Category Archives: Films & Television

The Wire

My wife and I are currently deep into the fourth season of The Wire, one of the most highly recommended series on QT3. In fact, a number of noted critics from among many others TIME, Entertainment Weekly and The Guardian, have called it the greatest television show ever made. The Guardian in particular loved it so much it ran a blog devoted to it with an update after every episode and for a while made the first episode of the first season available for download on their own website. Yet this was a series that struggled to find an audience when it was on the air and that has conspicuously failed to win any Emmys.

It’s not hard to see why. While the series is presented as a crime drama and the first season certainly does its best to trick you into thinking that it is one, the show is really a wide-ranging window into the world of Baltimore and the people who must live in it. As such, it’s uncompromisingly realistic, ambitious and deep. True to the demographics of the city, the cast is principally black. All characters use authentic dialogue, so it takes a while for the uninitiated viewer to get to grips with what they’re talking about. The street-level gangsters talk in slang. The police and their legal support staff use technical jargon.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender

I guess one good thing to be said about the M. Night Shyamalan’s version of the story is that it got me and my wife watching the original series. The reviews for the film were uniformly horrible, so we had no desire to watch it. But its release prompted plenty of discussion about the cartoon series and more than a few QT3 posters wistfully reminisced about how great it was and how far short the film fell in comparison. As we had just finished watching Naruto Shippuden and were looking for something new to watch, she agreed to try a few episodes. We ended up watching all three seasons.

For the benefit of those who have no idea what it’s about, here’s a quick overview. The series is set in a fantasy world composed of four separate nations, each representing one of the four elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth. Certain people from each of the nations are capable of bending their respective elements, manipulating them with a combination of concentration and martial arts moves. The four nations are supposed to co-exist in harmony but the Fire nation has become aggressive and has embarked on a war of conquest against the other nations.

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Ok, so we’ve just finished watching the final season of Lost. Admittedly, by the time we had gotten to season 3, it was mainly me pushing to watch it. That was around the time when it became painfully obvious that the writers had no clue what they were doing and were just making things up as they went along. That was bad enough, but what really ticked my wife off was the stupid back-and-forth characterization: Kate loves Jack, no, she loves Sawyer, nope, she still loves Jack. This made character development a joke and all but ensured that audiences cared not one whit for the characters.

Still, I insisted on watching for a variety of reasons. It’s worth remembering just how fantastic and promising the first season was. This was a major television series made using near theatrical-quality cinematography and high production values. It had a huge ensemble cast, some of whom gave truly stellar performances. It was a mainstream show, yet drew extensively on science-fiction and fantasy themes. And even if it ended up promising more than it could deliver, it successfully created a compelling and fascinating mythology of its own. Considering how much we’d already invested in the show, I thought we might as well see it through to the end.

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Inception is a disappointment

As usual, I don’t write film reviews, only critiques and analyses, so get the hell away from this post if you have yet to watch this film. Come back only after you’ve done so.

Anyone who reads this blog should know that Christopher Nolan is easily my favorite director and that I eagerly look forward to every film that he makes. This has been true ever since I first discovered Memento. Since then, I’ve watched every one of his films, except for The Following, which I understand is sort of a student film made on a shoestring budget. With the sole exception of Insomnia, which, being an adaptation of a Norwegian film, is competent but otherwise unremarkable, all have been stellar.

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Ip Man 2

Despite all of the bad things that I had to say about the first film, Ip Man was still genuinely enjoyable due to the freshness and authenticity of its martial arts scenes. I am sad to say that this is not true of the sequel. While there is certainly a frisson of thrill as one anticipates the showdown between Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, the overall quality of the fights in the sequel is dramatically lower, making it a thoroughly average martial arts film.

One of the reasons why the first film was so exciting was because it featured martial artists with styles that were visibly and palpably different one from the other, even to the inexpert eyes of martial arts laymen. This was possible because the film frequently used full body shots of the actors and long camera takes. This contributed to the feeling of the fights being authentic and grand, making every punch and every kick feel real and visceral.

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Little Big Soldier

Like so many Chinese families these days, we ended up going to the cinema on the very first day of Chinese New Year. Both my wife and I were unenthusiastic as we now have very low expectations of Chinese films, especially whenever Hong Kong celebrities are involved. But we went along anyway as it was a family outing. The idea was to try to watch one of the specifically Chinese New Year themed movies but due to the unavailability of tickets, we had to settle for Little Big Soldier. In retrospect, it was easily the best out of all the films that we could have watched that day.

Despite starring Jackie Chan and being set in the Warring States period in China, Little Big Soldier is neither a martial arts film nor a war film. Though it has elements of both, it is at heart a buddy film in which two characters bond with each other over the course of the story. American-born Wang Lee Hom is competent but otherwise unremarkable in his role as an honorable general of aristocratic stock even if his spoken Mandarin is still noticeably accented. Jackie Chan, however, turns in a surprisingly fresh and entertaining performance as a canny footsoldier who does whatever is necessary to survive, even if means taking cowardly measures and resorting to underhanded tactics.

It’s surprising because I usually find Chan to be insufferably annoying. He basically plays the exact same character in all of his movies with his physical comedy and acrobatics skills as the primary draw. But in Little Big Soldier, he plays against type and while there he still gets to be the comedy and acrobatics guy, both elements are carefully doled out in measured rations as opposed to the usual practice of doling gags out by the spadeful and hoping that some will stick. Thus restrained, his character feels sympathetic, down to earth and realistic.

Another thing that struck me is how genuine and honest this film felt. So many Chinese period films now go for the epic feel. They want to show vast armies and sweeping vistas. They want to tell stories on a huge scale about larger than life characters doing heroic stuff. Little Big Soldier by contrast has a small cast and a very focused and tight vision that feels at odds with the heavily commercialized fare we’re used to from most period films. As my wife and I discussed, the big budgets and big name cast of the epic films probably limit directors to more conventional storylines designed for maximum mainstream appeal so they end up being commercialized dreck that don’t stand out.

Finally, I note with interest that the director Ding Sheng is a virtual unknown with only two entries to his credit on IMDB. Of course, if this had been an epic action movie from the conventional mould, the studio would have gotten a big name director to do it, but it must still have been a brave choice. I also note that this film was conceived by Jackie Chan over 20 years ago and he originally cast himself in the role of the young general instead of the old soldier. Probably no one thought it would make money and indeed I don’t think this film has received much attention or earned much money. That’s a pretty sad indictment of the state of the Chinese film industry right there.

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Strangely enough, I first discovered the existence of this film while browsing through a video rental store in the Solomon Islands. There was no way in hell that any of my colleagues would be the least interested in it so I didn’t manage to watch it then but I do wonder sometimes at whoever thought to bring it into that country. Since my wife recently procured a Chinese version of Atlas Shrugged from Taiwan and read it, I thought it would be a good idea to finally get around and watch this film.

First of all, there’s nothing that’s really new to me in this film as I’ve long known how much of a mess Ayn Rand’s life was. Michael Shermer’s article The Unlikeliest Cult in History is a pretty good summary. The main thing about this account that particularly stood out for me is how sympathetically it portrays Barbara Branden’s role in the events. This is hardly surprising as the film was based on the book by Barbara Branden but it’s notable how manipulative and cynical both Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand are shown to be while Frank O’ ConnorĀ  is a doddering hanger on who’s too stupid to understand anything. Barbara Branden by contrast is shown as an intelligent woman who simply makes the mistake of allowing herself to be dragged along by the odd ideas of her husband and Rand.

Another thing is how astonishingly different Helen Mirren looks in this film compared to say, her performance that is probably best known today as the title character in The Queen. Everything about her including her demeanor, her accent and the way her hair curls at one side, combine perfectly to make her a believable Ayn Rand. In fact, all of the actors do a great job and names like Peter Fonda and Julie Delpy are hardly run of the mill television fare. It’s a made for tv movie but its production values are high enough that it could almost pass as film made for theatrical release.

Still, the subject matter is so esoteric that I can’t really imagine it being the least interesting to anyone who doesn’t already know about Ayn Rand and her work. The film makes no attempt to explain Rand’s philosophy so I would imagine that the motivations and rationale of the different characters must have been mystifying to those unfamiliar with it. Where it does succeed is in communicating that Ayn Rand was indeed a woman and a fiercely passionate one at that. It also shows how difficult it was for her to finish writing Atlas Shrugged and implies that her relationship with Nathaniel Branden was instrumental towards that end.

Overall, this film probably isn’t worth watching unless, like me, you’re one of those whose lives have been greatly impacted by reading her work. Even so, I think I would have preferred to watch a film of her early life, detailing her flight from the Soviet Union to her early success with The Fountainhead. The Passion of Ayn Rand begins with her as a writer who is already established and successful and focuses exclusively on the unconventional relationship between the four main characters. As an author whose work continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies a year even today, I think her life deserves a more complete and complex film than this one.