: things that a true hero is unmoved by. We get to see what people are made of by who refuses the bribes and who takes them. Hsiu is unmoved; he sees dishonorable behavior being rewarded with money and power, and he is merely disgusted. Bruce Lee, on the other hand, totally gets drunk and sleeps with the prostitutes and makes friends with the bad guys and is pretty much ready to sell out.
There's pretty fixed ideas about honorable behavior, what a man must do to maintain his honor and how he must avenge it if insulted; I imagine the code of honor could be hard-coded into the game. Like, "A true hero is unmoved by money, power, and sex" could be a rule. Not the kind of straightjacket rule that prevents a player from doing something, but rather a guideline that helps players know when they're living up to the ideal and when they're failing it, so that they can explore motivations and situations on both sides of the line.
In the end, Hsiu, the original Big Brother, pays for his unflinching honor with his life. He did the right thing at all points, but his kung fu is simply not strong enough to overcome all of the bad guys, and he is killed. (This movie is slightly on the cynical side.) Bruce Lee is not as morally upright but has much stronger kung fu. (Why? It's never really explained why his character is so strong, other than "he's played by Bruce Lee").
So the real climactic conflict of the movie is about when Bruce's flawed character will find the moral courage to step up and fill the Big Brother's shoes. The people cry out for a champion to save them; their champion has fallen; Bruce Lee is the only one who can do it; yet he is reluctant.
In the end, he goes and fights the Big Boss only after his entire family has been killed in a reprisal by the Big Boss's thugs. It's very sad. He steps up too late; and when he does, he steps up for the wrong reasons - when he finally does kill the Big Boss in the final battle, it is an act of mere vengeance, and not of protection. (And the very end of the movie shows him being taken away by the police, arrested for all the bad guys he killed; he wasn't a hero, so he didn't get a hero's ending.)
So there's an interesting theme in this movie that the most morally upright people are not always the strongest in kung fu. But you better have somebody who's both strong enough and good enough to fight the big bad guy! A community ultimately needs someone who is willing and able to use violence to defend their values: as Winston Churchill or possibly George Orwell put it, "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
In a game, as I see it, Hsiu and Bruce Lee would both have been player characters. The meaning of the game emerges from the choices that each of those players makes about who and what their character is willing to fight for.
What's the big deal with Tron?
I can't understand why everybody at Mozilla is so excited for this Tron sequel. The original Tron was a terrible movie: Slow, boring, nonsensical plot, stupid costumes, and it pushed the idea that computers are full of magical computer fairies who are like little people running around doing things, which is not just wrong but insultingly wrong, like making a movie where the sun goes around the earth. And sequels, especially ones made 30 years later, are always worse than the originals. Besides, computer graphics, which were the point of Tron, are no longer interesting since they're now in every movie.
How could it be anything but terrible? And yet people at the office today are all excited about it and are planning a group trip to the movie theater. I don't get it.
Watched the "Oscar nominated animated shorts collection" with Sushu last night at an artsy-fartsy theater in Palo Alto.
- Madagascar: A Travel Diary. French. Just what it says - animated version of somebody's trip to Madagascar. Changes rapidly between animation styles and techniques from shot to shot. Very pretty, nice music, relaxing atmosphere, not much of a story.
- Let's Pollute. American. Shrill, obnoxious, preachy, heavy-handed environmental oversimplification. Sarcastic preachiness is still preachiness. Ugh. The only one I wouldn't watch again.
- The Gruffalo. British/German. A children's book, animated, with rhyming narration and all that. Lovely rendered forest backgrounds, with lots of incidental creatures in motion. The light is really well done. Nice acoustic guitar music. At over 20 minutes, goes on about twice as long as it needs to to tell the story, though.
- The Lost Thing. Australian. My favorite of the bunch, this was just really really cool. A simple story but with a unique aesthetic - rust, giant inexplicable machines, biomechanical lifeforms... a little Kafka and a little HR Geiger filtered through Myst and interpreted by Dr. Seuss.
- Day and Night. Pixar. The one that was bundled with Toy Story 3. I find it kind of whatever; just a vehicle for visual tricks and sound-effect gags, really. Also: amorphous blobby cloud-men wolf-whistling at human women is gross and creepy.
- Urs. German. VERY VERY GERMAN. Brutally, depressingly German. A gorgeous oil-painterly animation style. A harsh, bittersweet ending mixing hope and despair. It made me think "THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU LOSE AT AGRICOLA". Serious and thought-provoking: Sushu and me spent the ride home talking about what it all meant.
- The Cow who Wanted to be a Hamburger. American. Done in a rough, wiggly animation style that reminded me of old Klasky-Csupo stuff on Nickelodeon. Cute, fun, and darkly humorous, made me laugh out loud several times. Great use of musical notes on the soundtrack to substitute for speech.
Interesting that the last three were all completely wordless.
Urs, The Cow, and Lost Thing were all fantastic; three out of seven ain't bad. I recommend going to see this collection if it plays in your town.
X-men First Class, or: How geeks watch movies
I liked X-Men: First Class quite a lot. More than I expected to. (I went to watch it because watching movies with Sushu makes her happy, and X-Men seemed like the least offensive choice available that weekend.) IMHO it's the best of the X-men movies. Minor spoilers ahead (but it's a prequel, so you kind of know how it's going to end already, don't you?)
The guy who plays Magneto was really, really good. He made Magneto a complex, nuanced, sympathetic character. You really feel his pain and his reasons for mistrusting humanity; the friendship between him and Charles Xavier is touching and beautiful and tragic because you know they're going to become enemies. The actor redefined the character kind of the way Heath Ledger redefined the Joker.
And I loved the way the story of the mutants was woven together with the real-life story of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It could easily have been hokey or preachy, but they did a good job portraying this fascinating and terrifying moment of history. And all the awesomely chunky cold-war era technology on display! It was really a Cold War movie that happened to contain mutants, more than the other way around. (There's also a subtext that, like, of course the Cuban Missile Crisis was the result of a supervillain manipulating the USA and USSR to try to start WW3, you didn't think governments could really be that suicidal all by themselves did you? Sigh...) There's a neat parallel at the end where all the less-powerful mutants have to choose sides between Magneto and Prof. X... just like how all the less-powerful countries had to choose sides in the Cold War.
I loved the character development with Mystique and Beast and their awkward almost-romance and their changing views of mutant pride, mutant acceptance, and passing for normal. Some really juicy dialogue in there. The bit where somebody accidentally "outs" someone as a mutant to his co-workers, and the significance of the phrase "Mutant and proud", immediately suggest an allegory to the gay rights movement. Although it was the the civil rights movement that was more relevant to the time that the movie is set (and the time when X-men was written). Really, map it onto the acceptance movement of your choice.
There were parts I didn't like, too, of course. The main villain's master plan didn't make a single bit of sense. The one black guy dies first, of course; I thought we were finally over that horrible movie trope but I guess not? As a physics geek it annoyed me that Magneto's powers seem to ignore Newton's third law of motion. There are a bunch of X-men who don't get any character development. And the script never seems to have a problem with the fact that young, idealistic Xavier is always digging around inside other people's most private memories, without permission, supposedly for their own good. I would have liked to see some acknowledgment of how INCREDIBLY CREEPY that would would make him in real life! But no, he's pure hero as far as this movie is concerned.
So that's what I thought of the movie. But let me tell you another story.
Last weekend I was in my friendly local game store (Game Kastle in Santa Clara) and the guy working the counter had a Green Lantern shirt on. So, just to make conversation, I was like "Oh, I take it you're a big fan. What did you think of the Green Lantern movie?"
I was kind of expecting him to trash it, since the trailers make it look really terrible.
But he raved about it! He liked how true it was to the source material and how good the special effects were for the constructs and blah blah blah and "they'd better make a sequel! There's a teaser after the end credits that sets them up for one!"
I mentioned X-men First Class (where I stayed to the end just in case there was a teaser, but there wasn't.) He made a face and said that movie was a disappointment. Why? Because it was about a bunch of B-list characters instead of the famous X-men; because it got some of the characters' powers "wrong"; because somebody's name was "wrong" (a minor character who is named Tempest in the comics went by "Angel" in the movie; there's a different X-man in the comics named "Angel".)
Not one mention of whether the story in either movie was interesting or not.
I've noticed this before with the way that geeks watch movies. Many of them seem to be nearly incapable of answering the question "Did this movie have a good story?". Or even asking the question. They only care about whether it was "accurate" and visually impressive.
"Accurate". As if the X-men were real, and the movie was a documentary about their lives, and we were judging the documentary on accuracy. I guess they don't really care about a good story as much as they care about seeing their favorite mythology/setting/lore -- or their personally preferred interpretation of that lore, which is an even bigger can of worms -- honored by a lavish on-screen presentation.
I guess this makes geeks easy to market to -- once you get them hooked on your IP, no need to worry about good storytelling; the geeks will provide a steady stream of money as long as you make sure to remain consistent with the canon and the continuity.
It's not a horrible thing by any means. It can be kind of cute how devoted geeks get to their favorite pretend universe and the pretense that it has an internal consistency that must be respected. It's just very, very different from how other people watch movies.
Dark Knight Rises is a terrible movie
Finally watched Dark Knight Rises, and thought it was terrible. It was a tedious, pretentious, overwrought, humorless, confusing, incoherent mess of a film.
I was expecting "not quite as good as Dark Knight, hopefully as good as Batman Begins". I assumed it would be at least decent. I was quite shocked at how hard it managed to fail.
1. Pacing is awful. Every scene feels rushed. There's no time for any scene to breathe because it's all bam, bam, bam, gotta get to the next plot point. The cuts are so fast, and jump so much in time and space, that the whole movie feels like one long montage.
The movie is overstuffed with plot points, like they mashed together the scripts for two or three different stories and then forced it all to fit in the alloted time by cutting every scene down to a few seconds.
Each time the camera cuts you're like "Is this the same scene? The next day? Months later?" Who knows?
2. Everybody speaks in monologues. Gordon delivers monologues, Alfred delivers monologues, holy crap does Bane deliver monologues. The way we know how Bruce feels is by other people monologuing at him about how he feels. What's-her-name can't just stab Batman, she has to give this ridiculously long monologue about how revenge is best served cold. Oh my god, Bane, are you STILL talking?
3. There's barely any Batman in this movie! He hardly says anything and he hardly does any Batman stuff. For large stretches he's off screen, and when he's on screen he's boring. He just mopes around, or does push-ups in prison.
Gordon, Catwoman, and Robin were the heroes of this movie; Bruce Wayne was a shlumpy guy who took up way too much screen time doing boring things. At least Catwoman was pretty cool. She rescued most of her scenes with stylish ass-kickery and not-giving-a-damn.
4. The bad guys' plan makes no sense. I don't even know what Bane wants. The movie focuses obsessively on Bane's backstory, flashing back to it repeatedly, yet never tells us *why* he does anything except for "Ummmm.... League of Shadows! Handwave!"
I guess Bane thinks Gotham is corrupt and needs to be destroyed? Even though it's much less corrupt than it was eight years ago? So he steals a nuke that can blow up the city, but instead of detonating it, he gives the detonator to... a random citizen? And then sets a really weird list of conditions, like nobody's allowed to leave the city, but he also blows up the bridges so they can't leave anyway? And the bomb will blow up after three months anyway even if he doesn't set it off? Then he gives speeches about "I HAVE GIVEN YOU BACK YOUR CITY!" and sets up a weird kangaroo court that makes people walk on ice?
Three months later, he still hasn't detonated the bomb. If he wanted to destroy Gotham why didn't he set if off already? Some weird thing about wanting to give people false hope? Nope, sorry, I don't get it.
Later we find out, in a really shitty twist, that the Bane backstory we saw was... actually somebody else's backstory! Great, so we know nothing about Bane. He's just a super-goon with a scary mask and a silly voice and a plan that makes no sense for a motive that's never established.
5. Gotham's government is overthrown and it's cut off from the outside world for three months and ruled by a gang of convicts. That sounds interesting! What sort of society emerges? Do ordinary people turn on each other or do they band together? You could get an interesting movie out of that premise alone.
But Dark Knight Rises barely touches on it. They've got a kangaroo court that convicts the rich and powerful in some sort of half-assed French Revolution Reign of Terror analogue. There's a couple scenes with random perfunctory looting in the background. That's it. We never see anyone really affected by these changes, because there are no characters representing the perspective of ordinary Gotham citizens.
For a movie that seems to be trying to do some kind of (ham-fisted) class-warfare story, it's odd that we only ever see things from the perspective of the rich and powerful.
Explore the one interesting concept the movie has given us? No time for that, we have to cut back to what Bruce is doing down in the pit!
6. The pit. The stupid, stupid pit. WHYYYYYYYY. Why does the movie spend so much screen time on this dumb pit jail that Bane sticks Bruce in? Why is there a rope dangling from the top to help people try to climb out? Why is one of the prison inmates a miraculous doctor capable of fixing a broken back by punching it? Where is this pit, Morocco? Are you telling me Bane interrupted his very important plan of not-blowing-up-Gotham just to take unconscious Bruce Wayne on an 11-hour plane flight to Africa because, what, he wants Bruce to share his very special hell-pit childhood memories? That aren't actually his memories? You never see any wardens so, like, who even runs this prison? After he gets out Bruce doesn't have any money or anything - how does he get back to Gotham? Hitchhike? He's just magically there in time for the next scene, perfectly clean-shaven. Time and space are meaningless in this movie.
7. Every single cop in the city goes into the sewers at the same time? So they can all get trapped down there at once? Seems like most cities would probably have a policy against doing something that dumb with their police force. But don't worry, the police are all fine stuck in the sewers for three months, and they come out healthy and still in clean uniforms. But then they charge, unarmed, straight at Bane's army and get cut down. Is "Suicide charge" a tactic they teach at police academy, or did they learn that in the sewer?
8. The final Batman/Bane confrontation is just the two of them punching each other really stiffly and awkwardly on some snowy steps. All this buildup and you're not even going to give us a cool fight scene? This fight makes them both look slow and clumsy. It's the opposite of exciting.
9. WHY SO SERIOUS? This film is constantly beating you over the head with how GRIMDARK it is and how SERIOUS you're supposed to take it. The tone never lets up. Just listen to all that CHANTING! Can't you feel the apocalyptic fervor? DUDES IN MASKS PUNCHING EACH OTHER IS VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS! Somebody got so wrapped up in making Batman serious that he forgot Batman is supposed to be fun and heroic too. But the material isn't substantial enough to support the tone, so it just comes off as even more ridiculous.
In the end, the only really enjoyable part of this movie was making fun of Bane's voice.
P.S. this "How The Dark Knight Rises Should Have Ended" cartoon is on point.
Wreck-it Ralph, and why I love smart kids' movies
I was afraid Wreck-It Ralph would be all pandering to the nostalgia of 30-year-old video game grognards (hello) but I was happily surprised.
The writers kept the cameos from famous games mostly in the background (Ralph's in a villain support group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and M. Bison; they meet in the ghost rectangle in the middle of the Pac-Man board) and kept the focus where it belongs, on the original characters. The three games invented for the movie -- a racer, a first-person shooter, and an old-school single-screen action game -- are believable and fully realized in a way that tells me the writers know and love video games.
I'll nominate Ralph as the best movie about video-game characters yet made. Remember the flood of video-game movies in the 80s? Remember how much they sucked? I know this is geek heresy, but I thought even the original TRON was unbearably boring; the characters had no personality. Maybe a generation had to pass before the culture could absorb video games enough to make a good movie about them.
I think I realized something about myself. I've got a reputation as a guy who hates all movies, but that's not true. Turns out I just hate movies aimed at grown-ups. Most of my favorites - e.g. the works of Ghibli, Pixar, and Jim Henson - are movies aimed at kids.
Why is that? Because I'm an emotionally-stunted man-child who refuses to grow up? Probably. But also because I want two things out of a movie. One is meaning: themes, character development, a coherent philosophy. The other is fun stuff: cool visuals, dynamic scenes, originality, humor. If your movie has cool fight scenes but no themes or character development, if it's just about colorful dudes punching each other (ahem, Avengers), it makes me bored. If it's got Big Themes but it's dour and dreary, all talking heads and long meaningful pauses and rain, that makes me bored too. Most grown-up movies fall hard on one side or the other.
And OK most kids' movies are dreck (previews for some truly atrocious ones were attached to Wreck-it Ralph) but smart kids' movies are one of the few genres that allow themselves to be fun and meaningful at the same time. Kids lack experience, but they're not dumb. Smart kids' movies, by treating kids with respect, tell stories that are relevant for everyone. I dare say that some kids' movies get at things about the human condition that "grownup" movies are afraid to tackle. Contrast, say, the opening sequence of "Up" (still chokes me up just thinking about it) vs. the wanky wish-fulfillment of "Avatar". One of these is telling us the truth about life and it isn't the one supposedly aimed at grown-ups.
Wreck-it Ralph is about self-discovery, finding your place in the world, the meaning of heroism, the emptiness of material rewards, seeing people as more than their job description, trying to break out of the box that other people use to define you... there's a lot of good stuff in there and it holds together really well on repeat watchings. Ralph isn't the only dynamic character; Vanelope is hilarious and has a decent character arc of her own, being almost a co-protagonist. The movie is a whole lot better on the female-representation front than most of its source material (unfortunately) is.
On the fun-stuff side, Wreck-it Ralph captured what I love about my favorite video games -- the worlds you can explore, the characters you can be, the friendships and rivalries with other players, the thrill of honest competition, the quest to get farther than you've ever gotten before, the innocent joy of an activity that has no purpose except to be fun. I would play the hell out of Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sugar Rush if they were real games. (Hero's Duty not so much - I hate rail-shooters.) The plot has some great twists, the environments are wondrous, and we get to laugh at characters from wildly different genres trying to interact despite their divergent expectations about game mechanics (and equally divergent bodily proportions).
There is also a pretty cool visual, during scenes where a certain character hacks the source code of his own game (!) which does a decent job of visualizing what programming feels like.
This was a good year for smart kids movies! Besides Ralph, I was surprised how good Paranorman was. It's a stop-motion animation by the makers of Coraline, about a boy who can see ghosts; sadly it seems like almost nobody saw it. I loved Paranorman's portrayal of a creaky New England town (much like the ones I grew up in) and all the little extra touches they put into the animation. I thought the gradual reveal of the central mystery was well done, and I approve of its message - don't want to give spoilers so I'll just say it's a story about how fear turns people into monsters.
Also saw Brave last week. It's not Pixar's best, but middle-of-the-road Pixar is still really good relative to most studios' output. It has amazingly gorgeous backgrounds, but at first I thought it was going to be boring because it seemed to be following the typical Disney Princess "no mom I don't wanna marry this bozo I'ma run away" narrative. But then it takes a different turn. No handsome prince character rides in to resolve everything; in fact all the male characters are background. Instead the story is all about repairing a broken mother-daughter relationship. It's weird how rare this is a subject for a fairy-tale movie. (How many Disney character moms are even alive and present, let alone get their own character development?) It made me think a lot about my relationship with my own mother (who has been going around saying "it's yerr FATE" in a fake Scottish accent ever since seeing the movie).
Plus there's a cool bear fight!
Back to 1942
week year I saw a Chinese movie about the Henan famine of 1942. A bad drought combined with the Japanese invasion (and a Chinese central government pulling grain out of drought-stricken Henan to feed its army) caused about 3 million people to starve to death, no joke.
The English title is "Back to 1942". It is amazingly well-crafted, ambitious, and beautiful, but emotionally devastating. All I could do for an hour afterwards was make this face:
Most movies about real-life tragedies are too heavy-handed. One horrible event follows another until they start to lose their emotional impact. Even though the movie isn't any good, you feel bad criticizing it, because the subject matter really is important. But a movie that's all "THE WORLD MUST NEVER FORGET" instead of telling a story is the cinematic equivalent of having to eat your vegetables.
1942 avoided that pitfall. It didn't make me emotionally numb because it had nuance and contrast and variation, weaving together stories of many different people making choices on many different scales. It had a lot to say about politics and human nature beyond just "Famine sucks".
...Like, how crises peel away the veneer of civilization to reveal humanity as frightened, hungry mammals. We see the social structure in complete collapse. People stripped of all dignity and culture, caring only about survival. Pointing guns at their starving neighbors because, well, my own family comes first and we don't have anything to spare for you and I know you're going to try to steal it. Nothing personal.
There are all sorts of cool subtle parallels. We see corrupt provincial ministers politicking over how relief grain shipments are to be distributed, and we see refugees fighting over a packet of crackers. The ministers have nicer clothes and use more polite words, but the underlying dynamic, the desperate need to grab what you can before someone else does, is exactly the same.
The scene where the Japanese planes are bombing the refugee lines was really hard to watch. After some movies where horrible things happen I can tell myself "it's just a movie". Not this one, though. Sushu's grandparents lived through this. They fled to Sichuan province where they took refuge from Japanese bomber runs by hiding in caves.
The portrayal of Chiang Kai-Shek is very nuanced. For years, due to Communist censorship, mainland Chinese movies only showed him as the villain; a corrupt tyrant who gets overthrown by the heroic Communists. So it's kind of amazing how not-villainized he is in this film. He comes off as a well-meaning man who is just waayyy out of his depth. A good soldier but not a good politician, thrust into a no-win situation, surrounded by men who are afraid to tell him bad news, making mistakes which contribute to a lot of deaths.
Aside from the clear-cut evil of the Japanese invaders, 1942 isn't much interested in identifying heroes and villains for the audience. I'm used to American movies where heavy-handed music and dialogue constantly remind you who you're supposed to like and who you're supposed to hate. 1942 is like: here are these people faced with horrible choices. This guy made this choice, and he lived. This guy made the other choice, and he died. Like there's a bit where the Japanese are toying with two prisoners of war. One guy refuses to submit to their humiliations, and they kill him. The other guy submits, and lives. In some movies the guy who refused would be a hero, meant to rouse us all with his defiance. Here, he's just dead.
But seeing as how, two months into the famine, the living are utterly without hope, and openly envying the dead... who's to say the alive guy is better off? It makes you think some really cold thoughts, this movie.
Major spoilers: The ending scene hit me hard. Dongjia (a main character) is sustained through most of the story by the need to protect his family and project hope to keep them going. But he loses them all - one by one, they either die or they get sold into slavery for a few pints of grain. By the end, he has nobody, and so he has nothing left to live for; he's just waiting to die, walking east so he can die closer to home. But then he finds a random girl whose whole family has died, too; he kind of "adopts" her. Suddenly he has a reason to live again.
It got me thinking: Humans survive by making some kind of meaning out of their situation, no matter how horrible. Even if it's a meaning as small as keeping someone else company while you shuffle weakly down the barren road together in search of your next meal. Even those of us who are lucky enough to have houses to live in and food to eat and who aren't getting shot at (and we are very lucky indeed) even for us lucky ones, this fact about life is the same. We're all on a road with death at the end, and maybe finding someone to care about, to create some meaning along the way, is the best any of us can hope for.
You should watch 1942. Just be prepared to experience absolute despair.
Oh, and if I ever complain about food again, somebody punch me please?
Yo Russell Crowe, I'm happy for you and I'ma let you finish, but Norm Lewis is the best Javert of all time. OF ALL TIME!
Saw the new movie version of Les Miserables with Sushu's family on Christmas morning. Thought it was really good! I cried a little.
That might have had less to do with the quality of this particular adaptation and more with the fact that this is the first time I followed the story all the way through. Kind of ashamed to say it, but when I saw the stage version years ago, I couldn't follow the plot. I was like, who are all these new characters who just showed up? What are they singing about now? What the heck is this barricade they're fighting over? (Answer: it was a failed student uprising in Paris of 1832, between the second French Revolution and the third French Revolution.)
I found the movie a lot easier to follow. There's a lot of stuff from the book that is really hard to portray on a stage but can be shown in a movie -- like Valjean dragging Marius through the sewers; I had no idea that was a thing that happened until seeing the movie version. So this was the first time feeling the emotional impact of the story. I could do without so much of Marius' man-pain and I wish Cosette got some character development of her own instead of just being a symbol to inspire the men, but overall for a story written in the 1860s it's pretty good.
And it's got some amazing songs. I've been kind of obsessed with it. Me and Sushu sang a lot of numbers from Les Mis on our road trip to Seattle. I'm gonna ask my accordion teacher if I can learn some of those songs next!
Sushu told me that, back when she was in high school, she once planned out an epic Les Mis / Rurouni Kenshin crossover fanfic. (She had to abandon writing it because she couldn't reconcile 1830s France with 1890s Japan in a historically accurate way. Of course.) That's my awesome wife for you, everybody!
A Spooky Pandemonium
Watched a movie called Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame yesterday. Wuxia movies do a lot of crazy stuff Hollywood would never think of in a million years, but even by those standards Detective Dee is a pretty weird movie.
Detective Dee himself is apparently based on a real person, as is the Empress Wu, Chinese history's only official female ruler. She lets Dee out of jail to send him to investigate a series of mysterious murders that might threaten her coronation. So far so good. But the murder weapon is that all the victims somehow spontaneously burst into flame when exposed to sunlight. OK, it's a kind of alchemy, I can suspend my disbelief on that for the sake of a good story. It's CSI: Tang Dynasty, with kung fu battles, I dig it. But then suddenly everybody starts taking orders from a talking deer who they call "The Chaplain", and at that point I'm like whaaaaaaaaat theeeee... what am I watching? When did this turn into a Narnia movie?
There's a bit where the detectives are going to look for a dude named "Donkey Wang" in a black market called the Phantom Bazaar which is built around an underground river beneath the city. One of the detectives, an axe-wielding albino martial-arts master named Donglai, warns them to be on their guard, and we get my new favorite piece of questionable translation as the English subtitles say:
"Watch out. The Phantom Bazaar is a spooky pandemonium".
A spooky pandemonium! I love it!
Anyway, if you like weird movies, it's quite entertaining. Check it out sometime.
Tai Chi Zero (Me and Sushu made a podcast)
After Taiko practice every Saturday, we usually hang out with our friend Chris in Oakland for a few hours, watching anime and kung fu movies, role-playing, or playing board games.
After that there's an hour drive back from Oakland to Palo Alto. There's not much else to do besides talk about what we just watched or played. That leads into talking about two of my favorite topics - game design and storytelling! We've had a lot of interesting conversations on this weekly ride home.
Last week, as an experiment, I decided to record us and call it a "podcast". 99% of podcasts on the internet are just an hour some friends giggling about their inside jokes anyway (people seriously need to learn to edit that stuff out). Surely we can do better than that!
This week we mostly talked about a kung-fu movie called Tai Chi Zero. It's notable for incorporating steampunk elements and comic-book-style visual effects into the story of a very dumb guy with a "berserk button" literally growing out of his forehead.
If there's enough interest in it for us to keep doing them, I'll make a proper page with an RSS feed and stuff. For now here's just a link to the raw mp3 file. Total length is about 40 minutes.
Contents with timestamps below the fold:
0:00 - What's this podcast.
1:12 - Tai Chi Zero and its incorporation of other media
- Comic-style visuals
- Connection to martial arts novels
- How ridiculous this movie is / 4th wall and trope awareness
- Literary chinese/cultural background
- Skipping through time and space, split-screen, saving time
10:50 - Comparison to Sherlock Holmes
- We don't like sherlock-vision and shakycam
- Showing the audience what's going to happen before it happens
- Time confusion
- The unspoken plan guarantee
- Jono is slow on the uptake
18:45 - Why are all the women in this movie needlessly in love with boring tophat guy?
- The mistake of making a character's backstory more interesting than the real story
- Crossdressing is "fucking hot"!
20:35 - A tangent about playing loner characters in RPGs
- You can't non-consensually involve Cyclops in your kink!
27:30 - Back to Tai Chi Zero and Top Hat Guy.
- Everybody in the village has the same name?
- Top hat guy introduced too late
- Too much brooding before we know the reason why
- What a slap in the face!
34:55 - What happened to that rebellion, anyway?
- Jono was confused by the change of plot direction.
- Jianghu prologue scenes
- In western fiction that the story is about whatever is the biggest threat introduced up to then
- Internal kung fu: a typical Wuxia McGuffin