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.