Monday, June 29, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
I actually suspect that President John McCain wouldn't have done what Senator John McCain is now advocating. There aren't too many people left in positions that matter who would be so ignorant of Iranian domestic politics as to advocate America lending its official weight behind the protesters.
All through their lives Iranians have been subject to anti-American propaganda. They are told that the United States is run by 'rich Jews' who want to destroy Islam and the Iranian republic. And they have a whole list of reasons to believe so. Everyone remembers the disastrous policies and interferences by the United States. Even the moderates, the relatively pro-American ones, remember Mossadeigh, the Shah, the war against Iraq and the axis of evil.
When Khāmene’i claimed that the British and the US were pulling the strings, it is like saying Obama was backed by socialists and Islamists. Except the former claim would be accepted by a far greater percentage of the Iranian population than the latter would be by Americans. They have real cause for such beliefs.
There are many Chinese who are certain that the Tienanmen Square rallies were engineered by the CIA. Historical grievances are not forgotten as easily as we would hope, and they provide an unfortunate context to the assessment that an average Chinese or Iranian will make on the cause of various events.
The current US policy towards Iran is almost pitch perfect. Can you imagine the protests even occurring if Bush was still in power? Or McCain with his 'bomb bomb bomb Iran'? The moderates in Iran would have been sidelined into nothing. Achmadi would have won his second term with ease. Hardliners of one camp foster the hardliners in the other.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Saturday, June 20, 2009
There is no doubt that Lucas delivers a film that is visually spectacular and wonderfully choreographed. The pacing of the action is quick and the screen is always packed with detail and movement. Lucas gets a lot of things right in this department.
However he also gets a lot of things wrong and these mistakes come at the most critical points of the story. The expectations from the film required subtle writing and skilfully consistent acting performances. Instead these legs crumble under the weight of the burden. The uneven acting of all the major characters and much of the clichéd dialogue mar what are sometimes competently built-up moments.
The central arc of the story, and one which the movie needs to get right, is the creation of Darth Vader.
The plot gave enough reasons for Anakin to join the Dark Side. His mother’s death and the massacre of the Tusken raiders should have been the launching pad that I expected this episode to capitalise on. They should have started with an ostracised Anakin. They should have begun by portraying his relationship with Obi-Wan and the rest of the Jedi as distant and cold. This, in addition to his doubts about the motives of the Jedi Council, his fears for Padmé’s life, his frustrations at not being able to control his ego and his other failings as a Jedi, should all be enough to lead to The Fall.
Instead we find him being on the best of terms with Obi-Wan, Windu and Yoda. Lucas had just wastefully reverted all that progression made in Ep II.
The overwhelming feeling, helped none by the acting, was that there just wasn’t enough of an impetus for him to attack Mace Windu or to commit those atrocities. It is true that losing faith in one’s own goodness can lead the person to do terrible things. However Christensen fails to sell this resignation and as a result I couldn’t buy the fact that he would submit completely to the Dark Side or massacre the younglings in the Jedi Temple.
The realisation of Palpatine’s betrayal and deceit should have driven Anakin away from his secret mentor and back to the Jedi fold. His continued allegiance to the chancellor was confounding.
All this made what was always going to be a challenging problem impossible to overcome. It would have taken a special performance by Christensen to make the transformation work but he isn’t up to the task.
The fault doesn’t lie with actor. It lies with the direction and editing. And it lies with the writing. The lines get so clunky that no one can deliver them without engendering a snicker (“from my point of view the Jedi are evil”).
Also, having gotten used to the cold ruthless half-man-half-machine of the Black Suit, that reaction to Padmé’s death was comical. The reaction to Padmé’s death should have been dealt with while he was being operated on, before he gets into the suit. Once he is in that suit he is restricted by the imprinted image of who is possibly the most famous cinematic villain.
The scenes between him and Natalie Portman, even those that were meant to be the most poignant, ended up inducing smirks. The chemistry between the two was non-existent and the uninspired writing of these scenes made it seem like a corny chic-flick.
Cheesiness pervades most of the dialogue, especially the ones given to McGregor. Although I liked the way he manages to change Obi-Wan from being an impatient Jedi Master to the Ben Kenobi of Alec Guinness (the beard probably had a lot to do with it), his reaction to the security hologram, a major emotional point in the film, was given too little time and directed in exactly the wrong manner. Again we are left without the required emotional payout.
The other pivotal character, Palpatine, was given some justice this time round. McDiarmid was poor in Ep II, but I think he manages to regain some lost ground with his performance in this film. His seduction of Anakin is admirably and seductively rationalistic. On this I must commend both the actor and Lucas, who chose not to take the easy way out on this particular point.
Unlike Anakin Skywalker, Palpatine remains a worthy villain for this epic. His deceit is subtle and ambiguous, his reason is almost justifiable, his motives almost understandable and as a result, his character, on a majority of occasions, remains credible.
On to the secondary characters.
Samuel Jackson is thankfully given a larger role. If I had my way it Samuel Jackson would be given all the roles. He is awesome and so was the duel. Jackson should be happy with Mace Windu’s death, it established him as the most powerful Jedi (although the possibility that Palpatine might have lost to sucker in Anakin is interesting to consider).
You know who else is awesome? Yoda. Yoda is super-awesome. Yoda is awesome incarnate and that’s all I have to say about Yoda.
General Grievous on the other hand sucked. Starting with that stupid name, General Grievous annoyed me constantly. Even the scenes without him were scarred by the memory of that annoyance. I laughed out loud (with much annoyance) when Grievous comes to the rescue by saying something that went along the lines of “I’ll take him myself”.
Bail Organa’s character conveyed the correct sense of stateliness and calm and his increased role was much appreciated. However he made me miss Mon Mothma. (She is credited on IMDB but I can’t remember her being there. Did she have a “Captain Antilles” type cameo?)
Speaking of cameos, I loved the opportunity to see Kashyyk but the way Chewbacca was introduced felt a bit forced. The collective “look it’s Chewie!” gasps from my fellow audience members would suggest that they disagreed with me.
As it has become typical of Lucas, the best parts of the films are those that rely on visual effects. The CGI, although not quite as seamless as in that other major motion trilogy (you know, the one that won 17 academy awards), it is still quite breathtaking. The two highly anticipated lightsaber duels between Kenobi and Skywalker and Yoda and Sidious was choreographed and edited with skill. They were brilliantly inter-cut and well set; one in the volcanic planet of Mustafar and the other on the very floors of the Galactic Senate. What could be more poignant?
A lot of the visual allusions in the final three films to the original trilogy were tastefully done. For example there was a sequence in Ep II where the camera scans through a large army of Clones and then rises to the sky, capturing the sinisterly familiar triangle shapes of Republican Assault Ships carrying them to battle. It made the hairs stand up. However that final shot of Lars and his wife looking out at the Tatooine sunset was just hammering it over out heads.
The opening sequence was thrilling. I had to take in a breath when the camera followed the two Jedi over the Star Destroyer and into a very full battle sequence. Then it started dragging on for a bit. The part where those droid thingies got onto Obi-Wan’s ship was unnecessary and a little bit silly.
So was that giant iguana.
And so was the dialogue. One of the reviewers felt that Star Wars would be a perfect candidate for a silent movie. I would’ve agreed if it weren’t for that fantastic score.
The criticism over the overbearing politics in Ep II arose mainly from the poorly written and delivered lines. I like politics and I saw great potential for Ep II and III to explore the way the senate had been crippled, the reasons behind the separatist movement, the increasing mistrust in democracy and the birth of the Empire. But again the execution was clumsy. The whole “you are either with me or with the enemy” allusions get was far too obvious for my tastes. I was wincing through most of that “so this is how liberty dies” stuff.
The clumsiness and heavy-handedness of the film does have one positive effect. It makes one appreciate the light-footed grace of the original trilogy. There was something in the banter of Han, Luke and Leia that all the advanced CGI just could not re-create.
It is true that the prequels, by the very nature of the plot, had to be darker, heavier and more ominous. But did it also have to be so plodding and forced? It felt like we were just slowly ticking off a list of things to get through before we can arrive at that ‘this-is-were-we-came-in’ point again.
ED: This was written right after release. Reposted.
Frank Langella's Nixon is a fascinating exposition on a politician's psyche. He takes out the archetype and wrings it for all its complexity. I'm not sure who is more responsible for the nature of this portrayal, Langella or Ron Howard, but this is exactly the kind of thing artists should be working on; taking pieces of history and illuminating them with an intuitive light not available to those with journalistic constraints.
My favourite scene was one that never actually happened, in which Frost receives a call from Nixon. This occurs well into the second half of the movie, and Frost has spent every trick in the book trying to get Nixon to open up. The President seems completely out of Frost's league by any stretch of the imagination. The producers are facing an impenetrable stonewall, and Nixon is getting his way. He is on the road to the 'rehabilitation' that is dreaded by the journalists.
Then out of the blue, late at night, Frost recieves a call from Nixon. As Frosts stands there, not knowing how or where to lead the conversation, Nixon talks on. His old voice and hunch betrays the unsteady weight of his experience and you can just tell that he wants to let go of all the things he had long learned to suppress so masterfully.
Nixon quizzes Frost on his time at Cambridge then asks the single most revealing question in the film, "did they look down on you too?" He then devolves into a monologue, the performance of which was Langella's finest moment. The ego, the emptiness, the anger and the ambition are all laid bare, and it is truly a spectacle.
Anyone who becomes a president is hyper-ambitious. More ambitious that 99.9999% of the rest of us. They seek to be loved, they seek approval to a much greater degree than you or me. They are far more emotionally vested in their own success than we are. That is why they strive so hard on such a singular goal. Now imagine the psychology of such a person being hated by the entire country.
Anyone who has any kind of success as a politician also must love being with people, have that charm, or 'facility' as Nixon says, to get people to like you. The second revealing question comes again from Nixon to Frost; "you know those parties of yours? Do you actually enjoy them?"
A president never has a private moment, every action is under scrutiny, performed to the benefit of others. Imagine the stress of such a performance when you don't particularly like people. As a private person myself, I understand that tiredness. I feel it every time I'm at a party for a little too long. I'd imagine the weariness to be a hundred-fold for someone in Nixon's position.
The film is an excellent character study. The themes that I've described above are only the most prominent of a multifarious and intertwined exposition by Howard, the writer and the actors. There is a genuine good-hearted curiosity motivating their efforts, and it comes through very endearingly in this story. 9/10 stars.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
The Victorian police handled this in exactly the wrong way and the Indian press is understandably going ballistic. But I want to know if they are contextualizing the attacks with crime statistics from cities around the world where there are comparable Indian student populations.
I personally haven't encountered too much racism since high school, but then again 90% of my interactions are with the University crowd. They definitely aren't representative of the broader population. I've experienced only one incident of racial abuse in the workplace, but I don't think it was racially motivated. It was motivated by me being a noob at pulling beers and the bloke was a little drunk. He apologized immediately after and tipped me generously before he left.
Over the past few years we've been getting a really bad rap in the international media. The Tampa crisis, the related Children Overboard affair, the Redfern Riots, the Cronulla riots, Sol Trujillo's comments, and the treatment of refugees, have all contributed to this negative image.
I hate that we have to celebrate Australia Day on the day that the Brits invaded the country. It's offensive to the long history of this land and to the indigenous people who carry on its heritage. And as a firm republican with no British background, I find it offensive and exclusionary too.
The Rudd government has done well to reverse some of the damage done during the long Howard era by finally acknowledging our responsibility to the Stolen Generation and changing the asylum laws.
Relatively speaking, Australia isn't as racist as many other countries, including India with its prevalent caste systems. We wouldn't rate too badly against many of the European countries either, where the extreme right wing has seen more electoral success than here in Australia (One Nation was a Queensland aberration).
But we are a country of casual bluntness, our jokes are off-colour and we are easy with the insults. We are so confidant that our egalitarian ethic would be taken as given that we've adopted a laid-back attitude to possible offenses. This straight forwardness is great in most circumstances but I reckon it's doing some real damage when it comes to race issues. It is also providing shelter to the real racists out there.