Good God... where to begin?
"X-Men: Apocalypse" (XMA) is another big-ass, hypertrophic Bryan Singer film starring James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey/Phoenix, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, Lucas Till as Alex Summers/Havok, Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, Josh Helman as William Stryker, and Ben Hardy as Angel.
That's quite a cast list, isn't it? So maybe we should start the criticism there, with the fact that, like so many ensemble superhero movies, this one is grossly overstuffed (I remember when I complained that "Spider-Man 3" was overstuffed, and that movie had only one main hero and three villains). The focus—what focus there is—is primarily on Xavier, Magneto, Phoenix, Quicksilver, and the eponymous Apocalypse. Several different plot lines eventually end up converging in a huge final battle in Cairo, but even during that battle, the camera is constantly cutting from one character to another because the conflict involves so many people.
Singer is a talented enough director to pull off this cinematic jumpiness without leaving us overly confused, but it still became annoying that there really was no central conflict that drove the movie: Apocalypse either sees you as an enemy or makes you into his minion, so it's not long before he has plenty of enemies. I saw the potential for a central conflict: Apocalypse realizes that Xavier is the mutant he's waited thousands of years to meet—the mutant who has enough inherent power to fulfill Apocalypse's dastardly plan for global renewal, and this could have been explored in a more complex and subtle way than what we actually see, which amounts to little more than Apocalypse doing some supermutant-style browbeating in an attempt to sap Xavier's will and, eventually, to take over his body and mind.
The movie's beginning is set in 3600 BC; we're privy to a weird Egyptian version of the Vulcan fal-tor-pan ritual—you may recall the soul-transference from "Star Trek III" in which Spock's immortal katra is taken from McCoy's mind and placed in Spock's regenerated body. The difference between the fal-tor-pan re-fusion ritual and the Egyptian ceremony in XMA is that, in the Egyptian ceremony, the new host body takes on the physical attributes of the previous body. This is actually important later in the story, when Xavier loses his hair after being captured and suffering through most of the ritual. (Apocalypse also "upgrades" Storm's powers early in the movie, an action that turns her hair white. That's two hairstyle-related origin stories in a single movie.)
I wasn't thrilled by the Egyptian soul-transference ceremony. It made no visual sense to me, although I grant it might make more sense to a dedicated comic-book fan. What I saw was this: two bodies side by side on two catafalques, lots of glowing energy that is left utterly unexplained—some of it cloudy-looking, some of it mimicking glowing liquid gold. I saw the energy move from one body to another, and I saw the recipient's body (Oscar Isaac, in a role that now strikes me as a step backward from Poe Dameron in "The Force Awakens") morph into the new Apocalypse. I got the overall idea, but why was this energy there to begin with? Was it cosmic energy? Was it the natural spiritual energy of the earth, evoked through incantation? Was it the native energy of the four mutants guarding Apocalypse? If it was mutant energy, then how were those non-mutants able to conjure Apocalypse in the 1980s merely by chanting and letting in sunshine? We're told absolutely nothing.
As the ceremony nears its conclusion, a coordinated group of betrayers (for lack of a better term) suddenly springs into action, hammering loose these huge blocks of stone that slide inward into the pyramid in which the ceremony is happening, knocking loose wooden supports and precipitating the pyramid's titanic collapse. I assume this betrayal happens because Apocalypse has enemies who want him dead, and they somehow think—despite knowing how powerful a being he is—that burying him under tons of stone will finish him. No matter: one of the four faithful mutants guarding Apocalypse generates a shield around his new body, simultaneously saving it from destruction and forming a hollowed-out tomb around it—the tomb in which Apocalypse will, presumably, be encased for the next six millennia.
What confused me about this sequence of events was a humble detail: the wooden supports that got knocked out of the way by the sliding stone blocks. First: how were those supports ever put in place, and how was the wood strong enough to uphold all that stone? Second: wouldn't someone have noticed wooden supports for a pyramid when there should have been stone columns instead? Third: wouldn't the person noticing these supports have suspected that something was awry? The wooden supports were on the path of smooth tracks at the top of which sat the huge, pyramid-collapsing stone blocks, themselves kept from sliding by huge wooden chocks. Either pyramid-collapse was some sort of emergency feature built into the pyramid (but why?), or the tracks, wood supports, and stone blocks had all been laid there as part of this elaborate plan for betrayal... and somehow, no one noticed what was going on. No matter how you slice it, the entire opening sequence of XMA is a huge failure of storytelling. This early into the movie, I'm already half-disengaged with it.
Apocalypse himself is a disappointing villain. Before we see him, we get to hear other characters, like Moira MacTaggert, talk about him in awed tones. He was and is the first mutant (I'm reminded of Dracula in "Blade III," who was Patient Zero when it came to vampirism), and with his body-transference capability, he has been able to acquire a massive array of powers from the mutant bodies he's inhabited (don't think too hard about how a second mutant appeared and served as his transference-host... this question resembles the biblical mystery of where Cain's wife came from). Apocalypse, in talking about himself, says he's been known by many names in many cultures (this reminded me of the false god at the center of the galaxy in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"). All in all, such a being ought to be incomprehensibly mighty, but instead, he proves to be disappointingly finite and fallible. At one point, Xavier is forced by Apocalypse to broadcast, Voldemort-style, a dire message to the entire world, but Xavier, while sending out this message, is able to piggyback a secret message to Jean Grey, all without Apocalypse's noticing this. Apocalypse's list of powers doesn't match the rumors, either: one power that he relies on repeatedly is the ability to sink a human body into stone, trapping it there. This ability seems rather mundane, especially for a near-deity. More interestingly, he's also able to manipulate matter at the atomic level (he creates a new helmet for Magneto, for instance), but we never see him exercise this awesome power on the scale of worlds—something he should have been able to do.
Wolverine makes a cameo appearance in the film's third reel; he's known in this movie only by his old designation as "Weapon X." He gets to stumble around drunkenly like Han Solo after being unfrozen from carbonite; he kills a platoon of guards, then runs out into the snowy wilderness (an unintentionally comic scene that caused many in the Korean audience with me to snicker) after Jean Grey restores some of his memories and helps him out of some ridiculous headgear. If I recall correctly, he doesn't say a word. He did, however, leave me thoroughly confused as to what was supposed to be happening in this movie's timeline. Wolverine was free and healthy by the end of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which took place in the 1970s. XMA takes place in the 1980s... and Wolverine's been captured? I guess I should read up on Wolverine's history and/or re-watch "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."
There were other ways in which the movie failed to deliver. Sophie Turner, who is English, had trouble maintaining an American accent. The character of Angel seems to have been retconned from when he was played by a young Ben Foster in "X-Men: The Last Stand." Too many moments and tropes in the movie felt derivative of too many other moments and tropes. John Ottman, who did the musical score for "X-Men: Days of Future Past," returns to score this film in exactly the same way, including that awful, awful Woody Woodpecker leitmotif. (Don't believe me? Listen to the Woody Woodpecker theme here, then listen to Ottman's X-Men theme here.) Olivia Munn's Psylocke is undeveloped and underused as a character (a shame, too, as I have a crush on Munn); she also seems to have stolen Mace Windu's purple lightsaber. Storm has been rebooted—either that, or we've been given much more information about her scrappy past—but she's still underused, as she was in all the previous X-Men films. Character motivations weren't very well developed, and the action scenes all became ponderous and mind-numbing, thus contributing to my growing sense of superhero-movie saturation. (Too bad, because I'm actually very curious about the upcoming Dr. Strange film, which seems to be a completely different angle of approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) With the limply drawn conflict between the villain and the many heroes, I got distracted by the characters' garish getup and began to see the movie as a kind of silly costume party (Psylocke in particular looked ready for Halloween). Singer also slipped in a repeat of the Quicksilver scene from "Days of Future Past" when he has Quicksilver save Xavier's young students from a massive explosion that takes out the entire mansion (you'll recall a snide joke in "Deadpool" about how the mansion blows up every few years). While the new Quicksilver scene might arguably be the best scene in the 2016 film, it's also a retread of something we've already seen, which hints at a creative deficit.
XMA ultimately fails on too many levels for me to appreciate its better points, and it did have some good points. There's plenty of solid acting, for one thing; the action is cliché, but Singer's direction keeps everything from becoming a jumble. The story isn't necessarily incoherent, but it leaves too many things unexplained and does suffer from logic problems, especially at the beginning, during the ancient-Egypt sequence. The special effects aren't bad, but at this point, having digested a plethora of Marvel films, I feel that everything has begun to look like everything else: CGI chunks of buildings, flailing hunks of metal, swarming particles of dust, beams or crackles of energy—you get the picture.
I can't recommend this movie. I have no idea how it's supposed to fit into the larger continuity of the X-Men in the MCU, and the story itself just didn't grab me. Sorry, folks, but it's a thumbs-down on this one. A lot of wasted potential here.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
Friday, May 27, 2016
Thursday, May 26, 2016
Last night, I walked up thirty staircases. That sounds more impressive than it really is, mainly because only the first fourteen staircases present an actual challenge. Those staircases average about sixty steps each, and I try to climb them at faster-than-normal speed, so I'm puffing and progressively more sweat-soaked by the time I reach the top of each one. After Number 14, however, the remaining staircases on my route change dramatically. First, they switch from wood to stone. Second, the steps themselves get slightly taller, so that they're no longer munchkin steps. Third, the number of steps per staircase drops, in most cases, to less than half the number of steps for the first fourteen. Only one of those latter staircases has thirty steps; the rest have only twenty to twenty-five.
When you've just done fourteen staircases with sixty steps each, small staircases come as a relief. They're easy to do; you're done before you know it, and even a fatty like me isn't winded. Starting last night, I began running up the shorter staircases; that seemed to help a bit. However, it's becoming clear that it's the first fourteen staircases that really provide the aerobic and muscular challenge I need. So I'm pondering a change in strategy: what if I were to walk only as far as the fourteenth staircase, turn around, then do the same fourteen on the way back? That would be twenty-eight difficult staircases, all told. The aerobic benefit would go way up, but there's a trade-off: (1) my step count would go way down, and (2) I don't like the first half of my walk nearly as much as the latter half. You see, as you move farther and farther away from the Han, the number of people on the trail peters out, and there are segments where you might find yourself walking all alone. On cool, quiet nights, that sort of situation is a little slice of heaven for me.
Last night's 30K-step walk is a case in point. I walked out farther than I've ever walked before on the Yangjae-cheon trail (which seems endless), and it was beautifully quiet by the time I reached my U-turn point. It was also a bit creepy, as there was one dude behind me who slowly, slowly caught up with me and passed me; there were several minutes during which I could hear his approaching footfalls before he finally drew up alongside me and then pulled ahead. (I sometimes deliberately slow down when that sort of situation arises.) But aside from that one gent, all was calm and quiet and beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
So: do I switch to a 28-staircase workout or not? In terms of cardio, switching is the better choice. In terms of enjoying myself, though, it's not. Decisions, decisions...
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
This is the longest I've walked in a while. I also trudged up THIRTY staircases tonight. Yes: everything hurts right now. Oh, and as for the 14.3 miles: multiply that figure by 1.15, and you'll see I really walked 16.45 miles.
Walking along the creekside path of the Yangjae-cheon as I do, I see all sorts of fellow walkers, most of whom tromp much faster than I can (I'd say they average 4 to 5 miles per hour, and I still think the women are powered by anger). There are also bikers, some few of whom practice the American courtesy of grunting "Passing on your right" as they blow by. Among the bikers, however, there is a certain obnoxious subclass who insist on blaring music from small devices—frame-mounted cell phones or some other mini sound system.
The music varies: sometimes it's Korean folk-style bbongjjak; sometimes it's a frenzied techno dance beat favored by mice writhing desperately in hell (that's the absolute worst, as far as I'm concerned; it's the same frenetically ear-raping shit that you hear in Korean gyms); sometimes it's the almost-soothing tones of a Streisand voice-clone.* Whatever device it is that these bikers are using, it has no bass resonance and no decibel-pumping power, so all the music comes out sounding tinny, nasal, and Doppler-distorted. I've come to think of these devices as "timid boomboxes" because, while they're obnoxious in the way that American boomboxes can be, their lack of bass and volume means they don't pack the same punch that a boombox does. Like so many things in Korea that seem weaker and lower-quality than their American analogues (flimsier kitchen utensils, colanders made of thinner plastic, vacuum cleaners with no suction power, tinier shower heads, etc.), these timid boomboxes are yapping poodles compared to American Dobermans like the classic Lasonic TRC-931.
If we're going to get technical, whatever device it is that's blasting the bikers' music is not a true boombox. I know this. But the way in which the device is being used is indeed very boombox-ish. And I do so wish it would stop. Then I could stop pining for my own ghetto blaster: a pump shotgun with a shell for every music-blaring biker who flies by me.
*Voice clones are a whole separate issue. Korea is blessed with many talented singers; alas, I think more of those singers can be found in local churches than on the air. Most Korean pop singers have no vocal control; many rely on a species of AutoTune to keep themselves in key (to be fair, Western pop singers are often just as shitty and just as reliant on AutoTune). Every now and then, however, I hear Korean singers whose sound is the spitting image of some American or British pop icon. I've heard Joplin clones, Manilow clones, Britney clones, Beyoncé clones—you name it. There's probably an Adele clone lurking out there somewhere.
Many of these voice clones have true talent: they have the range, the power, and the vocal control of their Western analogues, but because they're so often singing in the same style as their analogues, it's obvious they've become tools of the Korean recording industry, which is banking on the name-recognition of the Western originals to help promote the voice-clones. K-pop is a huge industry in Korea, and I don't mean "industry" in the artistic/artisanal sense, as in the phrase "movie industry": I mean K-pop is literally an industry in the sense of a huge, smoking factory that churns out exact copies of a mediocre product day in and day out.
Back in the 90s, I once had a student named Yong-pil. He was part of a class that I really liked, and as a class, we all went hiking at a local mountain one day. When we sat down to rest and talk on the mountainside, there was a lull in the conversation, and Yong-pil offered to sing. We all wanted to hear him sing, so we beckoned him to stand up and do so. Yong-pil was normally a very stoic guy; his face during our classes tended to be almost expressionless. But when he stood and sang... I was moved. His voice was rough and gravelly, but perfectly in tune, and the song he sang sounded as if it could have come from the mountain itself. My throat tightened as I experienced the power of Yong-pil's utterance, even though I didn't understand the words. When he was finally done, we all sat in reverent silence for a moment before clapping wildly. Yong-pil, being Yong-pil, cracked only the slightest of smiles. That, ladies and gentlemen, was singing. I often think Korean song is at its best when it reaches back into its own roots and brings something of the past into the present moment. K-pop is derivative fluff, unworthy of attention. What Yong-pil gave us that day... that was the real stuff, and I'll never forget it.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
Monday, May 23, 2016
Here's a series of pics from Monday morning's building-dedication ceremony—the shamanistic gosa, which involves a severed pig's head on an altar along with fish, fruit, rice cakes, makkeolli sprinkled on the ground, incense, and even burning paper floated into the air (very shamanistic). Our boss had originally intended to take me and my coworker to the new building, but he called us at the office and said he'd been asked to come earlier, so my coworker and I would need to take a cab. We did so, and my boss, when I met him, slipped me a W10,000 bill to make up for the fare.
Below: the first sight to greet us—ranks of staffers on the stairs, calling out greetings in creepy-yet-cheerful unison to passersby.
Next: a shot that gives you a better look at the building. I've been calling my place of work "the Golden Goose," and I'll continue to do so to make my work-related posts a little less Googleable, but in these pictures, you can see my company's name. Now you know.
Inside the first floor: the Death Star isn't complete quite yet, but we're having a building-dedication ceremony all the same.
The back of my boss's head. Because he's fluent in Korean, he was called upon to interpret for us native speakers of English throughout the ceremony.
A note about the above photo: through a trick of the light, there appears to be a gray rectangle that's just sitting all by itself. It's actually part of the picture that shows my boss. It's either a large ceiling light, or it's light glaring off white paint on the ceiling.
And now—the pig's head itself. It represents prosperity and good luck. The gosa isn't the most Muslim-friendly of rituals, but welcome to Asia, where pigs are popular animals. The whole purpose of this ritual is to bring good luck to the building and to the people who use it for its assigned purpose. The CEO told us he hopes to establish more such independent branches, and he further hopes to make our company go international, with branches in foreign countries, the way some of our competitors are functioning now.
Anyway, the pig and the well-laden altar:
In this next pic, I turn the camera slightly left to give you a view of the hagweon's front desk:
Here's the first of two insane ribbon-cutting pictures. You'd think that having a single person make a single cut into a ribbon would be sufficient, but no: as the SEALs say, if something is worth doing, it's worth overdoing. So why not line up a whole platoon of people, all armed with scissors, to cut that ribbon to ribbons?
Second ribbon-cutting pic:
In this next picture, the man kneeling is our CEO. He doesn't go by that title, though: he insists on being called a weonjang, i.e., an institute president. This is a less-lofty title than hoejang-nim, which refers to a CEO, but it's what everyone calls him. The big boss gets his name put on all our textbooks; we who actually write the textbooks never see our names on their covers (although our names can appear inside, in the front matter).
A digital-zoom shot, same scene:
I stepped outside momentarily to take a gander at the festive flower arrangements that normally accompany any sort of business opening.
And another shot:
At this point, I've skipped far forward in time. There are many events that I didn't photograph. There was, for example, a cute dance number done by some female staffers; there was a slide show that told the story of the building's construction (it took more than a year to build); there were speeches... so many speeches, with the CEO speaking last of all and going on interminably. Around five minutes before he finished, I said "Fuck it" and headed up to the 8th floor. I'd wanted to see the roof. The following shot is of an open space on the 8th floor. Not quite the rooftop, but it gave a decent view of part of the city:
Another shot, same location:
I was one of the first to pop upstairs and see the food that had been prepped for the post-ceremony lunch. I didn't eat anything, partly because I hate massive gatherings, which involve the painful act of sitting with people I don't know, and partly because I've dedicated myself to a low-carb regime.
A view from the 8th floor, more explicitly downward-looking:
I climbed up to the rooftop gardens and terrace, where I snapped these final two pictures. The CEO's college-aged daughter was up there, eating a quiet lunch with a lady friend. She said "hi" as I lumbered past her to get my shots; I smiled in return, but didn't want to disturb her and her friend.
And one last shot off the roof:
I ended up grabbing a cab and going back to my office in Daechi-dong by myself. There was little point in hanging around if I wasn't intending to eat lunch there. A free meal might have been nice, but it would also have been 90% carbs. As I was leaving the rooftop, several foreign teachers came up the stairwell, having finally gotten a clue that there was more to see in this building. I heard one guy telling another, "...and you know this roof? They made all this for the kids, too!" I thought that was amusing. The guy apparently couldn't read Korean because the staircase giving access to the rooftop terrace had a sign in it that said, "Students: Do Not Enter." Maybe he was right—maybe the rooftop terrace is for the kids as much as it's for the adult faculty and staff. In that case, those signs will have to come down.
The celebration was still going on around 1PM. I was long gone by then, but half my work day had been used up on this ceremony. I wish the Songpa branch good luck, now that the Songpa-based workers have a building to call their own. This company has its faults, but I'm generally glad to be working here, and I certainly have no reason to wish any of the teachers and staffers ill. May they enjoy the new facilities, and may the facilities last a long, long time.
I went to a severed-pig-head ceremony this morning (in Korean, the ceremony, which has shamanistic roots, is called gosa), held to inaugurate the opening of my company's first-ever independent building. The Golden Goose is part publishing house, part hagweon, and the new building, our Songpa branch, is a giant hagweon, eight floors tall with a rooftop garden. All of our other branches, including the one I work in, are located inside large multipurpose buildings. This is the company's first step toward becoming something like the JEI Corporation (Jaeneung Gyoyuk in Korean: 재능교육, a very famous language-education company), which has many independent buildings scattered all over the peninsula.
Expect photos and explanations later tonight.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
The Catholic Church is the oldest form of institutional Christianity. As early as the late second century after the death of Jesus, the Church already had physical houses of worship (before these, there were the "house churches" that dotted the Mediterranean shores of northern Africa and southern Europe, but house churches weren't united as an institution, per se) as well as an ecclesiastical hierarchy that included bishops like Saint Irenaeus, who wrote Adversus Haereses, i.e., Against Heresies, a treatise against the coeval rise of Gnosticism. Well before Church fathers like the "Triples A's" of Anselm, Augustine, and Aquinas, a theology was being formed, heresies were being combatted, beliefs and behaviors were being brought into line as the Roman Church's structure rapidly solidified. Just as the Milky Way took only 4% of the universe's current age to become a recognizable galaxy, the Church, as an institution, came into being very quickly in Christian history. By human reckoning, if not by geologic reckoning, the Church is an ancient, venerable system that has grown to encompass 1.2 billion believers. Along with being old, then, the Church is huge, glorying in a massive accumulation of history, tradition, and teaching authority (magisterium).
Institutions are human, of course—the Church's claims to be the Body of Christ notwithstanding. I used to think of all institutions as necessarily evil, given their tendency toward stifling bureaucracy and their possession of an intricate corporate structure filled with dark corners that are the breeding ground for fraud, graft, and a host of other human vices. But in truth, institutions are merely social structures composed of human beings, some well-intended, some not. Institutions are neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but I will say this: when an institution like the Roman Church goes bad, it goes very bad.
A while back, I reviewed "Calvary," a movie whose central concept enfolds both the native goodness and native badness of the Church. "Calvary" is about an angry man who was sexually abused by a priest when he was a child, and who is now out for revenge. His purpose is to murder a priest by the end of the week—not just any priest, but an innocent one, a good man, because the death will have that much greater of an impact. The movie introduces us to Father James, a good and decent priest, who is to be the target of the angry man's wrath. In this way, the movie balances the evil of the assaulting priest with the goodness of the innocent priest, both of whom are members of the same institution. "Calvary" is a fascinating and compelling drama that leaves it up to the viewer to figure out where he or she stands on the question of the sinfulness of the Church.
Since "Calvary," I've watched two other Church-related movies, "Spotlight" and "Philomena," both of which tell stories of deep and widespread malfeasance. "Spotlight" focuses largely on the tragedy of systematic sexual assault by priests; "Philomena" focuses instead on the personal journey of one woman who had been wronged by the Church years earlier.
"Spotlight" is an ensemble film in the exposé spirit of movies like "All the President's Men." The plot is a slow burn as greater and greater evidence of ecclesiastical wrongdoing accumulates. The movie stars Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Michael Keaton as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee, Jr., Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, and Billy Crudup as Eric MacLeish.
The Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team of journalists tends to concentrate on stories that require weeks or months of careful research before any articles can be published. A new editor has taken over, Marty Baron (Schreiber), and Baron is intensely interested in following a potential story about priestly abuse of youth in the Boston area. Baron quietly insists that the Spotlight team drop everything and refocus its efforts on this story; team members, unsure of who Baron is and what his agenda might be, are initially hesitant, but the story itself proves compelling enough to suck the entire team into its appalling vortex. We, the viewers, feel dawning horror as the team begins to realize just how extensive the abuses and coverups are—how high the scandal goes in the Church's hierarchy, how many priests have been abusive and transferred around, and how many years this ugliness has been going on. The movie ends when the story has been published, and Spotlight's hotline phones begin ringing off the hook as even more people begin to call in to relate their own stories of Church-fueled tragedy.
The movie shows journalism in its best light. Let's face it: these days, journalists aren't known for their virtue or nobility. But the Spotlight team is depicted as likable and dedicated; there are interpersonal conflicts, such as the one between the hot-headed Rezendes (Ruffalo, doing a very strange accent) and Robinson (Keaton), but for the most part, the group is a paragon of teamwork. Even for those of us who remember the actual scandal (which happened right around the time I was in grad school), the movie manages to hold our attention. Hats off to the actors and the director for putting together a truly engrossing—and searingly painful—story.
"Philomena," by contrast, is a more private tale of an older Irishwoman, Philomena Lee (the excellent Dame Judi Dench), who had her son taken away from her years earlier by the Catholic Church. The Church scandal in this movie isn't sexual abuse, but a different sin altogether: in 1950s Ireland, girls who became pregnant out of wedlock were often sent to convents where they would be assigned work as a sort of penance. When these girls gave birth at the convent, their children were sold to foreign parents (American, in Philomena's case and many others) who had been looking to adopt. The young mothers had no say in their children's destinies; the pious assumption was that, by having lost their virtue before marriage, the young ladies had given up the right to any maternal claim whatsoever. Losing the child was yet another form of penance. The monstrousness of ripping a child from her mother and profiting from it forms the backdrop of this tale.
Philomena teams up with down-on-his-luck journalist Martin Sixsmith (an agreeably subdued Steve Coogan), a world-weary sort who normally avoids "human interest" stories, but who has recently lost his prestigious governmental post and is looking for something to do other than write a book on Russian history. Together, Philomena and Sixsmith visit the old convent where Philomena had been housed; when no information is forthcoming, they travel to America to follow a lead, and that's where they discover Philomena's son's fate. Since this happens around halfway through the movie, I don't think it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Philomena's son, who was gay, is discovered to have died of AIDS after working as a member of the Reagan and Bush administrations. Originally named Anthony, the boy was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents.
Philomena, guilt-ridden, openly wonders whether Anthony/Michael ever thought about his roots, about his real mother. Sixsmith discovers, by looking through photos of Michael, that Michael had often worn a very Irish lapel pin—a Celtic harp. Sixsmith deduces from this that Michael actually cared very much about his Irish heritage, which means he must have spared at least some thoughts for his birth mother. As Philomena and Sixsmith meet more Americans who knew Michael, they discover that, while Michael was dying of AIDS, he made a trip to Ireland, to the very convent where he had been born, in an attempt to find his mother. The nuns at the convent apparently told Michael that his mother had abandoned him, and that the sisters had lost contact with Philomena. One final twist: Michael's lover Pete arranged to have Michael buried at the convent's cemetery. He had been under Philomena's nose all along.
Enraged by the Church's treatment of Philomena, Sixsmith storms into the convent, intending to confront the nun most responsible for Philomena's decades-long misery. He finds the nun, Sister Hildegarde, but the sister lacks any remorse. Philomena, upon seeing Sixsmith's rage, surprises him by saying she forgives the Church for what it did to her. She holds no animosity toward anyone, and actually pities Sixsmith for his constant anger and cynicism. In the end, however, Philomena consents to having her story published, which obviously means the Church will be implicated in this scandal—especially as Philomena was not alone in having a child sold off to rich foreigners.
The story of "Philomena" is quietly linear; it's a simple plot to follow. The narrative is greatly helped by the talented presences of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, who play off each other with buddy-cop enthusiasm. Dench's Philomena sometimes comes across as daffy but well-intended; at the same time, Philomena spent years working as a nurse, so despite her eternally cheerful nature, she has been exposed to some of the worst that humanity has to offer.
The movie presents an interesting and subtle ethical question that, while not being the focus of the story, is nevertheless distracting: is Philomena a noble person for being able to forgive the Church, or is forgiveness easy for her because she has a naturally sunny, forgiving nature? Are effort and struggle components of moral conduct, or can one simply be moral without any struggle at all? Is an action morally worthy if it requires no soul-searching?*
In the end, I think that both "Spotlight" and "Philomena" are worth your attention. Stories like these help keep the Church honest when the Church itself would rather change the subject. No matter how old or venerable or tradition-laden an institution is, it will always be rife with human imperfections. Movies like these help, in some measure, to draw that poison out.
*Philomena does tell Sixsmith that saying "I forgive you" to Sister Hildegarde was difficult. But what grounds do we have to believe this?
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Go back and visit Malcolm's bathroom-war post if you want to follow the comment thread in which I defend the position I've staked out in my own post.
ADDENDUM: I regret titling this "war of words." My interlocutors, Malcolm and Henry, have been nothing but civil.
Friday, May 20, 2016
Over at his fine blog, Malcolm Pollack has posted some thoughts from John Derbyshire (I've made my opinion of Derb known on several occasions) regarding the current "bathroom war," which is being fought over the issue of whether transgender folks have the right to use the public restrooms they sexually identify with as opposed to the bathrooms whose labeling best corresponds to their chromosomal makeup.
I find Derb unsavory at best, but he and I agree on this:
"I’m still having trouble taking this seriously. How on earth did we get to the point where restroom usage is a major national issue?"
Of course, my own reason for thinking this is a non-issue is very different from Derbyshire's: when you're at home, all bathrooms are used by all sexes, and no one makes a big deal of it. It's a short hop to translate that sensibility to the public sphere. Why make a big deal at all if, say, all public restrooms were to become unisex—in terms of access if not necessarily in terms of function (e.g., women, by their anatomical nature, would never use stand-up urinals)?
Fiction has portrayed the unisex scenario countless times; for example, both 1997's "Starship Troopers" and the mid-2000s's "Battlestar Galactica" showed coed showers and bathrooms. What's the big deal? People can get used to anything, just like horny teens who frequent topless beaches and become blasé within a day. Rape-y scenarios aren't the immediate or necessary consequences of putting all sexes in the same room together. Thinking that way is what leads to the absurd mindset that contends burqas are a good thing. Anti-feminists have written millions of column-inches rebutting the "all men are potential rapists" fallacy; why not take that rebuttal seriously and restructure our restrooms accordingly?
Titillation often depends on a "forbidden fruit" factor. Derb writes, "That was a rule-governed society, a society in which there were right and wrong ways to behave." I'm certainly not anti-rule, but one famously unintended consequence of rules, distinctions, and any sort of dualistic border is that they breed misbehavior by creating forbidden fruit. Conservatives are normally sympathetic to this notion when they complain about the overabundance of laws and the over-regulation of commerce: when there are too many laws, everyone inevitably breaks some—sometimes on purpose. Here's the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 57 (which I've quoted before):
The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men's weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.
The first two and final two lines are particularly right-friendly, I think: rules might be made to prevent rule-breakers and promote social well-being, but they often end up creating rule-breakers and diminishing well-being. Same goes for social taboos. A woman among men in a public restroom will create a public outcry only until people get used to such situations.
So my solution is, I think, consistent with the conservative notion that too many restrictions are stifling: just make all public restrooms coed/unisex/pansexual/whatever, endure the public outcry for a year or so, then watch everything settle into a new normal once the excited flapping and squawking are done. If you don't freak out about unisex bathrooms at home, there's no reason to freak out about them in public: you're already familiar with this reality.
ADDENDUM: Kevin Drum offers a bathroom-war timeline and commentary.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
[WARNING: 12-YEAR-OLD SPOILERS]
2004's "Blade: Trinity" stars Wesley Snipes as Blade, the half-vampire "Daywalker" on a mission to rid the world of all vampires. Kris Kristofferson returns as crusty old Whistler, Blade's surrogate father and weapons-maker (think of him as Q with a leg brace, a bad temper, and more than one shotgun). The main villains are Dracula himself (Dominic Purcell, the big dude from "Prison Break") and his assistant Donica Talos (Parker Posey, fanging the scenery with Shatnerian élan), a regular vampire who takes a vampire team to Syria to summon Dracula from his tomb in an effort to bring about the genetic fulfillment of the vampire "race" and the enslavement of all humanity.
I had greatly enjoyed "Blade II," a gritty and engaging film directed by Guillermo Del Toro ("Trinity" was directed by the inexperienced and much less competent David S. Goyer). This third movie pretty much left me cold. One major problem was that, even though this was the first (and, so far, the last) of the Blade films to use the Marvel Comics flippity-flip intro (Blade is a Marvel property, you see), the movie didn't represent Marvel all that well; if anything, "Trinity" seemed as if it had been made on a shoestring budget. Many of the special-effects scenes (like Dracula's Reaper-style jaws) were done in the shadows, and the FX scenes that were well-lit seemed bargain-basement in quality.
The story wasn't horrible, and it included some hilarious scenes involving a "vampired" Pomeranian, but it suffered from unoriginality and predictability—at least until the very end, when Blade and Drake (Dracula's modern nickname) had a surprising not-quite-reconciliation after their by-the-numbers sword fight. Unfortunately, even that unanticipated moment (Drake, in dying, ends up saving Blade's life by morphing into Blade's corpse) came off as tepid. All in all, "Trinity" felt like a movie that was just going through the motions.
I was surprised when, at the beginning of the film, Ryan Reynolds did a voiceover narration to set the scene. His voice threw me back to "Deadpool" (reviewed here), and his wisecracking character, Hannibal King, seemed pretty Deadpoolish, too, albeit far more subdued and far less nasty. Along with Reynolds was the smoking-hot Jessica Biel as Abigail Whistler—the wayward, vamp-slaying daughter who appears after the senior Whistler has kicked the bucket. (Whistler's death struck me as the culmination of a sick running joke: he had seemingly died in the first movie, then he got brought back and "cured" of incipient vampirism in the second movie, then he finally perished—we think—in an explosion in "Trinity.") Abigail was the film's Legolas, an accomplished archer armed with device-tipped arrows, much like Hawkeye in the Avengers. She also had a ridiculous weapon that was half lightsaber, half Klingon bat'leth, that she could use to slice vamps in half. Luckily, she didn't use it that often, relying more on martial arts and silver-knife-tipped boots to finish off her undead opponents at close range.
None of these elements gelled into an aesthetically coherent film for me. There was a recognizable plot, and I saw plenty of potential to amp up the interpersonal conflicts, add cleverer humor, and use better special effects, but all of these opportunities were missed by Goyer at al. The result was a disappointing ending to a trilogy that could have been far greater. If only Del Toro had directed again.
Here's that vampire Pomeranian:
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Tonight's walk: 24,009 steps, 241 minutes, 1825 calories burned, 11.02 miles walked (times 1.15 = 12.67 miles really walked).
Oh, and 20 staircases done.
The route I've settled into is arduous enough to make me sweat and to keep my heart rate up, at least as I'm heading away from the Han River. I don't do any stairs on the way back—yet—so I don't sweat nearly as much during the return leg. Maybe, at some point, I'll double up and do 40 staircases instead of 20... but I don't see that happening anytime soon.
Here's an Algebra 1-level question from the SAT—no not that SAT, but the Samsung Aptitude Test, which you can learn more about by reading this article (hat tip to Chelsea on Twitter for the link). It took me about a minute (OK, maybe a bit more) to get the answer.
The number of male employees decreased by 10% compared to the previous year. The number of female employees increased by 15%. There are currently a total of 182 employees at the company. If there were 20 more male employees than female employees last year, how many female employees are at the company this year?
Enjoy. Leave your answer in the comments. Feel free to discuss how you figured it out.
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
My #3 Ajumma had wanted to meet with me tonight, so I didn't have nearly as much time to get a walk in. She and her family live in Garak-dong, just a few subway stops over from where I am at Daecheong Station. I often hesitate about visiting Ajumma for the same reason that most Americanized gyopos dislike visiting their unreconstructed Korean relatives: any visit is an opportunity for the older generation to pick on you. Don't expect praise when you meet your older relatives: expect complaints. Expect a lot of Why don't yous and How come you nevers and You look like you've gaineds, etc.
In the midst of all her carping, Ajumma fed me a small pre-dinner of soondae in her apartment (my cousin Gi-yeol, married last November, was also there, giving a singing lesson). Ajumma apologized for not having prepped anything nicer; someone at church had died, and she'd been shuttling back and forth from Severance Hospital. I told her not to worry about it. We then went out—her, my super-quiet Ajeossi, and me—to a local naengmyeon-jip for some cold noodles: our main dinner. I couldn't finish the meal, mainly because I had planned to walk back to my place. Ajumma forced me to take the large, doggy-bagged remainder of my 1.5-sized portion of naengmyeon home, but ingrate that I am, I tossed the doggy bag before I'd gone a mile from the restaurant. I don't like clutching things in my hands when I'm doing a long-distance walk. Holding a bag for five or ten minutes is no problem, but it's damn annoying by the time you reach the one-hour mark.
The walk to my place took about an hour; Garak-dong really isn't that far from Gaepo-dong. Most of the walk was little different from the Iron Triangle walk I had done some time back: walk past Garak Market's north gate, follow the walking path that goes alongside the Yangjae-daero, cross the pedestrian bridge after ten or so minutes' walking, then it's a straight shot up to Daecheong Tower, my building. Despite what I had written earlier, I decided to try my building's staircase tonight since I knew I wouldn't be getting in a 20K-step walk. To my surprise and delight, I marched all the way up from the B1 level to the sixth floor without needing to stop even once, and I even felt as if I had the energy to push on to at least the tenth floor. I'm not saying that I was a springy ball of thrumming vitality when I hit my floor—I was sweaty and puffing as usual—but I could tell I had enough lung-steam and leg strength to chug upward a few more floors. At some point, I'll need to see whether all this creekside walking and stair-climbing has translated into the ability to walk all the way up to the 26th floor without stopping. I suspect I won't hit that level of mastery for a while, though.
So, tonight: nearly 16K steps (I may walk around inside my room just to round it up to a full 16K), plus six floors' worth of stair-climbing.
Back to our regularly scheduled long walks tomorrow.
About those staircases I did last night—
You may recall, when I talked about the creekside stairs before, that I'd said the staircases were spaced about 200 meters apart. In truth, they're very unevenly spaced: sometimes, they're as close as 100 m together; in other cases, I can walk 300 m before I reach the next set of stairs. On last night's walk, I did all the staircases I encountered while going east. The eastward walk moves ever so slightly uphill; with street-level height remaining the same, this means the staircases shrink as you move away from the Han River. I paid somewhat closer attention to the shrinkage last night, but I was still too lazy to count all the steps at every staircase. Here's what I discovered:
Staircases 1 through 13: number of steps goes from 63 to 53.
Staircases 14 through 20: number of steps goes from about 36 to 23.
For the first thirteen staircases, I'm averaging 58 steps.
For the final seven staircases, I'm averaging about 30 steps (29.5, to be exact).
(58 x 13) + (30 x 7) = 964 steps. That's close to the 1100-ish steps that take you up the most badass staircase on Namsan, so this is not bad practice for me.
If I were to walk straight up to the 26th floor of my building from the B1 level, that would be about 936 steps. I don't think I'm anywhere near ready to tackle that particular walk anytime soon—not without stopping, anyway. But I suspect I can do more now than I could even just a couple of months ago, when I made the abortive attempt to use my building's immense staircase as my own personal gym. Back then, I couldn't even walk up to my own sixth floor without stopping short of the goal. Now, I suspect I could walk past the sixth floor... although I have no idea where I'd stop. I'll be finding out soon: I've promised myself that I'll stick with the creekside path and staircases whenever the weather is good, but I'll switch over to my building's staircase whenever it's raining.
More info later.
Monday, May 16, 2016
Sunday, May 15, 2016
I've got a backlog of posts that need to be written, but I mentally checked out this weekend. Apologies to my five readers for this. More blogging to happen during the week, including perhaps one or two "frank" posts.