Wednesday, February 28, 2018

why Wyoming?

In the comments to the previous post, Charles wants to know why I'd pick Wyoming as a place to settle if I should move back to the States.

Take a look at these maps:

Southern California is right out, as you see—it's a huge ocean of violence and death. I could never move there. Besides, Cali is expensive, over-regulated, and going down the tubes, economically speaking. Businesses and regular citizens are leaving California for less regulated states like Texas. Who can blame them? (Of course, as Instapundit darkly notes, these people bring their voting habits with them, which will eventually ruin things for everybody and turn places like Texas into metastatic Californias.)

But look at Wyoming! Along with the Dakotas, Wyoming is almost pristine when it comes to murder stats. As a resident of northern Virginia, I've been in DC often enough to have heard gunfire off in the distance. That's not very reassuring. If I'm going to hear gunfire, let it be the sound of someone plinking away at bottles on a fence.

So Wyoming has low, low murder stats going for it. It's also ruggedly beautiful, with its mountains and hills and forests and lakes and occasional rivers. I could dig the peace and quiet. With a house out in the middle of nowhere (but not too far from the local Walmart), and with a dog or two as my companions, I think I'd be quite happy.

(click the above image to see it at full size)

wow—my guest room is much better than my regular apartment

As I suspected, the guest room into which I've been moved is much, much nicer than my current shitty apartment. Decent wallpaper, bright color schemes, a bathroom that doesn't look like a moldy, skanky third-world shithole (yeah, I said it), a larger kitchenette, power sockets in places that make sense, a blazing-fast internet connection, and much more. However, the guest room lacks two things: (1) a good view out the window (this room doesn't face directly east), and (2) wall space against which to place all my shelving and storage.

So—do I request a move? There are problems with going that route. First, I don't even know if it's possible to move into this room in particular. Second, if I'm really leaving this August, then it's not worth having a non-shitty room for only a few months. Third, moving is a big project, and I'm not feeling all that industrious. Fourth, I suspect I'd miss the beautiful easterly view I currently have. So all in all, I'm not that motivated to move, despite how nice this apartment is. Ah, well. My time will come eventually, and I'll settle into a decent apartment in good time. That, or I'll move back to the States with the money I've saved and settle into a nice house. Maybe somewhere in Wyoming.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

drip, drip, drip redux

I recently wrote about a water-leakage problem. The repair guys came and went yesterday, while I was out of my place, and since they didn't leave any notes or text messages, I assumed they had finished their repairs. By the time I came back to my place yesterday evening, it was around 10PM, and therefore too late to call the plumbers to confirm that repairs had been made. I decided simply to wake up the following morning (today, actually) and shower as per usual, knowing that—because this is Korea, where things never go straight from A to B—Murphy's Law would always be waiting in the wings to work its evil work. Sure enough: about an hour after I got to the office, the HR guy from yesterday appeared again, with an apologetic look on his face. "The downstairs neighbors say they had a big leak today," he began, "and I need to ask you not to use your bathroom until this coming Saturday."

"Not even the toilet?" I asked.

"Not even the toilet," the HR guy said. "We have a guest room that you can move into temporarily." He handed me a slip of Post-It paper with an apartment number and a four-digit keyless-entry code on it. "You can stay here through Saturday, to give the silicone time to dry."

"Can I come back on Saturday?" I asked.

"Best stay through Saturday and go back to your place on Sunday," he said.

"Just one thing," I said. "I took a shower this morning because I assumed my bathroom had been fixed. I'd had no word—nothing—from the repair people about what was going on, so I assumed I'd be able to use my bathroom again. This time around, could you have the repair crew please leave me a memo or something to indicate whether they've finished the job? Just a note on a piece of paper is fine." The HR guy quietly nodded. In Korea, nodding yes doesn't necessarily mean agreement or a promise of action, so I'm on my guard.

Anyway, this evening, I'll be moving to my temporary guest room and will be staying there until Sunday morning. I'm going to be severely pissed off if the guest room turns out to be nicer than where I'm currently housed.

power outage

Around 10:54AM today, our building had a power outage that lasted about a minute. At 11AM, an announcement came over the PA system (yes, a PA speaker is built into every apartment—Orwellian, no?) to the effect that a test of the electrical system had just been performed. I'm imagining something like that scene in "Airplane!" where the guy in the air-traffic-control tower unplugs the runway lights, cackles "Just kidding," then re-plugs the master cord.

ADDENDUM: the power went out again for about two minutes while I was brushing my teeth. No announcement came over the PA this time. Whoops.

Monday, February 26, 2018

the cognitive mesh

It's not that Koreans are incapable of thinking, but they're often trained and educated in such a way as to think that life can be navigated as if it were a series of clear-cut multiple-choice questions. A single operator's manual is all a Korean needs to get through life, and when any situation arises that doesn't fit what the manual says, a Korean either freezes or backs up and then repeats whatever procedure was being followed that brought him or her to this pass.

Case in point: I went to Subway today to get a tuna sub.* When I placed my order, I started off by saying I wanted the 30-centimeter (i.e., foot-long) tuna sub, and I specifically mentioned white bread. I used the Korean term hayan bbang (literally, "white bread") to describe the bread I wanted. The girl taking my order looked up at me and asked, "What kind of bread did you want?" I once again said, "Hayan bbang." She then asked, "Do you want hwaiteu [the English "white" pronounced the Korean way]?" For a third time, I said, "Hayan bbang." The girl then pointed to the menu chart and asked again, "Hwaiteu majeuseyo?" ("White bread, correct?") Finally, I gave up and said, "Yes—hwaiteu."

I've used the term hayan bbang with the older lady that I normally see working at Subway, and she's had no trouble understanding what I mean. She wasn't in today, and she apparently took all the IQ points in the room with her. Luckily, the rest of my order went smoothly, but as I stalked out of Subway, grumbling, I replayed the exchange in my head and tried to analyze it. The only conclusion I could come to was that the girl had been trained to hear hwaiteu bread, and anything else—even Korean itself—would register only as incomprehensible static. Her cognitive filter was a round hole; anything not exactly conforming to that hole's shape and size would automatically be rejected as faulty input.

To be fair, I've been the guilty party in similar exchanges when I was in America. I've listened to someone with an accent trying to say something to me, and it was just not registering. Then someone else listening in would restate what the person was saying, but in a clearer accent, and I'd immediately realize that what the first interlocutor had been saying was, in fact, perfectly comprehensible: I'd simply had my cognitive mesh in place, and it had been screening out any and all utterances made by those fuzzy little furriners.

That said, I'm not as routinely guilty of this problem as some of the geniuses I encounter here are—geniuses who are almost always young and female. Don't be fooled by all those stories you hear in America about how Koreans are intellectually superior model minorities: most of them have brains, but quite a few have heads stuffed with straw. Dealing with foreigners, even ones who pronounce Korean clearly, is just not in the operator's manual.

*I couldn't help noticing that an anagram of "tuna sub" is "anus tub."

"Darkest Hour": review

Imagine a brash politician who was in the liberal camp before seemingly turning conservative. Imagine that the media have strong doubts about him, as do his new fellow party members, who don't know what to make of him. Imagine that this politician has made enemies thanks to his blunt, aggressive, temperamental manner, and that people everywhere are bemoaning his ascension to the topmost ranks of government. Imagine that this unpopular individual is one of only a few to have the nerve to view the world situation as it is and to call it as he sees it, enemies be damned. Imagine that, despite his service to his country, the people are impatient to vote him out of office post haste.

I could go on making parallels between Winston Churchill and Donald Trump, but there are some major disanalogies, too: Trump utterly lacks Churchill's literate eloquence and scholarly knowledge, for one thing. While Trump shares with Churchill the ability to use rhetoric in a persuasive way, Churchill wielded the English language like a weapon. A former soldier and an inveterate academic, Churchill arguably did as much as Shakespeare to buttress and beautify his native tongue through his many speeches and the many books he wrote. Donald Trump, whatever his virtues and faults, will leave no such linguistic legacy, Covfefe be praised.

"Darkest Hour" picks up the story of Winston Churchill (an excellent Gary Oldman) as an old man, long past his soldiering days and on the cusp of becoming prime minister as the opposition party openly declares a loss of faith in the current prime minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Chamberlain has spectacularly failed to perceive Hitler's hegemonic intentions and seems ready to appease the German dictator, who is ruthlessly pushing his way across Europe. As the movie begins, France and Belgium are teetering and about to fall, and the Germans, already advancing through France, have surrounded British troops at Calais and Dunkirk, trapping almost the entire British Army against the sea, where it can be torn apart by the German air force, its Luftwaffe.

Churchill meets with King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, playing the role made famous in "The King's Speech," gives the king more of a speech impediment than a stutter) on the day he assumes the role of PM. The meeting is awkward and a little chilly; George has his doubts about Churchill, whom many hold responsible for the deaths of thousands of troops at Gallipoli. Churchill also acquires a new secretary named Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, whom I saw in "Baby Driver"). Their relationship is rocky at first, but it improves over time. Meanwhile, at home, Churchill is both supported and scolded by his ever-faithful, long-suffering wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and is doted on by their children and grandchildren. The prime minister is also attended by his loyal adjutant, Anthony Eden (Samuel West, looking properly hawkish).

Most of the movie is a buildup to one of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches: his June 4, 1940, "We shall fight on the beaches" speech to the House of Commons. A prominent thread is the machinations of the now-dethroned Neville Chamberlain and his co-conspirator Edward Wood, Third Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane, best known as Stannis Baratheon to "Game of Thrones" watchers), another Brit with an unfortunate inability to pronounce his "R"s. Churchill's dilemma, according to this film, is whether to acknowledge the grave reality of Hitler's advance across Europe and begin negotiations, or to reject the prospect of negotiations and go full-steam-ahead with plans to repel Hitler's massive attack. In reading the trivia on this situation, I discovered that Churchill's real-life dilemma wasn't much of a dilemma at all: he did, in fact, briefly consider negotiations with Hitler, but it was quite easy for him, in the end, to decide upon the course of action that cemented his place in history.

Not being a Churchill expert, I can't judge this film on its historical merit, but I will say that the story, as the movie tells it, is surprisingly touching. At the beginning of the film, as Churchill is being driven around London, he jokingly remarks that he has never been on a bus and has gone into the Underground only once. This remark foreshadows a moment much later in the movie, in which Churchill, on a sudden whim, leaves his limousine and descends into the Underground, determined to ride the subway to Westminster in order to speak to Parliament. This leads to a magnificent (and apparently utterly fictional) scene in which Churchill finds himself surrounded by passengers who are shocked to have the prime minister riding in the same car with them. Following the advice of King George (who eventually comes to trust Churchill because of the obvious fear that Churchill inspires in Hitler), Churchill takes advantage of his time among the hoi polloi to survey their opinions about the war: the Germans will soon arrive on English shores, so are the people willing to fight, or would they prefer to negotiate? The passengers, when faced with the prospect of ignoble negotiations, shout out a resounding "Never!"—and I, like Churchill in that scene, found myself with a big lump in my throat. It's a shame that this incident never actually occurred, but all the same, I'm glad the scene made it into the film as a powerful bit of storytelling. Consider it something like a metaphor, or something like shorthand for Churchill's ability to know the public mood. That scene alone was worth the price of admission. True: Churchill—like a certain American president—later plays fast and loose with the facts of his encounter with regular folks to rally members of Parliament before his big speech, but if you view his fabrication through a consequentialist lens, he did what he did for the greater good.

The cinematography for "Darkest Hour" is gorgeous. This, too, made my heart ache for a Europe we'll never see again. Nevertheless, the echoes of that Europe exist today, reflected in all of that old, glorious architecture. Here, too, I have no historical expertise with which to judge the accuracy of what I was seeing, but the Gestalt of all those sets and locations felt like an authentic evocation of 1940s London.

The actors are notable both for their acting skills and for, in many cases, their uncanny resemblance to their actual historical counterparts. Gary Oldman, as Churchill, endured hours upon hours of makeup to look the part, and the result is far superior to the horrific prosthetic work visited upon the great Sir Anthony Hopkins in his role as Alfred Hitchcock (you might need to see the actors in motion to appreciate the difference in quality):

When I first saw Ronald Pickup, I instantly knew that he was Chamberlain. While substantially older than the Chamberlain who appears in photographs from that era, Pickup absolutely looked like a certain infamous, debased statesman dying of cancer. Also uncanny was Ben Mendelsohn as George VI, who was costumed and made up to look almost exactly like the 1940s-era king. It goes without saying that, given this intimidating stable of great British (and Aussie, etc.) actors, the acting was always spot-on. Oldman deserves special mention for breathing life into Churchill by imbuing the character (Winston Churchill was a character, after all) with various old man's tics and quirks. The one quirk I found surprising was the slight stammer he gave Churchill. I should also mention David Strathairn, whom we never see, but who did a bang-up job providing the voice work for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the scene in which Churchill makes a transatlantic call in the hopes of recruiting American aid (this was in 1940; if you know your history, then you know that the United States didn't enter World War II until December 8, 1941, the following year, after the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor).

For a movie about one of the most crucial moments in World War II, there's very little actual war to be seen. We do get a glimpse of the civilian boats that head out to Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo (just for a second, I was mentally transported to Christopher Nolan's film), and we watch helplessly as Calais gets bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe. Still, the war hangs like a pall over everything that occurs in the film, infusing and affecting that other, invisible war: the war of ideas, of negotiation versus military retaliation. Since everyone knows the history, it's no spoiler to note that Churchill's ideas triumph over Chamberlain's, and that Britain emerged bloodied but unbowed from World War II, thanks in large part to an encouraging, inspiring man who knew where he stood, and who fought for the good of his people. "Darkest Hour" gets enthusiastic plaudits from yours truly. I think you'll enjoy the acting, the makeup, the cinematography, and the clash of personalities and principles.

ADDENDUM: a condensed video bio of Churchill is here.

ADDENDUM 2: if you want to compare the respective makeup jobs of Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman, here's the trailer for "Hitchcock," and here's the trailer for "Darkest Hour."

Sunday, February 25, 2018

"The Disaster Artist": review

Every time I write a review about a movie that prominently features James Franco, I feel compelled to remind my readers that, for some odd reason, Franco gets a lot of hate. I'm honestly not sure why he does; I think the man is a fine actor, as he proved yet again in "127 Hours." He did a great job playing a mentally ill Harry Osborn in "Spider-Man 3," a role that required him to play several characters in one: a hateful Harry seeking revenge against Peter Parker for the death of his father; a post-knockout, amnesiac Harry who reverts to a wide-eyed, naive, "Regarding Henry"-style personality; a Harry with restored memory who manages to let go of his misguided hatred before dying. I also found Franco hilarious in the stoner flick "Pineapple Express" (strangely un-reviewed on this blog) and just as funny (with the same comedy team) in both "This Is the End" and "The Interview." Why the hatred? Do people think Franco is a bad actor? Are they seeing something I'm not?

2017's "The Disaster Artist" is directed by Franco. A glance at his filmography shows that this is by far not his directorial debut. Along with directing, Franco produces and stars in what I'd call a loving tribute to Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious Eastern European who came to America, dodging questions about his age, his origins, and the size of his apparently enormous bank account, with the dream of making it big in Hollywood. Wiseau's problem: he suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, i.e., from an inaccurate (and overly positive) assessment of his own talents and abilities. Plenty of us suffer from this effect, so beware laughing at Tommy Wiseau: the beam in your eye may be much larger than the speck in his. While taking an acting class (in one of many surprise cameos, the teacher is played by none other Melanie Griffith), Wiseau meets the underconfident Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, brother of James, whom I recently saw in the Jump Street movies), a timid guy who nevertheless aspires to make it big in Hollywood. Greg is wowed by Tommy's fearlessness, despite Tommy's strange accent and weird approach to acting. Greg hits Tommy up for acting advice, and the two become friends. Not long after visiting the crash site of James Dean, the two decide (well, Tommy decides, and Greg follows) to head to Los Angeles, where Tommy maintains a largish flat thanks to his mysteriously vast supplies of money. Greg seems to do well at first: he acquires an agent (Sharon Stone!) and seems to have a promising future based primarily on his looks. Tommy, meanwhile, is unable to acquire an agent, and his various auditions and classes go poorly. Greg ends up getting little to no work from his agent, and during a pensive moment on a rooftop, he floats the idea to Tommy: why not make our own movie?

Tommy lights up, and the movie shifts into its second phase, becoming something like a documentary about the making of Tommy Wiseau's breakout film, "The Room." People acquainted with Hollywood lore know that 2003's "The Room" (which I have yet to see) is now considered one of the absolute worst movies in history—choppy, uneven, directionless, and unprofessionally made. This section of "The Disaster Artist" goes meta: not only is it a film about a film, but Tommy insists on having a crew member document the making of "The Room," thus creating another film-within-a-film. During production, some of the cast and crew quickly become mutinous and are in constant danger of walking off the set, but Greg is there to placate wounded egos and to smooth things over. By the end of filmmaking ("Day 58 of 40," says one title card), even Greg has had enough of Tommy, who obviously knows nothing about making movies. Nevertheless, "The Room" ends up having a modest premiere thanks to Tommy's unlimited funds; all that remains is to gauge the audience's reaction to the finished product. Greg, who has moved on to a career in theater after parting ways with Tommy, gets roped into seeing the premiere.

"The Disaster Artist" features James Franco doing a sustained Tommy Wiseau impression. During the ending credits, we viewers are treated to a shot-by-shot comparison between Franco's version of "The Room" and Wiseau's original film. Most of the actions and line deliveries are uncannily precise; even though the actors in these scenes are completely different, one gets the eerie feeling that one is somehow watching the same movie, just slightly skewed. Franco himself is spot-on with Wiseau's bizarrely mushy accent ("What accent?" Wiseau asks defiantly when people call him on his verbal quirks) and his physicality. This all comes to a hilarious culmination when, at the very end of the end credits, we're treated to a nighttime rooftop party scene in which the real Tommy Wiseau, playing the part of "Henry," encounters James Franco's Tommy Wiseau. This could be the meeting of long-lost twin brothers, and it's played to hilarious effect as the two needle each other.

"The Disaster Artist" brought in a lot of familiar faces. There are hints of Robert Altman in Franco's film: the star-powered cameos laced throughout the movie simultaneously ground the film in reality while making it surreal (these cameos include, but aren't limited to, Bryan Cranston, JJ Abrams, Kristen Bell, Keegan-Michael Key, Danny McBride, Kevin Smith, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, and Judd Apatow). Seth Rogen gets special mention in his role as the eternally frustrated (but happy to be paid) script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who often ends up being the only adult in the room whenever Tommy throws a tantrum. Dave Franco, despite being James's real-life brother, looks different enough from James to play the role of Tommy's "best" friend Greg (the movie is based on Greg Sestero's book, also titled The Disaster Artist).

Ultimately, the movie showcases a uniquely American cultural trope: the triumph of lameness. As the movie's end-title cards inform us, Wiseau's horrific film has since become a cult classic, earning money through special screenings across the country. Whether Wiseau himself is self-aware enough to understand the nature of his success is another matter entirely; the movie shows us that the man is an enigma, and he's also not very well moored to reality. Is the movie a cautionary tale about the power of insanity as a means to success, or is it a warning to aspiring actors and filmmakers that the success you eventually get won't be the success you wished for? It's hard to say, but "The Disaster Artist" is a great showcase for James Franco's acting and directorial talents. It's a hilarious film, and a fine tribute to one of the weirdest personalities ever to end up on American shores.

l'exode des Juifs français continue

Depressing news-that-isn't-news: Jews continue to leave France in significant numbers, thanks largely to Muslim (and native) antisemitism. Here are the stories of three of them, now settled in New York City and not looking back.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri": review


Watching a string of films can often lead to déjà vu when cast members from previous films show up in the film you're currently watching. This was the case for me when I watched "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" last night: Peter Dinklage has a minor-but-crucial role in this film; I just saw him in "The Station Agent." And I just saw Caleb Landry Jones (Banshee in "X-Men: First Class") in "The Florida Project."

People seem to be coming away from 2017's "Three Billboards" with very different takes on what the movie is and is about. For some, this film is highly religious; for others, this movie isn't religious but is quite humanistic. Religious-studies student that I am, I fall on the side of religious, but mainly because I see certain religious themes, not religious allegory, as the above-linked Andrew Klavan does (Klavan sees Woody Harrelson's character, Police Chief Willoughby, as a stand-in for a harsh-but-merciful God).

"Three Billboards," directed by Martin McDonagh, is largely the story of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, looking bleak and angry), a mother with a son named Robbie (Lucas Hedges, recently seen in "Lady Bird," come to think of it) and a teenaged daughter named Angela (Kathryn Newton). When the movie begins, Angela has been dead for seven months: she was raped and killed by a still-unknown assailant, and the police have said nothing to Mildred during that time. Fed up with the silence, which Mildred perceives as lazy inaction, the angry mother sells her ex-husband's truck and puts down money to set up a three-part message on three billboards just outside of town along a little-used road. The billboards say:

• Raped While Dying
• And Still No Arrests?
• How Come, Chief Willoughby?

While the townspeople understand Mildred's grief, they are incensed by what they see as an extremely unfair accusation bordering on libel. Chief Willoughby, a kind individual, wonders how Mildred can be so harsh even though the police chief is known to be dying of pancreatic cancer. Mildred fires back by saying the billboards wouldn't be as effective if she were to put them up after the chief had "croaked."

Working alongside Willoughby is his team of cops, including Jason Dixon (normally trim Sam Rockwell with a shocking beer gut and fat ass), a dim-bulb good ol' boy who is casually racist, and who may or may not have tortured a black suspect once. Dixon wants the billboards taken down because he sees them as impugning the whole police department, but given the careful wording of the text on the billboards ("How come, Chief Willoughby?" is a question, which is hard to paint as libel), no legal action can be taken to bring the signs down.

Mildred's son Robbie, meanwhile, is suffering from depression and bouts of anger. He's embarrassed by his mother's behavior, and it's implied that he's being teased at school. Chief Willoughby has a family, too: his wife Anne (Abbie Cornish) and their two little daughters. Anne is a marginal presence in the film at first, but she gradually moves toward the center after a series of terrible events.

The events start small. Willoughby brings Mildred in after Mildred has an altercation with the dentist, using the dentist's drill to puncture his thumbnail after he starts talking about how the townspeople sympathize with Chief Willoughby. Mildred deftly points out to Chief Willoughby that there were no witnesses to what exactly happened inside the dental clinic, meaning it's the dentist's word against hers. Someone burns down the words posted on the three billboards (the arsonist turns out to be Mildred's abusive ex Charlie [John Hawkes], who is now dating an empty-headed nineteen-year-old named Penelope [Samara Weaving]), and after Chief Willoughby accidentally coughs blood onto Mildred during her interrogation, he decides to spend a day of celebration with his wife and family before shooting himself in the head inside the family's horse stable.

Everything changes at this point. The town is ready to blame Mildred for Chief Willoughby's death, as they feel her billboards (which she has had restored because the original build crew kept spare images) pushed the chief to suicide. The police officers under Willoughby, including the oafish Dixon, are devastated at the news of his death, and the station's ambiance changes once Willoughby's replacement, the decidedly black Chief Abercrombie, steps in and immediately fires Dixon. Another catalyst for change throughout the town comes in the form of a set of letters that Chief Willoughby had written just before his suicide. One letter goes to his wife Anne, in which he expresses his love for her, his desire to spare her the agony of his deterioration through cancer, and his hope that she will remember and cherish their final family outing together. A second letter goes to Mildred, in which he tells her that his suicide has nothing to do with the billboards, and that he paid $5000 to keep her messages up another month because he was amused at the thought that she would have to deal with the townspeople's ire. A third and final letter goes to Dixon, whom Willoughby calls a basically good man who needs to learn that, if he truly wishes to become a detective, he needs to have love in his heart. Dixon is deeply moved by this message, but unfortunately, he reads it while inside the darkened police station at the very moment when Mildred has decided to torch the place with Molotov cocktails. Dixon manages to escape the inferno with severe burns and with Angela Hayes's case file: he is now determined to solve the murder.

Where the movie goes after these crucial turning points is something I'd rather not spoil, even though I know I've already revealed two-thirds of the film. Is the movie religious in tone? I think it is: it deals with questions like justice, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. It even brings up something akin to the ancient religious idea of the scapegoat—that onto which the sins and anger of a village are piled before the scapegoat is run out of town.

Speaking of tone: "Three Billboards" is being listed as a drama, but the dialogue and situations are often hilarious. I began to wonder, while I was watching the movie, whether the story was meant to be some sort of black comedy. I'd call the movie more of a dramedy than a drama. In line with that, I was impressed by the comic timing of everyone involved: Frances McDormand is hilariously biting; Woody Harrelson makes us smile with his mixture of kindness and cynicism; Sam Rockwell, who has the thankless task of playing a Northerner's stereotype of a Southerner, comes off as comically tone-deaf until the moment he has his metanoia. There's been some controversy about the change that comes over Rockwell's Dixon, but I think the controversy has to do with whether you can imagine people changing or not. People who can't imagine such a deep change occurring will have trouble with Dixon.

Although I was left a bit confused by the movie's tone, I appreciated its mature openness to interpretation. The story can be approached from many different angles, and like the dark-side tree/cave in "The Empire Strikes Back," what you take out of the experience of watching "Three Billboards" has everything to do with what you take with you into the experience. Overall, I found the movie a worthwhile view—thought-provoking, heartfelt, populated with colorful characters, and worthy of discussion with close friends.

drip, drip, drip

There was a knock on my door around 10PM tonight. When I opened the door, a nondescript Korean gent took one look at me and said in Korean, "Uh... is there a Korean person that I can talk to?" "Talking to me is fine," I said in Korean. The man explained that my downstairs neighbors have complained that a leak from my bathroom is dripping down into their bathroom, and that this seems to be happening every time I use the shower, not the toilet. I let the man in and allowed him to inspect my bathroom. In the end, he said he'd be back later, probably with a crew, to make any repairs. In the meantime, he awkwardly requested that I not use the shower for the next little while. I told him that would be fine; I can simply take sponge baths for the next few days if necessary (I don't know the Korean way to say "take a sponge bath," so I simply made up the verb seupeonji-baesseu-hada on the spot; he understood). This would be like camping.

Once the man left, I wryly reflected on the fact that living in an old building is a bit like the aging process itself: one thing goes wrong, and when you repair it, something else goes wrong. It wasn't that long ago that I was having my own leak-from-above problem, which turned out to have originated a couple floors above me, affecting my circuit breaker. Yup: getting old is about constantly putting out fires until, one day, the fire gets you.

KMA leaves me in the lurch

If all had gone well, I would have taught a KMA class today, but at the beginning of the week, I got a text message saying my class had been canceled for lack of registrants. February would have been the first of eight or nine KMA sessions this year, so this doesn't augur well for me, especially since, last year, I taught only three of nine scheduled sessions. "Get used to disappointment," as the Man in Black said.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Korea hates a free market

There are times when I think Korea has pockets of pure, raw capitalism that put the American version of capitalism to shame. A foray into Namdaemun Market, where the marketing is in-your-face (you've got actual guys standing on carts, shouting down at you) and the prices are generally negotiable, is proof enough of that. But when the Korean zeal for capitalism intersects with Korean xenophobia, Koreans feel a sudden need to roll back the free market in favor of a less free, more protectionistic stance that drives out foreign competition. I think Koreans secretly fear what might happen if they opened the South Korean market to foreign products and services: they'd have their asses handed to them. While Koreans are perfectly capable of global-level quality (see Korea's IT sector, for example, or its car and shipbuilding industries), quite a few companies, farms, and other entities crank out crappy, substandard goods and services that would never be able to compete on the global stage. I see this all the time in my everyday life: poorly made kitchen utensils and plasticware, easily worn-out clothing, shoddy wiring and plumbing inside older (and newer!) buildings, and so on.

As I've written before, Koreans tend to Koreanize. When the ride service Uber tried to penetrate the Korean market, Koreans responded by creating the Kakao Taxi app (now known more generically as Kakao T), which operates in a way that's similar to Uber. Rather than allowing in foreign competitors, Koreans would rather reinvent the wheel, thus permitting them (1) to feel a certain nationalistic pride in knowing that they are capable to creating a version of someone else's product/service and (2) to keep the foreign invader outside the safe space of the peninsula. As I mentioned in the above-linked post, when Doritos came to Korea, Koreans immediately set about creating their own triangular, faux-cheesy corn chips. While Korea didn't kick Doritos out of the market, the country did ensure that Doritos would never get as large of a market share as it desired. The old iRiver was a response to the iPod, and Samsung is constantly creating new cell phones to compete with the Apple iPhone. Sometimes, when a foreign product or service enters the Korean market, it does well enough to stomp the Korean competition: we almost never hear about CyWorld these days, thanks to the amazing success of Facebook in the Land of the Morning Calm, and while Samsung cell phones have a huge market share in Korea, so do Apple iPhones.

By closing itself off from the world, Korea betrays and underserves its own consumers: Korean electronics are of high quality, for example, but they cost about twice as much as the exact same products in the United States (you read that right: a Samsung HDTV might cost 2X in Korea while costing only X in the States). I've heard of Korean families who visit the US and make their electronics purchases there, despite voltage-compatibility issues (we use 110V sockets; Koreans, like Europeans, follow a 220V standard). From a consumer's point of view, Uber would have been a cheaper option than regular Korean taxis, but Uber is now gone, having been successfully shooed out of the ROK.

This article, however, suggests that taxi drivers may have something new to worry about: ride-share services that are home-grown. Joe McPherson gleefully tweeted that this is karma coming back around to bite this sector of the market:

For every asshole taxi driver that refused a ride, refused to stop, drove away as I was opening a door, tried to cheat me, or even stopped to argue with a bus driver while the fare was running--Karma's a bitch, huh?

I'm with Joe on this. I feel a certain amount of Schadenfreude because, like Joe, I've had to put up with my share of taxi-ajeossi rudeness over the years. True, I've written before that my experience with taxis hasn't been terrible in Korea, but this isn't to say that it's been perfect. I still get the occasional driver who ignores my attempts to flag him down; in such moments, I wish I had a gun to shoot out the fucker's car tires.

What's interesting is what the article says about the taxi lobby in Korea: it's vociferous and energetic—this despite the fact that the average age of a Seoul cabbie is now sixty. Step into any given taxi, and it's likely that an old man is driving it. As energetic as this lobby might be, if the average age of taxi drivers is that high, then we're looking at a dying breed, and taxis will eventually have to make way for other ride-service paradigms.

Like it or not, the free market won't be silenced, and it's a delicious irony that, given Korea's constant, desperate efforts to shut out foreign intrusion into the peninsular market, Adam Smith's invisible hand has nevertheless arisen from within to bitch-slap a sector of South Korea's economy. Ha! I wish Luxi and Poolus, the new ride-sharing services, great success.

ululate (belatedly)!

Iconic televangelist and enemy of gay marriage Billy Graham has died. He was 99. Passing into parinirvana on February 21, Graham leaves behind a legacy of Christian proselytizing that has spanned the entire globe. Despite claiming to reject the mixing of politics and religion, Graham nevertheless found himself frequently in the halls of political power, acting as a spiritual advisor to US presidents, giving the benediction at their inaugurations, and even railing against communism. When the Nixon tapes were released, Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon that leftist Jews held the levers of media power, and that this "stranglehold" needed to be broken. Many Jews, upon hearing this, felt betrayed: they had viewed Graham as a friend. Graham survived this PR disaster, growing his ministry into a multibillion-dollar behemoth. His son Franklin, who has taken over the reins since Graham's retirement in 2005, is even more religiously conservative than his father.

I note the passing of Billy Graham mainly because it's big news to other people. The man never affected my personal life, and I'm automatically chary of all televangelism. The Graham family's stance against gay marriage is disappointing, but I won't begrudge the family, or its ministry, the good it has done in terms of other charity work. The century of Billy Graham is now over, so it's only apropos to offer the man a tribute in song:

a glimpse of evil

I started reading this story about Jamison Bachman, who perfectly fits the M. Scott Peck profile for evil,* and was riveted. (Hat tip to Dr. V.)

*I discuss Peck's notion of evil in this entry on "Breaking Bad."

Thursday, February 22, 2018

the gods are against me

I had been waiting for "Thor: Ragnarok" to appear on home video; it was scheduled to appear on iTunes this past February 20, and it did indeed show up... but only the HD version of the movie was on sale. This happens rather frequently: while some movies' HD and SD (high-definition and standard-definition) versions go on sale at the same time, most of the big-name films will stagger their sales by delaying the arrival of the SD version a couple weeks. This is frustrating for those of us who buy only SD movies (I have a tiny laptop with a tiny screen, so HD is wasted on me), and I had forgotten to factor this inconvenience in when I was waiting for "Ragnarok" to arrive. Alas, the SD version of the movie won't be available until March 6, so I have almost two more weeks to wait. Dammit.

To comfort myself, I have two movies in my iTunes "unwatched" queue: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," and "Darkest Hour," the film about Churchill that stars Gary Oldman under a ton of makeup. Those two films will have to do for now.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

interesting exchange

Paul Joseph Watson and Milo Yiannopoulos have a friendly exchange about the current, post-Parkland political climate before segueing to a conversation about "Black Panther" and Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris." See here:

Milo's point that elements on the left are now agitating for violent revolution while also agitating for gun control puts the focus on a particular brand of stupidity. The fact is that, if things do get violent, only one side has been buying all the guns.

"The more they overthink the plumbing..."

I'm eating an American breakfast for lunch today, so I ran downstairs to our office building's basement grocery and bought a tiny bottle of pancake syrup. The bottle's cap looks like this:

As you see, the idea is to give you a choice between pee-trickle and diarrhea-torrent. That's a lot of design work for a tiny bottle of syrup that'll be empty in just a few squeezes.

how not to argue your case

Seen on Gab this morning:

The above image is part of a larger conservative response to the renewed cry for gun control, etc., by the US left in the wake of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day. The right's multi-pronged response, in answer to various leftist slings and arrows, has varied in argumentative and rhetorical legitimacy. The above text and graphic together form, in my opinion, an example of bad argumentation. Taken in context, the not-so-subtle subtext of the above post is, "You think school shootings are bad? Let's put this in perspective: UN-related rapes are far worse, being both more numerous and occurring within a much shorter time frame." The problem, of course, is that this "argument" does nothing to address the severity of the Parkland massacre, or of school shootings in general. There are arguments that the right can make (and has made) regarding gun control, and I've already seen a few (here's one), but the above is not one of them. Just as one can't evade an accusation of wrongdoing by saying, "But they're worse," one can't dismiss gun violence on school property by saying "UN rapes are worse." How does one compare shooting deaths and mass rape, anyway?

ADDENDUM: gun-buying and fake news. It'd be nice to be able to arrest the reporter for lying. And: more lies re: ease of gun-buying.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Great skit about what it's like when a millennial goes in for a job interview:

Lord, may this never be me

Farty passenger refuses to stop farting, starts fight, and causes emergency landing.

opening soon: my local branch of the Church of Seitan

The term seitan (pronounced \ˈseɪtæn\ or \seɪˈta:n\—pretty much any way except "Satan") refers to a meat substitute composed primarily of vital wheat gluten (this is what remains when you take wheat flour and remove all the starch). This makes seitan verboten for the gluten-intolerant, and with the carb content of vital wheat gluten at 14 g per 100 g, it's not the most Atkins-friendly diet choice out there. That said, I've always been fascinated by meat substitutes, and when seitan blipped onto my radar, I knew I'd have to make some.

Based on the videos I've seen of how to make seitan, the purpose of this meat substitute is to provide, as closely as possible, the experience of eating meat for vegans who have only recently become vegan, or for vegetarians who are suffering a rare craving for meat. Seitan makes no sense for dedicated vegans who are militantly anti-meat. On its own, the faux meat is neutral-tasting, so it needs to be flavored up if it's to simulate beef or pork or chicken in a given dish.

The first time I saw seitan was in this Sorted Food video in which Chef Ben Ebbers goes to a local veggie resto and orders a seitan dish or three. Chef Ben consistently mispronounces the food's name as "Satan," but the gaffe works within the corny context of the video (which also features Ben innocently using the queasy term "nut cheese"; he's known for what his friends call "Bennuendos"). Since watching Ben's video, I've watched a slew of how-to videos about ways to prepare seitan brisket, seitan gyros, seitan corned beef, and even seitan bulgogi cheesesteak. I'm most interested in making seitan gyros, which shouldn't be too hard to craft. If I do this right, I plan to make gyros for my office, half with real meat (the standard beef/lamb mixture used in Greek-American restos), and half with seitan.

Thanks to, I've ordered most of the ingredients I need to make a huge slab of seitan lamb (Lamb of God, Lamb of Seitan). I've got vital wheat gluten, nutritional yeast, and tamari (a weak, less salty soy sauce that adds umami). There's vegan beef stock on the way, and I still need to buy a bit of tomato paste to add some redness to the "meat." I already have all the herbs and spices I need to flavor everything up in a plausibly lamb-like way, so that's covered. Next, I need to look over all the recipes and get a general idea for the proper proportion for the main ingredients of the seitan. An initial glimpse shows that recipes vary wildly in their gluten:yeast ratios. I saw one recipe calling for two cups of gluten to a third of a cup of yeast; another recipe called for two pounds of gluten to a mere two tablespoons of yeast. Obviously, there's room to maneuver. Seitan prep methods also vary: some steam it; others braise or outright boil it; still others bake it or use some combination of methods.

So, yes: I'll be making artificial lamb sometime over the next few weeks. If the experiment goes well, I'll serve gyros to my boss and coworkers (plus any other potential victims) and see what they have to say. As all the YouTube commenters say: Hail, Seitan!

Monday, February 19, 2018

seen on Gab

Yup—that's the logic in a nutshell. Emphasis on nut.

the muddled world of Michael Keaton

Watch this old interview with Michael Keaton and ask yourself whether the former Batman is... quite coherent in his response to the interviewer.

Word salad. Or something close. I'm tempted to transcribe this.

"The Florida Project": review

[NB: big spoilers.]

"The Florida Project" is a 2017 film co-written by Sean Baker with Chris Bergoch, and directed by Baker. The child cast features Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, and Aiden Malik. The adult cast features Willem Dafoe, Bria Vinaite, Mela Murder(!)(probably pronounced "moor-dair" if it's Latin), Sandy Kane, and Caleb Landry Jones (whom you might remember as Banshee in "X-Men: First Class").

The story is set primarily in the Magic Castle, a cheap* motel full of permanent and semi-permanent residents in Kissimmee, Florida, not far from Disney World. The action is viewed primarily through the eyes of Moonee (Prince), the six-year-old daughter of Halley (pronounced "hey-lee"), who can politely be labeled "white trash." Halley, an inveterate scammer who is not particularly good at what she does, is constantly threatened with losing her rented room by the motel's otherwise kind manager, Bobby (Dafoe). Halley illegally sells cosmetics on other hotels' property; she also steals and resells Disney resort passes in the form of colored wristbands; ultimately, she sells sexual services in her own motel room, hiding Moonee in the bathroom while she turns tricks. Bobby, for his part, spends his days putting out fires: getting rid of bedbug-ridden mattresses, repairing laundry machines, hauling out malfunctioning ice machines, shooing large birds off the property, and kicking off child perverts who like to hang around the nearby playground and try to lure kids in. Harried, overworked, and fighting an ultimately hopeless battle, Bobby is the local saint.

Moonee likes to hang with her friends Scooty (Rivera) and Dicky (Malik); she eventually makes a new friend named Jancey (Cotto) after an incident in which the kids spit on Jancey's grandmother's car from a second-floor walkway. Moonee, largely thanks to her mother, already has a pretty good idea of how to live life as a delinquent: she and her friends (except for Jancey, at least at first) are scammers in training, cutely bumming money off people to be able to buy ice cream ("The doctor said we have asthma, and we have to eat ice cream right away!"), trespassing on private property, turning off the motel's power by sneaking into the utility room, and, in a sinister turn, lighting a fire with a pillow in the fireplace of an abandoned crack house, thereby setting that house and adjacent houses on fire.

Halley and Moonee are sort-of friends with Ashley (Murder), who works at a local restaurant and secretly gives free food to Halley and her daughter. Whatever friendship there is between Halley and Ashley eventually curdles, however, when Ashley finally confronts Halley about her prostitution, and Halley beats Ashley in front of Ashley's son Scooty. One by one, as the kids get in various sorts of trouble, parents begin to forbid their children from hanging with Moonee until only Jancey, a kind-hearted kid, is left. Halley herself is slowly unraveling, resorting to more and more desperate measures to be able to pay the $1000/month rent. While the film feels like a pastiche of seemingly unconnected events, Halley's troubles continue to mount until her ultimate nightmare surfaces and DCF (Florida's Department of Children and Families) swoops in to take Moonee away from Halley.

I'll leave how the movie ends a mystery; it's an interesting solution to the sense of crushing inevitability that accompanies this story of desperate lives that become ever more desperate. Suffice it to say that the conclusion is seen firmly through the eyes of children, and many loose ends are left undone—which is, in the end, what the writers and director were going for.

Willem Dafoe was an unusual choice for this sort of role, but then again, the man has had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood, given his filmography, which includes such movies as "Platoon," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "To Live and Die in L.A.," "American Psycho," "Spider-Man," "Antichrist," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and "John Wick." This movie feels far quieter and less ambitious (it had only a $2 million budget) than any of the ones just mentioned, but despite the smallness of the world portrayed in "The Florida Project," I came away thinking this was some of Dafoe's best work, showcasing what he can do in a mundane situation bereft of cosmic symbolism, pulse-pounding action, sex, and gore.

Given how child-centric this movie is, I was happy to see such talented child actors in front of the camera. Brooklynn Prince is a natural, and so are her child costars. The dialogue, too, is thankfully child-like in nature, not sounding overly stilted or precocious in the over-written way of so much children's dialogue. When the kids say something that they find funny, we laugh too because it's the sort of goofy thing that kids would say to each other, especially when they think no one's listening in. There's not much for me, personally, to relate to in this portrayal of childhood, however: I was a square who never ran around with delinquents, probably because of my basic personality and because of the neighborhood I lived in as a kid. My friends were fellow squares and nerds, all of us bookish and fascinated by questions of history, science, and religion that were way over our heads (and probably still are). That said, I could see that the director did his best to give us an empathetic look at these kids, and even though they're all horrible, in their own ways, toward the neighbors, they're still cute and impossible to hate. Which brings me to an interesting question: what if the casting director had chosen to populate this movie with nothing but butt-ugly kids? I think we'd have had a much different movie on our hands, and I confess I would likely have felt much less sympathy toward the children every time they got in trouble.

As I mentioned earlier, the movie's plot doesn't feel as if it's rolling forward at first; it feels more like a series of aimless vignettes, not so different from the pacing we see in "Lady Bird." But there is a plot, to be sure, and it's given to us as a slow burn, allowing us to watch with mounting dread as Halley, who—despite being a loving mom—has lived as a liar, scammer, and whore up to now, eventually has to deal with her festering karma.

The movie's moral message is subtler than one might think at first. The easy route is to say, smugly, "Thank God I'm not living through that. Thank God I've made better life-choices." But look more deeply, and you can see that the movie is really saying that, in the end, we've all got trouble. We all make bad choices in life, and we all have to deal with the karmic consequences of those choices. Halley (very ably portrayed by Bria Vinaite) might look like white trash, but she's just trying to get by like the rest of us.

According to trivia, the movie's title refers to what Disney World had originally been called: The Florida Project. The fact that such a skanky motel neighborhood exists so close to fantastical Disney World provides us with a painful contrast between an idealized good life and the nasty, gritty real world. And it makes us hope that Moonee and Scooty and Jancey's futures can be much better than it seems they'll be by the film's end.

ADDENDUM: if I'm not mistaken, the entire movie takes place without music until the final sequence. I don't think I even noticed this fact until the music suddenly kicked in. And I also just realized that every character's name ends with an "ee" sound: Bobby, Halley, Moonee, Jancey, Scooty, Ashley, Dicky, etc.

*Cheap per day, at $35, but this adds up to over $1000 per month.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

trans thoughts: redux

I finally put out some thoughts on trans people. See here.

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and "The Station Agent":
two-fer review

Dramedies seem to be my current lot in life. Having just watched the egregiously estrogen-drenched "Lady Bird," I moved on to Taika Waititi's 2016 "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" and 2003's "The Station Agent." I bought "Wilderpeople" on iTunes as part of my ongoing project to understand Taika Waititi's directorial sensibility; "The Station Agent" (purchased via Amazon Prime) was a film recommended by fellow blogger Steve Honeywell, whose movie-review blog you should definitely be reading.

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople," directed by Taika Waititi, stars Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, and Rachel House. The story centers on Ricky Baker, a delinquent orphan who has just turned thirteen, and who is shunted by New Zealand's Child Protective Services to an older couple who live on a farm—an utter contrast to Ricky's heretofore urban-jungle childhood. "Aunt" Bella (Te Wiata) is warm and welcoming toward Ricky; "Uncle" Hec (Neill) is gruff and taciturn, not wanting to have anything to do with the child. Ricky, who is grossly overweight, tries running away a few times, but he never gets far, and Aunt Bella is constantly forgiving, displaying a level of empathy and care that Ricky has never experienced before. Ricky grows accustomed to life on the farm and warms up to Bella's care, even happily celebrating his birthday with the older couple. The plot doesn't really get rolling until Bella's sudden death, which pushes Hec to reject farm life (it was Bella's farm, never his). At the same time, Child Protective Services reasserts itself, telling Hec that Ricky will have to be relocated to a new home. Horrified, Ricky insists on joining Hec on his escape from civilization, and once the two disappear off the grid, a national manhunt lasting several months ensues, during which time Hec and Ricky—and their two dogs, Zig and Tupac—find themselves thrust into a series of wilderness adventures. At this point, having now seen three of Waititi's films, I'd describe the man's humor as wry: while Waititi attempts broad, slapstick comedy in his films, he's best at the sort of low-key moments that made movies like "This Is Spinal Tap" funny (cf. the "This one goes to eleven" scene). "Wilderpeople" has a painfully predictable story arc: you know from the beginning that smartass Ricky and gruff old Hec are going to end up bonding and depending on each other. But despite the predictability, what matters most is the journey, not the destination, and the story proves quite enjoyable, with Hec and Ricky meeting a colorful assortment of characters along the way (Psycho Sam gets special mention). Julian Dennison, while not the greatest child actor I've seen, is good enough to carry his scenes without becoming overly annoying, and it's always good to see the ever-likable Sam Neill in something other than his usual Hollywood roles. A good film, all in all.

"The Station Agent," also a dramedy, stars Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale. Dinklage plays Finbar "Fin" McBride, a quiet, introverted man fascinated by trains. Fin works in a model-train shop in Hoboken, New Jersey, with shop owner Henry Styles (Paul Benjamin), who dies within the first five minutes of the film. Fin learns that Henry, in his will, has left Fin with a small property in Newfoundland, New Jersey, on which sits an abandoned train station, complete with a rickety station house and a single train car. Fin leaves his current digs and immediately moves into the new place, delighted to learn that the location is in the middle of a semi-rural nowhere. His bliss is shattered, however, when he meets Joe Oramas (Cannavale), a young, loud, extraverted food-truck guy who insists on trying to strike up conversations with Fin. Fin also meets Olivia Harris (Clarkson), a frazzled, dotty local artist who nearly kills Fin twice with her SUV when she gets distracted—first by her cell phone, and next by spilled hot coffee. (Fin has no car, so he walks everywhere when he needs supplies). Some of the comedy in "The Station Agent" is situational: Olivia visits Fin one evening to give him a bottle of wine to apologize for nearly killing him. When she spends the night on his couch and leaves the next morning, Joe—whose food truck is always parked by Fin's residence—thinks that she and Fin have already begun sleeping together. Fin also catches the attention of the young local librarian (Michelle Williams, looking incredibly goofy and clueless in 2003, a far cry from the mature woman she played in "Manchester by the Sea"), so through no fault of his own, he's gaining a reputation (with Joe, at least) as the local dwarf stud. As the film progresses, the three older main characters begin to open up to each other, letting each other into their complicated lives, exposing raw nerves and forming friendships. Joe has the shallowest character arc, given that he doesn't change much; Fin and Olivia, both withdrawn and troubled in their own ways, have further to go when it comes to reaching out. Olivia is in need of healing: she's still processing the death of her son from two years before; Fin, as a dwarf, has taken to living a reclusive life and being guarded with people in general. I was expecting a louder, zanier comedy than what I actually got with "The Station Agent," but in the end, I enjoyed this quiet, thoughtful movie about the blossoming of friendship and everyone's need, on some level, for human connection. The acting, especially Clarkson's, is great all around, and the story sends a clear message without being overly preachy about it. This is a mark of good screenwriting. "The Station Agent" tells a good story deftly, and that's about all you can ask for in a movie.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

blacksmith nerdery

I've been watching a lot of blacksmith channels on YouTube. Watching these guys forge blades is utterly fascinating; I regress back into my "Sesame Street"-watching childhood self and enjoy this glimpse into some very complicated processes. Another channel, to which I'm subscribed, is called Skallagrim; the host is a Norwegian-Canadian involved with HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts); he regularly tests and reviews blades on his channel. In the embedded video below, Skallagrim visits two blacksmiths and engages in—for me, at least—a riveting conversation about so-called "Damascus steel" (in "Game of Thrones," the equivalent is "Valyrian steel," which was originally forged using methods long since lost). This term is applied to various types of steel and has a somewhat legendary aura about it that has led to many modern misconceptions. The two blacksmiths do a good job of setting us straight, and they even show off some of their own Damascus-steel products. Enjoy.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Happy New Year!

It's now the Year of the Dawg.

(This is my brother's dog Penny.)

"Lady Bird": one-paragraph review

"Lady Bird" (2017) is a family dramedy written and directed by Greta Gerwig, starring Saoirse* Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Lois Smith. The story centers on Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Ronan), a high-school senior in 2002 who has an adversarial relationship with her mother (Metcalf), an overworked medical professional. Lady Bird—as she prefers to be called—wants to escape what she feels is a suffocating life in Sacramento. She wants to study at an East Coast college, but her mother doesn't want her to go so far away, preferring that she attend college at UC Davis, and telling Lady Bird that she has little chance of making it into East Coast schools, anyway. The story follows Lady Bird's typically turbulent teenage life as she switches cliques (abandoning her best friend Julie [Feldstein]), pranks an old nun in her Catholic school (Smith), and moves from one boyfriend to another, losing her virginity in the process. We gets scenes from high-school life, scenes at home with Lady Bird and her mother going after each other while Lady Bird's father (Letts) watches quietly, and finally, scenes of Lady Bird leaving the nest on the way to meet her future. Gerwig's directorial style for this film is part John Hughes, part Wes Anderson. The plot is choppily laid out in a series of almost jump-cut vignettes, and the dialogue varies from stilted and writerly to comfortably natural. The story goes for authenticity and not realism: there are scenes and dialogue portraying moments that I can relate to, despite the fact that the characters aren't acting in a natural, realistic way. The humor woven throughout what is generally a rather melancholy film varies from cheeky, improv-like moments to something much more muted. In all—and no disrespect to Saoirse Ronan and the rest of the bast—I thought this was an insufferable film, and I had trouble liking the character of Lady Bird, who is congenitally dishonest, unnecessarily rebellious, and overall plain difficult to be around for most of the movie's run time. Lady Bird doesn't really change much until the very end of the story, when she's starting to get a taste of being out on her own. That change comes a little late for my taste, but I doubt I could have structured the story any better than Gerwig did. I'll give this film a flat thumbs-down: I saw it once and won't see it again. Watch it if you have a high tolerance for the tendency of some women to manufacture conflict and over-dramatize.

*"Saoirse" is a good Irish name. Pronounce it "sair-shuh" (not "say-oh-eer-say," as I would have said it). It means freedom. Ronan has both Irish and American citizenship, which probably explains why she sounds so convincingly American: she is American.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"What We Do in the Shadows": brief review

It's been a while since I've watched a mockumentary (1984's "This Is Spinal Tap" is probably the previous one), but because "Thor: Ragnarok" had made me curious about the résumé of director Taika Waititi, I decided I needed to go back and see some of Waititi's previous directorial work. To that end, I purchased 2015's "What We Do in the Shadows" (co-directed with Jemaine Clement) and 2016's "Hunt for the Wilderpeople." I still haven't watched the latter, but a few days ago, I took in the former. "Shadows" is a comic documentary about four vampires who are flatmates living in Wellington, New Zealand. The movie stars Taika Waititi himself as Viago, a prissy and frou-frou vampire; Jemaine Clement as regal-but-tacky Vladislav ("Vlad the Poker"); Jonathan Brugh as Deacon, a vampire convinced of his studly charm; and Ben Fransham as Petyr, a taciturn, 8000-year-old vampire who looks somewhere between the classic cinematic Nosferatu and the TV version of Stephen King's Barlow.

Followed around by a documentary crew, the vampires give us a look into their weird, modern-day existence, which is about what you'd expect if you've watched any vampire movies before: prowling at night, selecting victims, transforming into bats, hissing a lot, being rejected from nightclubs (harsh because vampires need to be invited in), sharing household chores like dishwashing (Deacon has been negligent for years—hssssssss), being unable to see reflections in mirrors (which makes primping difficult), and mistreating familiars, who slave away in the hopes of eventually receiving eternal life. Three of the four vampires are fairly talkative; only ancient Petyr says nothing. Things change for the group when Jackie, Deacon's familiar, brings over her ex Nick, whom the group is supposed to kill and feast upon. Nick escapes the flat but is tackled and blood-sucked by Petyr; Nick comes back to the group, now a vampire, with his human friend Stu in tow, and further shenanigans ensue.

All in all, I found "Shadows" funny, but not gut-bustingly so. This doesn't make the movie a disappointment, but it does give me an idea of both the Kiwi sense of humor and Taika Waititi's sensibility as both an actor and a director. Tapping Waititi to direct a huge tentpole flick like "Thor: Ragnarok" seems like a bit of a stretch given how small-scale and low-budget "Shadows" is, but Marvel gambled and made an excellent choice. It's important to keep in mind that Peter Jackson, pre-LOTR, was making little comedies like "The Frighteners." Everyone has to start somewhere. Anyway, "Shadows" is good fun if you're in for a chuckle. All the vampire (and werewolf, and zombie) tropes are there, and are mostly played for laughs, especially whenever there's spraying blood involved.

"Black Panther": review

[ATTENTION: mild spoilers.]

2018's "Black Panther" has been miscalled many things. Some have claimed it to be the first superhero movie to feature a main character who is royalty, but "Thor" arguably trod that territory, and "Wonder Woman" definitely gave us a bona fide princess. Some have it called it the first superhero movie to feature a black superhero, but the Blade films all went there first, along with plenty of others. Quite frankly, "Black Panther" doesn't break any molds or shift any paradigms. What it is is an entertaining adventure story about a just-crowned king and his fabulously rich country, the fictional land of Wakanda, which seems to sit a bit above Malawi.

The film, directed by Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Andy Serkis. The story centers on T'Challa (Boseman), who has only recently lost his father T'Chaka (John Kani) in a bombing attack seen in the events of "Captain America: Civil War." T'Challa is returning home to become king of his native Wakanda, a land made rich and prosperous by the fortuitous presence of the substance vibranium, which arrived on Earth eons ago via meteor. Five major tribes in the region of the meteor's impact ended up warring over the precious metal until one among their number ate the "heart-shaped herb," a vibranium-infused plant that granted the eater superhuman powers. This man became the first Black Panther, and he united the warring tribes until one tribe, the Jabari, rejected the Black Panther's rule and went its own way, forsaking the path toward modernization that vibranium made possible.

T'Challa picks up his ex-lover Nakia (Nyong'o) on the way to his coronation,* taking her away from a mission to halt human trafficking in Nigeria. At the coronation, T'Challa faces M'Baku (Duke), the Jabari chieftain who challenges T'Challa's right to assume the mantle of king. T'Challa beats M'Baku in ritual combat, sparing M'Baku's life by entreating the Jabari to yield instead of choosing death. Meanwhile, in London, Erik Stevens, who goes by the nickname Killmonger (Jordan), steals some ancient vibranium from a museum. Killmonger works with Ulysses Klaue (Serkis), who has arranged to sell Killmonger's stolen vibranium in Busan, South Korea. Killmonger's ultimate goal is to challenge T'Challa for the throne: although he grew up in America and became a murderous black-ops soldier, Killmonger is originally a son of Wakandan royalty—and is, fact, T'Challa's long-lost cousin.

The movie gives us some exciting fight scenes and car chases, plus more than a glimpse of Wakanda's amazingly advanced technology, which blows away anything the much-more-mechanistic Tony Stark has created. Most of that tech comes courtesy of Princess Shuri (Wright), T'Challa's bright, sassy, and wicked-smaht little sister—the Q or Tony Stark of this movie. We also get some insights into one of Wakanda's central dilemmas: it has tried to keep its prosperity a secret in order to preserve its way of life: opening up to the world and sharing its vibranium-based technology could mean the pollution or dissolution of Wakandan culture, which all of the nation's previous kings have been at pains to preserve. The film also allows us a few peeks into the Djalia, the realm of the elders, a plane of existence populated by panther-spirits (and perhaps the panther god Bast) who are actually the king's ancestors. And in terms of action versus dialogue, the film gives us generous helpings of both: this is as much a talky movie as it is an action-thriller.

I had two concerns going into this film: first, world-building. Wakanda has been mentioned in previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, but only obliquely. Before the release of "Black Panther," we already knew of the existence of vibranium, the metal of which Captain America's weirdly behaving shield is made. We also already knew that the metal came from Wakanda, but beyond that, we knew nothing about the mysterious African nation. My second concern had to do with the overarching moral implications arising from the existence of such a fantastical nation. Sadly, in our real world, Wakanda doesn't—and probably can't—exist. There is no over-powered African supernation, but the movie enjoins us to ponder the counterfactual: what if there were such a country? What would its duty to the world be?

To his credit, Coogler does a fine job of both building out this new world and wrestling with the moral questions that come of being a rich, powerful nation that hesitates to help the rest of the earth. The movie fairly represents both the isolationist and the outreach-oriented points of view, and during the end-credits scene, it comes to a definite decision as to how Wakanda now views its future vis-à-vis the planet. As for the world-building: we get sweeping views of one of Wakanda's large cities and vibranium mines, as well as shots of the more pastoral parts of the country that, up to now, have served as a front to mask the fact that Wakanda is unimaginably rich, hidden behind a holographic dome of glamour reminiscent of the magic dome that hides Themyscira in "Wonder Woman." I enjoyed the amount of effort that Coogler and his team had placed on fleshing out this world, which came to feel real to me. Wakandan culture, a fictional product, thoroughly infuses the film: even Wakandan ships look like African masks when viewed from above. My only regret is that there is no real focus on Wakandan cuisine, aside from a quick shot or two of street food on the grill. But costumes, pageantry, ritual, politics, open markets, architecture, and mysticism—the rest of it is all there, and despite all the detail, the movie doesn't feel overstuffed. Hats off to Coogler and the screenwriters for performing a fairly deft balancing act.

As you can imagine, the movie is being endlessly discussed for its political overtones. There's a line at the end of the film to the effect that the wise build bridges while the unwise build barriers. This is an obvious dig at the let's-build-a-great-wall policies of A Certain Sitting US President, and this echoes the sentiment of T'Challa's dour head of security, W'Kabi (Kaluuya), who says earlier on that "immigrants bring their problems in with them." I find this a perfectly reasonable concern, but W'Kabi ends up being a sort-of bad guy, which is probably why he is given that line: all bad guys hate immigrants—duh. There are also moments in the film that hint at racial tension caused by the oppression of blacks throughout the world, and even the normally friendly Shuri takes a stab at lily-white CIA agent Everett Ross (Freeman) when she calls him "Colonizer!"—doubtless an applause line in cinemas with mostly black audiences. (Shuri also jokes, when the injured Ross is brought into a Wakandan medical facility, that she's delighted to be given "another broken white boy" to mend.)

So the film doesn't shy away from politics, but I'm torn about what sort of message "Black Panther" might be sending to black communities throughout the world. On the one hand, it's healthy to hold up a positive ideal, to tell the story of a nation that originally got lucky when vibranium arrived on Earth, but which—through its own effort and will—parlayed that richness into something truly great on a national scale. To that extent, the message that "we can lift ourselves up" is a good one. However, this message comes through the vehicle of what is essentially a pious fantasy: in the final analysis, Wakanda isn't real, so while its image on the silver screen might be momentarily uplifting, once the movie ends, the harsh reality of there being no Wakanda in real life must descend again on the populace. I've already seen expressions of black pride (and, ironically, the sort of ethno-nationalism that would be called Naziesque if this movie's color palette had been flipped to all white), and here again, I'm torn: the pride, in this case, is pride in a chimera.

Whatever its political dimensions, the film, while good, isn't perfect. Without getting too deeply into spoilers, I can say that I thought the final battle sequence was a bit over the top given the armored beasts that implausibly ride into battle (although I did laugh when one beast provided us with a humorous moment), and I also saw a couple plot holes (e.g., how did Killmonger get his superpowered battle suit while Shuri was telling T'Challa that Killmonger must not access Wakandan tech?**—and why didn't Black Panther's suit produce another kinetic-energy burst during Klaue's extraction scene?). The film's biggest problem is that there's no fundamental suspense: if you've been following the online scuttlebutt about MCU movies appearing soon, then you already know that Black Panther will be in the upcoming (also this year) "Avengers: Infinity War, Part I." Actor Chadwick Boseman has said that he's got a five-movie contract with Marvel, so as with Jack Bauer in "24," we know the Black Panther won't be dying anytime soon.

Those complaints aside, I have nothing but praise for Coogler's direction (the man has the chops to do a Peter Jackson-style epic; to be sure, "Black Panther" contains many epic moments), the movie's cinematography, the storytelling, and of course, the acting. Among the cast are some very respectable thespians: Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, and Isaach de Bankolé all make appearances. Special mention goes to the lovely and physically formidable Danai Gurira as Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje, who are this universe's female equivalent of the Kingsguard in A Song of Ice and Fire. Also of note: Lupita Nyong'o's cute attempt at speaking Korean during the Busan scene. The Korean audience I was with laughed when she began speaking—whether out of surprise, amusement, scorn, or respect is a mystery. Nyong'o has a strong accent, but her Korean is a good bit more understandable than Jim Carrey's was in his movie "Yes Man." As others have been pointing out, the film's musical score and soundtrack are worthy of purchasing; there's a good mix of rap (including Korean rap) and primal-sounding percussion, as well as a few soaring orchestral moments. "Black Panther" is a visual and auditory treat. The movie capably tells a good story, and while the film lacks suspense, I think you'll find yourself thoroughly engaged.

*I use the term "coronation" loosely, as the ceremony involves no actual crowns. "Throne-ascension ceremony" might be more precise, but that doesn't roll trippingly off the tongue.

**If you're not clear on what my problem is here, let me try to explain. In this moment of the film, Shuri is desperate to let her big brother know that Killmonger is on the loose in Wakanda, and that he could get access to all sorts of tech, given that he had assumed the Wakandan throne after fighting T'Challa. Shuri's choice of verb tense indicates she isn't aware that Killmonger has gotten any tech at all. Shuri is, however, so thoroughly teched up herself that she really ought to be able to tell, via some device on her person, whether Killmonger actually has illegally accessed Wakandan tech. If Killmonger somehow got the second combat suit without Shuri's knowing about it, what does that say about Shuri's ability—remember she's supposed to be a Stark-level genius—to design security systems? I hope you now see why I see this as a plot hole. It's a hole that could have been fixed with a couple seconds of expository dialogue, I think, so perhaps this plot hole isn't that serious. You decide.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

pretty much Venezuela in a nutshell

Call it communism, call it socialism, call it Kimism or chavismo or madurismo: centrally planning your economy sucks and will lead your country down a deep, deep hole.

Harpy Ballantine's Deigh!

Och aye! 'Tis duh Fart-teent, yah fookin' eedjits!
(OK, granted, that's more of an Oyrish accent than a Scottish one...)

This is a time-released post. I'm actually off to see "Black Panther" in the morning (expect a review later in the day), then I'll be walking from Jamshil to the Daechi neighborhood to check up on a gym next to my office... where I'll be seeing how much a personal trainer costs. If a trainer ends up costing too much, I've got a Plan B.

My Lunar New Year's break starts today (Wednesday the 14th). For those unaware of how it works here in Korea: whenever there's a huge national holiday like Lunar New Year, there's the day itself, and it's normally surrounded by days that are also national holidays. In 2018, the official Seollal (New Year's Day) is Friday the 16th, which means that that date is flanked by off-days on the 15th (Thursday) and the 17th (Saturday). My company was merciful and decided to let us all off on Wednesday as well, thus resulting in a much-coveted five-day weekend. I had thought about walking to Incheon and back, but instead, I'll be walking locally, probably no more than five hours a day, plus doing some apartment-staircase work. You know—for that beach body I'm gonna have by July.

Anyway, Happy Valentine's Day for those of you lucky enough to have Funny Little Honeys. May your day be full of smooches and cuddles. Or steak and blowjobs. Whatever works.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

a different sort of fake news

This is a hoot. What's wrong with this picture?

Journalism continues to beclown itself.

on being "trans"

This is a huge topic on which I have a few things to say, but for now, let me point you to two videos on transgenderism, one of which tackles the subject from a humorous perspective (I'd forgotten just how funny Joe Rogan can be), and one of which goes for the jugular and asserts that trans people are mentally ill—a common position among social conservatives.

Here's Joe Rogan:

And here's Ben Shapiro on the possibility that Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Olympian Bruce Jenner) might want to de-transition now:

A while back, when President Trump enacted what has come to be known as his "trans ban" for the US military (a ban that hasn't been held up by courts), pro-trans people were up in arms. Singer Lady Gaga famously tweeted on July 27 of last year: "Sincerely, did you [Trump] know of the group you singled out today, 45% of them [i.e., trans people] ages (18 to 24) have attempted suicide already?"

Conservatives immediately scoffed at Gaga's tweet, saying that she was basically proving the conservative point that mentally unstable people (on the assumption that being transgender is a mental illness) shouldn't be issued guns and trained to kill. Gaga's point was obviously that Trump's ban was exactly the sort of rejection and marginalization that could lead people to suicidal behavior, but in this instance, the conservatives themselves seem to have a point: if that large a fraction of the trans community is suicidal, then why indeed would anyone let those poor folks serve in the military?

Of course, there's the logically prior question of whether being transgender (which doesn't necessarily mean you've gone through a sex-change operation; it could simply mean you're experiencing gender dysphoria and are contemplating surgery) equates to being mentally ill. If you listen to Ben Shapiro in the above-embedded video, then yes, gender-identity disorder (GID) is clearly a mental illness. However, there is currently a debate going on among psychologists as to whether the condition actually counts as mental illness (or even as a disorder). Some scientists contend that the condition boils down to the distress that comes with identifying as a different sex/gender.

My own take on GID is this: I sincerely believe that people with gender dysphoria are utterly convinced that they are in the wrong body. If these people are so distressed about the bodies they have—to the point of seriously contemplating radical and risky surgery to correct their situation—then that's a clear indicator that they mean what they say. Does this conviction mean they're insane? I don't see how, and here's a thought-experiment: what if we were to give these people a general test for, say, schizophrenia, to determine how divorced they are from reality in general? How would these people score? How many could be diagnosed as specifically schizophrenic, or as generally unable to process reality? My guess is that most people with gender dysphoria are perfectly rational about everything in their lives, and it's only in this one narrow area—their perception of the rightness of their bodies—where they differ from the norm. That doesn't sound like insanity to me, or if it is insanity, it's a very narrow, very specific form of insanity.

As a consequence of this basic position, I advocate treating trans folks as I'd treat anyone else, i.e., as normal human beings, with no special consideration. A person's decision to alter an aspect of his or her body that is private and inaccessible to me (to wit, his/her plumbing) affects me in no way at all (although I grant the decision can affect someone with whom that person is in a conjugal relationship, e.g., a spouse).

I've already given my position on trans restrooms, but at the same time, I do think there's room for a discussion. Leaping over to the "anti-trans" side for a second, I can think of one major example of where being a trans female can cause problems: competitive sports that are separated by sex, i.e., most competitive sports. A recent case, from 2014, involving MMA fighters Tamikka Brents and Fallon Fox comes to mind. Fox is a trans female; she began her mixed-martial-arts career as a man, then transitioned and began fighting cis-women ("cis-" means, roughly, "natural-born," although some in the PC community might say "natural-born" is an offensive term). Fox defeated Brents so thoroughly that Brents ended up with a concussion and a broken eye socket—the natural, predictable consequence of a man fighting a woman. Brents's comment on the fight brought home the brutality of what she experienced:

I've never felt so overpowered ever in my life. I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because [Fox] was born a man or not, because I’m not a doctor; I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life, and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right. [Fox's] grip was different; I could usually move around in the clinch against... females but couldn’t move at all in Fox’s clinch.

So yes, there's room for discussion. It's obviously not a question that can be dismissed by saying "there are no biological differences between men and women—period," and I do think the right has a point when it says that, chromosomally speaking, your only sexual options are male or female: XY or XX (we'll assume supermales, who are XYY, are too marginal to include in this discussion and don't count as a third sex*). My point, though, is that you also can't dismiss the subjective experiences of all these gender-dysphoric people. Why would they go through the sheer expense, not to mention the danger, of such a radical physical transformation unless they were utterly convinced of the wrongness of their current bodies? A little empathy, I think, goes a long way, and I don't for a second consider this "humoring the insane," the way some uncharitable folks do. As I argued above, I think a general test of rationality/sanity would show that most of these people are perfectly sane.

There is, of course, a further wrinkle, recently brought to light by a rumor (now shown to be false, but which Ben Shapiro addresses in the above-embedded video) that Caitlyn Jenner had been experiencing a species of "post-op regret" that can strike people who undergo sex-change surgery, then realize too late that they have done nothing to cure their feelings of dysphoria. It's this demographic that is probably at greatest risk of committing suicide. Jenner might not actually want to de-transition, but the rumor about her supposed regret was enough to bring to light the fact that many who transition do, in fact, experience post-op regret and wish to de-transition, with regret rates being higher within the male-to-female trans community.

The decision to change one's own body is a momentous one, given that one's body so intimately represents the self we show to the world and is also an influencer of one's own interiority. Is the desire for such a change insane? I think not, but I would caution anyone contemplating a sex change to ponder the fact that, chromosomally, nothing will have changed and that, physically, natively feminine or masculine attributes will not simply disappear. As the above martial-arts example shows, the question isn't so simple: Fallon Fox retains important male attributes that make her no different from an actual cis-male fighter fighting a female opponent. The question of transgenderism is a delicate and complex one, requiring lengthy discussion. Simple answers and facile conclusions need to be treated with great caution, and I'd submit that compassion and understanding have to be moral guides in our exploration of this issue.

*There are other genetic conditions, sometimes considered syndromes, in which a chromosomal configuration is XXY or XXYY.