Friday, May 30, 2008

Nerd News: UK University Bans Throwing of Mortarboards at Graduation

Why? Because some people think it's a health hazard. You have got to be kidding me! Blurb:
The move to abandon the tradition at Anglia Ruskin University was described as "health and safety gone mad" by student organisations.

The university, which has campuses at Cambridge and Chelmsford, said the action had been taken because a mortar board had injured a graduating student several years ago.

The student had to be taken to hospital for stitches after he was struck in the face. The incident is the only mortar board inflicted injury to have been recorded by the university.

A statement on the university website said: "It is requested that graduates do not throw the hat up into the air, as this not only causes damage to the hats, but can also cause injury if the corner of the hat hits the graduate or others who may be nearby."

Frankie Whiffen, the Student Union President, branded the university authorities "anti-fun, health and safety killjoys" adding: "We support university policies but it sounds like health and safety gone mad.

"It's an important tradition, and who is going to go round stopping it anyway - the hat police?

"It's outrageous that decades of tradition should be shelved because big brother is worried a group of grown adults can't catch a hat properly."

He added: "It's ridiculous and puts a dampener on the graduates' big day."

Taiwan and China Talks: Wu Hu?

I stole the title and the story from blogfriend Dignified Rant, who has a very interesting post about talks between Hu Jintao and the KMT, starting with KMT bigshot Wu Poh-Hsiung.

I'm trying to be objective here, but frankly my knee-jerk reaction is deep cynicism and the urge to yell for caution. I'm with Brian on this one in wondering if Beijing's lulling Taiwan into a false sense of security.

As I've said before, it's time to watch Ma and the KMT very, very carefully. I don't trust those guys any farther than I can throw them, and I am not at all convinced that they will hold the line against any encroachment on Taiwanese sovereignty.

UPDATE: View From Taiwan opines that Wu has sold out Taiwan. Are we really looking at a KMT-CCP platform/alliance? Two beacons of democracy, eh? The blood runs cold.

A League of Legitimate Democracies

You know, forming a league of legitimate democracies isn't a new or original idea, but it's actually a good idea. A while back, I'd said to a colleague that we ought to have such a thing as a counterweight to the UN.

Of course, I can see various stumbling blocks -- like what to do when and if Taiwan (a legitimate democracy) wants to join up, or what to do about Israel.

Any thoughts?

UPDATE: Dignified Rant has some feedback and a difference of opinion. I absolutely see his points, though I don't think the UN can really be reformed in any meaningful way. As for the idea that America itself is the actual counterweight to the UN, that is all too true. I had thought, perhaps foolishly, that in a league of democracies, there might be a chance to have a less openly hostile environment.

Movie Review Review: Friends, Feedback, and Further Thoughts on “Iron Man”

Thinking about identity and keeping up appearances. Aren't we all?

Recently both the Sibling and I (in separate cities) took friends to see “Iron Man. Both sets of buddies enjoyed the movie immensely, and I thought this might be a good time to step back and look at it again. After all, a reviewer can change her mind after a repeat viewing, or perhaps see things she missed the first time around. The Sibling also says that one mark of a really good movie is its replay value, and it’s true. Really good movies you can watch over and over; just look at our DVD collections. We can’t wait to get “Iron Man” on DVD.

Anyway, for reviews it’s always nice to have the input of other movie fans too. I went back to the theater with some dear friends from college as a “girls’ night out.” (And yes, this gaggle of young women decided to go see a blockbuster ‘boys’ club’ action flick – so put that in your pipe and smoke it, Manohla Dargis. In fact, the theater was about evenly populated with both guys and girls, so there.)

On a repeat showing, I have to say that my original review stands. Here are a few more thoughts from my friends, the Sibling (to whom I just gave the soundtrack), and me too. So here we go.

A Girl Appreciates a Man – or Movie – That Can Make Her Laugh

Everyone caught onto the essential but hard-to-define fun factor. There’s a lot of laughter in the movie, and by laughter, I mean the good kind. The scriptwriters and director Jon Favreau have created a film with a vibrant sense of fun and a deft, light touch. Plus it’s nice to hear friends chortling in the darkness as we pass popcorn around.

A huge part of this is the script. It’s smart, sharp, and witty, filled with snappy dialogue and memorably playful lines, and – thank goodness – it doesn’t waste our time with too much dull, plodding exposition, overwrought origin stories a la Spider-Man, or pseudo-philosophical-existential whining. The script is often a fencing match between characters, only with words instead of foils. There’s a priceless exchange between Stark and Rhodey on an airplane, for instance, and between Pepper and Stark about shoelaces.

The writers have created Stark as someone who seems to be congenitally, incorrigibly incapable of not making smart-aleck comments or hilarious, lightning-fast, deadpan quips. (I caught one this time that I had missed before, and it was so naughty it made me giggle. Look for it in the scene when Stark’s robots are attempting to disassemble his exoskeleton while he’s still in it. Oh, my!) Downey, whose comic timing is spot-on, is like the class clown whom the instructor can’t scold because she’s too busy laughing helplessly – believe me, I know.

Oh, and the Sibling would like you to know that he absolutely loves the bit about the cheeseburger. “Cheeseburger first.” Priorities, man!

The Devil Is In the Details

I hadn’t realized how rich the details were – and they’re so easy to miss in all the action. But here are a few.

~The Sibling points out that on Stark’s workshop table, you can see the Captain America insignia. It’s in the form of a paperweight or something like that. But the point is that right there is a comic book reference. The Sibling “geeked out” and got all excited. Fanboy.

~In the Afghan caves, you can see piles of food aid in large bags. The best chance to see this is in the parting scene between Stark and Yinsen (Shaun Toub). The labeling on the bags actually reads that the food is the gift of the American people and that it’s not be sold – what you see on US food aid sent overseas to troubled areas of the world. So think about it: humanitarian supplies have ended up in the hands of terrorists and evildoers instead of people who really need it. Is this a not-so-subtle shot at corruption and inefficiency in international agencies? Was I the only person who thought about stuff like the UN’s Oil for Food scandal?

~If it looks like the BBC, sounds like the BBC, whines like the BBC, and peddles doom and gloom like the BBC . . . Well, chances are, it’s the BBC – specifically, BBC News. Check out the news report Stark’s watching on TV when he finds out about Gulmira’s weapons cache. The film’s news has no logo on it, but the reporting’s tone and content basically shriek out “I’m BBC!” Come on, there is such a thing as “BBC-speak,” and no news outfit on the planet is as good as the BBC for trafficking in human misery and tear-jerking prognostications of total disaster.

~From the Sibling and his technophile friends: “What the heck is Tony Stark doing using Dell servers? Should he be using, like, a supercomputer?” It’s called product placement, bud. And I hadn’t even noticed the Dell computers in the movie. To the Sibling: YOU COMPUTER GEEK YOU.

Pepper Potts’ Fancy Footwear

Remember my comment in the first review about Pepper’s shoes? As the ladies and I were talking after the film, my friend Alessandra spontaneously declared: “There’s no way Pepper Potts could run in those ridiculous shoes.”

I burst out laughing. The issue of shoes maybe is some kind of female instinct. We KNEW, because at various times we’ve all had to wear beautiful but totally impractical shoes. Pepper’s teetering heels look like they’re four inches high or more, and I guarantee you that if I wore them, I might look fantastic, but I’d be utterly immobilized. And then I’d need big-time orthopedic surgery.

“What’s the Air Force doing driving Humvees in the desert?!”

This was the comment from a friend with a military background. Implied in that too was the idea that hey, somebody else should be doing that desert driving – and that’s the Army. I hadn’t a clue, but my buddy pointed out a number of things; she should get hired as a consultant on the next film with a military presence!

~The female soldier driving Stark’s Humvee identified herself as an “airman.”

~The uniforms weren’t those currently being worn by the US Army.

~Despite all that, the name “1st Cav” was printed on the Humvees. (Need a refresher on who the First Cavalry Division is? Yes, they’re ARMY.)

~“Those are Humvees we have in the States, not the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

~“If someone’s shooting at you, why would you get out of your armored vehicle?” (Because otherwise Stark wouldn’t end up in his sticky situation? It’s a movie, after all.)

Pet Robots

The ladies were intrigued by Stark’s little pet robots – especially the overly enthusiastic fire-extinguisher-bot. There’s also a rather oddly touching moment with another little ’bot that wins the praise “Good boy.” Not quite R2-D2, but all this makes me want to rush off and see the new Disney-Pixar film “Wall-E” as soon as it opens – its robot star is going to be adorably cute. But I digress.

We’ve Found the Solution for Our Dependence on Foreign Oil! Or Not.

Now I hadn’t thought about this per se, but gentle reader Don did. I give you his comment:

. . . that miniature reactor was pretty cool tech and apt to lead to a lot of great technologies both civilian AND military, possibly even medical.

Think of that baby powering a car, Maddie! No more stupid corn ethanol, no more gas pumps, just seal off the Middle East and watch the mullahs starve as nobody wants their frigging oil anymore.

By George, he’s right! That would be pretty awesome. *grin* Well, I’ve long been an advocate for increasing research and development, for firing up the tech sector, showering down
incentives, and turning the geeks loose to find alternative solutions . . . ! We’ve a lot more potential there than in a million Kyoto Treaties or Al Gore sermons or ethanol subsidy boondoggles. I’ll tell you this now: I have more faith in tech geeks in R&D than in politicians and activists.

Glorious Geek Joy and Tech Lust

OK, this is especially for the Sibling and me, so if you’re not mad about technology, computer wizardry, and the delights of being a brainiac geek or nerd, you don’t have to read this! I’ve tried explaining this, but maybe it just doesn’t make much sense unless you are also a technophile. Anyway, part of why we love this film is its sheer mind-blowing, breathtaking technical wizardry and enthusiastic delight in techno-toys, engineering, and computers. When the Sib and I first saw Stark’s awesome basement workshop, I thought we were going to pass out right then and there. Come on, 3-D virtual rendering, pet robots, Jarvis the AI, and a million shiny cool doo-dads, doohickeys and gadgets! We’re suffering from tech lust. And what’s the Iron Man suit if not the ultimate tech-toy? Heck, you can even use your cellphone hands-free in the darn thing!

That’s another thing too. For us, just watching Stark make the suit through trial and error was one of the best parts of the entire movie. You have to realize that the Sibling and I were always on the science, computing, and tech teams in high school; we used to participate in all kinds of science competitions from Odyssey of the Mind to Science Olympiad to software programming contests and more. I didn’t go to my senior prom because I was at a national science competition with my friends. That was the sort of nerdy, geeky, but delightful and brainy life the Sibling and I shared with our school friends; nowadays I’m just a fan and amateur enthusiast of science and technology (I decided to be a PhD doctor instead of a medical one – do you really want someone like me operating on you?), but the Sib is a professional computer expert. Tech lust is in our blood; our relatives include engineers aplenty. We just LOVE tech stuff. The movie resonated with us on a very personal level—hence the ridiculously rapturous response. Stark takes what the Sib and I love – and makes it so much cooler. The whole thing is some kind of glorious geek fantasy. Oh, and when Stark first went flying outside in his exoskeleton, that was too cool for words – the moviemakers did very well in creating a sequence that captured the thrill of figuring out that wow, you can FLY at super speed. Stark whooping and laughing with delight in his helmet was a great image. What a rush, man. We’re green with envy!

And, yes, I guess you can say that the Sib and I are fans of Tony Stark for the sake of his brains. As the Sib said admiringly, “He’s an inventor. A genius inventor.” I’m taken with the whole idea of using your brains; the entire business in the Afghan caves, with Stark MacGyvering his way out, was a great sequence. Add up all the elements: brains, brawn, humor, and butt-kicking tech—what a potent cocktail. I quote another critic noting that Stark doesn’t have any superpowers in himself, really: “his heroism is all handicraft, elbow grease and applied intelligence.” The result is absolute, unashamed brainy geek joy over the power of creativity, inventiveness, intelligence, and technical brilliance. Besides, (girl-talk here), smart is attractive. And as Alessandra added, “That suit is HOT.” Mmm, you can say that again.

Here’s some Geek Joy and Tech Lust for everybody. Heck, yeah.

Political Rorschach Test

This flick seems to be different things to different people – or at least, people seem to see their own political persuasions reflected in it. I’m only going to say this: I’ve read reviews identifying the movie as both pro-war and anti-war, pro-conservative and pro-liberal, and I think this is all great. Why? Because it means that the moviemakers haven’t overwhelmed the film with any one particular, obvious, beat-you-over-the-head bias. It’s probably too much to hope that the overwhelmingly leftist Hollywood would make movies actually sympathetic to conservative or traditional values and viewpoints, so it’s nice to get a film that doesn’t go around actively stomping on them, blatantly bashing America and the military, and/or inserting heavy-handed political commentary. I might be (to some people, anyway) an evil campus subversive reactionary, but I still want entertainment, not sanctimonious lectures, when I go to the cinema. Really, if you take this film overall, it’s kind of a centrist film. It’s there to have a good time, and it wants you to have a good time too.

I have to say this, though. I don’t think the post-Afghanistan Stark is really as much a liberal peacenik as some people think he becomes. Sure, in a knee-jerk, impulsive decision, he wants to shut down weapons manufacturing at Stark Industries when he comes home. But is anybody an actual pacifist peacenik if he personally dons a weaponized robotic exoskeleton to go unleash deadly force on terrorists? Stark’s self-imposed (and totally unilateral) mission to Gulmira is, if anything, reminiscent of an entirely opposite perspective: he identifies hostiles and civilians in clear terms (no moral ambiguity or moral equivalence there), doesn’t even try to talk to (much less negotiate with) the hostiles, and dispatches them without hesitation. Then he just as decisively disarms the remaining terrorists by blowing up their weapons supplies (and he later tells Rhodey, proxy for the US military, “Looks like somebody did your job for you”). Hm.

I don’t want to get into a big digressionary discussion about the use of force or the role of arms, but here’s a thought: both in the Gulmira incident and Stark’s captivity sequence, it’s clear that there is a time and place for the use of force. Stark and Yinsen, no dummies, both know that their captors aren’t to be trusted.

A related thought is about Stark and his weapons manufacturing. I’ve heard some critics call him a scion of the leftist-bogeyman “military-industrial complex” and/or an unscrupulous arms dealer and profiteer who doesn’t care where his products end up. Is he really just churning out weapons willy-nilly to the highest bidder? I just don’t think so. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be so upset to see his weapons end up in the wrong hands. The whole point to his “epiphany” is that he discovers that, without his knowledge or approval, Stark weapons are in the possession of the bad guys – and that those weapons are being used against the wrong people. There is one short but important segment where the usually-flippant Stark agonizes that his weapons are now being used against American troops, the very people he meant those arms to protect and defend. He actually uses the words “protect and defend” – that’s pretty significant. Interestingly, Stark doesn’t moan about being shredded by his own weapons as much as he talks about how other people are affected.

As for his entire guilt trip, I think it’s a littlest bit overblown (since it was really Obadiah Stane who was responsible for the arms shipments), but hey, it’s for the plot, right? Thank goodness guilt soon turns into action, not moping and self-flagellation.

In the end, the whole angle about armaments and foreign involvement isn’t the most important thing going on in the flick. This subplot disappears as soon as we figure out that Stane is the one whose machinations are wreaking havoc. Cue the Iron Monger-versus-Iron Man throwdown! Yeah, baby! (Who cares if it’s an echo of every clanking, screeching mech warrior/guyver/Tranzor Z/Voltron/Transformers robo-rumble fight? It’s just darn cool.)

Well, that’s all, folks. I’m going home to see my family in a few days (finally!!!), and I’m sure that, once reunited, my Sibling and I will be going back to the cinemas with all our buddies too.

In general: Look for more reviews and non-academic summer silliness here in the near future!

UPDATE: The Cinema-Mad Sibling has a guest review. Enjoy:

Review: Ironman (2008)

At the behest of a sibling of mine, I was encouraged to hasten my efforts in producing a review for Ironman, as it's been quite a while since I've put forth the effort to collect my ever-scattered stream-of-consciousness thoughts into legible text., if it were ever so simple...So here we go, it's me Mario...

You know, before the trailers and stuff, I never really knew much about Tony Stark or Ironman, or the history there with Avengers, etc. So sue me, with the comic world (i.e. Stan Lee's head) being so crammed with endless characters and stories, hey you're bound to let a superhero or two slip thru the cracks. I was much more a Batman/Superman fan, with Batman Begins to me was being what a superhero origin movie done right. Would IronMan be up to the challenge?

Fortunately, yes, and it indeed exceeded my expectations greatly, and lived up to the all the reviews and the hype, 93% fresh on Rottentomatoes. Renaissance man/actor/writer/comedian/producer/director Jon Favreau put together a production that hones in on audiences want to see: a smart, funny action-filled, character-driven story that balances that all those ingredients carefully, resulting in an enjoyable 2 hours of summer movie.

A quick summary: man inherits family business that makes weapons. Discovers weapons are in the wrong hands the hard way. Uses wit to MacGyver himself from terrorist captivity by protecting himself with an iron suit made from missile scraps and busting out. Perfecting his designs and using technology to fight the enemy, destroying any of the weapons that wrongfully fell into their hands. Finds his purpose, to protect the people. Fun ensues.

Characters were all developed nicely with fun interchanges among them. Robert Downey Jr plays Tony Stark as the cool hero, genius child prodigy with a penchant for machinery, sarcasm, and women. His character grows from the man we see in the beginning and there is a learning curve in a matter of speaking. This hero is not endowed superpowers by the sun nor midichlorians in the bloodstream. No, he is a normal everyman who has to figure out with his wit and brain how to solve problems. He finds his destiny and embraces it.

The special effects people have outdone themselves. That suit is just bdazz. I'll take two. Cool robot action reminiscent of Transformers and Robocop pepper the movie. Though most of the fun parts were the getting there - seeing Stark's various trial and error outings with the mechanics of his would be superhero garb, seeing that it's not perfect at first, it's not all there at once. Step by step and slowly taking shape, adding realism to the whole enterprise.

I for one would see this again. I saw it twice, and took some friends that would probably have not gone to proselytize 'em. When I first told this girl, she asked is it about Triathlon? Great, this'll be fun, hehe. Well turns out she really liked it and told me so, and that she never would have gone had I not taken her. That's what a good comic book movie should be - accessible to all ages and crowds. Ironman dazzles, shines, and throws in a bit of hot rod red in this summer movie season.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

China: Grieving Parents Criticize Government Officials

Here is a follow-up to a recent post about the numerous school buildings that collapsed in the Chinese earthquake.

The parents of the schoolchildren who died in the disaster are now voicing their grief and rage. Blurb:

DUJIANGYAN, China — Bereaved parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan Province have turned mourning ceremonies into protests in recent days, forcing officials to address growing political repercussions over shoddy construction of public schools.

Parents of the estimated 10,000 children who lost their lives in the quake have grown so enraged about collapsed schools that they have overcome their usual caution about confronting Communist Party officials. Many say they are especially upset that some schools for poor students crumbled into rubble even though government offices and more elite schools not far away survived the May 12 quake largely intact.

. . . The protests threaten to undermine the government’s attempts to promote its response to the quake as effective and to highlight heroic rescue efforts by the People’s Liberation Army, which has dispatched 150,000 soldiers to the region. Censors have blocked detailed reporting of the schools controversy by the state-run media . . .

Consider too how much worse this is emotionally, given China's one-child-only policy.

A Thought on Global Poverty -- and Curing It


I like this observation:

The solution to being poor is getting rich. It's economic growth. We know this. The mystery is why all societies have not adopted the obvious remedies. Just recently, the 21-member Commission on Growth and Development -- including two Nobel-prize winning economists, former prime ministers of South Korea and Peru, and a former president of Mexico -- examined the puzzle.

Since 1950, the panel found, 13 economies have grown at an average annual rate of 7 percent for at least 25 years. These were: Botswana, Brazil, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Malta, Oman, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Some gains are astonishing. From 1960 to 2005, per capita income in South Korea rose from $1,100 to $13,200. Other societies started from such low levels that even rapid economic growth, combined with larger populations, left sizable poverty. In 2005, Indonesia's per capita income averaged just $900, up from $200 in 1966.

Still, all these economies had advanced substantially. The panel identified five common elements of success:

· Openness to global trade and, usually, an eagerness to attract foreign investment.

· Political stability and "capable" governments "committed" to economic growth, though not necessarily democracy (China, South Korea and Indonesia all grew with authoritarian regimes).

· High rates of saving and investment, usually at least 25 percent of national income.

· Economic stability, keeping government budgets and inflation under control and avoiding a broad collapse in production.

· A willingness to "let markets allocate resources," meaning that governments didn't try to run industry.

Op-Ed: Conservatives and the GOP

Well, a huge part of the current GOP's problem is the fact that it's forgotten what it means to be conservative. This op-ed points that out. Blurb:

As congressional Republicans contemplate the prospect of an electoral disaster this November, much is being written about the supposed soul-searching in the Republican Party. A more accurate description of our state is paralysis and denial.

Many Republicans are waiting for a consultant or party elder to come down from the mountain and, in Moses-like fashion, deliver an agenda and talking points on stone tablets. But the burning bush, so to speak, is delivering a blindingly simple message: Behave like Republicans.

Unfortunately, too many in our party are not yet ready to return to the path of limited government. Instead, we are being told our message must be deficient because, after all, we should be winning in certain areas just by being Republicans. Yet being a Republican isn't good enough anymore. Voters are tired of buying a GOP package and finding a big-government liberal agenda inside. What we need is not new advertising, but truth in advertising.

You can say that again.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Movie Review: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

It’s been a few days now since I saw “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” with some friends, and it’s time for a little review. I’ve thought about my initial disappointed reaction – and, well, it still stands. Here are a few more thoughts (and, yes, I wrote them when I should have been doing research. Shhhhhhhh – don’t tell the Nerd Lords!).

Maybe this movie should actually be titled “Indiana Jones and the Weight of Completely Impossible Expectations.” There was no way that this movie could possibly meet the hype, hopes, and expectations that surrounded it (even if it just raked in $100 million over the holiday weekend). The original Indiana Jones trilogy of movies has become pop culture icons and – more than that – a temple of affectionate nostalgia visited by an entire generation of people like me, the “children of the 80s.” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out when we were small, and we basically grew up with the trilogy. By the time Sean Connery and Harrison Ford rode into the sunset at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” we too were riding off – into young adulthood. The original Indy became, for me anyway, inextricably tied with all those life memories and experiences of a particular span of time; those movies became more than mere movies – they were the touchstone for a generation as it grew up.

All that nostalgia is both good and bad for seeing the new, fourth Indy film, released years after the originals. The nostalgia is bad in that it raises expectations sky-high for the new movie. At the same time, though, the nostalgia is good in that it creates a wave of goodwill that drives people to the cinema and lets them (or at least, me) gloss over the new movie’s flaws. I ended up liking the film rather a bit more than I probably should have – because of the nostalgia factor alone, not because of the movie’s own merits. I went into the theater nervously hoping, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck,” and I’m pleased to report that the movie does not, in point of fact, suck.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” isn’t a bad movie. But it’s not a great movie, either. If anything, it left me feeling unsatisfied and antsy. Something was missing. It took me a while to figure this out, because the movie is full of action sequences and set-pieces and references/homages to the other Indy films. It has mystical objects! Car chases! Dangerous exotic locations! Scary flesh-eating insects! A host of bad guys out to get Indy! CGI mayhem on a grand scale! HARRISON FORD AS INDIANA JONES, for goodness sake! Yet . . . Why wasn’t I happy? What more could I possibly want?

The answer is “fun.” Pure popcorn movie fun. The missing ingredient was the sense of adventure and fantasy, of letting yourself go on a thrilling ride of imagination. There really is such a thing as movie magic. When it works, it sweeps the audience away to totally different places – while making the enchanted audience forget that all that fun is the product of filmmaking. The trouble with the fourth Indy film was a sense that it was trying – and trying really, really hard. The sense of exhilarating, effortless FUN was missing, along with the sense of zestful, energetic filmmaking that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The jokes in this film seemed to fall short; the (admittedly impressive) panoramas seemed to be art without emotion. I kept waiting for the film to hit its stride and give me an iconic moment – like the famous “fight” between a weary Indy and the showboating kung fu assassin. I kept waiting for a scene that would hit that high note. It never came.

The movie gave off a distinct sense of being too self-conscious. It reminded me of (uh-oh) George Lucas’ latter-day Star Wars movies. They too had struggled mightily to deal with the iconic status of their predecessors – and failed miserably. They’d also forgotten about the fun factor in their titanic effort to match expectations. Relax: Indy 4 is not the flaming chunk of worthless space debris that the new Star Wars trilogy is. Still, it shows a few of the same symptoms and the same feeling of overworked contrivance. I found myself thinking that maybe this film needed less George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; maybe what it needed was a touch of Michael Bay. (Good grief, did I just say that out loud?)

This review sounds as though I’m damning the Indy movie with faint praise. The movie has flaws aplenty, but it does have a few great moments too. When you first see Harrison Ford don his famous hat . . . when he first brandishes his iconic whip . . . when you first hear the unmistakable notes of the Indiana Jones theme music . . . when you see the first shot of Karen Allen reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” who can – and does – give Indy a run for his money. Those are great moments. Unfortunately, they, coming at the beginning of the film, are promises that the rest of the movie never quite keeps.

In terms of setting and plot, the movie is set during the 1950s. Indy’s enemies now are not the Nazis, but the Soviets, led by the campy, kitschy, gun-slinging pseudo-scientist Irina Spalko, played by a spastically energetic Cate Blanchett. (By the way, what’s the deal with that terrible haircut? Maybe Spalko pretends to pay her hairdressers, and they pretend to give her a coiffure. I’m thinking that hm, capitalists have better hair.) The goal for everybody is an artifact shaped like a crystal skull, rumored to possess (what else?) mystical powers. The final revelation about the true nature of the artifact is pretty much preposterous, even compared with the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail from previous flicks. You’ll see why – and then you’ll wonder if George Lucas had sneaked into the movie.

Aside from Spalko, Indy is joined by various others. Marion Ravenwood I’ve mentioned, and though she and Indy start arguing and bickering as though no time had passed at all, the chemistry seemed just a tad off. Indiana also soon acquires – or, rather, is acquired by – a sidekick, a leather-wearing young rebel and Fonzie-wannabe named Mutt (played adequately if not memorably by a poufy-haired Shia LaBeouf) who has an identity issue that anyone with two brain cells can spot from a mile away. Big burly Ray Winstone is also in the cast, though frankly he’s wasted as a character who has no real impact either emotionally or creatively. A wispy John Hurt is on board as a nutty soothsayer type of fellow – because I suppose you can’t go questing for magical objects without having a nutty soothsayer along to dispense bizarre warnings. Maybe it’s a union requirement. Anyway, Hurt’s most memorable caveat is “It falls three times,” leading straight into an action sequence so completely ludicrous that I laughed. Besides the manic Spalko, though, I kept getting the impression that the performances were a little off, that they weren’t operating at 100%. The thrill is gone -- or at least faded. (In fact, I started thinking of this eternally awesome Onion satire.)

The final analysis? Despite its flaws, I really think you should go see this movie, especially if you’re a “child of the 80s.” Go and watch Indy take up his fedora one more time. Go and spend two hours of nostalgia-fueled entertainment. Go and see what might be the redeeming theme of the film: the idea that age is only a number and that at any point of life, the hardy hero is ever ready and willing to do what he should and must. Add too that the choice of Karen Allen as the love interest, not some dewy, doe-eyed young starlet, was very astute. After all, courage, adventure, and love are not only the province of the young, and that’s a nice thought for all of us “children of the 80s” as we live our own, now-grown lives.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” runs for 124 minutes and is rated PG-13 for action sequences and some scary images.

Mad Minerva gives this movie a grade of B-.

My friend and fellow movie fan Alessandra D’Ambrosio gives it a grade of 85 out of 100, a solid B.

Rotten Tomatoes gives “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a very respectable rating of 78%.

This is the official website for the film.

Nerd Note 1: This made me laugh: in one scene, a professor says that it’s time to retire if people start hunting Communists in academia. Well, Indy 4 is set in the mid-1950s. In 2008, practically the only hard-core, unrepentant Communists left in America are . . . in academia! Oh, OK, I’m kidding. Sort of. (Seriously, nowadays if you want to be a subversive academic, you should be an evil capitalist – or a libertarian – or a real conservative.)

Nerd Note 2: Look for one action-chase sequence in which Indy skids into the library. An undergrad, oblivious to the obvious fact that Jones is otherwise occupied, walks up and asks about homework! And Jones actually replies. Hey, in real campus life this sort of thing happens all the time! A grad school friend said the same thing when she saw the scene. Some undergrads will just walk up to you as if you’re a vending machine for information, and they won’t have any clue that maybe you the instructor are busy and that maybe you’re not holding office hours right then! Listen, this past semester, this happened to me IN THE BATHROOM. A student walked up and asked me about an assignment right there at the sinks and mirrors. Can’t I even visit the bathroom in peace? Well, at least I wasn’t also being chased by a bunch of artifact-seeking crazy Commies. (And, yes, I answered the student’s question.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Nerd Notes: Thoughts by a Professor Teaching Intro English

Oh, dear. The professor has a point, even as he has a very hard time doing his job.

Geek News: the Latest from NASA's Phoenix Mission to Mars

Lovely update for all you astronomy and space exploration enthusiasts out there (myself included): the Phoenix has landed on the Martian surface.

Check out the mission overview at the NASA website.

Nerd Journal: Back to Work

The holiday weekend is over, and I'm back in the library. UGH.

There you have it, gentle reader. Academia. It's not just a course of study. It's a LIFESTYLE.

UPDATE: Screw it. I'm going to write my full review of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Look for it tomorrow. The first reaction is here. And don't tell the Nerd Lords I'm doing this instead of research that I should be doing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Happy Memorial Day

I'm off with my buddies again, but I would be remiss if I didn't wish everyone a Happy Memorial Day, and especially to all those who were or are in the armed services--a big thank you. See a related post at Dignified Rant too.

Actually, this project looks interesting. It's starting today: an effort to send the largest shipment of care packages in history to American troops. It looks like a great idea for a great cause. Perhaps you'll look into this or any of the various charitable efforts that are available for doing something practical and useful for the guys and girls in uniform.

I suppose I could now write an entire post full of historical references about the role of the American military in peace and war -- and how it's been a force for good overall from helping in natural disasters to holding the line against totalitarian regimes -- but it's a HOLIDAY, and my buddies are waiting. I'll leave it up to you to think about these issues, OK?

Have a great holiday, everyone!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

China: Collapsing Schools and Issues of Shoddy Construction

This isn't good at all. During the recent earthquake in Sichuan province, schools collapsed like houses of cards, crushing and killing numerous children and young people.

But other buildings in the same area often did not fall in the same dreadful way. Are we looking at substandard, shoddy building materials and procedures for Chinese schools?

Here is a blurb:
But the number of student deaths seems likely to exceed 10,000, and possibly go much higher, a staggering figure that has become a simmering controversy in China as grieving parents say their children might have lived had the schools been better built.

The Chinese government has enjoyed broad public support for its handling of the earthquake . . . But as parents at different schools begin to speak out, the question of whether official negligence, and possibly corruption, contributed to the student deaths could turn public opinion. The government has launched an investigation, but censors, wary of the public mood, are trying to suppress the issue in state-run media and online.

Hello Kitty Monstrosity of the Day: HK is Japan's New Tourism Ambassador

This is fresh from my inbox, courtesy of the Coffee Pot Dictator himself. I'll have you know that he commented on this story thus: "Mwahahahahaha!" Evil, sheer evil.

Come, gentle reader! Feast your terror-stricken eyes on this headline: "Hello Kitty Named Japan Tourism Ambassador."

In this capacity, she is actually an envoy of the Japanese government. Is this the Imperialism of Cuteness?

A photo follows of Hello Kitty with Japan's Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister, Tetsuzo Fuyushiba. The horror, the horror!

Preview of Movie Review: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Very quickly now, since I'm about to fall asleep simply sitting here!

I just saw a very late showing of the fourth Indiana Jones movie, and my first impressions were:
  • At least it didn't suck the way I feared it would
  • But neither did it rock the way I hoped it would
  • The plot seemed both too farfetched and too predictable
  • It also seemed to run too long and yet leave me unsatisfied and wanting more
  • Not nearly enough chemistry between Harrison Ford and Karen Allen
  • The opening of the film was blah, utterly blah.
  • What was the Ray Winstone character good for, anyway?
  • Cate Blanchett's Russian accent is ridiculous. In fact, her entire character is too.
  • I never really felt engaged with the film, the plot, or the characters. Not really.
  • Two of my favorite movie reviewers (Libertas and Kyle Smith) both panned the film . . .
  • I'm beginning to think that my money should have gone for a viewing of the Prince Caspian film or, heck, go another round with Tony Stark because I just GOTTA see that robo-suit again.
  • If you really want real Indiana Jones magic, go get the DVD of the glorious "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Now THAT'S the Indy we want, full of punch, energy, wonder, danger, adventure, and fantasy.
PS: It's past midnight and now officially May 25, so a very happy birthday to my fellow movie fan, the Cinema-Mad Sibling!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Geek News: iPhone 2.0 Launches Worldwide on June 9

My Sibling was able to resist the siren song of the first iPhone . . . but can he do it again?

As for me, even I'm looking at the new iPhone with undisguised tech-lust.

Wired is saying that the iPhone 2.0 will launch worldwide on June 9. Ooooooooooooooh!

Nerd Journal: FRIDAY AT LAST!

I'm so happy I could cry.

Instead, I'm packing an overnight bag and fleeing out of town later today to see some dear old college friends. I told nobody at school -- certainly no Nerd Lords or academic types. What people don't know can't hurt . . . me. Ha! People can think I'm spending the weekend locked up in my apartment with research papers, but I'm planning on going out with my girls for dinner and movies and ice cream and talking all night and enjoying a break!

This is Memorial Day weekend coming, the unofficial start to summer!!!

*MM flees, leaving a swirling cloud of papers behind.*

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Taiwan: New President Ma and His Inaugural Speech

The View from Taiwan blog has an in-depth look at Ma's inaugural presidential speech.

Do take a look.

Honestly, I'm still unhappy about the KMT in general, though clearly the DPP dropped the ball in all sorts of ways. Ma's just starting out, though, so I guess all I can do is wait and see.

I do have to point out one little piece of the English translation of Ma's speech:

"Dr. Sun Yat-sen's dream for a constitutional democracy was not realized on the Chinese mainland, but today it has taken root, blossomed and borne fruit in Taiwan."

Interesting. Well, my wise old grandpa (he was a lifelong teacher of history -- I guess my apple didn't fall far from his tree) used to say that Sun Yat-sen was the only person both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese could agree on was a Good Guy.

Aside from that, I find Ma going back to Sun to be rather a gloss over nitty-gritty real history. Yes, today there is a vibrant (if still young and growing) democracy in Taiwan, and we should all be supporting it. BUT that democracy didn't just appear magically out of thin air. People had to work hard to develop it -- after 50 years of one-party rule and martial law by . . . the old KMT. Ummm, yeah.

Movie News: Christian Bale = John Conner!


Lieberman: Democrats and Foreign Policy

The eminent senator from Connecticut has a few home truths to say:
How did the Democratic Party get here? How did the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy drift so far from the foreign policy and national security principles and policies that were at the core of its identity and its purpose?

. . . A great Democratic secretary of state, Dean Acheson, once warned "no people in history have ever survived, who thought they could protect their freedom by making themselves inoffensive to their enemies." This is a lesson that today's Democratic Party leaders need to relearn.
Indeed. Also, note that in a departure from most political commentary these days, Lieberman actually seems to have learned a bit of history.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nerd News: America's Top 1300 Public High Schools

Here is the complete list of the top high schools in the US. Is your high school on the list?

I am delighted to report that my own high school is on the list. It had been one of the top schools in the state when I attended, and indeed it was famous for its academics (of course, the football team reeked of failure, but you can't have it all!).

Ah, high school memories. Good times, good times. Yes, the Sibling and I, along with all o ur friends, were involved in all sorts of school activities and clubs and groups -- including a very competitive science team, in which I was one of the biology nerds (people thought I was going to be a medical doctor) and he was on the computer science side of things. Here's a memory for you: I never went to my prom . . . because my science team and I were competing at Nationals! And I think we quite possibly had more fun.

I know, I know: N-E-R-D-S and G-E-E-K-S!

Sexism at the Cinema? Plus, a Rant!

I really don't have time for this. But I can't help it . . . and I haven't had a good rant in a long time, so here we go!

Look at this little bit of moaning and gender-drenched pewling in the New York Times. The writer whines:
Nobody likes to admit the worst, even when it’s right up there on the screen, particularly women in the industry who clutch at every pitiful short straw, insisting that there are, for instance, more female executives in Hollywood than ever before. As if it’s done the rest of us any good. All you have to do is look at the movies themselves — at the decorative blondes and brunettes smiling and simpering at the edge of the frame — to see just how irrelevant we have become. That’s as true for the dumbest and smartest of comedies as for the most critically revered dramas, from “No Country for Old Men” (but especially for women) to “There Will Be Blood” (but no women). Welcome to the new, post-female American cinema.

Nowhere is our irrelevance more starkly apparent than during the summer, the ultimate boys’ club. Over the next few months the screens will reverberate with the romping-stomping of comic book titans like Iron Man and the Hulk. The sexagenarian Harrison Ford will be cracking his Indy whip (some old men get a pass, after all, especially when Steven Spielberg is on board) alongside the fast-talking sprout from “Transformers.” Hellboy will relock and load, tongue and cigar planted in cheek. Action heroes like Will Smith, Brendan Fraser, Nicolas Cage, Mark Wahlberg and Vin Diesel will run amok, as will funny guys like Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Steve Carell, Jack Black and Seth Rogen.

The girls of summer are few in number, and real women are close to extinct.

OK. Where do I start? Oh, heck with it, do rants need organization like a grad school paper? I don't think so.

First of all, the writer is making a basic mistake that quantity is quality. Oh no, this person shrieks: there aren't enough female faces (according to the writer, please note), so the sky is falling and all of us modern women might as well give up on our individual lives and careers and go back to Victorian-age corsets and kitchens. Get real. The place of women in modern American society is not suddenly under threat because of a few movies. Nobody's going to bar me from a job or an education because I'm not a man. Besides, and this is a basic idea here, movies aren't the same thing as objective reality.

Furthermore, the writer seems to think that women should be offended about the summer slate of movies. What, am I supposed to go to the movies only to look through gender-colored glasses? Whatever happened to going for fun? I am absolutely insulted that ANYBODY presumes to make sweeping judgments about what women like to see (or should like to see) at the movie theater. While it is true that a significant percentage of women like to see films about romance or relationships (i.e., the "chick flick"), that doesn't mean ALL women like such films. In fact, I usually avoid "chick flicks" because I am not interested in watching emotional goo plastered all over the movie screen. Besides, this entire sentimental genre basically assumes that the relationship trumping all others is the romantic one. Well, I hate to rain on your parade, but if you go through life like that, you're going to have a miserable time. Romance is great and all, but it can be fickle and fleeting, and the idolization of popcorn insta-romance puts all kinds of pressure on real-life relationships.

Second of all, movies are about a free market of entertainment. Studios make movies that will (they hope) make lots and lots of money. Look, is it so incomprehensible that a movie doesn't have to have a female lead in order for me to go see it? Let's look at the writer's big wail about how summer action films are heavily populated by male actors. So what? Is it SO FAR OUT OF THE REALM OF POSSIBILITY THAT SOME LADIES LOVE ACTION MOVIES TOO? That action movies aren't only for the boys? Could it be possible that action movies could appeal to all sorts of people of both sexes? And if you think there's no such thing as a girl who prefers action movies to chick flicks, then HELLO, my name is Mad Minerva, and I'm pleased to meet you. THERE! Now let's go see a cool summer movie, shall we?

Take a look at how the writer moans about "our irrelevance." She is making an attempt to find solidarity here with female readers, I suppose. Well, here's an idea. As long as I have money in my pocket, I am not irrelevant to the movie industry. I still choose what movies (if any) I want to spend my money on. And in the free market of movies, I -- and the millions of other average folks like me -- are relevant. Why else would studios spend all that time and money on advertising? Because we don't matter? Nope, because we do. We vote with our movie tickets. As for the writer: DON'T PRESUME TO SPEAK FOR ME, EVER.

As for the people starring in the supposedly offensive and anti-woman films? Look at the "offending" list of actors that the writer cries about. The list includes actors whom I really like to watch, so of course I will go see their movies! DUH. Will Smith, Brendan Fraser, Nic Cage? I love their work! I'm so THERE for their films. Hmm, if I know Will Smith is starring in a film, I will automatically go and see it. Does that make me a bad feminist? Actually, on the other hand, I can't think of any actress who will make me automatically go see her film. Maybe I really am a bad feminist! But I'd rather see Will's brand of action-comedy than almost every actress's best attempt at chick-flick-hood. I like ensemble casts too, like the great ensembles of "Ocean's Eleven" or "Serenity."

Going on! Is it also such a weird thought that maybe women can actually exercise individual taste and choice to -- hmmm, oh, I don't know -- like a wide variety of movies? Movies with all sorts of different characters in them? Is it so hard to believe that one moment I want "Casablanca" and the next I want "Transformers"? (And NO, "Casablanca" is not a "chick flick" in my interpretation of the modern term.) One moment I can want "Sense and Sensibility" and the next I want "Lord of the Rings" or "Iron Man"? Am I supposed to show my gender solidarity by only wanting and seeing feminist-approved films?

Try this thought on for size: given a choice at my cinema between two current movies, "Sex and the City" and "Iron Man," guess which one I'll choose every single time? I have zero interest in the tiresome foursome of "Sex and the City." Yes, yes, some enlightened social commentators tell me that they're supposed to be soooooooo revolutionary for women. Excuse me if I think otherwise (oddly enough, the writer of the whining piece seems to think the same). Those 4 are intelligent, educated, professional women with lives and careers of their own in New York City, one of the greatest cities in the world for culture. Yet what are they constantly doing? Chasing after men, talking about men, gossiping about men. Men, men, men. Nonstop. Enough already!

What are my female friends and I doing when we get together? Are we likewise obsessing about men? Here's a shocking slice of real life. The last time I was hanging out with a friend, the last thing we did that evening was chat briefly about guys -- and we did that as an afterthought. Before that, we spent hours -- literally hours -- discussing tax policy, politics, economic concerns, work, school, family, and friends. BELIEVE IT. We talked about taxes before men. And we were laughing and having a great time at it too, swapping songs on iTunes and iPods, catching up on our lives, going for coffee and sweets. Aren't we a picture of what real feminism is supposed to be about? Independent and free, educated, self-sufficient and responsible young women taking charge of their own lives, receiving help from nobody and being successful and happy. Here's a bigger shocker. Neither of us are "campus liberals." Instead, we both trend for center-right and libertarianism. Surprise! Or not. We're too busy making productive lives to be whining about "not enough women in the movies." Frankly, I think that makes us better actual feminists. Plus we don't hate men!

As for the movies. When I went to see the spectacular "300" (that is, by the way, as far from a "chick flick" as you can get), I went with yet another fellow moviegoer and school friend who . . . wasn't a guy! FYI, I also see a great number of movies with my dear Sibling and our friends who are both guys and girls, but I especially see films with the Sibling, because it's a great way to spend time together AND we have very similar tastes in movies.

OK, OK, some of you are possibly asking: well, Min, are you saying that you are only interested in things that blow up on the summer movie screen? I will confess that sometimes I'm also happy to watch the fine folks making things blow up -- and all the happier if they're good-looking guys! And the better-looking and more interesting and substantial and heroic the men, the better. Give me some of that old-time heroic confident masculinity with that popcorn . . . though these days it's easier to get the popcorn. (OK, excuse me while La Parisienne -- another good strong woman like my other friends -- and I sigh over Gerard Butler.)

One more thing: the writer has this final bit of crying: "the truth that when audiences look up at the screen what they want to see are faces much like their own." Errr, sorry to burst your bubble, but that's NOT ME ALL THE TIME. I don't necessarily want to see exhausted, coffee-soaked, bleary-eyed Asian-American library-dwellers poking at slow laptops and collapsing on book tables. Sometimes, just sometimes, movies are about escapism -- about getting a fantasy glimpse into somebody else's world, not my own. Uh, SURPRISE -- that's kind of the point about frothy summer movies! That's why we go! (Besides, if I want to see faces that look like my own, I have the glories of Asian cinema -- but that's another post.)

I'll end now -- partially because I have to get back to work, and partially because the stench of rank identity/gender politics is beginning to choke me. Besides, the writer of the piece actually mentions female genitalia, and I think that's plain vulgar. Why do gender-based whines almost always devolve into anatomically-based argument? Good grief, as if that's all that matters. News flash: people are actually more than the sum of their anatomical . . . parts. In additional to reproductive parts, people do have BRAINS. And if you're really smart, you use your brain a lot more often in a lot more situations.

So let me close by going back to the newspaper article. Its title is (I am not kidding) "Is There A Real Woman in This Multiplex?" The answer is, YES. *ME.* Now will you please sit down and be quiet because I'm trying to see a film and you're in my way!

Nerd News: Gorgeous Manuscript at the British Library

Dating from the 17th century, a spectacular illuminated manuscript of the Indian epic poem the Ramayana is now on display at the British Library until September 14.

And I'm stuck on the wrong side of the pond! At least the British Library has a website of the exhibit, complete with a few pages available online.

Last time I was at the British Library, I had a chance to see another lovely manuscript, the 7th-8th century AD Lindisfarne Gospels. So don't miss those if you go.

Hello Kitty Monstrosity of the Day: Pink Kitty Phones Will Invade Britain in July


Yep, nobody has successfully invaded England since 1066 -- until Hello Kitty came with her inexorable and dreadful cuteness.

Taiwan: Chen's Legacy via Reuters "News"

I found this link at the ever-readable View from Taiwan blog. There Michael Turton has a commentary on a news story by Reuters, but I can't resist making a few remarks of my own.

In a nutshell? This Reuters piece is, for a large part of it, laughably bad. Here is how it begins:
His wife may have been indicted for graft and his anti-China rage upset major ally the United States, but departing President Chen Shui-bian charted Taiwan's future by firming up its self-identity and cooling down Beijing.
"Anti-China rage"? Biased much, Reuters? I love how some ludicrous "news" outfits love to portray Taiwan as the troublemaker and China as the innocent bystander. It's all Taiwan's fault. Oh, wait, there's more!

Chen's provocative China stance, including talk of seeking formal independence and efforts to join the United Nations, also raised hackles from once staunch ally the United States.

Washington is legally obligated to help Taiwan in a war against Beijing but wants good relations with China, as well.

Damage to U.S. ties will be repaired only if Ma breaks new ground with China without capitulating to Beijing's political demands, political experts in the United States and Taiwan say.

Chen's other major legacy, his emphasis on a Taiwan identity over the Chinese one promoted by Ma's Nationalist Party (KMT), is more likely to endure as Hong Kong-born Ma is expected to tread softly on the issue, analysts said.

Does Reuters dare to dignify this bit of rubbish with the name of "professional journalism"? If one of my undergrad students had written this in an essay, I would have circled it in red ink and demanded to know just who these "experts" and "analysts" actually were -- plus full documentation.


Monday, May 19, 2008

Thoughts on Foreign Affairs: Doing Versus Talking

Take a look at this comment by Mark Steyn:

Increasingly, the Western world has attitudes rather than policies. It's one thing to talk as a means to an end. But these days, for most midlevel powers, talks are the end, talks without end. Because that's what civilized nations like doing – chit-chatting, shooting the breeze, having tea and crumpets, talking talking talking. Uncivilized nations like torturing dissidents, killing civilians, bombing villages, doing doing doing. It's easier to get the doers to pass themselves off as talkers then to get the talkers to rouse themselves to do anything.

And, as the Iranians understand, talks provide a splendid cover for getting on with anything you want to do. If, say, you want to get on with your nuclear program relatively undisturbed, the easiest way to do it is to enter years of endless talks with the Europeans over said nuclear program.
So true.

I still like TR's adage, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Yes, I mean a bigger stick than the other guy's.

UPDATE: Time for a foreign policy debate.

UK on Burma Cyclone Disaster: Unilateral Humanitarian Intervention

Ninme called this sort of thing "unilaterally aidvading."

Here is the news story and blurb:
Britain would support unilateral humanitarian intervention in Burma if the military government’s refusal to accept foreign aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis results in epidemics and widespread deaths, Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office Minister, told The Times yesterday.

Lord Malloch-Brown was in Rangoon, the former Burmese capital, as part of an international effort to break the deadlock which has left many of the 2.5 million victims of the cyclone bereft of food, shelter, fresh water and medical care. The United Nations’ humanitarian chief, Sir John Holmes, arrived in the city last night and Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, will also travel to Burma this week to make the case for an aid operation fronted by SouthEast Asian nations, India and China, but containing a strong UN component.

But Britain has not ruled out supporting action under the terms of the UN’s 2005 New York declaration, which sets out the “responsibility to protect” populations from crimes against humanity using “appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means”. In a radio interview on Saturday, Gordon Brown referred to the possibility of unilaterally dropping international aid to stricken areas of the Irrawaddy delta, where as many as 129,000 people are believed to have died a fortnight ago.

“As far as air drops are concerned we rule nothing out, and the reason we rule nothing out, is that we want to get the aid directly to the people,” Mr Brown told the BBC.

I had mentioned this type of idea previously. The entire idea of "responsibility to protect," coming from the UN, makes me laugh -- and not in a good way.

As usual, the conduct of the Burmese ruling junta is shocking in its wickedness, but not surprising. There is no inhumanity like that practiced by a bad ruler on his own people, in the cause of self-interest.

At the same time, "aidvading" opens up a whole other can of worms.

UPDATE: Samizdata has a piquant description of this idea as: "Invade the country -- kill the generals -- feed the people." Errrrr . . .

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Movie Review: "Iron Man"

I raved about this movie right when I saw it, and I haven't changed my mind as I post a full-length movie review! (This review is especially for the Cinema-Mad Sibling. Thanks for taking me to see the movie.)

I hope you’re thirsty, movie fans. “Iron Man” is a huge fresh keg of adrenaline, testosterone, and sheer summer blockbuster movie fun in all its vivid, bombastic glory. More to the point, Robert Downey, Jr. taps this keg with a sledge hammer, wielded with a grin and a wink. Drink up! CHEERS! *Cue here too the excellent soundtrack, thumping and rocking with everything from AC/DC to Black Sabbath. I actually have “Driving With The Top Down” playing as I type.*

Currently the #1 movie in the country, it is quite possibly the best movie of this summer. All subsequent summer flicks have a tough act to follow. If you have been disappointed by the movies so far this year, and if you were disappointed with last summer’s sequel-filled and mostly lackluster movie season, “Iron Man” is a reason to celebrate with loud raucous abandon. And add this note for the bean-counters: You can celebrate too, guys: since its May 2 release, “Iron Man” has been an absolute money magnet, already pulling in nearly $200 million in the US alone as moviegoers flock to the theaters. Of that, about $25 is from the Sibling and me, and we are assuredly going to add more, since we’re determined both to see it again AND bring friends to the party AND get the DVD.

The star of the show (in all manner of ways) is the extraordinary Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role of Tony Stark, the technological genius, colorful and fast-living playboy, and billionaire weapons tycoon who becomes the titular hero, Iron Man. Frankly, I had my doubts about Downey’s ability to pull off this role. All I could associate with him were rather misty roles as Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s “Chaplin” and as a 17th-century noble in the arty period film “Restoration” (1995). Add to all this the long parade of degrading tabloid fodder of Downey’s real-life personal struggles with drugs, self-destructive behavior, and time in jail, and I wasn’t convinced this apparently washed-up, battered soul of 43 years had recovered to be superhero material. I have never been so happy to be so wrong about a casting decision.

My kudos to the fine folks who cast Downey. “Iron Man” not only relaunches his career; it hurls that career straight into the stratosphere. He is absolutely perfect for the role, and his performance alone is worth the price of admission. The man can ACT, and he portrays Stark with a mix of witty intelligence, sheer guts, swaggering bravado, frothy insouciance, sardonic humor, towering confidence, and even glimpses of vulnerability that makes Stark a human as well as a hero. You can’t help but cheer for him and forgive his shortcomings and peccadilloes (of which he has plenty). The danger in playing Stark is that an actor may make the character too glib, too slick, too offensively self-centered, too much of an arrogant jerk. Downey made him both real with flaws yet believably super-heroic as a lovable rogue. Iron Man is the awesome butt-kicking robot suit; Stark is the human being within. (Hm, there’s probably a metaphor in that somewhere about technology and humanity, but I’m not on campus and refuse to think deeply!)

(And a note. This is girl talk, so if you guys don’t care to read, you can skip to the next paragraph. I can’t help myself; I have to say it. I am vastly relieved and delighted that the lead in this film is an unapologetic grown man. FINALLY, a grown man – an adult who has some depth and substance to him! Really. Downey, Jr. is not like the endless hordes of effete young pretty-boys who swarm over the cinema screens like a plague of plastic Ken dolls run amok. Thank goodness Orlando Bloom isn’t anywhere near this movie! I don’t care if pretty boys are fashionable. I don’t want one. Be honest, girls: Aren’t you even a little tired of watching sniveling twentysomething-year-old boys preen, pose, and prance around? If I compare them all to cotton candy, pretty but inconsequential and ultimately empty, then Downey, Jr., older, in the prime of life, and bursting with a raw and slightly dangerous energy, was like a gorgeous steak kissed by the open flame. Save room for dessert, though – that’ll probably be Christian Bale as Batman in the upcoming “The Dark Knight,” but I’m getting ahead of myself here.)

A quick plot summary is in order. “Iron Man” is based on the comic book hero of the same name. Don’t worry if you know nothing about the comic books (I didn’t either); the film unfolds its story and leaves nobody behind. Stark, while in Afghanistan to demonstrate a new weapons system to the U.S. military, is wounded in a bomb blast and captured by cave-dwelling Afghan terrorists. (By the way, was I the only person surprised that this film dares to do what most films now won’t do – and depict terrorists as actual bad guys?) His captors demand that he build a weapon for them; he agrees, but while constructing a device to keep shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him, he also builds a crude but effective robotic suit for himself. In fine fashion he administers a gigantic butt-kicking to his tormentors and escapes into the desert, eventually to be rescued by the US military. Along the way, he makes the grim discovery that somehow stockpiles of Stark-manufactured weapons are in the possession of the bad guys. Once back in the States, he builds a second, more advanced flying robotic suit (a process that includes several amusing complications along the way), and turns himself into a weapon. More on this in a minute.

Aside from Downey, Jr., the supporting cast is also solid. Gwyneth Paltrow, returning to the movies after some time off being a mom, is cute and effective as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts. Terrence Howard has a lovely turn as Stark’s faithful (and often exasperated) friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes. He also has a few of the best lines in the film, delivered with a lightly humorous touch.

I’ve mostly raved about the film so far. Does it have flaws? Well, all films do. “Iron Man” has a few little things that I can point out, though these are all minor things.

One: The first hour of the movie is nearly perfect (one of its many memorable lines is simply “My turn.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. My fellow moviegoers were yelling their delight at this one!). The second half comes up a bit short in comparison, but only in places. My problem isn’t really about the actual plot as much as it’s about character motivation. After escaping from his Afghan captivity and returning to the US, Stark calls a press conference and announces that he will no longer manufacture weapons. He’s horrified to find that some of his armaments have ended up in the hands of America’s enemies, and he now decides that the way to stop this continuing is to stop making weapons at all. Well, OK. That’s one approach. It’s also the wrong one. Seriously, what’s to stop the bad guys from getting weapons from some place else? Meanwhile, you’ve deprived the good guys (i.e, us) of advanced weapons. How’s disarmament supposed to defend us? What you ought to do is figure out how the weapons are leaking to the enemy and stop that. And as things turn out, Stark -- and we -- eventually discover that Stark’s own corporate partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, who doesn’t quite give enough of a villain performance) is behind these dirty dealings . . . and also determined to get rid of Stark. Cue the nemesis and the ultimate smackdown. (Anyway, on this point Stark was better in his pre-captivity days when he was boldly in favor of peace through strength. Libertas has a few related thoughts as well, so I’ll link to his comments and spare you more of my babbling.)

Two: (Spoiler Alert, so skip this paragraph if you won’t want to hear some details about the final action sequence.) In the final climactic showdown between Iron Man and Stane (all kitted out now in his own robotic suit), I didn’t like the fact that the resolution came with Pepper Potts pushing a button. I mean, REALLY. We see two huge metal hulks engaged in scene-ripping mortal combat, and then the end comes with a mere BUTTON? OK, so it was a button pressed by Pepper’s immaculately manicured finger, but still! It was such an anticlimax. I wanted to see Iron Man personally turning his foe into scrap metal.

Three: There is no way that Gwyneth Paltrow can run for her life while wearing those cute ankle-strap high heels she had on. She’d either break a heel or twist her ankle. It’s just that simple. OK, OK, this third complaint is a joke – well, mostly. YOU try running in these heels, pal.

In the end, what about “Iron Man”? This is not a subtle movie. This is not an understated movie. It is not a movie that concerns itself with morally ambiguous nuances, existential questions, social issues, or political hand-wringing. There is a time and place for all that, but this is neither the time nor the place. This is summer! “Iron Man” is about unabashedly enjoying the movies at last after a wearyingly long stretch of cinema gloom and doom – and it’s about embracing the essence of the summer blockbuster. Look, sometimes I just want to turn off my brain and watch a cool guy put on an awesome robot-suit, make wisecracks, blow stuff up, and save the day. Is that really too much to ask for? It’s all-American action fun, and “Iron Man” delivers like Fed Ex. Pass the popcorn!

“Iron Man” runs for 126 minutes and is rated PG-13 for action sequences, a very brief love scene, and some suggestive language.

Mad Minerva gives this movie a grade of A for sheer fun and summer movie eye-candy.

Yes, an A! MM almost never gives As, so pay attention when she does! (Admittedly, this happened after an intense cellphone argument with the Cinema-Mad Sibling, who argued passionately on behalf of the film . . . and I was so happy to be done with school and so relieved to get a decent movie at last that I was feeling extra generous! Apparently I’m not the only one, because . . .)

RottenTomatoes gives “Iron Man” the astonishingly high rating of 93% (!)

This is the official website for the film.

PS: A Nerd Note: In one scene, Stark and a hostile reporter carry on a conversation that calls out two elite universities by name and slams them for their famous leftist tendencies – a scene that absolutely made me laugh out loud.

What are you still doing here? Get out there and go see “Iron Man”! (And be sure not to leave until ALL the credits are over. There is a cool little surprise at the end of the credits.)

UPDATE: Follow-up comments and a second look here.