Saturday, January 31, 2009

Charlie Wilson's War

(Movie Review)

A student recommended this movie to me. I told her I'd put it on my list of movies to see. (Despite my best efforts, I've been wasting a lot of time watching movies recently--and then wasting more time blogging about them--so I figured I would take a break for a while).

The next week she gave me a copy of the DVD, which meant I pretty much had to watch it.

And you know what? I'm glad I did actually. This was a great movie.

To start with, it's really well written. The dialogue is pointed, snappy, and funny. Watching the characters trade well crafted barbs back and forth with each other was good entertainment.

The exposition as well is really good. I'm not an expert or anything, but if I ever had to put together a course on screenwriting, I'd use this movie as an example of everything to do right.

There are a lot of complex cold war politics in this movie (such as the necessity of supplying the Afghanistan fighters covertly with Soviet made weapons from Egypt and Israel) but it's all explained clearly and succinctly for the audience.

However the screenwriter doesn't beat you over the head with it either. The information is put out there only once, and then the story moves on. The effect it that you are able to follow what is happening, but you feel that someone who wasn't quite as aware as yourself, or who wasn't paying close enough attention, might just miss it.
This is one of those rare Hollywood movies that after you finish watching it you feel smarter rather than dumber.

The screenwriter also does a good job of following the old rule of making each scene perform double. The story of Charlie Wilson's War in Afghanistan is woven in flawlessly with the story about his ethics investigation by having many of the scenes carry a double plot. It's textbook screenwriting at it's best.

And the acting is excellent. Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman do just a superb job with all the material. Tom Hanks plays the hard drinking congressman to a tea, and Hoffman does the same with the cynical CIA agent.
I know Philip Seymour Hoffman got a lot of praise for "Capote", but "Capote" sucked. If you want to see a real example of why Hoffman is one of the best under-rated actors around, check out this movie instead.
Seriously, after I saw this movie I had an urge to run to the video store and rent everything Tom Hanks or Philip Seymour Hoffman were ever in.

OK, having praised the cinematic value of this movie lavishly, we now get to ...
The Politics
As much as I loved this movie from an entertainment perspective, I had a number of problems with it politically.
This movie is usually mentioned as one of the anti-war movies Hollywood has been making lately, in the same breath as "Lions for Lambs".

But this film didn't come off as particularly anti-war to me. At the tail end of the movie it was somewhat critical of the US failure to get involved in rebuilding Afghanistan after the Soviets left, but it never seemed to portray the covert war the U.S. was fighting as a bad thing. For the most part, it portrayed the US government as good natured bumblers. They have high ideals, but sometimes they just forget to follow through.

But there's a much darker side to the story of US involvement in Afghanistan.
(In the Spring of 2001 I helped put together a teach-in on Afghanistan with the Calvin Social Justice Coalition, so I'm drawing a bit on that experience now).

For starters, if you read any Chomsky at all, you are probably already familiar with the story about Zbigniew Brzezinski. (This is one of those little tid-bits no one else ever talks about, but Chomsky brings it up repeatedly). Breziniski was Carter's National Security Advisor when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began in 1979. Years later, in the late 90s, Brzezinski actually took credit for the Afghanistan War. He claims the US government created a trap for the Soviets , by helping to create conditions in Afghanistan that they knew the Soviets would not be able to resist intervening in. Thus giving the Soviet Union their own Vietnam War. Brezeziniski revealed this in an interview with a French magazine in the 1990s, and it was widely reported in Europe at the time, but completely ignored by the US media. (See here, for one of many cases in which Chomsky cites this story. See here for the actual Brezesiniski article.)

Chomsky cautions that Brezeziniski may simply have been shooting off his mouth, but if it is true, it means that the entire Afghanistan War, with all the death and suffering it caused on both sides, was a result of the US state department playing war games with other people's lives.

None of this, of course, is in the Hollywood version of the story. (To be fair, they do mention that part of the CIA, represented in the movie by Harold Holt, simply want to use the Afghanistan War to bleed the Soviet Union, and were not concerned about actual victory for the Afghan people. But the story is much deeper than they let on.)

Also, although the movie criticizes the US failure to stay involved with Afghanistan, it never really questions the wisdom of equipping radical Muslims with state of the art weaponry in the first place. The CIA to this day can not account for all of the stinger missiles they supplied the Islamic fundamentalists with; and these things are capable of shooting down passenger airplanes from the ground. And according to some reports, that's what they've been trying to do with their CIA funded missiles ever since the war ended.

(Although again, to be fair, perhaps the writers of the movie felt recent events could speak for themselves without hitting the audience over the head with it. They deliberately end the movie at the point of the Soviet withdrawal, without writing any sort of afterward. Obviously they're trusting that the audience can connect the dots by themselves.
Still, I think that this was a point worth making, and the movie could have emphasized it a bit more.)

And finally, it's worth remembering the context of the Soviet Union - Afghanistan War. The movie doesn't provide any background for the conflict, but contrary to popular belief the Soviets didn't just wake up one day and decide to invade Afghanistan just for for the sake of evil. The Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan to help protect it's ally, the existing Afghanistan government at the time, from an insurrection by it's own people.

This doesn't excuse the Soviet government but, for what it's worth, it is exactly the same rational the US used to get involved in the Vietnam War. (And on a smaller scale, hundreds of other US interventions, but we won't get into all that here).
Yet when we do it, we're misguided idealists. When they do it, they're war-mongering communists.

The characters in this movie share that double standard. At one point in the movie Congressman Doc Long makes a speech to the Afghans in which he says his son was wounded fighting in Vietnam, so he knows all about fighting the Soviet oppressors. (In both wars, apparently, the Soviets were the aggressors.)
This view is not contradicted anywhere else in the film.

At the tail end of the film, it does do a good job of depicting what is common knowledge now, that the US neglect of Afghanistan allowed the country to disintegrate into a breeding ground for terrorists and resentment against the West.

To what extent history is being repeated now is rather frightening to consider.

When the build up to the US invasion of Afghanistan began 7 years ago, you will recall the US government tried to convince us that, in addition to security concerns, we were doing it for the good of the Afghans. Issues like the conditions of women in Afghanistan (which had previously just been the concern of whiny liberal groups like the Calvin Social Justice Committee) were suddenly being talked about by Bush and Cheney.

I remember debating the invasion with a family member on the phone. I tried to convince her that the US wasn't really concerned about human rights in Afghanistan, and that after we toppled their government we would soon forget about rebuilding their country.
"I really wish you were back in the US so you could hear President Bush's speeches," she told me. "He seems genuinely concerned about the Afghan people, and our government has made a solid commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan this time."

Of course, that lasted about a year and a half, until the invasion of Iraq and the Iraq War became the U.S. top priority.
And recently, reports like this one coming out of Afghanistan indicate the current US effort to rebuild Afghanistan isn't going so hot. Also see here.

OK, now that I've done my liberal ranting and raving, time for some fair play: Here's a review of the same movie from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
Just for the sake of balance.

Link of the Day
This youtube video here is about 10 years old, but much of it is still very relevant today. It's a debate between Noam Chomsky and journalist Andrew Marr on a BBC television program. Marr asks a lot of tough questions, but Chomsky gives very insightful answers. Well worth the time it takes to watch.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hiji / 日出

(Better Know a City)

January 19
Like a lot of cities on this project, Hiji is a city I've driven through many, many times, but I never really stopped to explore.

Hiji is along the coast, just north of Beppu city. When I drive into Beppu, I usually take the back roads from Nakatsu, through Usa, and then Ajimu, and up into Yamaga. Somewhere up in the mountains I cross the boarder between Yamaga and Hiji, and then I drive down the mountains of Hiji right to the coast, and follow the road into Beppu. When I was attending Beppu University last spring, I used to make this drive through Hiji everyday.

And it is absolutely beautiful drive. As I drove down the mountain side, I could see the ocean sparkling down below me, and huge cliffs off to my left.
Unfortunately, there's no really place to stop the car and admire the view. You kind of just have to steal glances to the left and try and take it in while driving, which is kind of dangerous considering it's a steep narrow winding mountain road.

For the same reasons, I can't really video tape while driving, so I couldn't capture the feeling of coming down this road.
But, actually when Brett was last up in Japan 6 years ago, he taped a bit of this from the passenger seat. So, if I can once again be excused for mixing in some retrospection footage, here is some archival footage of the drive down the mountain towards the Hiji coast.

This day, however, I decided to stop my car and actually try and explore these mountain cliffs a little further.

The first place I stopped, I found a trail going off in the mountains, and followed it for a while. I wasn't sure where the trail led, and sure enough, after about 10 minutes, it abruptly ended.

I stopped the car again a bit further down the road to try and get a good look at some of the cliffs and the waterfall. Unfortunately, even though this is a beautiful view, it's not very accessible. I found a small shoulder to park my car at again, but then there was absolutely no place to walk on this narrow mountain road. I edged my way down the road with the back of my legs firmly against the guardrail, hoping that the trucks driving past wouldn't hit me.

I did get a good view of the waterfall (something I had before only seen out of the corner of my eye as I drove past), but I can't say I was able to really enjoy the view.

(Also, I'll just say this once, and then try and refrain from repeating myself with every picture but: this area is a lot more beautiful when all the greenery is in season. If I thought I was going to be in Japan forever, and if I had all the time in the world to finish this project, I would only go out in the spring and summer. As it is, these grey winter days are some of the compromises I have to make with life).

After this, I drove down into the main through road (route 10) along the coast.
Unlike a lot of these other countryside towns I visit, Hiji is actually of a decent size, and has several restaurants and coffee houses to choose from.
So, I pulled into a Joyfull.
If I have the option, I always go with the Joyfull. Perhaps it's unadventurous to go to the same restaurant in every town, but if you're not in the mood for fish and Japanese noodles, and you want a Western style breakfast, Joyfull is the only place to go.

I ordered their "morning plate", which consisted of hash browns, a salad, and a roll. The portions were so small that I ordered hamburger steak and eggs as well just to be able to make a meal out of it. And I ordered the drink bar, and got a cup of coffee.

I had a leisurely breakfast while I read my book. And then I even stayed for another cup of coffee to read some more.
Several Japanese friends have told me that everything on the Joyfull menu is just frozen food that they nuke in the microwave. But it sure hit the spot (and the prices are really cheap as well).

...However, I must admit, that the food did not sit with me well the rest of the day. I probably shouldn't have ordered the hamburger steak and eggs, because it felt like a lump in my stomach all afternoon. It didn't slow me down or stop me from hiking, but it wasn't a particularly pleasant feeling either. Lesson learned.

After breakfast, I got back in the car and headed down the road some more.

I saw signs for Itogahama Seashore Park, and followed the signs through a series of narrow side streets until I got to the Park.
The park looked to be a rather large beach and campground area, which was almost completely empty now in the middle of winter. Nonetheless, it was a nice view of the ocean, and I spent close to an hour here walking up and down the sea shore. There was a paved walkway that went along the coast past several palm trees.
There was also a path leading up to a hill, where a small pavilion was set up and you could get a larger view of the whole area.

After I had spent 45 minutes or so at Itogahama beach, I got back in the car and drove around some more. I saw signs for some islands, and tried to follow the road there, but after following the road down to the coast, it simply took me back up again.

I must have missed the islands, but when I saw a factory for Canon Company, and I knew I had crossed the boarder into Kitsuki.

Canon recently made national headlines in Japan for cutting 1100 workers in Oita prefecture. (Article here) It has been seen as a sign of the hard times to come from the world wide economic recession, and pictures of the Oita Canon factory have been in the Japanese media a lot. So, I thought I'd take a picture for the blog while I was there. (It's not often little old Oita Prefecture makes national news. But this plus the teacher's scandal last summer (article here) makes twice in one year).

After that, I got back in my car and headed back towards downtown Hiji. After getting lost a few times, I eventually found the town hall building and decided to see if I could pick up any tourist information there.

The people at Hiji town hall were extremely helpful. I had barely even entered the town hall when someone walked up to me and asked if he could help me. "I'm wondering if you have any sight-seeing brochures for Hiji," I said.

"Ah, you want to go down to the tourist section. I'll take you over there." After he walked me down to the tourist section, the woman over there was also very helpful. She gave me a couple different maps, and a bi-lingual pamphlet explaining Hij's attractions. "Are you an exchange student from Beppu?" she asked. It was a reasonable guess. Beppu has a lot of international students, and shares a boarder with Hiji.


"Ah, then you must be a tourist."

"No," I answered. "I'm an English teacher." This seemed to confuse her, so I added, "It's my day off, and I thought I'd do some sightseeing in Hiji."
"Well, Hiji's a very historical place," she said. "Long ago there was an important castle here, and you can still see the ruins of it. And Saint Francis Xavier (W) came here many years ago."

"Really? Was Hiji where he first landed in Japan?"

"Not the first place, no. He landed in Yamaguchi prefecture first. And then when he was on his way over to Oita city, he stopped in Hiji for a few days. You can still trace the path he walked in Hiji." She showed me on the map, where a dotted line indicated the Saint Xavier path. "Do you like walking?" she asked me.

"Yeah, sure."

"Every October, we have a walking festival where people retrace the steps of Saint Xavier. There are several different courses, a 20 kilometer walk, a 10 kilometer walk, and a 5 kilometer walk. You should come."

As you do in these situations, I told her I would do my best to come back for the walking festival in October, even though I had absolutely no intention of it. "Please come, we would love to have you here," she said.

"Now, did William Adams also come to Hiji?" I asked.

"William Adams? Who was that?"

"Miura Anjin," I said, attempting to use his Japanese title. "Didn't he land near Hiji."

"No, I don't think so," she said. "I'm sure I would have heard about it if he did." Then she admitted, "Actually I don't even know who he is. When did he come to Japan?"

I explained briefly who William Adams was. I had thought he landed in Hiji because the book "Learning from Shogun" had given me that impression. If you click on the on-line version, and go to page ix, you can see the map shows William Adam's ship landing at what appears to be Hiji. This is apparently a mistake, however, because, after doing a bit of digging around on the internet, I find that William Adams actually landed in Usuki, Oita Prefecture. I'll have to keep that in mind when I someday work my way down south to Usuki.

One of the maps of Hiji I had gotten was a walking map of the historical downtown center. Being an avid pedestrian, I decided to leave my car parked at the city hall (hopefully they didn't mind) and see how much of Hiji I could see on foot.

I first headed down to the ocean to see the ruins of Yokoku castle.
The original castle is long gone, and all that stands in its place now is the foundation.
Right on top of the foundation someone built an elementary school, so I could hear the sound of children singing. It was a pleasant enough sound, but it seemed strange to build a school right on top of a tourist spot. I tried to stay out of sight, but I felt like I was intruding a bit as I walked around the castle ruins.

Beneath the ruins is a small park called, appropriately enough, Shiroshita park ("Beneath the Castle Park".)
The brochure I had showed a the castle covered with green moss and pink cherry blossoms, but this was obviously a spring time photo. In winter the area looked a lot plainer, but I tried to capture it with photos anyway.

There was a lazy black snake lounging at the bottom of the castle. The 8 year old boy in me wanted to pick it up, but the adult in me was reminded that, unlike my native Michigan, many of the snakes in Kyushu are reported to be poisonous. In my previous encounters with out door snakes in Japan, I've been lucky enough to avoid a deadly poisonous bite, but this time I decided caution was the better part of valor. Instead of picking up the snake, I contented myself with poking it from a distance with my notebook.

I walked along the seaside path for a bit more. According to the map I had, the Saint Xavier walking path started here along the coast before moving up into the mountains.

I was half expecting the Xavier path to be a nice little footpath, but to my disappointment, once I left the walkway along the coast, I found nothing of the sort. The Xavier walking path appeared to be simply a suggested course that went along the normal roads. (There weren't any signs to point out these roads, but I guessed what they were as best I could by following my map.) And the roads didn't have any sidewalks or even much of a shoulder to walk on.

I followed this road a little ways up, but quickly decided that there was nothing special about this road, and I didn't particularly feel like walking 20 kilometers on it.

I returned to downtown Hiji, and followed my walking map over to Shokuji Temple. As soon as I entered the gates, I saw a ticket booth where I had to pay 300 yen for an entrance fee. (Not exorbitant by any means, but pretty sneaky of them to hide the entrance charge inside the temple gates).
The monk inside the ticket booth gave me a couple pamphlets to the temple, and then told me to go to the main building at the end of the garden. I wasn't in any rush so I took a couple pictures and looked at some of the plants, not realizing that the monk was waiting for me.

There was a small museum inside the temple which the monk took me through and explained all the objects to me. I did my best to pretend I was interested and ask lots of questions.
"How old is this dish? Really, that old? Wow! And was this made around here?"

Several of the pieces of pottery, it turned out, where not from Japan but had been made in Korea or China. "We didn't have the ability to make these kinds of multi-colored ceramics in Japan back then," the monk explained to me. But the dishes had been kept at the temple for hundreds of years, and so were part of the temple muesum.

I did my best to follow the monk's explanations, and for the most part my Japanese held out. And when I didn't understand, I tried to act like I understood, and just nodded my head sagely. And then I tried cover by asking a question about the age of the dish or where it came from.

Next the monk opened up the back door, which lead to a second inner garden enclosed by the temple.

I took a picture, and then we just stood around awkwardly for a while and made small talk while he asked me where I was from and how I liked Japan. I wasn't sure if this meant the tour was over or not, but after a while I decided to make a move.
"Is there anything up that hill?" I asked.
Yes, he answered, you can follow the trail up the hill. There are a few old graves and historical markers up there. Go ahead and explore it, he urged me. I thanked him and headed on up the hill.

There were several small clumpings of gravestones here. It was nothing particularly remarkable, although one of the gravestones was marked as Aoyagi Koichi (who apparently was one of the famous artists of Hiji). Also from the top of the hill I did get a nice view of downtown Hiji below me.

The map indicated there were a couple more points of interest close by to the temples, but when wandering around for a while yielded no results, I walked back in towards the coast and took in a few more sights along the main road. I followed signs to places like "Chidokan" (apparently an old clan school from the Edo period) and Tekizanso (an famous cookery) but found them to be rather unimpressive--just old buildings with an historical marker in front of them.

I made my way down to the harbor, where there were lots of small fishing ships docked. As always near these places, the smell of rotting fish was a bit overpowering, but the area had kind of the quaint look of a small town dock with fisherman going about their everyday business.

I went along the coast until I got to another little Shrine on a hill that overlooked the harbor. And then I started walking back towards my car at the city hall parking lot.

Once I got back in my car, I started driving along route 10. Route 10 is one of the major roads that connects northern Oita, and I had driven down it several times before, but not with the eye of a sight-seer. This time I decided to stop at anything that looks interesting.

Along route 10 there is Gajojuji Temple. According to the brochure a temple built in 1311 which is, ironically, right next to a 7-11 Convenience store. I parked my car in the 7-11 parking lot, bought a couple donuts in the store and ate them in my car, and then climbed up the temple steps and took pictures.

Also along route 10 is "Harmony Land" a theme park based off of "Hello Kitty!"(W) and the other Sanrio characters.
I've been told by several Japanese friends that you need not go to this park unless you have a 5 year old daughter to take with you. And so I've never been (although I've seen the giant ferris wheel from the road many times).
I briefly contemplated going now, just so I could get a funny fish-out-of-water type story for this blog about a 30 year old American male wandering around Hello Kitty land. But I decided against it in the end. The rough equivalent of 30 bucks for the admissions fee is a little steep to pay for what would esseintially be a one note joke. So I just took a few pictures of Harmony Land from the road instead.

After this I was somewhat at a loss for what to do. I had not fully explored Hiji's mountains yet, but after walking all afternoon I was in no mood to start a hike.

I drove back into the main town with the intention of getting a cup of coffee and just reading for a while. I drove up and down the road for a while, and not seeing any obvious coffee shops, I stopped at [it embarasses me to admit this] McDonalds.

Well, in Japan at least McDonalds doesn't have quite the negative reputation it has in the US. It's nice, immaculately clean (like most places in Japan), got a quite atmosphere, pretty decent coffee and (most importantly) free refills. So I got a cup of coffee, and spent a pleasant hour or so reading my book.

When I went outside again, the sun had gone down, and I called it a day.

Hiji Links:
The Hiji Town Hall actually has a very decent English website advertising their town. If you click around on it, there are a lot of photos taken at more scenic times of year than my trip.
Here is some information on the 3st Saint Xaviar Road Walking meet. (I someone suspect this site was written by someone whose native language was not English)
Here is a description of Harmony Land (complete with pictures) to make up for my not going there personally.
And here is the official English site for HarmonyLand

Link of the Day
Report: Almost 4,000 Civilians Killed in Afghanistan Last Year; 680 by US

Also, this video of Chomsky on Lenin, Trotsky, Socialism & the Soviet Union is pretty interesting.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Prince Caspian

(movie review)

(Another movie, late review, geographical location, bear with me, et cetera).

When "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe" came out 3 years ago, it was before I had started my anal retentive blogging project of reviewing every single movie I watched.

At that time, I was just reviewing movies sporadically, when I felt I had something worth saying.
I had a few thoughts knocking around my head after the first Narnia movie, and I was considering writing a post, but then I discovered Andrew had already written a blog post which said what I wanted to say, and a lot more eloquently and succinctly than I could have said it. So instead of writing up something of my own, I just linked to his post.

Unfortunately, if you follow that link today, it appears Andrew has deleted his blog, and the post has vanished. Which is unfortunate because I thought it was a really well-written review.

So I'll just recap briefly my thoughts on the first movie: back in 2005 I think a lot of us were a little nervous about "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" movie. Like everyone else in the western world, C.S. Lewis's books had been an important part of my childhood, and I had fond memories of the story. But let's face it, these books would have been difficult to film at the best of times. You have to duplicate C.S. Lewis's touch of subtlety so that the religious themes are there in the background, but the viewer doesn't get hit over the head with them.
You also have a story with lots of fighting and battle scenes, and you need to film for a children's audience without making it too violent, but without defanging it entirely.

Add to all this, the cultural wars that were going on during 2005. "The Passion of the Christ" had just proved that evangelicals were a new market force that Hollywood was eager to cash into, and this movie was supposed to combine the "Lord of the Rings" audience with the "Passion of the Christ" audience. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

And yet, for the most part, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" managed to hit all the notes just right. Sure, you could make quibbles about this or that, but when you consider the huge potholes the movie could have fallen into, I think it did a good job of walking that thin line, and avoiding all the different pressures on it. It pushed all the various agendas to the background, and simply tried to retell C.S. Lewis's original fantasy adventure story.

And I feel the same about "Prince Caspian", which is another excellent movie. Like it's predecessor, it manages to avoid the pitfalls of cultural wars and instead just gives the audience a really good story.

The first movie did a great job of creating a sense of wonder about a new fantasy world filled with exotic beings. And I think "Caspian" does a good job of duplicating this, plus showing how the stories of the first movie have become old legends and myths by the second movie.

The various battle scenes are well choreographed and very exciting.
The scenery is absolutely stunning. It makes me wish I had seen this movie on the big screen.
Like many fantasy films these days, this film was mostly shot in New Zealand, which must be an absolutely gorgeous place to visit.
(When I was a JET in Ajimu, the only other foreigner in the town was from New Zealand, and he used to tell me over and over again how beautiful New Zealand was, and how everyone who visited it never wanted to leave. The more I see of New Zealand in films, the more I'm beginning to think he wasn't exaggerating).

If the first two films are anything to go by, I'm really looking forward to seeing "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" when it comes out.
The only thing I worry about slightly is that these films are so good and so exciting, I wonder if kids will even bother to read the books in the future.
Don't get me wrong, I would have absolutely loved these films if they had been around when I was a child. But because C.S. Lewis's books are vague in places and leave a lot up to the imagination, I worry it might be hard to go back to boring old printed page after seeing all the dramatic battle scenes acted out on the screen.
Will these movies inadvertently kill what has, up until now, been a staple in every child's literary up bringing?

And well I'm at it, there are a couple other run off issues from this film that I worry about.

Some evangelicals have been pushing the Narnia Chronicles as the alternative safe fantasy series which all the good little Christians should go out and see, as opposed to bad little Christians who watch movies like "Harry Potter" and "The Golden Compass".

And, similar to "The Passion of the Christ", there has also been some public crowing by evangelicals about how well the Narnia series has done at the box office relative to other movies. As if it's a contest. Or as if somehow the glory of God can be advanced by the amount of people who bought tickets for these movies.

To the extent that small minded people have used these movies to advance their own agenda in the culture wars is unfortunate, but luckily it need not impede the enjoyment of these movies, which stand alone quite nicely independent of the culture wars.

The other issue is the violence. Because this movie is based on a Christian story, and because this series has become part of the culture wars, we find ourselves looking more closely at the violent content than we would at any other movie. I imagine we wouldn't even blink if these kind of battle scenes were in any other movie (even any other kids movie).
For just one example of the hand-wringing about the battle scenes in this movie, look at "Focus on the Family"'s review of this movie.

My impression, just based on reading reviews of this movie, is that there is that there is a bit of hypocrisy going on both ways. Some people are being extra hard on this movie because of its religious associations, and criticizing battle scenes which wouldn't even be noteworthy in any other film.
Other evangelicals who have made a career out of criticizing violence in Hollywood are giving this movie a free pass just because the source material comes from one of their own.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about it, because I'm not sure how I feel about violence in movies in general.
I'll be honest, I really enjoyed the battle scenes. I was really glad that the film makers didn't skimp on any of the fighting parts.
There's a part of me gets a real thrill out of seeing that kind of thing on the screen. I couldn't explain it logically, but it's something most males share. There's just something about that Y chromosome which makes us prefer stories of gunfights and sword battles to stories about love and relationships. Like most modern males, I've been attracted to violent stories my whole life,and I've felt somewhat guilty about it my whole life.

In my own life, I've made a distinct between fantasy violence on the TV screen (which I get a kick out of watching) and real life violence (which I oppose). And I like to think I've done a pretty good job of keeping the two separate. Hopefully most other people can too, but I can't vouch for everyone.
And even if I could, I'm not sure I could translate that into a moral absolute. Or in other words, even if I could make a really good case that violence in media doesn't have any effect on violence in real life (by, say, pointing out a society in which the violent media was even worse than in the US, but the violent crime rate was unbelievable low), I'm not sure I could make the jump to say it is therefore morally okay to show violence in the media.

The debate about sex and violence in the media has been going on long before we were born, and it will continue long after we're dead, and I don't want to clutter up this blog post too much with my half thought out ramblings. So let me try and see if I jot down a few intelligible thoughts about this story in particular, and then we're just have to move on from there.

The source material in Lewis's books are fairly violent to begin with. Granted, a lot of the battle scenes are implied rather than shown, or briefly covered in just a few sentences. But, let's face it, that may work in a book, but you couldn't make a movie like that.
Plus, I think I speak for all the former 6 year old boys who had this book read to them, in the theater of our minds we imagined it. The battle scenes that Lewis described in just a few sentences were huge epics in our own minds.
This is the same reason that young boys like the Old Testament so much. The bible may not give blow by blow accounts of all the fight scenes, but you'd be surprised what a 7 year old male imagination can do with a simple sentence like, "Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he [Samson] grabbed it and struck down a thousand men."

And dare I say, C.S. Lewis's stories would never have become popular among young boys in the first place if it hadn't contained that hint of violence in them.

In fact, well I'm at it, I think you can make the argument that almost the entire cannon of Western literature (nay, world literature) is based off of the human fascination with either sex, violence, or both. Think about works like the Old Testament, the Iliad, Ovid, Shakespeare, "The Romance of the 3 Kingdoms" , "The Tale of the Heike", "The Tale of Genji" (etc, etc, etc, I could list books all day.) Some works are more subtle than others, but it's hard to find a classic piece of literature in which these themes are not present to some degree.

But, okay, books are one thing, movies are another. How does a Christian responsibly translate Lewis's story onto the big screen?

This is a sticky issue, because there's a temptation to reduce this to a question of degrees. A small death toll on screen is morally acceptable, a big death toll is not. "Prince Caspian" is okay for good Christians to see because there's only 12 deaths depicted, whereas "Terminator 2" (which used to be my middle school teacher's favorite example of a movie good little Christians shouldn't go to see) shows 47 people dying. [These numbers are pulled out of my hat, by the way, but you get the idea.]

Of course another big difference between "Prince Caspian" and "Terminator 2" is the amount of blood and gore. "Prince Caspian" doesn't have any blood, and the focus on the family review cites this as a good thing.
But here again, this again is another complicated question. As every film buff knows, graphic violence in modern film was introduced by movies like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Wild Bunch" . At the time the directors argued that if you could show people how ugly and brutal real violence was, they would be less violent in their own lives. They argued it was the bloodless violence of cartoons and Saturday matinees that glorified and encouraged violence. And there may be something to this.

Having talked myself around a circle, I'm just going to have to end by saying I don't have easy answers to these questions and let it go at that.

Addendum: Look, I realize the above post is a bit of a mess. Sorry about that. It's hard to review a movie and write about violence in media in the same post. It just seemed impossible to talk about the Narnia movies without mentioning the battle scenes, and it seemed impossible to critique the battle scenes without exploring the whole question. Hopefully my thoughts are at least somewhat intelligible, even if they are inconclusive.

Second Addendum: But one last thought. I wish "Focus on the Family" and other groups on the Christian Right would get as concerned about real violence as they do about fantasy violence. James Dobson and "Focus on the Family" have been strong supporters of the Iraq War all the way through (see for example this link here). Compare this to the hand-wringing about the battle scenes in the Narnia movies in the review above. And--let's face it--"Prince Caspian" was one of their softer reviews. They really go for the juggular of the more mainstream Hollywood violence.
I know they're concerned about the effect on children, but someday I would like them to become just as equally concerned about the effect on children of losing a parent to war, or being bombed out of your home, or having depleted uranium scattered all over your country.

Another Addendum: Gasp! According to this article, the next film in the Narnia series might not even get made. Quick! Rally your prayer group!

Link of the Day
2008 year in review: Goodbye to all that! and 2008 year in review: Part 2, The end of an error

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama-Mania in Japan

A few people have been asking me recently what the buzz about Obama is like in Japan.

Well, no surprises, he's just as popular over here as he is everywhere else in the world.
There's been a lot of Obama coverage on Japanese TV. Japanese bookstores are selling lots of books about Obama.

A CD of Obama's speeches with an accompanying textbook and Japanese translation has become a best seller, and many of my students have been trying to use it to improve their English.

But today was especially eye-opening for me. Several of my Japanese students told me they stayed up till 4 in the morning to watch Obama's inauguration speech. (Because of the time difference, it started at about 2 AM Japan time).
They asked me what I thought about the speech, and it was a bit embarrassing because I had to admit that I, the American, had gone to bed early and missed the whole thing. (Now that the election is over, I'm breathing a sigh of relief, and I don't feel like I have to view every minute of Barak's career in real-time).
Still, it probably says a lot that so many Japanese people wanted to stay up until 4 to watch Barak Obama make history.

The hopes the whole world has for this guy are amazing.

Perhaps some of the intense adulation surrounding Obama isn't healthy for a democracy, but the optimist in me likes to think that it might help Obama hear the call of history, and rise to the occasion. He knows he's got the chance to go down as one of the world's greatest leaders if he plays his cards right, and so hopefully he'll have less incentive to play politics as usual.

Here's hoping in 4 years we're not disappointed.

Other blogger's takes: Inauguration from Quare Id Faciam

Link of the Day
Goodbye to all that

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Dark Knight

(Movie Review)

(Once again, because of my geographical location I'm reviewing this half a year late. Bear with me.)

When I was a kid, Batman was my favorite comic book character.

Well, no surprise there, right? Batman was a lot of people's favorite comic book character. That's why DC comics and Time Warner have made so much money off of him the past 20 years.

But which Batman? The dark Tim Burton Batman? The borderline psychotic Frank Miller Batman? The king of camp Adam West Batman?

Well, for my generation Super-Friends was our first encounter with Batman. And if you would have asked me at the time why Batman was my favorite character, I wouldn't have told you it was because he was extremely dark and disturbed. I would have said that he was the only superhero without any super powers. When the Batman took down supervillains he wasn't relying on a bullet proof chest or super strength. He was just a normal guy slugging it out against the villains with his own two fists (okay, and sometimes some bat gadgets).

And I think most Batman fans will give you the same answer if you ask them. At least that's been my experience.

Oddly enough, the comic book industry never really seemed to catch onto this. Over the years they've created very few super heroes without incredible powers.

The movie industry as well seems to have mis-interpreted Batman's popularity to mean that the public wants more dark and disturbed superheroes.

All that being said, this is the best Batman movie so far.

When the original Tim Burton Batman came out 20 years ago, I was surprised at how little action sequences there actually were in the movie. I was 12 years old, and I was hoping for more good old fashioned fist fights and swashbuckling.
While the Tim Burton movie may not have delivered on action scenes, it did create a very tense atmosphere. You watched the whole thing on pins and needles. You were relatively sure that Batman himself wasn't going to die, but no one else in Tim Burton's world was safe.

Watched today though, the 1989 Batman doesn't seem to have the same effect. I don't know if times have changed, or if it's just that I'm 20 years older, but if you pop Tim Burton's Batman into the VCR today, it seems incredibly cheesy.

This movie, on the other hand, is obviously going to be the new standard by which all future Batman movies will be judged.

3 years ago when Batman Begins came out, I jotted down a few thoughts here.
But it is with the sequel that the franchise comes into its own.

As a kid, the tragic story of Harvey Dent always fascinated me. (Much like the story of Harry Osborn did. When you're a kid, these comic book stories of good guys who have a fatal character flaw that turns them into bad guys seems downright Shakespearean).

But up until now, no Batman movie has ever really done justice to this story. The previous Batman franchised really dropped the ball on the whole Harvey Dent thing. When "Two-Face" was the villain in "Batman Forever", his entire back story was summed up in a 10 second news clip.

By contrast, "The Dark Knight" not only shows us how the transformation from Harvey Dent into Two-Face could take place, but, gives him plausible motivation.

Heath Ledger is also brilliant as the Joker. I know I'm not the first person to say this, but he really becomes the role. Watching him, it's difficult to believe he was a 28 year old actor at the time. He seems to embody a character much older, someone who has been knocked about by the world for a long time.

The action scenes seem to be the biggest weak link in this movie. Maybe it was just my small screen TV, but I felt like I had a hard time following everything, especially since almost all of the action took place at night.

But the action scenes were secondary to the drama (and it's rare in a comic book movie that you get to say that). As many critics have pointed out, this movie had all the drama and tension of a good mob movie like "GoodFellas" or "The Godfather".
The only thing that seemed a little cheesy was Batman himself.
As I mentioned in my review of "Batman Begins" (see above link), the idea of a guy running around in a bat suit seems perfectly natural in the world of cartoons and comic books. But the more serious and realistic Batman's surroundings get, the more he himself seems not to fit in with his own movie.
I especially thought Christian Bale's husky "Batman voice" was a bit over the top.

But all in all, a brilliant film, and no doubt, the best Batman yet.
Update: Whisky Prajer's thoughts here.

Link of the Day
Attack of the invisible hand of the free market!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

(Movie Review)

Like a lot of people, I had to read "A Farewell to Arms" in high school. And, like a lot of people, I didn't much care for it at the time. I had actually been looking forward to reading it, but Hemingway's short sentences and bare prose were a bit rough to digest, and it spoiled the book for me.

(However I have always been kind of proud of the assignment I did at the time re-writing a fairy tale in Hemingway's style--if I may say so myself.)

A few years ago, however, I decided to give Hemingway another chance, and read, "For Whom the Bell Tolls". And, to my surprise, enjoyed it immensely.

Shoko, based on my recommendation at the time, started reading the Japanese translation of the book, but then gave up half way through and just ended up buying the DVD. And she in turn fell in love with the movie. Not so much for the story, but because of the handsome Gary Cooper. She bought several more Gary Cooper DVDs for our apartment.
(You can get old movies on DVD dirt cheap in Japan. I suspect partly because the public domain laws are different here.)

Thus "A Farewell to Arms" (also starring Gary Cooper) entered our apartment. This movie is 10 years older than "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and it turns out Shoko ended up preferring the older Gary Cooper to the younger one. "Men age different than women," she explained to me. "Some men are better looking when they're middle aged than when they're younger."
(Assuming this is a true, I suppose it's good news for me now that I have officially entered my 30s and left my youth behind.)

Now Shoko has left the apartment, but the DVDs remain.

Strangely enough, in the 2 years since I moved into the apartment, I never felt the urge to watch this movie. Which is kind of odd, considering all the other junk I've watched during this same period. But it just never sounded appealing to me. I didn't have fond memories of the book, and besides I knew it would be an old movie with dated production values geared towards an audience with a longer attention span.

But the other day a friend was over for coffee, and we both had a couple hours to kill before our next appointment, so I said, "Why don't we put on a movie? You can choose from any of the DVDs I have here." And, he chose this. So, here I am with the review.

It's been almost 15 years since I read the book, but I must have been still young enough to have an impressionable memory, because I remember it much better than a number of books I've read since then. I don't remember every word, but I could remember the general plot quite well. As far as I can remember, the movie follows the plot of the book fairly accurately.

This is a 1932 movie, and it shows it's age in any number of ways. The version I have has an staticky audio track that pops and cackles along as you listen to it. The picture is looking a bit dull and faded (even by the standards of black and white films). The cuts are rough and jumpy.

There are, however, a few inventive camera shots. For example, when the main character is wounded and carried into the hospital on a stretcher we see the whole seen through his eyes. The camera is pointed up at the ceiling the whole time as if we were the ones on the stretcher.

If you can get over the crackling audio track, the dialogue in this movie is quite good (probably much of it was lifted from the book) and the conversations between the characters sound very real and natural.

Link of the Day
Study Ranks Michigan 12th in US for Bike Friendliness

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Bush's Legacy in Pictures

Link of the Day
I haven't seen any stories about Depleted Uranium in the news lately. But that doesn't mean the issue has gone away. Don't forget about what's going on in articles like this and this.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bush's Legacy

Are you sick of hearing about this yet?

I'm not even living in the US, but if I read one more comparison between Bush and Truman I'm going to smash my head through a wall. This is a desperate analogy by people grasping at straws. And the simple fact that they repeat it ad naseum indicates they have no better arguments to use.

By now, I think most people are agreed Bush is not going to be remembered as one of our better Presidents. As far back as two years ago, Rolling Stone Magazine featured an article revealing it was already a parlor game among historians to debate whether Bush was the worst President ever, or simply one of the worst.

For the most part, I think the only people repeating the Truman analogy are the people getting paid to do so: Republican PR guys, and right wing journalists. However a few of the rank and file have picked up on it, and are repeating it on their blogs.

Really, if you haven't been watching the news for the past 8 years (or if you've been cocooned inside Fox News and AM radio) I'm not going to try and argue with you here. If you're one of those people who boos when Sarah Palin admits she reads "The New York Times" who am to think I can change your mind here?

For everyone else down on planet earth though, I think the past 8 years speak for themselves.

I don't think we've ever had a President before where so many prominent members of his administration resigned and wrote books about how dishonest his administration was before his term was even up:
his Secretary of Treasury Paul O' Neil (A), his Chief Counter Terrorism Advisor Richard Clarke (A), his Press Secretary Scott McClellan (A), diplomat Joseph Wilson (A) and his director of faith based initiatives John DiIulio.
(Actually in DiIulio's case, it was only a magazine article, rather than a full book of material. Article here).

I know the right wing attack machine has tried to discredit all 5 of these gentlemen, but I think any sane observer has to conclude that either Bush did a really poor job of selecting his people, or there's got to be some fire underneath all this smoke.

And, if this comment by Seymour Hersh is any indication, we can expect a lot more damaging revelations from Bush insiders in the months and years to come.

But in fact, if you've been following the newspapers at all, you know that's just the tip of the iceberg. The disastrous war in Iraq, and the disinformation campaign that led up to it. The massive bungling surrounding Katrina. The Clinton era budget surpluses that turned into record deficits. The environmental protections being gutted at the same time scientists were issuing serious warnings about an upcoming environmental catastrophe. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Really, Harry Truman? What are those guys smoking? In 50 years, historians are going to decide it was an excellent idea to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and that everything turned out well?
And they're going to decide that it was a stroke of genius to lower taxes at the time and borrow the money for the war from China, and that future generations really didn't mind paying it back at all? And the huge national debt that spiraled out of control didn't cause any problems at all? Bush's decision not to cut short his vacation to visit the disaster areas of Katrina will be looked upon as an example of bold and decisive leadership?

This is a president who won the 2000 election on a constitutional technicality, despite the fact that a majority of people voted for his opponent. He then proceeded to pursue a highly divisive right wing agenda from day one.
He was re-elected in 2004 largely because he and his vice-President told the American people that they would be victims of a terrorist attack if his opponent got elected. And when he was re-elected by the closest margin in history for a sitting president, he used it justify an expanded right wing agenda.

The largest terrorist attack on American soil in history took place while he was in office, and then he campaigned on it in 2004. His administration is now touting as his legacy the fact that it was never repeated. The implication again being: if a Democrat had been in office, we would have all been blown to pieces.
(As if Bush himself were pouring over all the CIA data and single handledly keeping our boarders safe. He's more than happy to personally take credit for the CIA's successes, while he consistently blames the WMD disaster on bad intelligence from the CIA).

This is also a man under whose leadership one of the greatest economic meltdowns took place, but of course after 8 years as President none of it was his fault (and in fact can be traced back to the economic policies of President Clinton).

This is a man whose administration waged a public battle against congress for the right to torture detainees. Tell me with a straight face this isn't a low point of civilization.

But of course I've barely even begun to list the problems. As this cartoon says: "Bush V. Gore, Cheney's Energy task force, Kenny Boy Lay, Putin's soul, "Bin Laden Determined to strike", 9-11, Axis of Evil, freedom fries, Patriot act, indefinite detention, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, yellow cake uranium, shock and awe, mission accomplished, Halliburton, Blackwater, Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, swift boating, tax cuts, soaring deficits, Terry Schiavo, stem cell research, domestic surveillance, telecom immunity, hurricane Katrina, the collapse of capitalism as we know it, and Karl Rove. And that's just off the top of my head!"

The Iraq war disaster should be enough by itself to sink Bush's legacy. Although I know it's hard to debate this with conservatives, because they live in a fantasy world where the US had every right to invade, Saddam Hussein was the only ruthless dictator in the world, the US never supported him in the past, WMDs have been discovered, he had connections with Al-Qaeda, the Iraqis are grateful that we invaded and bombed their infrastructure, the war is going great, and if we just hang in there for a few more years everything is going to turn out great and history will realize Bush made a great decision when he invaded.

It's hard to debate people so divorced from reality, so I'm not even going to try.


But all that being said, it should be interesting to see how Bush fits into his place in history. The idealist inside all of us would like to think that with the distance of time, we will be able to objectively judge Bush's legacy. But perhaps instead we should remember Orwell's slogan: "Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future." Or, in other words, in the next 20 or 30 years we should expect a lot of battling over Bush's legacy.

It would be nice if one January 21st, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the rest of them said, "Well, now that the Bush Presidency is finally over, I at last see the light and I realize it was a failure."
But I think it's far more likely they will spend a lot of time trying to re-imagine the Bush years. And by simply repeating falsehoods over and over again, they'll manage to force them into the mainstream consciousness (as they always do).

For example, witness what happened with Reagen's legacy, as described by Noam Chomsky:

"During his years in office, Reagan was not particularly popular. Gallup just published poll figures comparing him during office with other Presidents. His average ratings during his years in office were below Kennedy, Johnson, Bush I, and Clinton; above Nixon, Ford, Carter. This is averages during their terms in office. By 1992 he was ranked just next to Nixon as the most unpopular living ex-president. Since then there has been an immense PR campaign to convert him into a revered and historic figure, if not semi-divine, and it's doubtless had an effect, radically shifting the rankings. Not on the basis of facts: rather, extremely effective marketing. The current performance is reminiscent of the death of Hirohito and Soviet leaders. One of the more depraved moments of US media. The lying is quite impressive, even by people who surely know better."

I don't suspect they'll have quite as much success with Bush's legacy, but they'll definitely push it for all it's worth.

What's been quietly happening with how we remember the Vietnam War might give us some indication of what to expect.
If you like reading a lot of old stuff (like I do) you know that at the height of the Vietnam War the general public was very concerned about issues like the napalm bombing of villages, massacres of Vietnamese civilians, bombing villages in Laos and Cambodia, saturation bombing in the North, et cetera.

These issues have all been swept under the rug the last few years. The Vietnam War is not presented as a high point of US foreign policy, but it's taught in schools as an idealistic, but misguided, effort to help the Vietnamese people. The average person in my generation (or younger) doesn't know what the My Lai Massacre or the Pentagon Papers were.

In fact, the political climate has changed so much, that in the 2004 election John Kerry was forced to apologize for speaking out against the Vietnam War 30 years earlier.

In the same way, the average American doesn't know anything about the Philippines War from the turn of the last century. This is another one of those embarrassing Imperialistic ventures that we quietly sweep under the rug and choose not to teach to our children. In another 100 years, maybe the Vietnam War will quietly disappear from the high school history books. And in 150 years, the Iraq War might do the same.

And Bush will perhaps become the next James Buchanan--widely regarded among academic historians as the worst President ever, but almost completely unknown to the general public.

Link of the Day
This lecture by Chomsky on "Free Market Fantasies: Capitalism in the Real World" is about 10 years old, but very relevant to what is going on now.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

(Book Review)

Because English books can be hard to come by out here in Japan, there's a lot of book trading among the ex-pat community. I was at a British friend's house in Fukuoka, and was browsing through her book shelf, when I saw this.

"Hmm, this looks kind of interesting," I said.
"Is this any good?"

"You know, to be honest, I never finished it," she said. "And I don't think I will. It just moves way too slowly and, well, life's too short. But you can take it and give it a try if you want."

And so I did. And it took me a few months, but I managed to read my way all the way to the end of this 1006 page book.

The basic premise of the book sounds pretty interesting. It's one of these alternate history books, which takes familiar history (in this case the Napoleonic Wars) and retells it using elements of magic and fantasy. Of particular interest to history geeks like myself is the number of real life historical figures who are woven into this story such as the Duke of Wellington, Lord Byron, King George, and many others.

However, the reader should be warned that the description on the back cover exaggerates somewhat. The back cover talks about a "dangerous battle" between the rival magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell which overwhelms both Britain and France.
This is, in typical marketing fashion, ravelling and dazzling up the plot a bit. In reality, the actual publishing blurb should probably read, "a story about a strained relationship between two gentleman British magicians that never really actually reaches the point of an actual battle." But I guess that probably wouldn't sell as many books.

This book is highly critically acclaimed but, as my British friend pointed out, it does move agonizingly slowly. If you go to the customer reviews on the Amazon page, you can see a debate going on between those who thought this book was a work of genius, and those who thought it so tedious they couldn't even finish it. And even the reviews praising this book are written in a somewhat defensive way, warning that it this book is not for everyone.

According to wikipedia, the style of the book is intentionally designed to reflect Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I've never read any Jane Austen, but I can say the writing style is somewhat reminiscent of Dickens. Particularly the part where Dickens got paid by the word and always crammed a lot of filler into his books.

The actual plot of the book is a lot shorter than 1006 pages. It could probably be trimmed down to say, 300 pages. What makes up for the extra 700 pages is a lot of side-plots, back stories of minor characters, long descriptions, and back ground information about the fictional history of English magic.

To be fair, most of this is designed to create an atmosphere and get the reader absorbed in the book. And I must admit this worked on me to an extent. As I continued reading, I did get more and more caught up in the world Susanna Clarke had created, and I did want to see what would happen to the all the various wheels she was spinning.

It wasn't what I would call a real page turner, but I stuck with it and didn't let myself quit, and eventually I found myself absorbed.

But then the ending was a pretty big let down. After 1006 pages, I was kind of hoping for a more dramatic ending. The book never really has much of a climax. It just kind of peters out.

I wouldn't say I was sorry I read this book, but I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it to anyone else either.

Link of the Day
Countdown: Candice Gingrich on Prop 8