‘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.

Francis Fukuyama & ‘Children Of Men’

As part of series called Future Tense, I dragged my better half to see the movie Children of Men, followed by a brief lecture/Q&A featuring Francis Fukuyama (who actually introduced himself as ‘Frank’ Fukuyama; nothing intrinsically weird about that, but it did strike me, because I only know him as a sort of public intellectual and semi-repentant neo-conservative.

I loved the movie when it first came out, though I spent almost the entire movie on the verge of tears. This time, I was able to appreciate Clive Owen’s wry humor (and also accept that he would not have been a good James Bond; while Daniel Craig added a wonderful element of questioning Bond’s existence, a Clive Owen Bond would have been entirely too despairing).

Let me first admit that I have never read anymore longer than a magazine essay by Fukuyama. Yes, I am the guy in DC who does not own The End of History, in case you were wondering who that person was. Mostly because I know him as a neo-conservative/neo-liberal (hint: they’re the same thing), even though I also know he has backed off those tendencies over the last decade.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in hearing what he had to say.

He was surprisingly religious and, as a moderator in a Q&A, he took care of the perennial issue of ‘let me ask a question that is actually a long statement intended to show how smart I am but which really shows that I once read an article from a two year old copy of The Economist while waiting to get a crown replaced.’ What he did was to give a brief lecture and then ask a question, so at least the people were supposed to speak and ramble.

While he asked several questions, they were ultimately about what the world might look like if there were no future. While I resisted the temptation to raise my hand and ask to be heard, I will admit that I had a rough idea of a comment in mind. I thought of de Sade’s Philosophy of the Bedroom. Specifically, I thought of that weird interlude when one of the characters suggests they pause their orgy and read an essay. You can google this. My point is that he talks about the death of God, which is the death of the king during the French Revolution. By executing the king, revolutionaries have killed the idea of order and limits coming from a higher power and they should accept that they have made it so that nothing is forbidden anymore. My insight from that is that the death of God can be something besides just a loss of faith (or an enormous, otherwise omnipotent being feeling dead from the sky), but also be something like, say, the loss of fertility. And then, in the words of Uncle Billy Burroughs, everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden.

Fukuyama also told me something I didn’t know: the title comes from the King James Bible’s translation of Psalm 90

Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men

It’s a prayer by Moses, by the way. And Fukuyama put in a nice plug for the King James version, telling folks how much they’re missing when they read those silly ‘modern’ language versions.

Fifty Years Ago Today, The First Episode of ‘Star Trek’ Aired

I took that picture of Captain James Tiberius Kirk’s uniform at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the Mall. And no, I’m not going to get into a discussion about Kirk’s middle name. But I should note that this is a uniform worn by Chris Pine, not by the eternally awesome William Shatner, though, after watching Star Trek: Beyond, which was the best of the ‘new’ Star Trek‘s and, dare I say, in the top fifty percent of all Star Trek movies, not to mention a rollicking good time, I now have a much better appreciation of Pine as Kirk, or how he has grown into the role. Real Star Trek fans will also have realized that Shatner could never have fit into that uniform, even at his youthful and swashbuckling best.

But that original series was just… awesome. And Wrath of Khan was one of the best movies of all time (I haven’t forgiven the first reboot movie from trivializing the motives that drove Kirk to cheat on the Kobayashi Maru simulator; the reboot made it a sort of joke, but in Khan, Kirk admitted that the simulation, which was intended to be training for how to deal with failure, triggered in him a deep feeling, beyond just being unable to accept no-win situations, but a terrible fear of failure).

So, not exactly happy birthday. But happy something. And thank you, Gene Roddenberry.


Despite considerable searching, I have not been able to find the one from my memories.
Despite considerable searching, I have not been able to find the one from my memories.

It’s not possible for Tarzan not to be problematic. Simply not possible.

I have never actually read a Tarzan story, though I will confess to having read half a dozen novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (four of his Mars novels and two of his Pellucidar novels). Growing up, there was one in the library. The library was small, dusty room with a piano that no on in the house could play. And there was a Tarzan novel (or, perhaps, a collection of short stories; I believe that many of the so-called books were just compilations of short stories originally published in magazines). On the cover was Tarzan and a crocodile in a fast moving river. I can’t remember whether they swimming (Tarzan being chased) or whether Tarzan was wrestling the reptile. Despite loving crocodilians, I did not read it, partly because my mother told me that the stories were racist. So I looked and looked, but never read.

My better half and I saw the movie, The Legend of Tarzan the other day. And I enjoyed it. It worked manfully, it not entirely successful to make the white savior aspects less horrible (though it would have irritated purists and white supremacists alike, it would have been cool if Jane had been played by black actress).

Maybe I will read one finally. One with dinosaurs or lost cities. Or not. Maybe I should not.