‘Ex Machina’ & Ted Lieu


Ex Machina is an excellent, creepy, and faintly problematic movie. Ted Lieu is a congressman from Southern California. As a just meaningless side note and, arguably, a moment of pointless name dropping, I met him a dozen years ago when I canvassed for him when he ran in a special election for an open seat in the California General Assembly.

This was part of a series by a nonprofit called Future Tense. It’s one of many semi-political, semi-advocacy, vaguely but not quite thinktank-y orgs that exist all around DC.

Lieu spoke well and amusingly and amazingly non-partisanly about technology legislation around the hacking of driverless cars, cells, etc. But I’ve always liked him. He even mentioned universal basic income or UBI as something worth attaining.

This was the second time I’d seen Ex Machina and I was able to better appreciate parts of the performance, script, and direction better. Like watching a surprising mystery, it can be fun to go back and re-see things again, knowing what one knows. The manipulations of the sparse cast.

But… the nudity seems problematic. There’s not a lot, except, towards the very end, there is a scene with great deal of extended nudity (there was an earlier nude scene which felt less problematic, as well), all of women (and all, my better half noted, women of a certain body type). I can understand why the director did it, in one sense, and I can outline why, I expect, he felt needed and why he felt it was okay. The gaze was female, for example. It was about becoming a woman (and a human). More reasons, too. But even though it probably wasn’t more than a minute or two, it felt like it lingered and it’s hard to fully explain away voyeurism. I won’t truly condemn voyeurism (I’m a man who’s used the internet, so it would be disingenuous), but maybe this movie didn’t need it.

 

Beatriz At Dinner


The movie had gotten great reviews and while it wasn’t absolutely at the top of my ‘if you’re going to see a movie that’s out right now, it’s definitely this one’ list, it was on that list, so when a friend suggested we all see Beatriz at Dinner, I was one hundred percent down with it.

And it’s a really good movie. It’s a little too cinematic, though, not trusting in its actors (Salma Hayek is great and plays Beatriz’s subtle, aggressive power very well and John Lithgow makes a truly horrible person three dimensional, yet also sympathetic because he is a real, three dimensional human being, without shying away from the fact that he is an awful blight). I feel like it could have been a more politically and ecologically minded My Dinner with Andre (one of my all time favorite movies), if the director had trusted the audience to be able find the clash of ideas in conversation to be riveting.

Also: Chekhov’s gun appears.

If you don’t know what that means, don’t just look it up online. Read a book. Go to the library.

Crispin The Saint


Ostensibly, I bought this because my better half enjoys cider. But really, I bought it because of Kenneth Branagh.

For people of a certain age and certain bent, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V was one of those things that changed the way you saw the world could be. Shakespeare was exciting. It was sexy and a little bit dangerous.

It introduced me to art house theaters (I saw Henry V at the Tampa Theatre).

And, in case you’re not making the connection, the climax of the play/movie is just before the Battle of Agincourt, when King Henry delivers the famed ‘Crispin’s Day Speech.’

The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000


Ever since I saw the documentary, Best of Enemies, at the E Street Cinema (I can’t recommend the documentary, nor that movie theater, highly enough), I’ve felt the urge to get to know Gore Vidal’s oeuvre better. Over a decade ago, I saw him at a West Hollywood book fair (he signed my copy of The Judgment of Paris).

So far, I’ve read Burr and now The Last Empire (and, of course, The Judgment of Paris).

My initial thoughts are that he repeats himself a lot in these essays. Phrases and anecdotes do double or triple duty throughout, which brings up the question of whether it would have been better to be more selective or else if it’s better to be comprehensive, repetition, be damned.

I also hadn’t realized how much Christopher Hitchens writes like Vidal, particularly on politics. The name dropping, of course (though you read Vidal, at least, in part to be taken under his gossipy wing, so name dropping is part of the point), but also the anger at certain figures, verging on falling into conspiracy-mongering (in Vidal’s case, Truman comes in for a lot of grief; if I’m honest, I’m not well-read enough on the haberdasher’s presidency to judge how fair Vidal is to him).

I Love Godzilla


Godzilla was on the other night. The terribly edited one with Raymond Burr spliced in and the most terrifying moments cut out (a mother and child crushed underfoot) in order to satisfy the delicate sensibilities of white americans.

But I love Godzilla so much.

The looping crescendos of the music, reminding us that Godzilla does not care about us, barely notices us. It’s not ‘scary’ music like the strobe light sounds of Pyscho or the rising, precision hunting of Jaws. Like the monster himself, it is merely inexorable.

Shin Godzilla


godzilla-resurgence-trailer-ticketsThe latest Godzilla movie from Toho is showing only irregularly here in Washington, DC – one night here, another night there. I saw it Tuesday night at the E Street Cinema (still the best movie theater in DC).

You can’t compare it to the recent, American Godzilla. Though that was a good movie, it was also, primarily, a monster movie. So what you say? How are the Toho movies and all their kaiju movies they inspired not monster movies? Serious? Are you stupid? Are you a Trump voter? Are you that stupid?

Ok, ok. Calm down. I get you.

But the Toho productions have always been, even at their silliest, informed by political concerns in a way that the American movies have not.

Shin Godzilla takes that to a whole new level. Even more than usual, Godzilla himself plays a relatively small role and has limited screen time. What’s more, during much of his screen time, he is sleeping (he sleeps standing up, in case you were curious).

Most of the movie consists of high level meetings of government officials and their aides. And it’s exciting. I kid you not. Even though they’re just meetings, it is amazingly fast paced. There are plenty of moments of humor and of the director and screenwriter rolling their eyes at bureaucracy and some high level bumbling. The Prime Minister and later the acting Prime Minister come in for some gentle mockery, but never does the movie disrespect the ability of political actors to accomplish things.

In fact, the final message of the movie (delivered with little subtlety in the final scenes) is the need for vigorous politicians to chart an independent path for Japan in a part of the world being rapidly dominated by concerns about China and North Korea, as well as US responses to those concerns.

So, go see it.

The Eleventh Son: A Novel Of Martial Arts And Tangled Love


Eleventh Son is one of the few (that I have seen) twentieth century wuxia novels translated into English. You see, while my better half was out of town, taking care of family for almost six months, I was able to indulge all my dark Netflix desires: Family Guy, Voltron, and kung fu movies.

I knew that, for example, the great (and also sui generis) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was based on one of a series of novels. But I had also assumed it was from the nineteenth century or earlier, but it was actually from the mid-twentieth century. So I decided to search for a professionally translated version of a wuxia novel from that period and among the few I uncovered was… The Eleventh Son.

The style of writing (at least in translation) is so plain and chopped that it’s almost a short hand. It’s like someone wrote a novel in something between a caricature and loving embrace of the AP stylebook.

The story is of a famed bandit Xiao Shiyi Lang who finds himself rescuing and mutually falling for a (married and pregnant) Shen Bijun (whose husband is himself a world renowned martial artist). In between are fights and twists and all that and then it ends on a ridiculous cliffhanger. Actually, the whole plot doesn’t hang to together very well (an episode trapped in a dollhouse is just pointless) and the ‘big boss’ appears out of nowhere, narratively speaking.

I gather that a television series was made based on this and I suppose that might be better. Even though it was written and published as a novel, you can think of it as a screen treatment or libretto. If you read an opera libretto, you’ll find it to be various combinations of ridiculous, nonsensical, melodramatic, sappy, and downright stupid. But watch an opera live… well that’s something else.