Category Archives: Films & Television

Spartacus: Blood & Sand

It seems that the new trend for television series is to have short seasons, averaging 12 to 13 episodes per season, rather than the normal 20 to 23. Since incidences of this trend correlates strongly with the quality of the series, this is something that I very much approve of. The latest example of this that both my wife and I enjoyed is Spartacus: Blood & Sand, and boy, has it been a wild ride.

As usual, I first read about the series on QT3. The initial buzz was quite poor however and after I learned that the people who worked on it were also some of the same people who were responsible for Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, I sort of lost interest. But then a weird thing happened. Usually shows get hyped up and then interest levels off after a while. Instead, Spartacus premiered as a bit of a damp squib, but then garnered more and more critical acclaim.

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My wife and I watched the new Shaolin during the Chinese New Year holidays. As my wife commented, it looks like a shoo-in for the Hong Kong film awards. For my part, while it’s production values are undeniably sky high and it has decent kung fu, the Buddhist philosophy is conveyed is far too blunt and heavy-handed a manner. I tend to agree with this reviewer’s take on it being a self-indulgent extravaganza. Since it was made with the close cooperation of the real Shaolin temple, it’s no surprise that the temple is portrayed in excessively reverent terms.

For anyone curious what the real Shaolin temple as it exists now is like, this article from the National Geographic magazine is much more interesting. Most of it is a very respectful account of the last respects paid to a Shaolin master, Yang Guiwu, as well as a meeting with his most famous student, Shi Dejian. It’s quite amusing how the modern world has managed to intrude into the world of ancient martial arts.

Shi, having decided that the Shaolin monastery has become too busy and too worldly for his purposes, has retreated to a more secluded and difficult to access mountaintop where he has built his own monastery, but as he recounts, his fame is such that even this does not dissuade admirers and challengers. Within the space of a week, he has had to entertain a television crew who had brought along a professional mixed martial arts fighter to challenge him, a research team from Hong Kong University who wanted to study how his meditation regimen has affected his brain activity and a Chinese Communist Party official who wanted him to cure his brother’s diabetes.

The article is too polite to criticize the Shaolin temple too harshly but it’s hard to shake the impression that the writer is at least disdainful. He describes how the temple was, contrary to the portrayal in the new film, essentially a wealthy estate with its own private army and its has frequently being criticized throughout its history for its riches and its taste for luxurious furnishings. Today, the various projects the temple is officially involved in include television and film ventures, an online store selling Shaolin branded products, touring kung fu troupes and a plan for Shaolin franchises abroad, including one in Australia. It appears that many of the workers at the temple, wearing robes and bearing shaved heads, aren’t even monks at all but employees paid to look the part.

Such is the importance of the kung fu teaching industry that theĀ  city of Dengfeng is now full of competing martial arts academies who pay commissions to touts to welcome new arrivals and bring them to their schools. The masters interviewed for the article even bemoan how high kicks and acrobatics aren’t part of Shaolin kung fu at all, but students expect them and so many academies incorporate these moves into their repertoire. So it turns out that even at Shaolin itself, traditional Shaolin kung fu is in danger of being forgotten as students learn what is effectively the movie version of kung fu instead.

The Walking Dead

My wife and I have just finished watching the first season of The Walking Dead series, which isn’t that hard considering that it’s only six episodes. My interest was first piqued by Han’s mention of the series and I even downloaded some copies of the comic to check them out. But it would have been impossible to avoid the buzz on QT3 anyway. Not only is the series about zombies, but one prominent QT3 member, Gary Whitta, formerly editor of PC Gamer and currently a Hollywood screenwriter, appears in a cameo role as a zombie in the premiere episode. This led him to release photographs from the set before just about anywhere else on the net.

Six episodes is too little to go on to form much of an opinion but so far I’m impressed that they’ve mostly managed to avoid having the survivors get into trouble by making stupid mistakes. They make solid plans that take account of the zombies’ capabilities, place appropriate value on stocking up on firearms and ammunition, take care to kill zombies silently whenever feasible etc. One great example is when one sister cradles the corpse of the other sister, knowing full well it was going to be zombified. It would have been cringe-inducing if it had turned out to be just another cliched example of someone being too emotionally weak to do what was obviously necessary. But the tough sister turned out to have her shit together after all.

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Any review that I could possibly write about this film must pale in comparison to Gordon Cameron’s excellent post on his blog Picture’s Up, so I’ll just link it. Some observations of my own:

  • The characterization and pacing feel a bit off. The slave Davus’ conflicted loyalties don’t seem very convincing at all. He clearly adores Hypatia and has a talent for science, but is attracted towards the egalitarianism of Christianity. But how does that drive him to bloodlust? He just seems far too enthusiastic about the sacking of the library than the situation warrants.
  • Similarly the flash forward to several years later feels clumsy. Suddenly we see that Orestes, who was happy to grab a sword to kill Christians, is now the Prefect and has been baptized himself. It would have been more believable if the film had previously established him as being ambitious and willing to go along with the tide for political gain. As it stands, it’s odd how he seems to think of himself as a genuine Christian even in private.
  • My wife totally caught how the filmmakers had chosen to garb the Christians in black robes and generally look and act like the stereotypical Muslim terrorists of our time. This is something that Marginal Revolution picked up on this too.
  • Some reviewers have claimed that the film is a condemnation of all fundamentalism rather than Christianity specifically but I can’t think of a single sympathetic Christian in the film. At least the Pagans were shown to respect knowledge and seem generally more civilized and orderly, even if they started the violence first. Plus, of course, even Hypatia clearly thought that owning slaves was perfectly normal. But the Christians are just a hateful bunch throughout. Even when Davus is handing out bread at the church, the beggars look like greedy locusts who eagerly take whatever is offered and eat it without so much as a word of thanks or a moment of appreciation. Then there’s Davus’ questioning of whether the Christians should consider forgiving their enemies and the rebuke he gets in response.
  • My wife says that Synesius is totally evil at the end and I agree. His brand of evil is certainly more scary than that of Cyril. The latter is just the typical religious demagogue. It’s not even clear that Cyril is passionate about Christ. He just seems interested in power. Synesius however seems to genuinely think of himself as being a good friend to both Orestes and Hypatia, and believes that wholehearted acceptance of Christ is what’s best for them, regardless of what they actually want or believe in. He’s scary because there’s no reasoning with him. Cyril at least could probably be cowed with sufficient application of temporal power.
  • Gordon Cameron thinks that the truest emotion the film evokes is frustration about how easily such valuable progress in human knowledge can be lost. While the film tries to play up that angle, especially obvious with the scenes of Hypatia and her colleagues desperately trying to save as many priceless manuscripts as they can before the mob, I don’t think this is what really rings out to me. After all, Hypatia didn’t seem to work very hard to ensure that her own insights would be recorded for posterity. Instead, the strongest emotional reaction I had was the fearful power of mob rule and how it utterly ignores reason and facts. The frustration that I felt was not so much the loss of knowledge but the downfall of civilization and the end of what seemed to be peaceful and orderly lives for so many.

Anyway I’m glad I watched this film but then as I’m one of those militant atheist types. Setting this aside, I don’t think I could say that this is a very good film. It’s a good subject matter and it’s shot beautifully enough but it’s too handles too many things too awkwardly. It does make for a wonderful film to troll Christians with, if I could ever convince one to watch it with me.

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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