Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Eastern Promises, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Russian Mob.

Eastern Promises is a story set among the Russian mob of London. A London midwife, Anna, delivers a baby to a dying "junkie". The only clue of the mother's identity is a diary written in Russian. In the diary is a business card for a Russian restaurant, The Trans-Siberian. Anna's uncle can read Russian but refuses to translate, "bury her secrets with her". In desperation she turns to restaurant of the business card, The Trans-Siberian. The kindly restaurateur who helps Anna with translating turns out to be a little too involved.

Middle class morality is often held to ridicule and derision. In our western countries we have such nicely smug bourgeois lives that we forget there are much worse ways of organizing society. Soviet Russia was resolutely not a bourgeois society, its operating principals did not allow for the rule of law but for the will of proletariat. There were often times when "ordinary" criminals were better treated then political prisoners. For more insight into Soviet prisons read The Gulag Archipelago.

The thing about migrations is that the people, tribes, clans, sects, who had to move are the losers. They had to move, there were pushed out. Why they had to move can vary population explosion to economic collapse. The message from the fall of Rome is that other people's population growth, internal struggles, economic problems is a threat to everyone because it encourages migration that if unchecked will seriously damage the "host" community. Other countries successes, lots of children, or failure, not enough jobs for all the children, can destroy our own happiness no matter how removed they are from own own.

Inconsistency alert. This movie take place in London but within the London Russian emigre community, the Russian mob types are all recent arrivals and the the nurse is secound generation. There is some display of orthodox icons and religiosity by many characters. However the characters, both the gangsters and the semi-assimilated family of the midwife refer to Christmas as happening on 25 December on our Gregorian calendar, rather than Christmas occurring according to the Orthodox Church calendar or approximately two weeks later.

Friday, March 16, 2007


There is something seductive about lost causes. Such doomed causes let one overlook the dubious ideal they represent. The Confederacy was a doomed cause that also wished to continue slavery. Stalingrad was a battle where German forces were ultimately defeated by forces, the Soviets that were more murderous than the Nazis. Boudica and Vercingtorix maybe celebrated today but the Gaul and Britain they fought is more alien to their descendants than Rome. The Spartans fought for theirs and Greece's freedom but their Sparta was a slave state organized for repression. We can sympathize with lost causes without being adherants to them. In Sparta's case even though Spartans are a garrison culture their actions at Thermopyle protected Anthens and others who we as a culture owe so much.

I don't need to tell you story of Thermopyle or of the movie 300. Any movie based on historical events is spoiler proof. A historical drama isn't to impact facts, those facts are often wrong see World History Blog for more info, but with any history it is the story, argrument and moral of history that is enlightens. Leonides grows up and becomes king of Sparta. In first part fo the story about Spartans other less savory aspects of training were not covered or illustrated. Spartans boys when living in the wild were encouraged to steal fool and to kill slaves, if they were caught they would be severely punished. Our story begins with a Persian ambassador asking for Sparta's surrender. The Ambassador is killed. King Leonides marches out with only 300 men, political wrangling prevent full mobilization. Leonides and the army and some other Greeks come to the Hot Gates, Thermopyle. The Perisans attack, attack, attack, attack, attack. Eventual the Spartans get worn down.

The movie is one long poem. It begins with the story of Leonides birth, childhood and adolesence. This is shown as a long montage with narration by Dilios but in reality it was Aristodemus, one eyed and survived the battle. He is shown mid point in movie narrating the heroic epic of Leonides. At the very end we see him at Plataea ending the story with:
Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, by Spartan law, we lie
A review in Slate complained about the lack of armor, the leather manbriefs. On the otherhand look at this version of Thermopyle painted by David there is nary a brief to be seen. The movie attempts successfully to look like greek art. Apparently Iranians are upset about the way the Persian Empire is depicted. Cultural relativism is all very good however if Greece have fallen western civilization would have been strangled at birth. We would have a different culture. Harry Turtledove wrote a story where the Persians won, Counting Potshreds, where oriental despotism continued forever. Through the Spartans were anything but enlightened democrats they helped preserve Greece way of life and indirectly our own.

I am not Greek or Persian. However at the root of our western civilization is Greece and all its works. Now we can look back to a time when we, that is our cultural ancestors, were nearly wiped out. Because of that we are naturally sympathetic to ancient Greeks and their problems. Some Iranians are so angry with a movie about ancient Persia's failed colonial venture that they have started a petition. If you have an anticolonial viewpoint the Greeks were right to resist Persian imperialism. However much some Greeks might admire some aspects of Persian culture.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Casino Royale

Casino Royale is a rebooting of the Bond franchise. In comic book terms a new creation story, comic books often start with a hero fully formed. Later only after character is established is a creation story told. Casino Royale is the first Bond movie I have seen where we get to see how the hero comes to be. We even get to see his first two kills before the opening credits.

We meet Bond on the edge of his promotion. He is a corner of a dark office. A man, according to IMDB Dryden enters and recognizes Bond. The man takes out his gun, no magazine. Dryden attempts to browbeat Bond because has never killed anyone, Bond doesn't have the balls. We see a flashback of a messy brawl in a public bathroom. Dryden continues that it is a terrible thing to kill a man; it is hard, blah blah blah. Dryden, "The second is... "Bond drills him a new eyesocket saying "Yes... considerably". I am not going to describe any more of the plot because the movie kept surprising me, you should watch it yourself.

The fun of an origin story is that you can learn where all the hero's trait, habits, vices, and friends come from. You know the result but you want know the reason why and how. This is what makes the TV series Smallville interesting not because Superman is interesting but it is the process of an unfamiliar character becoming the one we know. As the story unfolds you wait for the character you know well to order a Martini, drive an Aston Martin, meet Felix Leiter, do a whack job. We find out in the opening scenes that Bond has just made been given his license to kill. I think however that his license might not be honored by all police everywhere.

Cliché alert, I have seen many crime, thriller and spy stories where the movement and transfer of attachés cases are important. What is in the cases varies between cash, drugs, bearer bonds and laptops of creepy Swiss bankers or something so important and impressive that we the audience never discover like in Pulp Fiction. There is commonality between all these stories in that the piece of luggage is almost always a silver hard bodied case like this. The problem is that walking around with that kind of case is a little conspicuous. The one time I can recall some one using a different kind of luggage for swag is when Vic and boys, the semi corrupt cops from The Shield, ripped off a drug dealer. Then Vic and company used big sports equipment bags to pack and transport the unbundled cash. If I was going to move around something valuable and illicit I would try to blend in.

Unlike the earlier films James Bond doesn't play Baccarat. Instead he plays poker seven card stud in a high roller game. According to wikipedia "the unabridged version of [Casino Royale] includes a primer to [Baccarat] for readers who are unfamiliar with it". This change is another part of the updating/rebooting of the story. Baccarat was the game because it was a popular high roller game on the Rivera. Now because of TV and the internet poker is more popular than Baccarat ever was. Poker doesn't have the same glamour of Bacarat that became almost a cliché of James Bond.

This is the best James Bond I have seen. Last year a local station ran all the Bond films in sequence Friday night. Some Bond film are very good, like Dr No, some very bad, anything with Roger Moore. The best ones had a cool cheesiness, the worst rancid cheese. This film is the first Bond film suitable for lactose free diets not just lactose reduced.

The usual characters and situations do not show up. There is no Q or Miss Moneypenny. There is no jokey tech briefing by Q. The electronics used instead are near off the shelf. There is little point in today's technological environment to show cool new gadgets when today's cool tech toy can be tomorrow's 8-Track. There are two points where the spyware verges into sci-fi. Cell phones are tracked not just to the cell but to the metre. Bond is implanted with a tracking device that can track him worldwide. Else wise Bond has a cell phone and an enemy's phone. The only tech he has otherwise is gun, knife, boot, fist.

Moral: A stranger is an enemy you haven't met.

Extra joke: One of the characters in the poker game is named Fukutu.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Children of Men

Children of Men is dystopic view of the world eighteen years after the end of human fertility. It is a story about the journey of a mother, Kee, and child to safety and the hero, Theo, who helps. Their journey is across a Britain reshaped by demographic collapse and mass migration.

The story begins with the youngest person in the world dying in Argentina. Our hero Theo enters a coffee shop filled with sad, shocked patrons and goes outside to Irish up his coffee, cafe explodes. He goes to his office filled with crying white collar workers, takes the rest day off, pleading emotional distress goes a visits a hippie friend in the woods. The next day on his commute to work Theo is abducted by terrorists, The Fishes, who want to talk and a favor. So begins a not very happy time.

Terrorists or freedom fighters are those types who see a virtue in direct action, armed struggle or other political motivated murder. The Fishes in the film is group that is for the rights and privileges of illegal immigrants. That is there avowed aim, that that and power. Eventually the Fishes get more and more direct with their action until they are fighting with the army.

One of the themes in the movie is the evil of immigration control. There are many people who rail against the injustice of not letting people having free movement to go anywhere and to settle anywhere they want. The same type people were also against colonialism when imperialistic powers went where they wanted and settled where they wanted with no control from the local governments. It is not a crime to stop people from entering another country. It is a crime to stop people from leaving. During the recent civil war in Somalia Yemen fired on and sank refugee ships trying to land in their country. This is extreme but not unwarranted.

The techniques and practices of law enforcement especially immigration law enforcement is put in the worst possible light. The level of police brutality is almost at a Judge Dredd level. Suspects are rounded up and placed in cages until moved to badly organized prison districts. The one cop that is humanized is also a corrupt dope dealer. As a side note this points out the problem of being a corrupt cop on your lonesome. Who are going to call if you get into trouble? If you are going to be corrupt you also need a gang for protection and backup. Historically the time times when police corruption is at its worst are when the corruption is systematically organized, see Frank Serpico.

There is a book by Brian Aldiss, Greybeard, that also covered the topic of demographic collapse. In Greybeard the story starts 50 years after the last generation was born. It depicted a society even more warped than the one in Children of Men. There was real depopulation and deindustrialization as people were unable to engage in farming or manufacturing into their 80's. The hero/title character in Greybeard is part of the last generation. In the book the character spends his time looking after his infirm elderly parents and relatives. But not one will look after him. There is still some hope for the world of Children of Men.

At one time futurism was optimism about technological possibilities. After seeing the improvements that aeronautics and radios made to people's lives many could hope for technology fixes for nearly everything. An airplane in every garage/hangar, robot butlers, cities on the moon were all reasonable expectations. Now the only technological improvement/change we can look forward to is better electronics and higher energy prices. Cheaper memory, faster chips, cool new electronic gadgets but no warp drive or other Star Trek tech that everyone from Hugo Gernsback has been telling us to expect.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes is an art film, no not that kind, that follows Canadian landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky as he travels in China photographing factories, waste recycling, demolition, real estate devolopment, and the 3 Gorges Dam. Many of the photos in the movie have been published in his recent book Manufactured Landscapes.

The movie begins with a long dolly shot in a factory. The factory, World Factory is divided int number of bays clustered around slow moving conveyor belts with 50 or 250 working at each. The dolly shot looks down each of bays, then another one, then another one, then another one, then another one, then another one, then another one. Every bay has production and manufacture going on quietly anbd steadily. But not alot of mechanization or automation. The value added and productivity is low per worker with the cheapness of life of labor/life making up the difference. Later as we watch an iron on the assembly line we watch another iron being sorted out of a scrap metal pile by hand. Piles of scrap metal, toys, plastic, and electronic components being carefully sifted by hand.

There is some ambuguity of these images. There can be read both as evidence of the criminal abuse of our planet's delicate ecology. That other way is to view as the socialist realism (or capitalist realism, advertising) paegns to the productivity and growth and economy and other great things. I am sure that in order shoot in China they didn't emphasis the negative. In fact there is a discussion/agruement in the film between Burtynsky, the film crew and Chinese authorities over shooting pictures at a coal shipping depot. The agruement is only captured with stills and recordings, the main cameras turned off maybe. The images even of this stygian locale show both destruction and production, hope and despair.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Life on Mars

Have not many of us been one step away from being permemently esconced in rubber rooms. I know in my last period of mental derangement I looked at corkboards for entertainment. It has been described as walking dreams, difficulty as always in dreams is separate the "real" reality and reality your mind has constructed.

Sam Tyler is a cop, a DCI in Manchester. He is a on the murder squad. He the very model of the modern policeman. He is a stiff. He is by the book following ever tittle and jot of regulations. He suspends his girlfriend from an investigation because she is beginning to "lose her objectivity" That is now. Then Sam Tyler ends up in the past in the '70's, where he also has a identity of a cop. He is back working in the same building as a DI. He back in the past filled with violent, racist cops. The series is a stranger in a strange land working as a cop.

We forget how CSI would be science-fiction not that far in the past. In CSI the one part of a city police departmant is able to do things that only well funded national organizations. At one point in the first episode Sam is told that the it will take two weeks to get a fingerprint match back from London. Without computerization fingerprint matching is long, tedious and expensive in money and manpower. DNA may have been known but DNA matching as a diognostic or forensic tool took a long time to develop.

There is a question about where is Sam. Is the entire series taking place in the past. Is the everythimg just a figment of a brian in shutdown. In the recent Sopranos series Tony was in an alternative timeline where he was a computer salesman. In those episodes there was no doubt that Tony was in a coma. In Mars there is enough doubt that either places, 2006 or 1973 is in some ways a figment of imagination. This was similarly handled in Star Trek DS9 in Far Beyond The Stars, where Benjamin Sisko ended up in the past as Benny Russel who's only connection to "reality" is the sci fi stories he writes about a space station. In the end he believes so fervently in his DS9 life that he is commited. As Benny/Benjamin is taken away on the disoriented express he is told that he is the dreamer and dream. After watching the entire first series I am still unclear what is the reality and what is the dream.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Princess is a disturbing movie that looks at the porn business and child abuse. It is the story of a man, August, who becomes the guardian of his niece, Mia, after his sister dies. The sister had the stage name of Princess. It begins with disturbing a scene and continues with many disturbing scenes and images. Take a look at the image above. It is the memorial for Princess, August's sister and Mia 's mother. The columns may have the right proprotions that Vitruvius specified but are a little too anatomical.

It begins with a man in a dogcollar, a priest, waking into a suburban bungalow. There the priest is confronted by a pregnant woman being being filmed having sex with multiple partners. The priest we later learn is August, the woman is his sister Princess. When the movie starts again after the credits it is 6 years later and Princess has died. After becoming the guardian of Mia his niece, August becomes aware of how Mia as a child has been sexualized by being around her mother and her friends. She has also been abused. August has picked up Mia from a brothel, he can't be too surprised.

Mia increasing exhibits evidence of abuse. Mia sees some kids playing outside the apartmant building and joins them. It is a group of 4 children who already have a Mommy a Daddy, a baby, a dog. Mia asks what see can play, the little girl playing the Mommy, the bossy one, says you can't have more then one dog or baby. Mia says great I'll be the family whore and starts undressing. The little girl playing the mother says may you can be a dog or a cat. Mia continues to disrobe as some boys watch. August notices this runs down to the square and breaks a little boy's arm. This is not the last time August is violent.

August asks that the Princess's videos and other products be recalled. Luckily he knows the the head of Paradise Lust. His initial requests are ignored so August goes on a bombing compaign. The police are not cooperative, even after ears are ripped off. After August finds out that Mia was abused by a Paradise Lust manager he brings her along to interogate the molester. Mia uses a lead pipe to the crotch to get answers. The subject becomes cooperative, however Mia decides to do smash his brains in again, again, again. There is another meeting with the big boss of the of Paradise Lust. The meeting is an ambush and August turns into commando priest leaving the restaurant a bloody mess. Now the police care.

The source for all the crazy anger of August is eventually revealed through the flashbacks of videotape. Spoiler: August was friends with the big boss of Paradise Lust. The company was built with the Princess tapes. August was his sister's first cameraman. He was responsible.

The design of this film is a combination of live action and animation. The humans are stylized with a slight anime edge. Many of the backgrounds are drafted with an architectural rigor. Sometimes the buildings appeared to based on real locations. The remenisces of August are in the form of videotape. The live action is always a videotape memory. The opening sequence is consists of words and images, then the camera zooms way out, and the words appear to part of the pixelation you see in four-color printing. When the camera pulls all the back the printing is commercial porn.

What I learned: Videotape is forever so don't do porn.

Seraphim Falls

Seraphim Falls is a story that illustrates the phrase "I'll hunt you down to the ends of the earth." It is a revenge story. A man is hunted by another man intent on murder, revenge? Along the way the hunted and the hunter(s) come accross a wide variety of humanity. The chance met fellow travelers becomes more and more metaphorical as the trip continues. They ride around groups concerned with the now and the hereafter. They both meet the three thieves. On the edge of the desert is the keeper of the water. Deep in the desert is the professional liar.

The reason for the vendetta is that SPOILER the hunted, union officer Gideon, led a company to scour the farm of a the chief hunter, rebel officer Col Craver. In the process of chastising the reb the barn is fired, this catches the farmhouse on fire. The burning farmhouse consumes Craver's family, wife, son and baby. This causes a degree of resentment and anger.

This is a traditional western in the wide open spaces. There is an important art direction change. Many westerns are set in the same landscape. Many westerns have been filmed in Monument Valley. Even though the images of this area is spectactual so many movies filmed in the same area adds to much history and context to each shot. This film allows the landscape to tell the story. The story begins in the up in the mountains is chased down to foothills to the the plains and finallly to the salt flats of the dead desert..

There is a historical inconsistancy at the heart of the film. There was a lot destruction in Georgia but much of was done during the war not afterwards in the mopping up. This damage was part of a legal assault on the slave state. When Sherman was famously Marching Accross Georgia there was a wholesale wreckage of property and infrastructure. Not just the destruction of tranportation links like railroads and bridges but also the agriculture infrastructue of farms, barns and farmhouses were all, after being looted, burned. All this ruination was not the result of outlaw actions by uncontrolled(able) troops a but a legal method of denying resources to the enemy.

What I learned: It is better to wipe out a family or clan then leave someone alive to take vengence on you.