Monday, October 31, 2016

with thanks to John McCrarey

John McCrarey emailed me the following cartoon, which he'd seen on Facebook:


This may not be genteel enough for the New Yorker. (And shouldn't there be a comma after "Yes"? Maybe not: I'm guessing this is British English, based on the use of single quotes for the main dialogue and double quotes around "street." UK English is notoriously comma-averse. Then again, the final period is inside the quotation mark, which is more US style—or is it? It's all very confusing.)





Halloween!

I'm a few years too late, but I'll be watching the horror-comedy "The Cabin in the Woods" tonight. Horror movies just don't do it for me; if their intent is to frighten, they fail miserably at that, and I'm long past the age when such films might give me nightmares. Horror-comedies, on the other hand, are often snide parodies of the horror genre, and I generally love those. So I'll be watching "The Cabin in the Woods" tonight, and later this week, I'll be re-watching (and finally reviewing) "Tucker and Dale Versus Evil," which is a gut-busting subversion of the "college kids meet scary hicks in the woods" subgenre.



"Kubo and the Two Strings": a two-paragraph review

"Kubo and the Two Strings" is the third Laika production I've watched, the other two being "Coraline" and "ParaNorman." "Coraline" was decent but not that charming; "ParaNorman" was orders of magnitude better in terms of story and character and visuals; "Kubo and the Two Strings" is easily the best of the three—the most engaging, and the most moving. The film stars Art Parkinson as Kubo, Charlize Theron as Kubo's mother and as another significant character, Matthew McConaughey as Beetle, and Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King/Kubo's malefic grandfather. It tells the story of Kubo, a magical baby born to a magical mother, who loses one of his eyes when his grandfather steals it. Kubo has a cosmic pedigree; it's strongly implied that his magical heritage comes from the fact that his mother doesn't come from the mortal realm. Kubo makes money by using his magic to help him tell stories in a nearby town. Playing his shamisen, Kubo creates and animates origami figures that depict the adventures of the samurai Hanzo, Kubo's missing father. As his mother constantly warns him, Kubo must always come home before dark, lest his evil aunts—servants of Kubo's grandfather—find him. One night, his aunts (both voiced by Rooney Mara) catch Kubo in the dark; his mother, who has been losing her memory, rushes out to protect him, sending him away and giving him the mission of finding his father's armor and weaponry. Accompanying Kubo on his quest are Monkey and Beetle; the three engage in several adventures, and big secrets are revealed.

I think I was choked up, at various points in the plot, for about half the movie's run time. The narrative is basically about a boy who cares for his weak and mentally fading mother, then seemingly loses her. That hits a little too close to home for me; the movie was automatically compelling, given the nature of the story. The screenplay's writers, Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes, are both American, but the tale they've chosen to tell is utterly Japanese, and very much in the spirit of Asian folklore. East Asian audiences will quickly and easily relate to themes of filial piety, ancestry, and the power of memory. The final plot twist was predictable—the movie gives you plenty of hints as to what revelation is coming—but what mattered more to me were the movie's tone and depth of feeling. "Kubo" is a deeply touching movie, and as a story that deals with the loss of loved ones, it handles such delicate subject matter both deftly and maturely, in such a way that both kids and adults will be able to relate to it. The movie preaches the twin values of storytelling and memory, with memory being declared the most powerful magic of all: without memory, how can you tell a story, and how can you hold on to your loved ones? I've read some critics who complained that "Kubo" ends on an ambiguous note, but it should be obvious that that ambiguity has everything to do with what the movie was saying about stories and memory. "Kubo" came out late here in Korea; I imagine it's already faded from US theaters. If you haven't seen it, wait for it to come out on video; it'll be worth your while. This is Laika's warmest, most heartfelt production yet.



Sunday, October 30, 2016

why I'll never be a college prof

This article by psychologist Jonathan Haidt nicely sums up my distaste for university work, given how campus environments have deteriorated. It's ironic to see universities, which were supposed to be cradles of free speech and thought, degenerate into noisome swamps of politically correct repressiveness. But that's the academe we've got these days.

To which I say: no, thanks.

UPDATE: Training Tyrants at Yale.

UPDATE 2: Pat Condell on "Dumbing Down University."



Saturday, October 29, 2016

the Parkenhill scandals

Saw this on Twitter:


While I've promised not to talk about the US presidential election until after it's done and we're sitting around in the cinders, it's interesting to see some uncomfortable parallels unfolding between two female leaders: conservative (well, ostensibly conservative) South Korean president Park Geun-hye, on one side, and supposedly liberal presidential wannabe Hillary Clinton on the other. Clinton's being slowly but surely WikiLeaked and O'Keefed to death (see commentary here and here); meanwhile, a slew of revelations about Park and her administration have come to light. The parallel is not only about the fact that both Park and Clinton are female: it's also about the natures of the respective scandals. Both are about influence-peddling and the leaking of classified information. The Western mainstream media are finally starting to take Clinton's problems seriously, so there's little need to catch you, Dear Reader, up on what's happening in the States. Let's concentrate on Park.

The scandal isn't that old—maybe a week or two as of this writing. President Park is accused of passing along sensitive information to a friend, Choi Sun-sil; Choi apparently reviewed the material and gave her opinion on it, as well as on some of Park's speeches. According to one report, Choi was being sent reams of reports every single day—reams that stacked up to a foot high, i.e., thousands of pages of information not meant for public consumption. Investigations are ongoing; it's still unclear as to why Park would be so negligent as to crack open the shield of national security to allow a flood of information to rush into an outsider's clutches. Choi seems to hold a strangely eerie influence over Park, possibly religious in nature—or that's the impression one gets from the news media. I'm reminded of Nancy Reagan and her astrologer, but as far as I know, that First Lady never once lowered the portcullis to release secret information and/or to let in prying eyes.

Some members of Park's political party, Saenuri, are also under investigation for influence-peddling, echoing the Clinton Foundation pay-for-play scandal. With Park being conservative and Clinton supposedly being liberal, it should be obvious that such scandals can happen no matter a politician's political persuasion. Some voices are wondering aloud whether Park should be impeached; others wonder whether Park will last until the end of her term. She comes from a rich, privileged, storied family; I don't doubt that, like Hillary Clinton, she will escape justice. Perhaps Park will be offered a face-saving plan that allows her to retire quietly and in exile, a bit like what happened to Korean dictator Chun Doo-hwan. Personally, I think Park will survive this and serve out the rest of her term, but I doubt her approval ratings—currently in the teens—will rise much beyond 25% from now until the bitter end. By then, Koreans will be sick of having two conservatives in a row as president, and will elect a leftist like UN General Secretary Ban-ki Moon.

UPDATE: the Los Angeles Times has a decent primer on Park's scandal.

UPDATE 2: Ask a Korean has a good post on Park.

UPDATE 3: Joshua Stanton comments on the wider ramifications of "Choigate."



"Dr. Strange": review


[NB: I wanted to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, given that "Dr. Strange" has only just come out in theaters, but too much of what I need to discuss requires mentioning important plot points, so there will be spoilers. Apologies in advance.

NB2: I know nothing about the comic-book universe of Dr. Strange, so the mythology is utterly new to me. If you're in the know and you catch me saying something that isn't canon—I'm looking at you, John from Daejeon—write a comment to set me straight.
]

Quasi-synopsis

Let's get the meat of this review out of the way first: how did "Dr. Strange" hit me? I thought it was very entertaining, but I also didn't think the film was perfect. Part of the problem has to do with the movie's shaky internal logic—a nettlesome issue that dogs every film that includes magic in its storyline. If the rules of magic aren't self-consistent, the story immediately becomes less compelling because the self-contradictions become too distracting. Nevertheless, while I didn't think "Strange" was anywhere near as good as "Deadpool," it had excellent qualities, many of which I aim to delve into in this long review.

"Dr. Strange" is a marked departure from the usual Marvel fare, whether we're talking Disney Marvel (Avengers, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, etc.) or Fox Marvel (X-Men, Wolverine, etc.). "Strange" deals with the shadowy milieu of the sorcerers—world-benders who can fight like Shaolin monks and torque reality through sheer force of will. As the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) notes, the Avengers protect the earth from physical dangers; the sorcerers protect our world from metaphysical dangers. "Dr. Strange" stars an American-accented Benedict Cumberbatch as crack neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, a man at the top of his field and, like his hubristic televisual cousin Dr. Gregory House, well aware of how great he is. Also like House, Strange is a diehard rationalist who views spirituality as only so much hocus-pocus. He is, in other words, ripe for humbling and a conversion experience.

Strange works at the hospital with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a former lover. Palmer is an ER surgeon; her work is far less glamorous than Strange's; the latter has the luxury of turning down cases if he feels the impossibility of a clean resolution might somehow besmirch his reputation. Strange gets into a nasty car accident one night after driving way too fast in his Lamborrari; his hands are crushed, and his career as a surgeon is at an end, thereby stopping him and his ego cold. During physical therapy, Strange learns of a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who, despite a severe spinal injury that ought to have left him paralyzed, is nevertheless walking around and playing basketball as if nothing were the matter. Strange seeks Pangborn out and learns that, when the usual Western remedies failed, Pangborn turned to Eastern wisdom. He mentions a place in Nepal called Kamar-Taj and wishes Strange good luck.

Strange goes to Kamar-Taj, where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, again in ethereal-androgynous mode, like her Gabriel in "Constantine"), a Celtic woman in quasi-Buddhist robes who looks suspiciously young for one supposedly so superannuated. Alongside her are top acolyte Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the aforementioned librarian Wong. Strange is given a violently kaleidoscopic introduction to the mysteries of the universes—yes, universes in the plural: it turns out that we live in one of an infinity of universes and dimensions, and one thing that sorcerers do well is learn how to move between and among these esoteric spaces. Strange turns out to have a natural aptitude for this brand of mysticism, and he learns quickly—perhaps too quickly for his seniors' taste as he rapidly discovers, through his own independent research within the ancient texts, the rudiments of how to manipulate time itself—something that must never be done lightly.

Meanwhile, one of The Ancient One's rogue apprentices, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some pages out of a sacred text that will allow him to summon a godlike entity from the Dark Dimension—a being called Dormammu, who is a malefic incarnation of cosmic hunger and cruelty. Dormammu and the Dark Dimension both reside, as several characters repeatedly say, "beyond time." Kaecilius is convinced that Dormammu can, through his trans-temporal nature, bestow the gift of eternal life to all the time-bound creatures of the earth. The good guys in our story all think Kaecilius is nuts, and it doesn't help that Kaecilius and his cohort of equally fallen acolytes have horrifically deteriorating eye sockets and cheekbones that seem to be a physical manifestation of their inner evil. Stephen Strange, meanwhile, has come into his power quickly, but can he stop Kaecilius and the arrival of Dormammu?

References

Several reviewers before me have all noted the same thing: "Dr. Strange" borrows many tropes from many movies. The astute, well-rounded viewer will note that the martial-arts fight scenes evoke "The Matrix," for example, and the bending cityscapes will inevitably remind people of similar effects in Christopher Nolan's "Inception."

Dr. Strange's eventual encounter with the imposing Dormammu (voiced, unsurprisingly, by Cumberbatch channeling Smaug)—and within the Dark Dimension, no less—will smack, at least a little, of an episode of "Dr. Who," and Strange's brilliantly comical solution to the Dormammu problem will immediately bring a wildly accelerated "Groundhog Day" to mind.

As Strange comes into his powers and realizes who he truly is, it wouldn't be crazy to read some "Spider-Man" into the proceedings (but without the teenaged whooping with each new discovery), and because Strange is an arrogant rich man on a hero's journey, Batman and Iron Man parallels will be inevitable.

The emphasis on magic, on magical items that choose the wielder (like Strange's seemingly sentient, and ridiculous-looking, cape), will take the viewer back to all the Harry Potter movies, and the way that sorcerers can conjure blades and shields will remind the viewer of Green Lantern and his very similar powers.

The trippy slalom through twisting worlds and dimensions will spark in some the desire to get high and enjoy the ride the way people did for 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey," although the phantasmagoric spectacle in "Strange" has a completely different purpose and isn't one long, unbroken sequence. In "2001," the Bowman-in-the-stargate segment is practically a story in itself; Dr. Strange's several plunges into different corners of the multiverse are special-effects sequences that all forward the plot in some way: they're not merely light shows whose purpose can be summed up in a single sentence.

Of course, the overall arc of the story is an obvious hero's-journey narrative, with all of Joseph Campbell's elements in place: a call to adventure, a threshold guardian, a wisdom figure, special weapons and armor, a trip or two into a labyrinth, a soul-altering confrontation, and the eventual bringing of a boon to the hero's people. All the steps are there, clear as day.

Kudos

Before I get critical about the film, though, I do want to reemphasize that I was mightily entertained by it. A ton of credit has to go to director Scott Derrickson, who apparently relied heavily on the artwork of comics giant (and recluse) Steve Ditko, whose visual styling Derrickson was at pains to respect, preserve, and convey to modern audiences. For me, the most marvelous thing about "Dr. Strange" is the excellent visual storytelling. Derrickson got an amazing proportion of the film right in terms of guiding the viewer's eye smoothly along every action sequence such that the viewer never loses track of what's happening, despite a million things happening at once. This level of direction is easily on a par with that of George Miller in "Mad Max: Fury Road" (reviewed here); I respect any director who can throw so many disparate objects at the screen and somehow make that visual maelstrom into something comprehensible.

The story's construction also deserves praise: this is a Marvel film, so, unlike those dreary and lugubrious DC films, the story beats are buoyed along by plenty of humor, especially during the fight sequences. This is the most hilarious combat I've seen since "Deadpool" earlier this year, and the silent star of the show isn't human: it's Dr. Strange's animated cape, which reminds me of nothing so much as a faithful dog protecting its master. The fight choreography is also a bittersweet reminder that, at long last, we're finally witnessing some real wizard battles—not the telekinetic stone-throwing of the Star Wars films, nor the vaguely laser-like wand battles in the Harry Potter movies. In "Strange," we've got actual conjuring going on—arcane, sparking, flaring symbols etched in the air and coruscating with power, each such phenomenon an expression of its wielder's personal might. This, folks, is magic done right.

The actors all hit their marks as well. I read a review or two that said Cumberbatch's American accent was a little too reminiscent of Hugh Laurie's Yank stylings as Gregory House, but I wasn't bothered by it, and I didn't really hear echoes of Laurie, anyway. Cumberbatch infuses his performance with the right amounts of gravitas, arrogance, and wit; he inhabits his character so fully that, in my mind, he is now inseparable from it, just as I can no longer hear the words "Iron Man" without immediately thinking of Robert Downey, Jr. The man is the brand—at least for me.

Mads Mikkelsen, whom some reviewers thought was ill-served by the script, did a fine job as the villainous Kaecilius. In many ways, his character was a mirror for Strange: arrogant, self-serious, and capable of a similar level of humor and wit. I also disagree that his character was cheated out of more screen time: on the contrary, the movie opens with a Kaecilius scene (when he steals crucial pages from an ancient tome after beheading the previous librarian), and Kaecilius pops up at plenty of moments during the film's entire run time.

Rachel McAdams, who must be getting tired of always landing roles opposite Sherlock actors (she played opposite Robert Downey in both of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock films, and Cumberbatch stars as Sherlock in the British series "Sherlock"), does yeoman's work as Christine Palmer. We live in the post-feminist era, so even though Palmer witnesses magical wormholes and astral-projection battles, she never once faints. Today's women are too tough for that old-time nonsense. McAdams gives Christine a heart: she still loves Stephen, despite how big of an asshole he can be. They might not be a couple now, but there's hope for them.

Tilda Swinton, dressed in Buddhist-ish robes that aren't the right color for the Buddhism in the region, nevertheless gives off an aura that I found quite familiar given my own encounters with Western Buddhist nuns living and studying in Korea.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Mordo, reveals the layers of faithfulness and pain that have made Mordo who he is: someone who so rigidly follows the code that he will never bend, but he can break. In the comic books, Mordo becomes one of Strange's enemies, and we see the beginnings of that in the requisite end-credits sequence when Mordo, having lost faith in The Ancient One, darkly concludes that the world has "too many sorcerers."

I also have to tip my hat to Marvel itself; the quality of its films has been generally good if not entirely consistent. I'm not a fan of the Thor movies, both of which leave me cold, but they were watchable. I've enjoyed the Hulk-related stand-alone films, although none of them has been particularly compelling. The Captain America films (first, second, and third) have all been solidly entertaining, infused with some surprisingly right-wing social commentary. I very much enjoyed the first Avengers movie, but the second movie, while enjoyable, wasn't anywhere near as good. "Deadpool," as far as I'm concerned, takes the cake for me: it's the best Marvel movie ever, and as I told my buddy Tom on my way out of the theater, Marvel can never go back to doing conventional movies after having done "Deadpool." You can't pile up that much spectacular gore and raunchy blood-sex-excrement comedy and then expect to retrogress to the same, lame, tame, PG-rated days of older comics. So "Dr. Strange" is definitely in the spirit of not going back: it's distinctively a Marvel product, but it's also covering ground not covered in any previous Marvel film. I'm grateful for that.

Complaints

But despite all of the above praise, I didn't think "Dr. Strange" was a perfect film. It had problems, some of which were major. First, like many other reviewers, I agree the story arc was generally fairly boilerplate. In the "kudos" section above, I noted how the film was a standard hero's-journey narrative; this works both for and against the film, making some story beats predictable, such as the inevitable loss of the film's wisdom figure. And while I praised the film's greatest asset—its visual storytelling—I'd be remiss if I didn't note that "Dr. Strange" is also a painfully talky film, filled with lines upon lines of expository dialogue. All of that dialogue, taken together, constitutes multiple violations of one of the most fundamental laws of storytelling: show, don't tell.

I suppose, if I'm to be charitable, one reason for all the exposition is that audiences unfamiliar with the comic-book universe of Dr. Strange will need a Cliff's Notes primer to get them up to speed. The problem, as you might anticipate, is that when the exposition lays out the rules of magic and interdimensional conjuring and travel, the audience will now expect a measure of logicality and self-consistency. Being a scientific skeptic myself, despite my love of and respect for religion, I was circumspect about where the movie was going to take us, mystically speaking. Basically, it took us into Marvel's version of mysticism, which has little to do with esoteric practice here on our actual earth. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the mysticism in Dr. Strange has almost no religious underpinnings at all; if anything, it's a close cousin of the weird sci-magic we get in the Thor movies, which strive to make magic seem scientific. Despite the Buddhist trappings, we never see any Buddhist practice inside Kamar-Taj (we do see prayer wheels outside the compound when Strange casually spins them while walking through a Nepalese town), and while much of the magical gesturing seems modeled on Taoist or pre-Taoist yin-yang imagery, we don't get to hear much, if anything, in the way of Taoist philosophy. What wisdom we do receive strikes me as generic New-Age rhetoric, not belonging to any particular tradition.

I was also disappointed in our glimpse of the Dark Dimension for two reasons. First: the visuals. The Dark Dimension, part of which erupts in the midst of Hong Kong, where the sorcerers maintain one of their three sancta, looks hilariously like a jumble of gigantic neurons with dendrites and axons of neon-looking cotton candy. I can only imagine that this was Steve Ditko's original vision of the Dark Dimension, which must have worked for teenaged comic-book audiences back in the day. Personally, I found it ludicrous—utterly impossible to take seriously. This is the alternate universe that lies beyond time and is consumed with evil hunger? Ha! This looks more like the realm of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." Dormammu himself is little more than a giant, rippling face with two flaring, evil eyes. I was partly reminded of fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson's vision of Lord Foul the Despiser, the devil-figure in his several "chronicles" of Thomas Covenant the leper-hero. In Donaldson's world, Lord Foul is, for most of the story, just a pair of flaring eyes. Dormammu has those eyes, but he's also got a face that, as it ripples, looks a bit like a cross between Thanos's face and the deep-voiced, baby-faced "deus ex machina" from "The Matrix Revolutions."

The visuals lead to my second complaint: if the Dark Dimension is supposedly "beyond time," then there's no way for a human mind to grasp what that might look like. When Strange confronts Dormammu in Dormammu's own dimension, the two actually talk to each other, which is only possible if there are things like distance, sound, light, and other sorts of motion—all phenomena that are spatiotemporal in nature. How can Dormammu even do anything in a dimension that lies beyond time? What does it even mean to be beyond time?

This was, I think, one of the story's greatest failures. Christopher Nolan, in "Interstellar," came very close to conveying, through visual language, a set of very abstract concepts. While I thought his story bogged down in "love is a natural transcendent force like gravity" hokeyness, I think Nolan did about as good of a job as could have been done in reaching for ideas that are, at heart, cosmically inexpressible. Marvel, being Marvel, still wants to paint simple tableaux in primary colors, so the Dark Dimension just comes off looking painfully corny. And because the Dark Dimension looks and functions the way it does, this creates a huge problem when Dr. Strange's solution to Dormammu's invasion of Earth is to trap himself and Dormammu in a "Groundhog Day"-style time loop that can potentially go on forever unless Dormammu repents of his attack and quits the premises. Basically, my beef is this: how can the time-loop strategy work in a dimension that is supposedly beyond time? That made absolutely no damn sense at all. You can't fight the atemporal with the temporal.

My last complaint is that Michael Giacchino scored this movie. I loved Giacchino's work in "The Incredibles," in which he seamlessly wove together themes from both the superhero genre and the spy genre. Since those heady days, though, the quality of his output has gone steadily downhill. I felt that his "Star Trek" theme for the 2009 JJ Abrams movie, while undeniably catchy, was beaten to death through a thousand repetitions, and the themes didn't get any better in the subsequent films. In "Strange," Giacchino's music is pretty much unrecognizable as Giacchino's own: if anything, it sounds as if the man is doing a watered-down Danny Elfman impression. And that's really too bad, because I'm convinced Giacchino has talent, as he proved when scoring "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol."

Themes

For a silly cream-puff of a superhero movie, "Dr. Strange" has some interesting themes, and they aren't necessarily the ones you'd associate with this genre. One theme is humility: Strange has to undergo the utter deconstruction of his ego before he can attain true mastery of time and realities. Another theme is time and its preciousness: Strange is told, at a couple points throughout the film, that messing with the space-time continuum is hazardous at the level of universes, and thus is never to be done lightly. As writer Stephen R. Donaldson, mentioned above, noted in his Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, time is what allows things to happen in sequence. It's an essential part of the fabric of reality, the principle that undergirds cause and effect. If Strange has mastered time by the end of the movie, then he is truly in possession of a godlike power. We get a hint of this power when, during a climactic scene, we witness time flowing in two directions at once. (Relax: it's actually more understandable than it sounds.)

Surprisingly missing from this movie, as themes go, is that of friendship and family, which was absolutely integral to the plot of "Guardians of the Galaxy," and which fuels the interactions in the Avengers movies. Stephen Strange has no real friends; Christine is a former lover, but her relationship with Strange is currently in flux and in doubt. Strange enters Kamar-Taj and trains; he becomes acquainted with various teachers, acolytes, and fellow trainees, but none of these people is really a friend. In that sense, this is something of a bleak film. Many of the characters around Strange are deeply compassionate and committed to protecting the earth, but their sense of purpose overrides any warmth or depth of feeling.

I'm tempted to say that science versus magic/mysticism/religion is another theme of "Dr. Strange," but in reality, it's not. First, as noted above, there's nothing particularly religious about the mysticism that Strange encounters and plunges into. Second, the movie resolves the science-versus-mysticism question very quickly in favor of mysticism: logical positivism and reductive materialism are but paltry worldviews in the eyes of The Ancient One: as she tells Strange, seeing the world through the eyes of science is like "looking through a keyhole" and wanting to see and understand more.

Questions

The movie covers many bases, but the more it explains, the more questions there are. For instance: Strange learns to manipulate reality such that he can, like other sorcerers, create wormhole-like portals to cross quickly from one part of the world to another. So why doesn't this level of reality-manipulation lead to an ability to heal his damaged hands? Strange learns of two people who spent time at Kamar-Taj; there's the basketball-playing Pangborn, mentioned much earlier in this review, who underwent a measure of training, then stopped when he learned how to walk again (he didn't regenerate his nerves, but he does use magic to allow the broken part of his spine to transmit nerve impulses from his brain to his lower body). And another trainee is mentioned by The Ancient One—someone who had the choice of either self-healing or world-saving. The movie seems to imply that, in theory, Strange could heal his own hands and return to his life as a neurosurgeon, but it would be at the cost of throwing away the person he has become: a world-guardian, a sorcerer.

Librarian Wong notes that sorcerers must never interfere with the flow of natural law, which is what makes playing with the timestream so hazardous. During the wizard-battle sequences, reality is bent and twisted and fractalized in all sorts of different ways, but we mere mortals seem not to notice when our cities get turned into toroidal landscapes, and our streets become Escher-like constructions with the world's most bizarrely impossible traffic patterns. (This is very much like how magic operates in the world of Harry Potter: Muggles, i.e., non-magical folks, are blissfully unaware of the powers at work around them.) So my question is this: how is all this reality-bending not a violation of natural law?

I have religious questions as well. Astral projection figures prominently in the film: this involves the projection of the soul, or "astral body," out from the material body. Is "Dr. Strange" saying we all have souls? If Kamar-Taj is any sort of Buddhist temple, this is going to be somewhat problematic, as Buddhism normally teaches the doctrine of anatman, i.e., no-soul. (Read a short discourse on Hindu reincarnation versus Buddhist rebirth here.) And if it's true we all have souls, this insight ought to provide significant comfort to all the good people in the world. Of course, when The Ancient One dies after her fight with Kaecilius, her astral body disappears the moment she expires. Does this mean that the astral body is as mortal as the physical body, i.e., the astral body is not an indestructible soul?

Conclusion

"Dr. Strange" proved wildly entertaining, but also frustratingly puzzling. It alternated between amazingly deft visual storytelling and an avalanche of rule-violating expository dialogue. It featured clear, comical action sequences and astounding visuals, but it also showed a disappointing lack of imagination in its portrayal of the supposedly trans-temporal Dark Dimension while also leaving the viewer with a very confused picture of Marvel-multiverse metaphysics. All in all, I give the film a thumbs-up for generally getting the basics right.

This is a popcorn movie, and there are plenty of laughs. Despite Stephen Strange's aloneness and general friendlessness, there are hints that his character will continue to humanize in subsequent films. I'm glad that Marvel put out a movie that broke new ground; the universe of "Dr. Strange" isn't our Earth or Thor's Asgard: it's its own thing, with its own wonders and dangers, and despite the kaleidoscopic confusion, this story is a solid foundation on which to build several more—hopefully better—stories.



Friday, October 28, 2016

watch this space

An ambitious review of "Dr. Strange" is on its way. Hang in there. TL;DR version: I was thoroughly entertained, but the film isn't flawless.



Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Swiss Army Man": review


[WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS.]

"Swiss Army Man" stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe as a suicidal guy and a slowly reanimating, flatulent dead body, respectively. The movie is basically a comedy, but it's also a wordy, absurdist sort of morality play about human connection and the eros of the human spirit—a point comically driven home by the repeated appearance of Radcliffe's enthusiastic erection. I won't lie to you: even as I write this review, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the lunacy that I just saw.

Dano plays Hank, a young man with no life and no prospects who somehow ends up shipwrecked on a small island. Having grown suicidal, Hank is about to hang himself when he looks across the beach and sees a body (Radcliffe) on the sand. Hank examines the body, which begins farting lustily. The farts are impossibly long, and they seem to gain in power as time goes by, so Hank gets it in his head to point the corpse seaward and ride it, like a jet ski, away from the island. What follows is one of the weirdest, most hilarious scenes I've ever witnessed in a movie: a bedraggled, bearded Paul Dano astride a fart-propelled Daniel Radcliffe, speeding crazily off to better fortune. Of course, this joyride ends with a crash, but the corpse has taken Hank close enough to the mainland for them both to be washed onto this new shore, that much closer to civilization.

Hank has begun talking to the corpse, so he can't bring himself to abandon it. He lugs the corpse into a cave and, dying of thirst, makes the accidental discovery that the corpse can vomit fresh water. Holding a cup under the corpse's chin, Hank hesitates at first, but eventually drinks the vomited water, and once he realizes the liquid is fresh and pure, he ecstatically downs even more. Hank's constant discovery of the corpse's various powers is where the title "Swiss Army Man" comes from. Later on, we see the corpse being used as a gun, as a karate-chopping axe to split tree trunks, and even as a navigation tool (the corpse's aforementioned erection apparently points the way toward help).

While they're still inside the cave, Hank is terrified and thrilled to discover that the corpse has acquired the power of speech. It names itself Manny, and Manny has no recollection of who he was in his previous life. Manny, perhaps because he's essentially undead, is naive about how the world works; as a result, many of his exchanges with Hank revolve around basic questions of life and human motivation. Another big topic is sex and sexuality; Manny seems, at times, almost to act as a sort of Freudian counselor for Hank, who confesses awkward things about his private life, including his masturbation habits. For his part, Hank tries to help Manny feel better about himself by imaginatively reconstructing Manny's previous life—who Manny must have been, whom he loved, and so on. Manny's slowly blossoming romantic ardor is fueled by the sight of a woman on Hank's cell phone (Manny gets it into his head that it's his cell phone). The woman is named Sarah; Hank, a shy loner, once took her picture when she wasn't looking. Hank also quietly follows Sarah on social media; before his shipwreck, he saw Sarah regularly on the bus, but he never tried to initiate a conversation with her.

Eventually, Manny's erection leads the two directly to Sarah's house, where we discover that Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is married and has a daughter. Manny, upon seeing the revulsion on Sarah's and her daughter's faces, loses all of his reanimation and sadly reverts to being a corpse. The police arrive, along with news crews, to interview Hank and collect the dead body. Hank's domineering father is also on the scene, but Hank decides to rescue Manny's corpse and run back into the forest. Hank and the corpse slalom downhill, through the woods and back to the beach (which apparently wasn't that far away from Sarah's property), with Sarah, her family, the police, and Hank's dad in pursuit. Hank is gently arrested, but Manny the corpse suddenly regains a measure of liveliness and, taken out to sea by the lapping waves, farts himself away from land, giving Hank a cheesy grin as he goes.

What to make of all this? "Swiss Army Man" felt almost as if the screenwriters had a meeting and said, "Okay, so we want to do a story about human yearning for connection, but we want the audience to gain these insights through the lens of a naive, flatulent corpse." Since Hank objectively survives in the wild without dying of thirst, and since Sarah's daughter actually talks directly with the corpse, and because a news cameraman really films Manny ass-gassing himself away from the shore at the end of the film, I think we can safely pigeonhole the film as one with a magical-realist narrative: Manny's reanimation is clearly not just a figment of Hank's delirious imagination: the corpse does indeed have the superpowers Hank witnesses. This puts the film in the realm of fantasy, which is apropos since Manny's abilities don't always add up logically: for example, he doesn't understand some of the most basic concepts, but at other times he makes reference to objects, ideas, and functions that someone with his level of naiveté shouldn't know.

So the film puts us, the viewers, in the weird position of having to think about the issues and themes while also demanding that we turn our brains off and not think about Hank and Manny's manifold contradictions. Hank is shy; he's lived a quiet, withdrawn life of missed opportunities, and it's not obvious, by the end of the film, that he's actually learned anything from his miraculous experience with Manny the corpse. If anything, the corpse seems to have had the more visible character arc, going from dead to farting to talking to acting like a multi-tool to philosophizing about life to being dead to racing away from civilization to seek his deadish fortune. Manny's character arc, come to think of it, isn't so much an arc-like trajectory as it is the insanely random, ricocheting trajectory of a soda bottle filled with Mentos candies and launched inside a room.

Dano and Radcliffe deserve praise for being weird enough to engage in this project. They play off each other quite well, and Radcliffe's facial expressions are convincingly corpse-like (you do have to wonder why Manny doesn't seem to rot, but I guess that's just another of his superpowers). I run hot and cold when it comes to Dano, who shot to fame for his excellent portrayal of a firebrand preacher in "There Will Be Blood." Ever since I learned the hilarious German expression Backpfeifengesicht from Steve Honeywell, I have looked more closely for people who have that sort of face, and Dano is definitely one of them: I often just want to smack him for seeming so whiny and feckless. But in "Swiss Army Man," Dano is pretty good. Radcliffe makes for an excellent talking corpse; I have to admire the actor's career choices ever since the Harry Potter movies. He's done much to move away from boy-wizard typecasting, and playing a flatulent dead guy is about as far from young Harry as one can get.

One religion-related remark: I couldn't help having a Wonhyo moment watching Hank, in a cave, drink fresh water that has issued from a corpse. In the Wonhyo story from Korean Buddhist tradition, monk Wonhyo and his companion Uisang are on their way to China to learn the deeper mysteries. One night, they shelter in a cave. Parched, Wonhyo feels around blindly in search of a bowl-like object to collect water and drink. He finds a perfect bowl, with water in it, and he gladly drinks, thinking the water to be the freshest and purest he's ever had. In the morning, with light now streaming into the cave, Wonhyo discovers to his horror that the bowl is a human skull, with bits of flesh stuck to its interior. Wonhyo vomits in disgust... then gains enlightenment when he realizes that the subjective nature of his experience of drinking the water resides entirely in his mind. Now understanding that the deep truths he seeks are already there in his head, Wonhyo abandons his trip to China and returns home. Hank's situation is a bit different from Wonhyo's, but he has to get over his initial disgust so that he can partake of the fresh water issuing from Manny's dead mouth.

Would I recommend the film? Yes, but I'd warn you to be prepared for some major, major weirdness. Using a corpse to explore life and relationships smacks of something Tim Burton might do; Burton has long been a fan of using the ugly to explore and represent the beautiful. At the same time, the surreal strangeness of having a superpowered corpse for a companion takes us to the edge of Spike Jonze territory: for much of the movie, we're not really sure whether Manny's reanimation is merely a function of Hank's hallucinations, and Jonze, surprisingly philosophical as a director, loves to explore the What is real? question in his movies. In conclusion: go see "Swiss Army Man" if you want, but be advised that you'll be in for a very strange, and strangely entertaining, experience.



Wednesday, October 26, 2016

ticketed

Last night, I went out and got my ticket for "Dr. Strange." I'll be seeing it tomorrow (Thursday) night. Am looking forward to it. Reviews seems to agree that the story is fairly boilerplate, but the visuals are, if you'll pardon the pun, Marvel-ous. Too bad that Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat under-used as a villain, but this is yet another Marvel origin story, so the primary focus is on the development of the hero. Amusingly, there's some pushback from the filmmakers regarding some fans' remarking on the movie's "Inception"-like special effects; several insiders have grumbled some form of, "This is not 'Inception'!" in response to what strikes me as a perfectly natural observation. My own feeling, based on the preview trailers, is that "Strange" is a mish-mash of sci-fi/fantasy tropes we've all seen before, and I'll be commenting more in depth about that in my review.



Tuesday, October 25, 2016

ululate!

One of the first of the "biggie" bloggers that I ever read when I was new to blogging was Steven Den Beste, who blogged at the now-defunct USS Clueless. I just saw on Instapundit that Den Beste has died, and while I have no emotional investment in the man, I thought I'd briefly note his passing here.

Den Beste was a massive voice for the conservative side of the blogosphere back in the day; he often articulated George "Dubya" Bush's Iraq-related intentions better than Dubya himself did. On that score, I felt Den Beste was dead wrong, but a lot of righties thought otherwise, naively believing that a plan to produce a "democracy-quake" in the Middle East would in fact be possible. Den Beste, normally quite rational, seemed convinced that a quick-fix "solution" would work in a region that is still in the thrall of ancient, intractable problems that long pre-date the advent of Western meddling.

While I wasn't a total fan of Den Beste's political insights (or his persistent grammatical and punctuation errors), I did find him to be a brilliant, inspired writer when it came to his home field of engineering. Long before sites like Wait But Why ever came into existence, Den Beste was pounding out essays on nerdy topics like, "What's the one invention you'd need if you wanted to change the world?"

For that, at least, I'll miss him. RIP.

UPDATE: Den Beste's "Unified Theory of Left-wing Causes" is enshrined here.



Monday, October 24, 2016

a ship with no captain

The boss is in the States for two weeks, so my coworker and I have the corner office to ourselves. We both have projects that will take us at least two weeks to complete, so there's no lack of work. Still, the office will be strangely empty without the boss, who has a larger-than-life personality. Before he left, he told me that I would become the liaison between our company and the book-designer we work with; I said that I hoped the designer would forgive my ability to understand only 30% of whatever he said to me.

Hopefully, nothing big will come up, and the boss has said he'll be checking in periodically via email and Kakao Talk audio chat. Meanwhile, we're on autopilot here, just winging our way through our assignments.



Sunday, October 23, 2016

my first animated GIF in a while!

From the day I updated Photoshop Elements to version 14 up until about two days ago, I hadn't done any animated-GIF comics, which is a shame, as I'm strangely proud of my twisted work. Elements 13 had a glitch that prevented me from animating anything; by the time I updated to 14, I had pretty much given up on—forgotten about—animation. Yesterday, however, I got it into my head to create an animated comic strip in the spirit of the strips I've done in the past (see above link), but since this strip is election-related, I won't be releasing it until around Election Day. Technically, I'll be breaking my promise not to post any election-related commentary until after November 8 (I've scheduled this post for the 7th), but my readers are a forgiving lot when they're not busy tearing into each other like animals.

So stay tuned! A new animated strip is on its way!



Saturday, October 22, 2016

good riddance

Legacy media continue to die.



back from the doc

I'm at the office, putting in some extra time before I head off to a late lunch. My boss is leaving for the States on Monday, and he'll be gone for two weeks. I'm working on one of his projects, and he'd like it mostly or wholly done before he gets back, which is why I'm putting in some more time right now.

Before coming to the office, I visited Doctor Ripfinger this morning for my now-monthly routine. The internal-medicine office is in a different part of the same building that I work in. The doc, less talkative today than usual, didn't think my numbers were bad; blood pressure is good, but blood sugar is a bit higher than last month. It's not enough to concern the doc. I once again left a urine sample in a paper cup, for which there was again no comment. I wonder whether the doc and his staff make popsicles out of the samples.

Next month is the big checkup; I've been told I'm to get an extra HbA1c test every three months; unlike the quickie blood-sugar test, this test is supposed to give a reading that is your average level of blood sugar for at least a month, which means this number offers a better big-picture view of what's going on, as opposed to the quickie test, whose numbers can fluctuate wildly over the course of a single day.

Off to lunch soon.



Friday, October 21, 2016

trailers

Two movie-preview trailers have caught my eye: "Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2" and "Logan." Both advertise sequels; "Guardians" picks up where the first movie left off; "Logan" is apparently the followup to "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "The Wolverine."

"Guardians" looks good, although the trailer doesn't inspire anywhere near the level of laughter and curiosity that the first trailer inspired. These characters are known to us, now, so any novelty is gone, and it's a question of what new adventures they'll be going on. "Hooked on a Feeling" again serves as the background; we also get a glimpse of Baby Groot, sitting on Rocket Raccoon's shoulder (a reversal of how things were in the previous movie, as one online nerd pointed out). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are apparently on the outs; the trailer shows big, brawny Drax (Dave Bautista) trying to comfort Quill by telling him to find a woman who is just as pathetic as he is. The humor is more understated this time around, but I still liked the trailer for the glimpse it gives us of the Guardians (whose number will now include Yondu [Michael Rooker] and Gamora's "sister" Nebula [Karen Gillan]—strange bedfellows, indeed, at least in Nebula's case) and their interpersonal interactions.

When I saw that a trailer for "Logan" was out, I rolled my eyes. Marvel has obsessed over giving the character of Logan/Wolverine his own film; he's already had several devoted to him, none of which was outstanding. "Another goddamn Wolverine movie?" I thought. This newest movie, however, takes inspiration from the "Old Man Logan" storyline in the super-diverse X-Men comics timeline; in it, Logan (Hugh Jackman) seems to be losing his self-regeneration powers, and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the world's most powerful psychic, is apparently now suffering from Alzheimer's.

I felt a pang: this was a painful reminder that DC Comics has failed to make a similar film for Frank Miller's version of Batman, who appears as a 55-year-old in the 1980s-era The Dark Knight Returns. Christopher Nolan's dark and grim Batman movies borrowed scenes and tropes from Frank Miller's now-classic graphic novel; the recent megaturd "Batman v. Superman" (review) also borrowed from Miller—rather heavily, in fact. "Logan" acknowledges that the actors Jackman and Stewart are both much older now; age is obviously going to be a major theme, and from what I understand, this movie is to be Hugh Jackman's final outing as Logan/Wolverine. Based on the trailer, it appears that Logan will be paired up with a young girl—another inadvertent reminder of The Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman's new Robin is also a young girl. That said, the trailer looked a hell of a lot better than I thought it would, so now I'm pumped to see "Logan," which comes out early next year.

"Guardians" comes out next May. Marvel is also releasing two other films in 2017: "Spider-Man: Homecoming" in July (starring the very bouncy, irrepressible Tom Holland), and "Thor: Ragnarok" in November (starring the reliably charming Chris Hemsworth). I can't say I'm a fan of the Thor movies; although he's a likable character in the Avengers films, the Thor-centered films leave me unsatisfied, mainly because nothing about the Asgardian realm really makes sense. Even though the "magic" of Asgard is explained as a sort of alternate-universe "science," it still feels like magic to me. The second Thor movie, "Thor: The Dark World," featured archaic weaponry like swords and war hammers (Mjolnir) as well as energy rifles and spacecraft. Didn't make sense, especially with everyone dressed up in ridiculous capes and armor as if they were about to sing opera.

I'll be looking forward to "Guardians," "Logan," and "Spider-Man," at least.

Below is an exquisitely cute bit of fan art that I found. Some guy named "Flick," back in 2012, did this pencil-art rendering of Frank Miller's Batman and Robin—55-year-old Bruce Wayne, hoary and gruff, with little teen Carrie Kelley. The art reflects the sexual subtext that I saw when I read the original story: Carrie has known about the Batman for a while; she idolizes and adores him, and despite their wide age gap, it's plain that she, at least, may be in love with old Bruce. Nothing like this scene occurs in Frank Miller's story, but there is one moment when Carrie, upon seeing Bruce back on his feet after having been brutally beaten by the Mutant Leader, ecstatically throws herself at the older man—who is naked at the time—embracing him fervidly and unselfconsciously. The gesture is simultaneously childlike and brimming with seductive adult promise. Such a relationship would, of course, be impossible (not to mention pervy), but the swirling amorous subtext will not be ignored.


UPDATE: I found a snap of Frank Miller's "hug inside the cave" scene. How naughty the scene is probably depends on how naughty your own mind is, but artist Flick and I both read some sort of sexual subtext into Batman and Robin's relationship (something that many fans have half-jokingly speculated about back when Robin was male). Anyway, here's the pic:






Thursday, October 20, 2016

shall I walk out to the Han tonight?

And now for something completely different: a change in direction!

When I hit the Yangjae-cheon creekside trail from my office, I always break right in order to follow the trail toward Gwacheon. If I were to break left, I would hit another watercourse, the Tan-cheon, which leads to the Han River. Unlike my friend John McCrarey, I've never walked all the way to the Han before, so tonight might be the night I do something new.

UPDATE: my intestines are vetoing a long walk. Didn't poop all day, which isn't normal. I have to go back to my place and hover close to a terlit, I think.



postmortem of the third presidential debate

This will be my final election-related post because I'm just so goddamn sick of writing about fucking politics. You need to understand my history: I've always hated politics, but when we attacked Iraq in 2003, I found myself on one side of the debate over the war, with two of my best friends on the other side (they were pro; I was con, and I think I've been proven right). Our email exchanges—now lost to the mists of time, for me at least—ranged up and down many different aspects of history, politics, and culture. I'm thankful to have gone through that wringer: it helped me flesh out, in some measure, my own political views, and it made me realize that politics is an essential part of social reality. It can't be dismissed or denied, and however cynical I might become about politics, politicians, and notions of government, these issues won't simply disappear just because I'm ignoring them.

I like to think of myself as a moderate and a centrist. My friends and acquaintances to the left of me will scoff and reply that I'm an obvious rightie. My friends to the right of me, meanwhile, will think I'm more of a leftie than I'm letting on. In terms of social policy and cultural mores, I'd call myself a fairly open leftist (and as a religious pluralist, I'm way to the left, religiously speaking). Having acted as the officiant at my gay brother's marriage, I'm obviously fine with gay marriage, and my openness extends to a whole panoply of attitudes relating to sexual behavior and, yes, bathroom behavior. None of that offends me, and if more people out themselves as somehow ambisexual or omnisexual or whatever—if future nanotech and bioengineering allow us to create more sexes than our current two-ish—I'll be ready for that, and will welcome the variety being expressed. I agree with the left when it targets many perceived social problems and injustices: homelessness, racism, etc. These problems do still exist and shouldn't be ignored.

Where I part ways with the left, however, is in focusing on government as the vehicle for salvation. Conservatives are, I feel, correct when they view government as, at best, a blunt instrument that tends to ruin more than repair. Solutions to various ills really ought to arise locally, from the people who understand the problem best. Imposing top-down measures is often the worst way to go about changing society. The American Civil War is a classic example: the British managed to abolish slavery through the civilized (okay, sometimes heated) discussion of elected representatives after an anti-slavery movement that began from the ground up. In the States, a top-down attempt at abolishing slavery eventually proved successful, but only after a tragically bloody war. My point is: I lean very much to the right when it comes to my vision of government's role in citizens' lives. I'm also an economic conservative: high taxes generally stifle growth (the US has some of the worst corporate tax rates in the world), and governments should never spend beyond their means—the sort of common sense that abides in middle-income families who live on budgets, but seems to escape the US Congress, which is averse to holding itself to a strict budget.

It's taken years and a good bit of introspection to have arrived at the above positions. I admit that, as I get older, I'm may be trending further rightward in some ways, but as my recent Political Compass results seem to show, I'm still generally centrist.

Of course, nowadays, the game seems to have shifted. Thanks in part to blog commenters and my online reading, I've been made aware that a new distinction seems to be overtaking the old left/right paradigm: these days, it seems to be more about globalism versus nationalism.

In some ways, the new paradigm is a reflection of the old: globalism, for example, has more than a whiff of what some conservatives used to call transnational progressivism, an open-borders attitude that sees nation-states coalescing into huge entities governed by trans-national authorities. This is basically what the European Union is: an incarnation of transnational progressivism, where EU countries enjoy a diminished sovereignty and are governed by unelected representatives based in Brussels.

The recent Brexit is an example of nationalism: an attempt to reclaim one's full sovereignty while still nurturing international ties. Where globalism/nationalism fails to map onto the old left/right paradigm, at least from what I can see, is in the matter of international trade. US conservatives have traditionally been pro-trade, which is consistent with the right's generally pro-free-market spirit. Nationalism, by contrast, prioritizes one's own country and workers, and international trade is viewed as a means by which rich elites benefit, with little trickling down to the general masses. Trump's emphasis on a new protectionism, and the potential for trade wars as a result of his attitude, is a reflection of this new nationalism that is replacing modern conservatism.

My own opinion reflects the more classically conservative pro-trade view. I'm not sure how many jobs Trump thinks he can create with his focus on US workers, especially when you consider the rise of job-killing forces like automation, which is how some bosses are solving the problem of being forced to pay higher minimum wages: cut down on the number of employees and install unpaid robots. More and more work can be done by machines these days; an entirely automated manufacturing plant (or restaurant, etc.) is no longer inconceivable. Imagine an industrial sector with no foremen, no unions, no workers at all. White-collar jobs requiring cognitive ability and emotional intelligence will still be available for the educated and the psychologically stable; meanwhile, brute labor will become the province of machines. Some of this might begin to happen on President Trump's (or President Clinton's) watch, if it's not already happening now.

So that's a historical overview of my politics. I admit it's a mess; I don't doubt that some or many of my views, when teased out, might lead to self-contradiction. Like you, I'm merely a work in progress; keep that in mind before you flay me for not being left enough, right enough, nationalist enough, or globalist enough.

Now—on to the debate.

Once again, I refused to watch the actual follies, but indications are that this third debate, staged in Las Vegas and moderated by conservative Chris Wallace, was more whimper than bang. Rightie pundit Stephen Green seems to be calling the debate slightly in favor of Hillary:

I hesitate to draw any broad conclusions from this final debate until we see some viewership figures -- were enough people watching to make a difference, and did enough of them spot Trump the points he needed on those topics when you kinda knew what he meant to say, but never quite did say?

And just as importantly: Did Clinton manage to escape the Wikileaks/Veritas traps?

I'd say "Yes" to the latter and "We'll have to wait and see" to the former.

My suspicions appear to be confirmed: this debate, relatively bland as it was, probably won't move any needles. One of my liberal friends on Twitter agreed with my observation and crowed that this means a Clinton landslide is nigh, given the mainstream polling, almost all of which has favored Clinton for a long while. Your mileage will, of course, vary; I've already written about the wildly different doxastic practices in play this election cycle. You may read completely different signs and come to a completely different conclusion, but in the end, one worldview will be roundly proven right, and the other will be proven wrong.

The Drudge Report's snap poll shows, of course, a Trump victory, but it's surprisingly limp if we take into account how rightward-stacked the Drudge poll is: as of this writing, the poll shows 74-26 in favor of Trump, not the usual 97-3 or 90-10 spread. I conclude that the general feeling among poll-takers is as lackluster as was the debate itself.

Trump will, apparently, be crucified for at least two things he said: the phrase "bad hombres" to describe a subset of Mexican immigrants, and his apparent refusal to say that he would accept the election results. (This 1990-era PDF shows some of the options available to people who legally contest the results of an election. Keep in mind that the info is 2.6 decades old.) As for Trump and his racism, Scott Adams, in an old blog post, comments on how confirmation bias kicks in to justify entrenched notions. And in his most recent post, he writes:

And I’m here to tell you that if you are afraid that Donald Trump is a racist/sexist clown with a dangerous temperament, you have been brainwashed by the best group of brainwashers in the business right now: Team Clinton. They have cognitive psychologists such as Godzilla advising them. Allegedly.

Both of Adams's posts are worth reading.

The right-leaning Daily Caller has articles on how moderator Chris Wallace grilled Clinton on her foundation's pay-to-play scheme and on how Trump won the third debate, according to "the internet."

The Washington Post's screamer headline right now is, "Trump refuses to say whether he’ll accept election results." Another article says Trump started strongly, then made a "killer mistake." Given the leftward lean of most mainstream media, more articles similar to the Post's are undoubtedly being churned out right at this moment.

I will doubtless update this post several times as I keep on reading, but to reiterate my two takeaways: (1) this was a milquetoast debate, all in all; surprisingly little blood was spilled; (2) this debate shifted almost no one's opinions.

And that's all. This post is my final election-related piece. I won't write anything more about politics until after November 8, when three hundred million of us will all be in a post-coital stupor. As for how I'll be voting—I hope I've made it clear that I find neither candidate savory. Based on what I hear from both the righties and the lefties, one candidate is obviously better than the other, but since both sides are saying the same thing, I have little reason to trust either side. My solution to this is to abstain from voting this time around. I don't want to be part of a process that puts either of these two jokers into power. And I wrote, twelve years ago, in response to the accusation that not voting means you have no right to complain, which is arrant nonsense. I suppose I could take the time to write in my own candidates, but there's zero chance they'd be elected.

I'm just gonna go Taoist and ride this out.

UPDATE: the conservative National Review, no friend of Trump, has the following articles:

1. "Trump's Best Debate So Far... And His Worst"
2. "Tonight's Debate Perfectly Summed Up the State of the Race"
3. "No, Trump Didn't Get It Done Tonight"

The Huffington Post, meanwhile, is all but calling Donald Trump a traitor.
1. "Donald Trump Just Disqualified Himself from the Presidency"
2. "Unfit for Any Office in the United States"
3. "A Statement of Disloyalty Without Precedent"
etc., etc.

UPDATE 2: Styx calls the debate 60-40 for Trump; he found Trump to be more "measured" than he had been during his previous debates, albeit still "a little unhinged" in his speaking style. Trump "did what he had to do" in this third debate, although Styx thinks that Trump did miss several opportunities to unload on Hillary. Styx notes with approval that Hillary "didn't get softballed" during this debate, primarily because Fox is a rightie network, and moderator Chris Wallace is an acolyte of Fox.

UPDATE 3: Scott Adams scores the third debate very marginally for Clinton.



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

final debate

Assuming Hillary Clinton has chosen not to follow Obama aide David Axelrod's advice to skip the third presidential debate,* the debate is still on and will air Wednesday evening, Nevada time. I'll catch the bloody, shredded-fetus aftermath Thursday morning, Korea time.

The third debate will take place in Las Vegas, and I can't imagine a more appropriately sleazy venue for a campaign with a record-breaking amount of sleaze sticking to it. This debate will also be moderated by Chris Wallace, a conservative Fox News commentator. Trump is, in a manner of speaking, on his home turf in Vegas, a city in which he has deep business roots (Trump International Hotel, etc.), but the debate won't be held among the casinos: it will take place at the slightly more staid University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Thomas & Mack Center.

With the election having reached a fever pitch, I find it highly doubtful that any needles will be moved by whatever happens during this final exchange between two unsavory candidates. Commitments have crystallized, and for the uncommitted: when it's kaiju versus kaiju, there's no one to root for.

Just a heads-up: talking about this election has been a massive headache for me. My post-debate commentary will probably be the last thing I write about Election 2016, after which I leave everything in the hands of the gods—as everything has always been, really.

My final thought for this post is to reiterate that we really do have two utterly different worldviews, two utterly different doxastic practices (to borrow a philo term that means, approximately, "how we form our beliefs") at work this election cycle. One worldview hews to the mainstream, relying on poll aggregators like Real Clear Politics; evolving-forecast sites like Nate Silver's 538; and various legacy-media outlets like CNN, MSNBC, ABC/NBC/CBS, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and so on. The other worldview subsists mostly online and has nothing whatsoever to do with print media. This is the demimonde of YouTube commentators like Styxhexenhammer666, computer-savvy folks like Wikileaks, undercover documentarians like James O'Keefe, and shadowy sources like Anonymous.** King Baeksu, on this blog, has called Trump "the internet candidate," so the question is the degree to which internet-based discourse has superseded more conventional/traditional forms of public discourse. Are the legacy media really dead? If the internet is indeed influencing people in ways that the mainstream is blind to, then surveys like this Arizona Freedom Alliance poll are not merely wishful thinking: they're truer reflections of reality than what's being produced by the mainstream. Or they're not. One worldview is going to be proven decisively wrong on November 8. Will it be egg on the face of the legacy media? Will Styx be shown to be a reality-denying Baghdad Bob? All will be revealed in just a few weeks.***

UPDATE: an excerpt from Scott Adams's latest:

I’m here to tell you that if you are afraid that Donald Trump is a racist/sexist clown with a dangerous temperament, you have been brainwashed by the best group of brainwashers in the business right now: Team Clinton.

Go read the rest to understand his argument before responding. Meanwhile, this gentleman says Trump "doesn't have a racist bone in his body."

UPDATE 2: as with Brexit, betting patterns seem to be skewing Trumpward.

UPDATE 3: in case you failed to click the link I left above to Malcolm's blog, here's an excerpt from Malcolm's leftie frenemy Peter, who goes by the moniker "The One-eyed Man" on Malcolm's comment threads:

James O’Keefe? You’re kidding me, right? Was Alex Jones unavailable?

Here in the reality-based community, we rely on “facts” and “evidence” to create reasoned argument. In the la-la land of the right wing bubble – where global warming stopped back in the 1990’s, the President is not an American, and non-existent Muslims celebrated 9/11 – facts and evidence are in short supply, so the work of convicted fraudsters like O’Keefe will have to do.

Trump’s claims of a rigged election are horseshit. The fact that an election which hasn’t occurred cannot possibly have been rigged, combined with his complete lack of evidence, does not deter the credulous Trumpen proletariat from insisting on absurdities which no thinking person would dare conceive.

Trump is groping for a solution to his dismal and disgusting campaign, and has gone full Breitbart with lurid tales of international conspiracies and heinous plots. Those who view O’Keefe, Daily Caller, and Drudge as credible sources of news will swallow this whole. Those who are capable of observation and ratiocination recognize it for what it is: the whiny excuses of a small man who knows he is heading for a crushing defeat.

To a girl, no less.

So as per usual, both sides are calling each other stupid.

Peter has more to say here.

UPDATE 4: Malcolm has written a heartfelt post here. He spends a few column-inches hammering away at notions of "diversity," "inclusiveness," and "multiculturalism." I think his concerns are valid, to some extent, but his extreme formulation of "diversity + proximity = war" seems to paper over the idea that some diversity is not only desirable but essential for a country to be strong. Lack of diversity leads to situations like that on the Korean peninsula, where the ethnic/racial echo chamber reigns.

My own attitude toward diversity is Buddhist in flavor: it's neither inherently good nor inherently bad. There can indeed be too much diversity, but it should be obvious that a certain measure of it, in any country's culture, is salubrious because it exposes people to other points of view that can then inform a larger view of the world. I have to wonder, in practical terms, just how far back Malcolm would care to roll America's diversity. Where does one stop? If we roll it back far enough, all we'll have left will be American Indians, and theoretically, we could roll back even further until there's no one at all.

Obviously, Malcolm isn't advocating anything as horrifying as ethnic cleansing, but I can't get a lock on what, exactly, Malcolm is advocating. How much diversity is enough? How much is too much? Are un-diverse countries (Korea, Scandinavia for the next little while) really a model to follow? As a resident of Korea, I see the pathologies of un-diversity up close.



*The idea was to skip the debate as a protest against the "depths" to which Trump has "sunk" in floating the prospect of drug-testing both him and Hillary Clinton before they take the debate stage, just so the public can know what chemicals are coursing through Hillary's veins. Trump's reasoning was, apparently, that what he and Hillary are doing is akin to what athletes do, and if athletes get drug-tested, then by parity of reasoning, presidential candidates ought to be drug-tested, too. I'd have found this argument more convincing had Trump made it before the first debate, but this is obviously an ad hoc, trash-talking tactic that's meant to rattle, or at least annoy, the Hillary camp.

**Strangely, we might also include Facebook in this list if this article holds any water: Facebook has apparently seen record levels of pro-Trump activity.

***Of course, whichever worldview turns out to be the loser will do what it can to save face through various justifications, which will likely revolve around election-rigging, which seems to be a rich topic of discussion right about now.



Tuesday, October 18, 2016

pumped for new movies

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that "Dr. Strange," the Marvel Cinematic Universe's latest outing, is a late-October release, not a November movie. "Strange" hits Korean cinemas next week, on October 26. That same day, the Laika animated film "Kubo and the Two Strings" finally comes out in Korea, despite having been released months ago in the States. My worry is that "Kubo," being a Japanese tale, has been somehow reworked in the way that "Big Hero 6" was reworked for the Korean market. The long delay in the release date has made me wary.

Be that as it may, I look forward to hitting both movies sometime next week. The only other movies I'm looking forward to seeing this year are "Arrival," about which I'm hearing good advance word (11/11 release in the States), and "Rogue One" (12/16 US release), which is something of a goes-without-saying film for anyone who's any sort of Star Wars fan. I'm expecting more blasters than sabers in "Rogue One"; Donnie Yen apparently plays some sort of non-Jedi Jedi, and Darth Vader, who has been arguably over-teased in the preview trailers, is more of a tantalizing background presence than a main character.

Much to look forward to.



Monday, October 17, 2016

butthurt

[NB: for an entertaining disquisition on the slang term "butthurt," go visit Charles's site. In this blog post, I'm talking specifically about my butt, which hurts.]

It's the end of the day, and my ass hurts. As I wrote earlier, I slipped and fell on my left hip and right hand this morning. There was no pain for a while, but over the course of the day, there's been enough of an ache to warrant some aspirin. It's still not major; the ache is more annoying than actually painful, and it's certainly not debilitating. That said, it doesn't seem that I'll be doing my creekside walk tonight, which is also annoying. I'll rest my ass this evening, then get walking, or staircasing, tomorrow.



start the day with a bang

Knock-knock!
Who's there?
Knock!
Knock who?
낙법! Learn it!


On my way out of my building this morning, I slipped and fell. I was in the B1-level parking garage, trying to drop off a big bag of recyclables before hitting the subway, when my left foot hit a greasy patch—as invisible as black ice—and flew out from under me. I threw out my right arm; my left hip and right hand hit the concrete, but I ended up on my back all the same. The fall didn't hurt anything except my pride: several garbage collectors, as well as the parking-lot attendant in his booth, saw my fall.

But, hey—at least I was jolted awake. The garbage collectors asked if I was hurt; laughing in embarrassment, I said I was fine. It's been over an hour since the event, and I'm still not aching, so this was minor. It's one of the few times I can be thankful for being as fleshy as I am: landing on a hip can have disastrous consequences, and I've already written about my paranoia regarding Korean hospital care.

Hapkido is an integrated Korean martial art: its syllabus includes the percussive, punching/kicking aspects of taekwondo and the "internal," harmonizing/grappling aspects of Japanese aikido. Written with the same three Chinese characters as aikido* (hap + ki + do = 合 氣 道: harmony-energy-way), hapkido means, roughly, the way of harmonizing energy, of using your opponent's force against himself. Unlike taekwondo, hapkido places a great deal of stress on nak-beop (낙법; it sounds a bit like "knock bupp" and means, roughly, "the law of falling"), i.e., learning how to fall. Out of sympathy, my boss told me about an incident in which he slipped on the ice and his hapkido training took over, saving him from injury.

I'd actually like to learn hapkido, assuming I can gather up the courage and the will. I did taekwondo years ago (here's me kicking), but having had one day of hapkido training,** I came away convinced it's the better martial art. Hapkido—affectionately called HKD in the States—teaches you what to do when fights go to the ground, as they so often do; taekwondo teaches you to fight on your feet, with very little time devoted to learning holds, locks, flips, and escapes. Then, of course, there's the nak-beop aspect of hapkido, which could have helped me this morning. Ah, well.



*This is a reminder that, just because two phenomena are described by the same set of Chinese characters, this doesn't mean those two things are one and the same. For a Western analogue to this, think about the word "chip" as it applies to food in US and UK English. In US English, a "chip" is a thin slice of deep-fried potato. In UK English, a "chip" is what Americans call a "french fry." Same descriptor, two different realities.

How are aikido and hapkido different? AKD, traditionally conceived, is an almost entirely defensive martial art. Although it has diversified since the time of its founder, Ueshiba Morihei, the basic AKD syllabus is mostly devoted to redirection of the opponent's force. Many of the earlier training methods revolved around the idea of a swordless samurai who had to defend himself against an attacker still armed with a sword, but modern AKD has evolved to be more "street" in its approach. The AKD syllabus is heavy on defensive tactics, but does use atemi, i.e. quick strikes intended to keep the opponent off-balance and/or distracted while the exponent executes his main attack, which is usually a hold, lock, or flip. HKD, by contrast, has a larger striking syllabus (including some strange, esoteric kicks not found in TKD), but it incorporates almost as many "soft" techniques as AKD does.

**I was at some sort of Korean cultural event in northern Virginia. At one of the booths, there were fliers for a single session of hapkido training. Curious, I picked a flier up and went to a training session maybe a week later. Compared to taekwondo training, it was like night and day: TKD training is militarily rigid: students sit in straight rows; different phases of each class are clearly demarcated; moves are learned in unison, and in very specific sequences; sparring tends to be very controlled. HKD, on the other hand, is loose and relaxed in the way that I've heard Chinese wushu training often is: the master demonstrates a move, then he lets the students pair up and practice with each other at their own pace. I've heard this about the Chinese training philosophy: don't force things. There are exceptions, of course: if you've ever watched Master Pan Qingfu (about whom Mark Salzman wrote in his book Iron and Silk), then you know that some Chinese martial-arts training can be brutally rigid. I doubt Master Pan is the only Chinese sifu to act like a drill sergeant.



Sunday, October 16, 2016

Three David O. Russell films: a review/survey

I didn't realize, until after having watched "The Fighter" last night, that I've seen several David O. Russell films: "Three Kings" (1999), "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012), "American Hustle" (2013) and "The Fighter" (2010). I haven't re-watched "Three Kings" anytime recently, so I won't be talking about that movie, although I should note that, stylistically speaking, it has very little in common with Russell's other dramedies, with their focus on dialogue-heavy tableaux involving messed-up teams and/or families. What follows will be three reviews of the other movies I mentioned. I'll be tackling these films in the order in which I saw them, not in the order in which they came out.

"Silver Linings Playbook"

"Silver Linings Playbook" stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro. This was the movie that netted Lawrence her Best Actress Oscar, and for good reason: her portrayal of Tiffany Maxwell, a recent widow who suffers from depression and other psychological problems, is a powerful one. On one level, the movie is about Bradley's Cooper's character, Pat Solitano, who is trying to get on his feet again after having spent time in a psychiatric ward for bipolar disorder. On another level, the film is a story about finding grace and new beginnings in the midst of human brokenness; in a comic vein, it's also about the healing power of watching football on TV.

Robert De Niro famously cried on Katie Couric's talk show as he hinted at his own real-life struggles with mental disorder; one of his children is autistic, and David O. Russell's son is bipolar. The personal investment of so many members of the cast and crew is visible in the production, which has a very good heart. Even though the movie treats mental illness with respect, I don't think "Playbook" is meant to be taken as a literal or factual examination of mental illness; to me, disease in this film is more like a metaphor, and whatever message the story is conveying is on the metaphorical level—and is, incidentally, very uplifting. Of the three David O. Russell movies I'm reviewing here, this is the one I liked the best.

"American Hustle"

"American Hustle" is a fictional take on the ABSCAM events of the 1970s. It stars Jennifer Lawrence (a Russell regular), Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Michael Peña. Robert De Niro also makes an appearance as—you guessed it—a mafioso. This is, at heart, another movie about deeply flawed people who try to make things work out—a recurring theme in Russell's work. Christian Bale plays inveterate scammer Irving Rosenfeld; Amy Adams is Sydney Prosser, Rosenfeld's lover, co-conspirator, and arguable brains of the operation. Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), proves to be a major complication, especially after the US government gets wise to Irving's scamming and recruits him in a larger operation that balloons into an attempt to take down a mayor and several congressmen. Somewhere in the midst of all this, a fake sheik (Peña) is involved. Like "Silver Linings Playbook," "American Hustle" has its funny moments, but I didn't find this film nearly as enjoyable as "Playbook." The characters in "Hustle" have little to recommend them; they're constantly undoing themselves through hubris or an inability to keep secrets. Lawrence's character, in particular, is far less likable than the feisty-but-damaged woman she had played in "Playbook." If I'm going to watch a film about assholes pointlessly trying to undermine each other, I'd rather it be something like the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading."

"The Fighter"

I just watched "The Fighter" last night, so it's still quite fresh in my memory, and I'll be writing more extensively about it as a result. This movie stars Christian Bale (notice the overlap of stars in Russell's movies? Russell attracts high-powered talent) and Mark Wahlberg as Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward, two half-brothers from the small town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Dicky's claim to fame is that, as a professional boxer, he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Since that late-70s knockdown, though, Dicky has become a crack addict. An HBO film crew is in town to do a documentary about Dicky, who thinks the completed work will be about his "comeback" (Dicky is 40). In fact, the HBO crew is there to do an exposé on how crack ruins lives. Dicky is Micky's trainer, but he's an unreliable trainer at best, given his addiction. Micky and Dicky's mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is Micky's fight manager; Alice's henpecked husband (Jack McGee) is quietly encouraging of Micky's efforts to gain confidence and go pro. Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), who quickly understands that Micky's large, crazy family (Micky has six other siblings aside from Dicky) is holding him back. Battle lines are drawn as Micky must choose between blood ties or his own future.

"The Fighter" is based on the true story of Micky Ward, although many facts and events have been altered. Micky's trainer in the movie is portrayed by Ward's real-life trainer, Mickey O'Keeffe who, along with being a boxing trainer, was a policeman. Mark Walhberg, in prepping for the role, enlisted the aid of actual boxing champions like Manny Pacquiao. In the true-to-life vein, Christian Bale, as he did for his role in "The Machinist," once again lost insane amounts of weight to portray a twitchy crack addict. Bale also made a study of the real Micky Ward's speech patterns and body movements; the result of Bale's dedication was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Wahlberg apparently insisted on brutal realism for the boxing; he sustained several facial injuries during filming. At the same time, because Ward's major fights were all on video, the fight choreography was designed to be a—forgive the pun—blow-by-blow re-creation of the original fights.

I have trouble classifying "The Fighter" as a boxing movie, per se. True: there's a final bout to end the movie, as is found in all boxing/fighting movies, but to me, it's more fundamentally a family drama that happens to include boxing as a trope. Micky's family is a loud, screechy horror show: his lone brother (well, half-brother) is Dicky, and he's got six sisters, all of whom are catty, uneducated, and varying degrees of ugly (except for one sister). These sisters serve, at times, as a sort of retarded Greek chorus, dizzily pondering Micky's future or loudly bouncing around the idea that Micky's girlfriend Charlene is some sort of "MTV skank," even though they know next to nothing about her.

For me, "The Fighter" sits somewhere between "American Hustle" and "Silver Linings Playbook" in terms of likability. Micky's family is pretty damn horrible, but no one—not even crackhead Dicky—is out-and-out evil. There are no clear good guys and bad guys here; even Micky, despite his kindhearted nature, fails to step up at times when he should be courageous and principled. If you know Micky Ward's story—which I didn't until I read about it—you'll know that Ward drops Dicky Eklund as his trainer, then takes him back on (while keeping his other trainer, Mickey O'Keeffe), then goes on to win a series of professional bouts, cementing his status as the welterweight champion of the world. HBO did its documentary on Dicky, but in the end, Dicky cleaned up and got the last laugh.

I'm sorely tempted to compare "The Fighter" to "Warrior" (reviewed here), another movie about two brothers, troubled families, addiction, and combat sports. The two films share many of the same themes, but the stories' planning and execution are so utterly different that a true comparison is, I think, impossible. "Warrior" is intense and gripping; its moral perspective is clearer, maybe less subtle than the complicated picture we get in "The Fighter." "Warrior" also has a more explicit focus on fighting, whereas "The Fighter," despite its title, is more about what happens outside of the ring than inside of it. As a family drama that is mostly depressing but eventually encouraging, I think "The Fighter" works quite well; as a boxing movie, though, I think it's a bit flabby.