The strangest story ever told

The ‘Anne Hathaway monster movie’ is as ridiculous as it sounds, but Colossal uses its weirdness to devastating effect.

*Spoilers for all of Colossal ahead*

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Making inconsistency into a virtue

Conventionally, a review needs to tell you what it is that’s actually being reviewed. This is an unusually taxing task for Colossal. Short hand doesn’t’ really work for it. It involves giant kaiju flattening parts of Seoul but it’s not a monster movie. It is mostly styled like a comedy but its purpose is not really to be funny. It’s about an abusive relationship but it’s not like most films that deal with that theme. It is almost ludicrously inconsistent when it comes to genre.

That is a strength rather than a weakness.

At the start, we appear to be watching one kind of film. Anne Hathaway is a lovable screw-up. She’s clearly has a problem with alcohol. Perhaps as a result, she’s been fired from her writing job in New York and dumped by her boyfriend. Lacking money and a place to stay she moves back to the small town where she grew up. These reversals are presented as misfortunes rather than tragedies. Her struggles with an airbed in the empty house she has inherited from her parents are played for physical comedy. When she meets an old friend from school (Jason Sudeikis) and his drinking buddies, it’s clearly not healthy for her to be hanging out with them. Nonetheless, they seem amiable enough. The set up for a mild comedy appears to have been established, albeit one with the misfitting element of Hathaway’s character inadvertently summoning and controlling a giant monster that appears over Seoul.

Then around the midway point things turn scary. It transpires that Sudeikis’ character can also summon a monster. Initially it appears that, like our heroine, he finds this experience to be both exciting and concerning. But soon, he recognises it as a source of power with which he can bolster his fragile ego. We see that he’s wanted to possess Hathaway’s character since they were teenagers. Under normal circumstances, if he pushed this agenda she would simply shun him, but now he can make carnage in a city of millions the price of her ‘disobedience’.

At this point the audience starts looking back and wondering why they didn’t spot this much earlier. Sure, he seemed nice but there were plenty of signs that he was bitter and jealous. His story about why his wife left him was not only vague but also conveyed an undefined resentment. Plus, all his actions towards our lead, served to inveigle himself into her life and build her dependency on him. She even joked about him acting like her stalker!

However, we did not see what was in plain sight because the film’s tone obscured it. Had we been primed for it, we would have quickly understood the danger he posed. If he’d been played by Christian Bale, Ethan Hawke or someone else we associate with dark roles that would have been one thing, but instead the filmmakers cast Floyd from 30 Rock.

Paradoxically, Colossal’s bizarre collage of styles and themes creates a form of realism. Our actual lives do not have a defined genre. There is not a team of professionals using everything from the light level to the music to tell us how to interpret events. We don’t know what kind of story we’re participating in until we can look back on it. That is especially true for those who are ensnared by abusive relationships. What ends as a tragedy or even a horror story, begins as a romance.

By disdaining the boundaries and conventions of any one genre, Colossal effectively and unsettlingly recreates that ambiguity.

Monstrous whiteness

In a review of the film for Elle, Estelle Tang accuses it of “an insensitive racial dynamic”

“Gloria and Oscar’s psychodrama plays out in a small American town that could be pretty much anywhere. But the people their monster-counterparts end up hurting are in Seoul. There doesn’t seem to be any specific reason why that city’s the target…there’s a kind of heedless racism to the terror Gloria and Oscar inflict. When Gloria tries to prove to her friends that she’s the one controlling neo-Godzilla, she drunkenly falls over and accidentally kills, it’s implied, many people. It’s hard to imagine a white character being so careless if, say, Austin, Texas, was where her monster-self appeared. I mean, someone’s aunt probably lives in Austin!

At least Gloria’s upset by her thoughtless actions …Oscar doesn’t seem to care at all who gets hurt as long as he’s in control. Their friends do nothing to stop the bloodshed. Watching interpersonal strife play out between white people, with generic crowds of Asian people at risk, is disturbing, to say the least. In the film’s ending, when the monsters finally leave, the people of Seoul applaud, not knowing that a drunk white woman and an abusive white man were to blame for what they’ve suffered.”

I suspect that at the point the film was made this critique was wholly justified. However, I feel that events have conspired to make this oversight seem profound. It was made before Trump was elected and tensions on the Korean peninsula ramped up again. If Godzilla was a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monsters in Colossal have become inadvertent symbols for the nuclear threat Seoul and the rest of the Korean peninsula face. And that danger has been substantially increased by an ill-informed and impulsive president, elected in large part by resentful white men in small town America, who are at best indifferent to people in places like Seoul. Whether this dynamic came about because the film makers were good or (as I suspect) lucky, it only adds weight to an already powerful film.

Theresa May just gave us our second Brexit referendum. We must not fail again.

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Yesterday, Brexit was basically unstoppable. Theresa May’s government was set on it. Resistance to it within the Conservative Party had collapsed to such an extent that only Ken Clarke voted against triggering Article 50. Likewise, an unpopular and divided Labour Party led by a closet leaver and paranoid about UKIP’s threat to its working-class base, not only seemed unable to challenge the government but unsure if it even wanted to. The majority in the referendum seemed not only to have authorised Brexit but to have delegitimised any suggestion we change course.

But today that question was suddenly re-opened. Brexiteers have spent the past year accusing Remainers of wanting a second referendum. But Theresa May just announced one. She explained that she was calling an election so her government could “put forward our plans for Brexit…and then let the people decide.” A remain majority in this General Election can neutralise the leave majority in the referendum. Brexiteers will no longer be able to shut us down by saying ‘the people have spoken’, if they have just said they want to remain.

Producing that kind of result is going to be an incredibly tough task. But it is one that it is within our power to deliver. The implausible pledges leavers made on market access, reducing immigration and money for the NHS have been tested against reality and found wanting. What is more, the electorate in a General Election will likely be more sympathetic to EU membership than the one in the referendum. I gather that the Liberal Democrats, the most resolutely pro-Remain party, have added thousand of members today alone. That comes in addition to big increases since the referendum, making this a surge on top of a surge.

Anything other than a solid Tory majority would be a shock outcome. But I’ve had too many nasty shocks in the past twelve months to rule out the possibility of a pleasant one.

Some (spoilery) inspiration.  These poor bastards didn’t relent in the face of apparently insurmountable odds and neither should we.

That’s why I just donated more money to the Liberal Democrats than I’ve ever donated to anything before. If I was still in the UK, I’d be hitting doorsteps, making calls and delivering leaflets. But I’m not, so please do some extra on my behalf.

I am alarmed by the prospect of an emboldened Theresa May with an enlarged majority, holding a mandate for five more years of austerity, culture wars and international isolation. But to get that she must run the risk of defeat. And in that possibility is the hope that Britain can remain part of a European Union.

 

 

Addendum: Anyone who think the Star Wars theming of this post is facetious underestimates how seriously I and many others take Star Wars!

The best things I’ve read recently (12/04/17)

Travel seems to be our theme for this week: theories moving across cultures, people moving across class boundaries, and capital cities…well…just moving.

How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained by Helen Pluckrose (Areo)

‘When I try, unsuccessfully, to squeeze a tennis ball into a wine bottle, I need not try several wine bottles and several tennis balls before, using Mill’s canons of induction, I arrive inductively at the hypothesis that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles’… We are now in a position to turn the tables on [postmodernist claims of cultural relativity] and ask, ‘If I judge that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles, can you show precisely how it is that my gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, etc., undermine the objectivity of this judgement?”

If you’re working class, these public spaces won’t welcome you by Kathleen Kerridge (the Guardian)

“The humble school trip has become a source of anxiety and dread for parents across the country. Money is tight, and it’s needed to pay rent and energy bills, and to put food on the table. To have an exuberant child burst through the door with a letter from school – one for a trip to Disneyland Paris, no less – and have to explain that they can’t go is heartbreaking. For children who receive free school meals, the dreaded “paper bag” lunches declare their status to classmates, and the lack of money to spend in gift shops or markets instantly makes a child stand out from the crowd. It’s a sad reality more and more families are having to face. My children don’t even have passports. There’s no point, after all, in paying for a passport that will never be used.”

Why Building New Capital Cities Might Not Be Such a Bad Idea, After All by Mimi Kirk (Citylab)

“It’s unrealistic to expect a new, planned city to become functional right away. It takes at least a century for such a city to become successful. Washington, D.C., for instance, wasn’t a flourishing metropolis for many years. Pierre L’Enfant’s master plan was completed only at the turn of the 20th century—about 100 years after D.C. was founded. It was the same for St. Petersburg, the city I live in. It only became successful after about 100 years, in the early 19th century. The Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin called St. Petersburg a “brilliant mistake” in that it was a miserable city to live and work in for generations—but it persevered, and was critical to the formation of Russian identity.”

A Hollow Shell

The lead character in Ghost in the Shell is a cyborg haunted by glimmers of her human past. Likewise, Ghost in the Shell is an efficient if rather robotic piece of franchise filmaking, that occasionally gives you a sense of the genuinely interesting project it might have been (1).

The things to like still outweight the things to dislike, but that doesn’t take it all that far. For example, it has rich, layered visuals that could have been really used to make a story truly compelling. But instead they are grafted onto the plot of Robocop (2). And the artistry of individual shots becomes rather Snydery, in that the price of creating impressive individual moments, is that the scences you get when you add them together feel pretty antiseptic.

The cast are well matched to a set of characters, who are drawn interestingly enough that I would have liked to have discovered more about them (3)(4). But I never did and they were given ledden dialogue to say.

Worst of all, it repeatedly announces its intention to tackle important themes without ever actually doing it. Indeed, at times it seems to be positively mocking the screenwriting dictum to ‘show don’t tell’. At one point Major, Johansson’s character, complains about lacking a connection to anything but she’s shown having deep and meangingful connections to her creater, her boss and her teamates. Similarly, characters repeatedly say that “it’s your actions not your memories that define you” but Major’s quest to redefine herself is both provided impetus by and manifests itself in her attempts to recover her memories. Ghost in the Shell’s philosophising thereby winds up seeming less like profundity than posing.

Given the multiplicity of potential themes that the film notices but never really engages with, I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been better as a TV series. With the extra space, the number of different themes could become an asset rather than a liability. That would have come at a price. The visuals would have to have been toned back and a less expensive lead than Johansson found. But it is not just themes that could have done with filling in. As I’ve already intimated the characters, concepts and world all could be explored further. Sadly, what might have been fascinating over ten hours is forgettable over two.

 

 

(1)I fully accept that the more interesting project might be the Japanese animes it’s based on.

(2) It really is more or less exactly the same. Right down to the bit at the end where the hero has to fight a walking tank.

(3) Well except for the obvious

(4) For a Borgen fan it’s quite startling to see Pilou Asbæk go from spin doctor to cybernetically enhanced special forces solider. He seems to have roughly doubled in size for this role.

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How the Chinese Communist Party justifies itself to people like you and me

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There’s been much made of late of the notion that we are living in ‘filter bubbles‘. One such bubble which most of us inhabit without especially considering it, is existing almost entirely amongst people who believe that free and fair elections are the right way to determine who leads a country.

That makes the video an interesting commodity. I’m not entirely sure what it is but it appears to be journalists who are members of the Chinese Communist Party explaining their allegiance. It was tweeted out by the English language account of the main state backed news agency, and uses English subtitles and speakers. This leads me to believe that this is in essence, the Communist Party explaining itself to the kind of person who watches TED talks.

What’s worth noting about the video and the rationales it presents?

1. Note the rather antiseptic feel. There is little in the style to distinguish it from something produced by a mainstream western political party or, for that matter, a management consultancy’s recruitment video. It is professional but not terribly inspiring. which basically China’s attempts to build global soft-power in microcosm.

2. The strident nationalism that would probably feature prominently in most messages aimed at a domestic Chinese audience are largely absent. There is no wallowing in the injustices done to China by outside powers and the consequent requirement to restore its dignity. That would disrupt the video’s upbeat and inoffensive tone. One of the journalist does talk about Chinese culture being distinct but leaves it there. He does not go onto to suggest it is superior.

3. What it does dwell on at great length is China’s impressive economic performance. That goes with the rather corporate presentation. Indeed, at one point the story of the Party is even told as if it were a start-up.that achieved spectacular growth.

4. The somewhat aggrieved tone at the beginning provides further proof that everyone thinks they are discriminated against: even members of an organisation with a legal monopoly on power in the world’s largest country.

5. The speakers willingness to see a lineage between elements of China’s pre-modern past like confucianism is striking, given that the during the Cultural Revolution, the Party propogated the slogan: “destroy old things“.

6. There are slightly weak gestures towards pluralism. ‘Tolerance’ and ‘openess’ get mentioned a couple of times. But the most concrete it gets in justifying this is mentioning that ‘you don’t have to join the party’. Which is true but merely demonstrates that China has a state that’s authoritarian rather than totalitarian.

7. We do have to take these arguments seriously but we should not mistake them for good arguments. The Party’s mission is not to pursue an ideological agenda: there’s precious little consistency between today’s CCP and Mao’s. Rather if it has a purpose, it is now to keep itself in power.

It is not uniquely capable of producing economic growth. China remains poorer than not only the western democracies but also countries like Thailand, South Korea and, crucially, Taiwan.

China’s recent growth spurt is in a large part its recovery from the damage done to it by the CCP. In the early years of its rule, the Party pursued terrible economic policies. One of the communist journalists in the video explains that her grandmother still always keeps a bag of flour at home, because she is still haunted by the famines amongst which she grew up. This is supposed to be an illustration of the the strides China has taken under the party’s rule. However, it should really be a reminder of the damage it did to the country. During Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ food shortages killed more Chinese than the Japanese invasion did and wrecked the economy. That left China well behind the rest of the world, and the speedy development of its economy since the Deng Xiaoping era is progress delayed not progress delivered.

We must be aware of the arguments for autocracy but we should not be seduced by them.

Is Joss Whedon trapped in his own mould?

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I have been waiting with great excitement to see what Joss Whedon would do next. I have – with admittedly greater trepidation –  waited to see where the DCEU was heading. That they have converged in making a Batgirl film ought to delight me. Yet I’m rather ambivalent.

That’s partly because there’s a good chance this pairing won’t lead to anything. DC films loses directors faster than my students lose worksheets they are specifically told they will need again. The most high profile case was Ben Affleck departing the Batman but Wonder Woman also had to execute a mid-development switch and the Flash is arguably now on its fourth director.* So if in six months we read that Whedon is off the project then I won’t be surprised.

Even assuming it happens, there would be issues.

For starters, there are broader problems with the DCEU. It keeps turning out awesome trailers and mediocre film. That doesn’t suggest Whedon will be working with the greatest team.

There is also a definite feeling that superhero films with female leads should have female directors. I’m not sure how I feel about that. So I will note it is a potential issue and move on.

What makes me worry is precisely what makes so many people excited: this seems absolutely perfect for Whedon. A guy who is known for making superhero films and projects with strong female characters, now gets to make a superheroine movie. But doesn’t that mean they’ll be a lot of retreading?

I’d argue that we already saw his take on a woman as a superhero. It was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer and there were a 144 episodes of it. Buffy is essentially Peter Parker with stakes rather than spiderwebbing. The show referenced the Marvel universe repeatedly. Indeed, the Avenger’s catchphrase is used more in Buffy than in the entire MCU!

When Whedon became Marvel’s most important writer, he transfused what he’d taken from the Marvel comics of his youth back into the MCU. And as the franchise became the most successful in the history of cinema, the Whedon way of making superhero films became the default template for the genre as a whole. Even after he left the MCU, it still bore his imprint. A scene from Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy feel a lot like Buffy or Firefly with bigger budgets. Combine that with the fact that Whedon seems to have been burnt out by Age of Ultron, and it seems reasonable to wonder if Whedon has given all he has to offer to the world of comic adaptations.

He had been seeming to gravitate towards a very different kind of project. He directed an adaptation of a Shakespearean comedy. He wrote a paranormal romance. And he was at one point talking about his next project being: “a historical fiction slash horror movie about a time when the world was going insane, World War II.”

He described the latter idea as being:

“very different from everything I’ve ever done, except for that it’s exactly the same.”

My fear is that instead of that intriguing prospect, we’re now going to get a film that if not quite ‘exactly the same’ feels a lot like Whedon revisiting terrain he’s already conquered. The result is unlikely to be bad but nor does it feel like a full use of one of nerd culture’s greatest talents.

 

*Given all of this it is remarkable and disappointing that they’ve been unable to lose Zach Snyder

Why the best Korean food comes from the least exciting parts of Korea (Cable from Korea #11)

The Haeundae area of Busan boasts an appealing medley of attractive beaches, impressive skyscrapers and delightful mountains. These impressive assets draw in numerous tourists and make it one of the most desirable places to live in the whole of South Korea.

Ironically, it also has some of the worst food. I say that even though I eat there a fair bit. Like many western expats I go to Haeundae for half way decent burgers or pizza. But, by and large, that’s all you’ll find: fairly expensive meals that are less good than the average restaurant in any town in the US or UK. Look for the cheap and plentiful Korean food that you find in the rest of the country, and you’ll come up empty.

This becomes especially apparent whenever I meet people staying in hotels down there. When a friend from Vietnam visited Busan for an evening and heavy rain stopped us travelling very far, I found myself in the odd position of not being able to find somewhere that did barbeque, bibimbap or kimbap. As around 90% of restaurants in Korea do, this was a) odd and b) frustrating! Even with more clement weather it is still difficult. When my parents were in town, I wanted to take them for ramen but I – and their hotel concierge – simply couldn’t find anything. The nearest substitute they could suggest was massively expensive sushi! I wound up dragging them back out to my commuter, an hour and a half away by subway, to my favourite ramen place.

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It’s not just my opinion that it’s great. No fewer than four people had independently and insistently recommended it to me before I eventually visited. It has featured on Korean TV and people travel down from Seoul to try it.

However, the less remarked on restaurants around it will also do you a stonkingly good meal for the same price as a Starbuck’s coffee.

Tyler Cowen, an unlikely combination of economist and food writer, has explained that there are good reasons for this:

If a restaurant cannot cover its rent, it is not long for this world. According to a 2005 study, more than half of all restaurants close in the first three years of operation, so this is not a small problem. You can lay off kitchen staff when times get tough, or substitute the cheaper tilapia for the fancier and scarcer Chilean sea bass. But rent is a fixed cost, meaning that you have to pay it every month no matter how many customers walk through the door and no matter what ingredients you are serving.

Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. If a food idea does not work out, the proprietor is not left with an expensive lease. As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas than is a restaurant in, say, a large shopping mall. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. Many of them end up in dumpier locales, where they gradually improve real-estate values.

In a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show Cowen went further and singled out Korean suburbs as the place where the most interesting affordable food in the whole world is found. Given that Cowen seems to travel the world in large part to eat stuff that is quite a recommendation!