Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Beijing Pt 3: The First Market and Meal

Near the entrance to the Great Wall was a small market. Most of the vendors were just in the process of opening up their stalls when we were going in, but as we were leaving, they were pretty much all open. After all, what is any attraction without a gift shop of sorts at the exit?


The assortment of items for sale was a bit odd. Aside from postcards and t-shirts, not much of it was themed around the Great Wall. I suppose this is understandable, as a giant wall, hundreds of miles long is not something that is easily represented in a snow globe, or as a miniature replica. So instead, most of the vendors sold cheap Chinese themed souveneirs, like plush pandas, plastic dragons or stuff like that. There were also lots of shirts with President Obama on them, some pro-Obama, some making fun of him, and some depicting him as Che Guevara.


We had some time to peruse the market before we hopped back on the bus. Although I had taken plenty of photos on the Wall, it was ingrained in my head that if I'm going to visit a historic landmark, I should have something physical to bring back. A casualty of frequent traveling, I suppose. I saw a plastic dragon that I liked. It was made of a plastic resin designed to look like a hand carved wooden sculpture. In fact, when I picked it up, the vendor told me it was a hand carved wooden sculpture, but I didn't bother to call him out on it.

There wasn't a price tag on it, so I asked him the price. He wrote on a pad of paper that it was RMB 300. (RMB is a common abbreviation for the Chinese renminbi, the Chinese currency. RMB refers to the currency in general, but units of the currency are known as the yuan, so I may use the two terms interchangeably.) I did a quick conversion in my head. One American dollar equals about RMB 6, which meant he wanted about $50 for the statue.

I put it down immediately. It was a nice statue, but it certainly wasn't worth $50. I assumed that everybody at the market would charge high prices, hoping to gouge tourists, but that seemed a bit ridiculous. Before I could walk away, he handed me the pad of paper. I then realized he was expecting to barter. Good, so that meant he was fully aware that it was a ludicrous price he was asking. Also, I was rather impressed that they figured out an easy way to barter across language barriers. Considering that tourists come to visit the Great Wall from all over the world, I suppose it's inevitable that they'd figure out a universal way of bartering.

Only problem was, off the top of my head, I had no idea what the dragon realistically should be worth. It probably barely cost a dollar to make. In an American store, something like that would probably sell for about $5, maybe $10 if it was at a renaissance festival or something. At most, I could see paying $20 for it, under the weird "It's okay, I'm on vacation," most people adhere to when it comes to buying souvenirs.

I wrote down a price that came to around $10, and he did the whole routine of it being far too low, and asking for something around $40. I walked away, genuinely meaning to see what was at the other stalls, but of course walking away is just part of the haggling routine. He followed after me, paper pad in hand, offering a better price, but still not something I was willing to pay. At this point I spotted a portable chess set I liked, and stumbled into yet another part of the haggling routine: bundling. I ended up getting the chess set and the dragon together for about $15, and felt good about my bartering skills until the group reconvened and I realized that several other people had bought a similar chess set for about half of what I paid.

I have no problem with haggling, but I realized that if I was going to have to do this for every cheap souvenir on the trip, it was going to get a bit tiresome,

We took a quick restroom break before heading on the bus. I'm only pointing this out, because this was the first moment it occurred to us that we'd be dealing with Asian toilets on this trip. There were still urinals, but instead of bowl toilets, they had squatter toilets. If you've never seen one before, it's the type of toilet that you have to squat down on the ground to use, as opposed to sitting on like a chair. I heard somewhere that squat toilets put your body in a more natural position for relieving oneself, but it seemed to pose certain difficulties, especially for one not accustomed to using this sort of toilet.


For one thing, note the position of the toilet paper, hastily stowed on top of the tank, instead of in some dispenser handily within reach of somebody using the bowl. From what I would later see on the trip, the toilet paper wouldn't always necessarily be in the stall. It might be by the paper towels, near the sinks, so you had to know ahead of time to bring it in. It also wasn't clear, from looking at the toilet, what was the best way of balancing one's self over the bowl that minimized splash back from below, yet still allowed you to retain your balance and not fall in. It also occurred to me that the women on this trip were also a bit surprised to see this greeting them when they opened the toilet stalls, except they actually had to use it, and would have to use similar toilets for most of the trip.

That detour aside, it was off to lunch. The bus drove us to a nearby restaurant called Xiao Long Pu.  Most of our meals had been arranged and paid for in advance, so all we had to do was show up at the restaurant and the food was ready to go. Plus we didn't have to sort out splitting the check twenty ways.


I had heard people say that authentic Chinese food is nothing like American Chinese food. A few of us were a bit worried by what this meant, as we didn't know if this meant dishes were made from strange parts of animals, or just that it was prepared differently. It turned out to be the latter. The story goes that when Chinese food was first introduced to the US, it failed miserably. Americans at the time weren't accustomed to trying out foreign, non-European cuisine. Chinese food only started to become popular in the US when restaurants prepared dishes in the saltier, fried, gooier versions we know today.


The group was broken up into two tables, each of which had our food placed on a glass Lazy Susan, so that you could just spin it around and take the dishes you wanted. Seeing the Lazy Susan made me immediately think of the nightclub scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Lao Che tries to get Indy to give him back his diamonds in exchange for the antidote to the poison he just drank. I tried mentioning this to the group, but for a small, yet verbal, part of the group, the only scene from that movie that came to mind at all was the banquet scene in the Indian palace, and they politely asked me not to bring it up again.

The food we were served turned out to be much more familiar than I was expecting. There was wonton soup, kung pao chicken, and a variety of other recognizable dishes, albeit lighter and fresher tasting than their American counterparts. I'm not sure if our trip organizers decided to start us off with meals that were somewhat familiar to Americans to ease us into the culinary part of traveling, or if this region of China happened to have lots of dishes that proved to be popular in the US.

Before we left the restaurant a few of my classmates decided on a quick purchase. My group's project was on bringing bourbon to the Chinese liquor market. Thanks to one of my group partners, Steve, who was from China, we knew that the most popular liquor in China was something called baiju, a clear liquor often distilled from sorghum or rice. Aside from that, we didn't know much about it. However, the restaurant did have small flasks for sale,  so a few of us decided to buy some. Not everybody who bought a bottle of baiju was in my project group, so I appreciate my classmates on assisting me with my project to understand the local liquor market.

The intent was to save the baiju for dinner, or later, but we figured we might as well try it while we waited for everybody to pile onto the bus. The taste was something like a mix of sake and vodka, with a bit of a burn. After everybody who wanted a taste tried it, the bottle (we only opened one) was put away. We only wanted to get an idea what it tasted like, not have a wild afternoon of day drinking. The Forbidden City was next on our itinerary, and quite frankly I wanted to have a clear enough head to remember all of it.

Next: The Forbidden City

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Beijing Pt 2: The Great Wall

In my mind the first two images that come to my mind when thinking of China are The Great Wall and The Forbidden City. Our tour itinerary had us visiting both on our first full day in China. This was a good call, as had we visited them later in the trip, I might have been too focused on visiting these iconic landmarks to truly enjoy everything else I was seeing. By getting them out of the way, right off the bat, I knew I could better appreciate everything else China had to offer.

We first grabbed breakfast at the hotel. The Traders Hotel was geared toward an international clientele, so there were plenty of American food options available, which is good because I rarely care to be adventurous with eating when it comes to breakfast. However, they did have a few non-intimidating Chinese breakfast options available, such as hard boiled eggs soaked in soy sauce and tea. The shells were cracked, but not broken, allowing the tea/soy sauce broth to work its way into the egg white, giving the eggs a marbled look when you opened them up. This was one of the first recipes I looked up when I made it back to the US. 

Our bus picked us up in front of the hotel and drove us out of Beijing. We also had a tour guide joining us for the day, in addition to Kathy and Sophie. I can't remember the Western name he gave us, but it was something like Chris, (and unless somebody reminds me what his name was, I'm just going to refer to him as Chris for the rest of the story.)


As we drove out of the city, Beijing's notorious pollution became quite obvious, as there was a noticeably light brown haze over the everything. Chris explained that part of the reason for Beijing's smog levels had to do with geography, as the mountains around the city trap much of the pollution in the area. However, there are projects in place to counter-act the pollution, such as policies that limit on which days cars can be driven. The government also is actively planting trees in the outskirts of the city to help clean the air, and the result was several groves of trees growing in a strangely military, grid-like formation.


The Great Wall is not actually a single continuous wall, and many sections of it are actually lying in ruin, but there are several sections where it is open to the public. We visited the Mutianyu section, which had been restored in 1986. I've heard its an easy section to visit, as it is in good condition and less strenuous to hike about. However, it is also less popular, and thus less crowded than other sections. In fact, we didn't see many crowds there when we visited, but then again it was also a Sunday morning, so perhaps the crowds hadn't made their way down there yet.


At this section, there were two options to reach the top of the wall. Take the stairs, or take a ski-lift. I believe everybody in the group opted to take the stairs. For one thing, the ski-lift cost extra. More importantly, after being cramped in a plane for a day, some exercise was more than welcome. However, there were far more stairs than I expected there to be. I don't know why I was surprised. It's very clear in every picture that the Wall is at the top of a mountain ridge.

On a side note, for a few years I had taken part in an event held every February called the Fight for Air Climb, a race to climb the 49 stories of the Carew Tower in Cincinnati. I opted not to do it that year, and quite frankly regretted it a bit, as training to climb a 49 story building would have made tackling the stairs to get to the Great Wall a bit easier.

Once at the top, the view was every bit as incredible as I hoped it would have been. From where we reached the Wall, it was easy to see the rest of the Wall snake up and down the mountain ridge, and below it were picturesque valleys. The smog was also considerably more noticeable than it was at ground level though.


Positioned right near the point at which we entered the wall was a woman selling snacks and beer. Several people in the group immediately decided that this was the perfect time to crack open a cold one. Normally I'm not much on day-drinking, especially before lunch, but I had just travelled almost 7,000 miles and was now standing atop one of the Great Wonders of the World. That's a Tsingtao moment, if I ever knew of one. Also, I was still sort of on Cincinnati time,  and as far as my body was concerned it was still about 10 p.m., yesterday. Rest assured that the woman selling snacks was conscious about littering, and made sure to collect every one of our cans from us.


We walked along the wall to the nearest tower, and I was pleased to find that we could climb to the top of the tower, which offered an even better view of the surrounding area. It was also around this point that my classmates saw me using my Holga camera, a cheap (yet often over-priced) plastic camera, originally from China, that shoots on 120mm film. It gained a following among photographers for it's quirks such as leaking light onto the film, or producing blurry or vignetted images. In other words, its the inspiration for Instagram, and any other number of smartphone camera apps. Of course I had to give this history lesson to my classmates to explain why it is that I had brought what essentially looks like a toy to take photos with.

Taken using the Holga
We all took the obligatory group pictures, and solo pictures, then continued to hike along to the other towers. Hike is the operative word here, as the wall matches the hilly terrain, and can get a bit steep at times. We only checked out one or two more towers, before making our way back. For one thing, we did have a schedule to keep that day, and couldn't spend all day along the wall. Also, it's a wall. You see one section of it, and you've pretty much got the gist of the rest of it. I'm sure that if we had continued along in either direction, we would have eventually reached the unrestored sections of the Wall, but alas, that will have to wait for another trip.


To get to the top of the wall, there were only two options, but to get down from the top, there are three. In addition to the stairs and the ski-lift, you can ride a toboggan back down to the bottom. The toboggan went down what was essentially a bobsled course, except made of metal, not ice. You get in the sled, and are given a quick tutorial on how to use the hand break, then you're sent down the hill. Most people in our group took the sled down, though quite frankly I can't imagine not wanting to ride it. It went reasonably fast, but there were people stationed on various points of the track to make sure riders weren't speeding dangerously.


Some of my classmates were brave enough to film the experience their ride on either their cameras or cell phones. I, however, had just purchased a new camera for the trip, and wasn't too keen on losing it on a hillside on the first day of sightseeing, nor was I thrilled about the idea of not having both hands on the brake. We all regrouped at the bottom of the hill, and paid a visit to the little market that was set up near the entrance to the Great Wall.

Next up: The market, and our first group meal. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Xavier University and Doing Business in China

Last year, around March, I had the opportunity to take a ten day trip to China as part of my MBA program at Xavier University. I had meant to write about it as soon as I came back home, but between work and school, it was a busy year. Now that I have a bit more time on my hands, it seems as good a time as any to tell you how it all went.

The trip was for a class called Doing Business in China. For the class, we were supposed to pick an industry and come up with a business proposal on an opportunity for an American company do expand into China, or for a Chinese business to expand in America. Aside from a few meetings before and after, the bulk of the class was the trip itself, and aside from the actual research on our chosen topic, there wasn't much in the way of reading assignments. We were supposed to read a book called Understanding China by John Bryan Starr, before we left for the trip, but I have the sense I might the only one in the class to do that.

My group ended up picking "Bringing Bourbon to the Chinese Market," because it was a topic everybody in the group felt they had something they could contribute to on the subject, and we were aware that bourbon, or whiskey in general, was only starting to make inroads in the Chinese liquor market. We specifically picked Buffalo Trace as the brand we would market, since it was an emerging brand that we figured hadn't yet made an aggressive expansion into China yet.

Although I was doing the trip through Xavier University, the trip itself was organized with a group called the Asia Institute, that among other things, organizes short term study trips such as the one we were taking. They worked with Xavier to come up with an itinerary that would give us a mix of cultural and corporate visits. Over the course of ten days, we would be visiting Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai.

It was a group of 16 students going on the trip, plus two professors. When we took off from Cincinnati, a lot of us were only starting to get to know each other. I had a few classes with some of the other students, but most of them I only knew from the pre-trip class sessions. I suppose that's the downside of taking my MBA through evening classes. You have don't have as many chances to get to know people outside of class, since everybody essentially arrives at school just in time for class and leaves the moment it's over. However, we had a very long flight ahead of us, so we were going to have plenty of time to bond before we even made it to China.

The first leg of the trip was from Cincinnati to Chicago, then it was from Chicago straight to Beijing. The flight from Chicago to Beijing was about fourteen hours. In other words, that's roughly the amount of time from when you start your workday to when you go to bed at night. We flew on United Air, and they had on-demand video in every seat, so it definitely made the trip go faster, which meant I didn't have to resort to the books and podcasts I had stocked up on in anticipation of a long flight. I was able to catch up on a few movies I had missed in theatres, but I also checked out a few of the Asian TV shows that were available, particularly the game shows. Some had English subtitles or were dubbed, but some were neither. The good thing about Asian game shows is that you don't really need to speak the language to find them amusing.

We landed and made our way to customs. The customs officer I went to seemed to be somewhere between disinterested and hating her job, as the sour expression on her face suggested she wanted to be anywhere other than at her post right now. When she handed back my passport, a panel on my side of the counter lit up showing several smiley faces, running a range from sad to happy. The panel read, "Please rate my performance," and there was a button below each face. She did everything adequately, but I suppose she could have been happier about doing her job. However, as I decide whether or not to dock her any points for lack of a chipper attitude, the rating panel went dim again, and I don't think my vote went through.

My classmates as we exited the airport
They had us staying at the Trader's Hotel in Beijing. In the pre-trip meetings, our professor, Dr. Wu, had suggested that we weren't going to be staying in the center of the cities we were visiting, so that we could get to our cultural and company visits as quickly as possible without waiting in endless traffic. I was worried that he meant we were going to be staying way out in the suburbs, away from anything remotely exciting, but I think he just meant that we weren't going to be staying in each city's equivalent of Times Square. As we drove up to the hotel, I figured we had to be staying somewhere reasonably busy in Beijing, as the CCTV (Chinese Central Television) building was easily visible from the hotel. It's one of the more iconic modern buildings in China, with very distinctive geometric designs, with the upper floors making an angled bridge. However, some have suggested that at certain angles, it looks like a pair of pants.


I know that China has long been associated with counterfeit goods, particularly knock-off purses, but the government has been making a strong effort to curb counterfeiting as China does increasing amounts of international business. However, that didn't stop the guy who saw us coming off the bus at the hotel, and immediately tried to sell us knockoff Louis Vuitton wallets.

We checked into the hotel. Everybody was paired with a roommate, and even though I didn't really know Josh, my roommate, before the trip, we had sat next to each other on the flight, and it seemed we were going to get along pretty well. I made the usual assessment of the hotel room. It was nice. Lower ceiling than I expected. No Gideon Bible, but there were a pair of emergency smoke inhalation hoods in case of fire.

Stylish and functional
Also there were three bottles of water. Two were complimentary, and one was the obligatory, tantalizing, but overpriced, bottle of Fiji water. The reason for the free water bottles was because tap water in China is not safe to drink. Not for you. Not for the locals. Not for anybody. Tap water is only safe to drink if boiled. Presumably the water was safe enough for showering and shaving with, but I decided that for the duration of the trip, I'd be better off using bottled water for brushing my teeth. Fortunately, the Asia Institute made sure that we had more than enough bottled water for the trip on all of our bus rides.

After getting a bit of time to settle in and shower, we all met back in the lobby. It was now effectively dinner time the day after we had left, so we were a bit eager to eat, but our program coordinators from the Asia Institute first had to give us some information on the area, and the trip in general. Their names were Kathy and Sophie. Those weren't their "real" names. It's a custom in many Asian countries to adopt a more "Western" name for interacting with non-Asians. They did tell us their actual Chinese names, but since I only heard them once, and their Western names were much easier to remember, for the life of me, I can't remember their Chinese names. Kathy was going to be with us for the whole trip, while Sophie was just going to be with us in Beijing.

They gave us an idea of what was in the immediate area, and more importantly that there was a mall attached to the hotel with plenty of restaurants in it. They also gave us cards with all of the necessary info we might need, such as their numbers, the Asia Institute's number Xavier University's number. The American Consulate, and so on. Then we were let loose in the mall.

We had hoped to find a food court, but instead we passed several stand-alone restaurants. There was also an Ed Hardy. I can't believe that got imported over there. Naturally, when in a group of 16, nobody could agree on which restaurant to go to. Rather than try to find one restaurant everybody wanted, we splintered off into smaller groups. We were going to have just about every meal together for the next few days anyway. No reason to try to coordinate getting 16 people into the same restaurant on the first night.

I ended up going to a Japanese noodle bar with two guys from our group named Nate and TJ, whereas most of the rest of the group opted for a Chinese restaurant next door. I figured we were going to have more than enough of our share of Chinese food on this trip, and it had been a while since I had Japanese noodles anyway.

By sheer coincidence, we had wound up at the same restaurants as Kathy and Sophie. We originally intended to let them enjoy their meal in peace. After all, they were going to be dealing with us all day for the next few days, but we soon found ourselves out of our depths, and needed their help. The restaurant did have English menus, but we found ourselves a bit stumped when it came to ordering. We each ordered a noodle bowl, but then there were more follow up questions we didn't understand.

Kathy explained that it was customary to order meals "family style" in China, where you order food for the table and everybody shares. So, even though a bowl of noodles struck me as a dish people wouldn't usually share, we had to clarify to the server that we each only wanted one bowl, and it was for each of us individually.

Food photography became a common occurrence on the trip. 
We also tried ordering beer, which Kathy also had to help us with because when we tried pointing at it on the menu, the response from the server was something lengthy we didn't understand.

"She said some Germans were here earlier and drank all of the beer," Kathy translated. I'm not sure if the server, or Kathy, meant that sarcastically, but it was evident that there was not going to be any beer at dinner.

After dinner, we made a brief trip to a food market in the mall to stock up on a few provisions, and some bottled water. (We didn't yet know there'd be plenty of it on the bus every day.) I had hoped to find some of the insane types of food you usually find in Asian grocery stores in the US, like shrimp flavored nachos, and what not. Alas, all I could find that was out of the ordinary was a can of Angry Birds soda. As a joke, I also picked up a surgical mask, which people tend to wear to protect against pollution. (Apparently a few students on the trip brought some in advance.)


We did manage to snag some beers back at the hotel bar, and were able to order them without any issues. Some people in our group decided to wander around the area. As for me, I was tired from having lost an entire day by crossing the International Date Line, and from being in transit for almost a day. I was ready for bed.

Next: The Great Wall of China

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

I hate having to say this, especially considering how much I like the Wachowskis' movies, but Jupiter Ascending was a bit of a mess of an action movie. It's an entertaining mess, but it's still a mess.

It suffers a problem that many sci-fi/fantasy movies suffer, where it tries to have a deep and complex mythology underlying the story, but the end result is something that's more complicated than complex. In Jupiter Ascending, there is a trio of siblings that own multitudes of planets. One of them owns Earth, which is apparently one of the most valuable planets, and his brother and sister want it for themselves. Except their mother has (sort of) been reincarnated on Earth as a cleaning lady named Jupiter Jones (played by Mila Kunis.) The Earth had previously belonged to Jupiter, (or her sort of previous incarnation,) and now it's hers again to claim. The siblings each decide to use various means to convince Jupiter to hand ownership of the Earth over to them.

This is a movie where politics play a central role, although it is more in the form of political infighting, as opposed to trade negotiations. On top of that there is a massive, unwieldy bureaucracy lurking in the background, full of rules and regulations about how transfer of ownership of planets goes about. It should come as no surprise that there's a Brazil inspired scene about obtaining the proper paperwork. Then there's also scores of rules an regulations in play about who can attack who, and when.

As if the underlying political system weren't enough to keep track of, there's also all the characters with shifting allegiances. As the film went on, I not only had trouble remembering who was double-crossing who, but also which characters were supposed to be allied with each other in the first place.

Jupiter Ascending's underlying issue is that the plot is severely underdeveloped. I get the sense that the Wachowskis had a rough vision for what they wanted this movie to be, full of spectacular battles and fantastic set pieces. The spectacle aspect of the film is fully realized, but the story never felt like it was more than an idea. Granted, it wasn't as bad as Transformers: Age of Extinction, a movie where I suspect the special effects scenes were created first, then the script was thrown together to accommodate the CGI. With Jupiter Ascending, it felt more like the script needed to go through many more drafts to be more workable. Buried in the film is the potential for a great story, but not enough time was spent enhancing the great moments, and shedding away the bad ones.

On the plus side, the Wachowskis' writing skills may have gotten a bit rusty, but they still know how to direct. I'm not saying anybody is going to win an Oscar for their performance in this movie, but if you were to watch scenes from the movie out of context, you might actually get the impression it was a solid movie. At any rate, there aren't any moments of overt badness from the actors, and it's actually quite fun seeing Eddie Redmayne revel in playing a pompous, aristocratic villain.

That's the thing, actually. I can't completely discount this movie because in spite of its many, many flaws, it is fun to watch. The moments that work, manage to work surprisingly well even against the bad parts. The humor lands on point, and not in a groanworthy, bad movie sort of way. There's plenty of genuinely funny moments in the film. The action scenes are exciting, from the arial battles along the Chicago river, to crazy fight sequences that have Channing Tatum flipping about on levitating boots.

Then there's the production design. This film has some of the most gorgeous and original set pieces and costumes I've seen in a while. Jupiter Ascending will probably be long forgotten by the Academy when next year's Oscars roll around, but the production design of this movie is something that awards should be given out for. It just makes for such a visually fun world, that you wish the story in the film lived up to the universe imagined for it.

Usually a film like Jupiter Ascending is the type you'd pass on in cinemas, but maybe get around to catching when it gets to home video. This would be such a film, if it weren't for the 3D effects. From their previous films, I suspected that the Wachowskis would take well to filming in 3D, as their visual style is already well suited to it. They use lots of steady camera shots and keep every part of a scene in focus. In fact, somebody watching Speed Racer for the first time might be shocked to realize that it was never released in 3D, despite all of its visual pop, and I don't think I'd object to a 20th anniversary 3D rerelease of The Matrix.

The 3D in Jupiter Ascending takes it from being an okay sci-fi movie to being a thrill ride. The Chicago River battle feels like a roller coaster. There's a wedding scene with overhead shots that actually induce a sense of vertigo. Finally, there's a fight near the end that takes place in a room with a translucent floor. In 2D, it would just be an alright shootout, but with the 3D effects, it feels absolutely immersive. You actually get the sense that you're in this impossible, futuristic space.

This might be the first time I've found myself advocating going to see a movie in cinemas just for the 3D aspect of it. It's not really a movie that's worth the price of a ticket, but perhaps paradoxically, if you are going to see it in a cinema, it's the sort of movie that you might as well go all-in for, and watch it on IMAX 3D. I can see Jupiter Ascending being one of those movies where clips from it are constantly being played on TVs at electronics stores as a way of showcasing how good a TV is. Stripped of a big screen and killer sound system, this film's weaknesses become far too apparent, but with all the bells and whistles in place, it's a reasonably enjoyable movie. It's unlikely that it will happen, but a part of me wouldn't mind seeing a sequel to this, provided they do a much, much, much better job of coming up with good story.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Interstellar


There is a scene at the start of Interstellar that feels uncomfortably prophetic. Cooper, an astronaut turned farmer (played by Matthew McConaughey) is brought to his daughter's school for a parent teacher conference. His daughter, Murph, has gotten in trouble for bringing an old textbook to school. The teacher explains that they now use corrected textbooks, which accurately explain that the Apollo missions were really an effective propaganda tool to get the Russians to bankrupt themselves, but that humans have never actually been to the moon.

As depicted in Interstellar, humanity's future is pretty bleak. Blight has wiped out all but a handful of crops, and even those are dying out. The space program has to operate in secret because people don't think space exploration is a useful way to spend taxpayer money when famine is imminent. However, it appears that humanity's only hope is to begin colonizing other planets.

In the film, possible salvation for humanity comes in the form of a wormhole that has opened up near Saturn. Astronomers have determined that there are three potentially habitable worlds on the other side of it, but they do not know which, if any, is the most suitable for colonization. A team of astronauts, led by Cooper, have to decide for themselves which planet may be the key to the continuation of the human race.

The idea that humanity may have to colonize other planets to survive as a race is a possible future scenario that may await us. In fact, it may not just be probable. It may be inevitable. With that in mind, director Christopher Nolan aimed to depict the events in this movie as realistically as possible. While the film does employ some "cheats," such as having the characters go into suspended animation, it strips away a lot of sci-fi tropes in favor of brutally honest physics. As a result, Nolan has created a film that shows a version of space travel we rarely see on film. This isn't like the worlds of Star Trek or Star Wars, where traveling between planets is as easy as taking a road trip. This is a film where space travel is dangerous and untested, and missions are just as likely to fail as they are to succeed.

Although a wormhole plays a critical role in the film, space ships in the film don't have means of faster-than-light travel, so moving through space is still a long and arduous journey. The relative nature of time is also addressed, meaning that time passes differently for some characters in the film because of the effects of speed and gravity. However, the most brutally honest aspect of interplanetary colonization that Interstellar addresses is that for those first colonists, it will likely be a one way trip, and there is the possibility that nobody else will follow after.

Against this setting, Christopher Nolan crafts an intensely emotional film about humanity's drive to survive, and the consequences that come from characters forced to choose between taking actions to be with the ones they love versus possibly saving the human race. On paper, it may seem like an easy choice, that you go with saving humanity, because if the human race dies out, so do your loved ones. However, in the film it's clear that the mission has a very low chance of success, so if humanity is going to die out anyway, do you make that impossible effort to try to save it, or do you spend those last moments with the ones you care about?

Nolan is known for being an adamant supporter of using practical visual effects (meaning effects done on set, and not through computer generated imagery,) and it's something that helps keep the story as a character driven drama. The alien worlds look fantastical, but also plausible. You really feel that the actors are on these far off worlds, because they didn't shoot their scenes on a green screen trying to imagine what they look like. The result is that you're focused on the challenging dilemmas posed to the characters.

There's no denying that Interstellar is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, instead of being a film that rips off from it's predecessor, Interstellar feels like a movie that's a response to 2001. When 2001 came out, it was the height of interest in NASA's space program. We had not yet landed on the Moon, and were already dreaming of missions to go beyond it. Computers were becoming an increasing part of every day society, but we didn't yet trust relying on machines for crucial tasks. Now, we have a space program that's fighting for funding, and has to constantly justify its existence to critics. We inherently rely on machines for every day tasks. It's other humans we've come to distrust.

This difference of mentalities over the year is reflected in both films. 2001 is a tale of wonder and exploration, where the greatest obstacle proves to be a homicidally sentient computer. Interstellar is a tale of desperation and necessity, where sentient machines are the most reliable characters in the story, and the greatest obstacle proves to be humans' ability to trust and communicate with each other.

Speaking of the robots in Interstellar, I dare say they were one of the more unexpectedly intriguing parts of the movie. Throughout the film are robots with names like T.A.R.S. and C.A.S.E., and which bear a striking resemblance to the monoliths of 2001. Yet, despite their bulky and rigid shape, their voices sound natural and human. It actually took me a moment to realize that the human voice of T.A.R.S. was not an off screen character, but the faceless monolith appearing onscreen. The result is that even though the robots are as un anthropomorphic as a robot can get, they feel as much of full bodied characters as their human counterparts. Perhaps this is due in no small part to the fact that for most of their onscreen appearances, they are portrayed by puppets that were actually on set with the actors, and directly interacted with them, and not CGI'ed in afterward.

Like Gravity, this is one of those films that is meant to be watched on the largest screen possible. The panoramas of outer space and other planets have their full effect when they take up your whole field of vision. Christopher Nolan, being the fan of analog filmmaking that he is, decided to shoot Interstellar on actual film, not digitally, so the movie looks grainier than we've become accustomed to lately, but it does add a touch of timelessness to it. The slightly old-fashioned look of the film suggests that just as 2001 is a film that is still being watched 50 years down the road, that Interstellar may be a movie that people still watch 50 years into the future.

Overall, Interstellar feels like both a thank you letter to the pioneers of space exploration, and a plea for the continued existence of space programs. The film sends the message that space exploration is hard, and as we push out further into space, it will only get harder. More will be demanded of the men and women who take the voyages into deep space than has ever been demanded of anybody in human history, but the payoffs will be invaluable.

Whatever career path you've chosen in life, it's hard to walk out of Interstellar and feel a tinge of regret for not having pursued a career in physics or as an astronaut. (Unless of course you are a physicist or astronaut, in which case this film will surely make you feel emboldened about your career choice.) This is one of those films you should take your kid to to inspire them to study science, (once you think they're old enough to sit through a three hour epic). The truth is, we need more films like this. Pulp science fiction films are fun, but we also need more films that explore hard science and that generate a public dialogue of what can it can accomplish. In other words, we need more movies that take the wonder and amazement that is found in fantasy films, and asks the audience, "How much of this can be done for real?"

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The 2014 incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an acceptable movie. It wasn't a completely abomination. In fact, it was perfectly watchable. I'm not saying it's great, just better than you might expect.

It is by no means anywhere near as good of a movie as it should have been. By now, those of us who grew up watching the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoons and movies are now old enough to be the ones making the movies. Theoretically, in this age when comic book movies are at an all time high, a TMNT movie that comes out now should be the best damn Ninja Turtles movie ever, fulfilling some filmmaker's dream of making the TMNT movie he or she dreamt of making as a child.

Sadly, this is not the case. The 2014 movie feels like it's more the end result of a series of business decisions. Nickelodeon bought the rights to the TMNT franchise, and figured they might as well make a live action movie in addition to the current version of the cartoon show. Knowing that people would see it regardless of quality, they put just enough effort into making the film so that it would make enough money to warrant a sequel, but pretty much stopped there. For comparison's sake, it's not even on the level of something like Transformers, (which I admit liked.) It is, however, better than Transformers: Rise of the Fallen (which I hated.)

It's at least a better movie than Ninja Turtle fans feared it was going to be. Early in the film's development it was leaked that the 2014 film would change the turtles' origins so that they're aliens, not mutants. When filmmakers are actively considering making versions of characters that flagrantly fly in the face of what the fans want, expectations should be rightfully lowered.

Fortunately, the filmmakers changed their mind and went with versions of the Turtles closer to fan expectations. While this version doesn't stick to the origin story most of us grew up knowing, (which in reality was just a spoof off of Daredevil's origin story anyway,) it does at least adopt the version of the origin story from the current IDW comic series being co-written by TMNT co-coreator Kevin Eastman, (which is actually quite good, by the way.) In other words, they stuck reasonably close to the source.

However, the actual execution of their origin story, and the rest of the character development, falls flat. The film assumes you're already familiar with the characters through some other movie or TV show, so it does little to establish the turtles' personalities aside from some overhanded character design. For example, we only know that Donatello's the brainy one because he's got glasses and is covered in hi-tech goggles and Go-Pro cameras. He's nerdy. We get it.

The villains are equally flat. The Foot Clan are neither ninjas, nor robots, but just a squad of criminals terrorizing the city for no apparent reason. Shredder is present in the film, as is his adopted daughter Karai, but they do surprisingly little. Karai just gives out orders, and Shredder just fights. The only villain to get anything close to a story arc is a scientist named Eric Sachs, played by William Fitchner, a guy you recognize as a supporting actor in several movies you've seen, even if you can't remember specifically which ones.

Now, if you're wondering just how much character development one should even expect out of a Ninja Turtles movie, just look at the 1990 movie or the 2007 animated film, simply titled TMNT. Both of these films start out with the assumption that the viewer is coming in cold, with no idea who any of the characters are, and fleshes them out fully. The 2014 movie, feels like it assumes you've already seen those other movies.

Since I'm still focused on the negatives, I might as well talk about the character designs themselves. If you've seen the trailers, you're well aware that the designs of the turtles are pretty awful. They look less like giant turtles, and more like green skinned man-babies. However, they are not the worst offenders. Splinter, for some reason, is given a bald face, and as a result looks like one of the pinheads from the movie Freaks. Shredder's design is over the top in a way that can only be described as "Michael Bay." While Bay only produced, and didn't direct the film, it's moments like this where his over the top influence is felt. Instead of making Shredder's costume look like a samurai outfit covered in an excess of sharp edges, it's a mechanized suit that fires out a never ending supply of blades, and looks like a set of over-sized Swiss army knives strapped onto an off-brand Iron Man.

At least the film didn't do the one thing I was worried it was going to do, and that is "whitewash" the character of Shredder. Early trailers made it look like William Fitchner would be playing Shredder, a character that's supposed to be Japanese. Rest assured that the character is played by Tohoru Masamune, an actor of Japanese descent. Likewise, the film has Baxter Stockman played by K. Todd Freeman, a black actor. I don't even know if Stockman has a single line of dialogue in the movie, but at least he's depicted as an African American, as he's appeared in every version of the character except the 1987 cartoon, which had him as white.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is at least entertaining, even if it does manage to be underwhelming. It doesn't feel as much like a movie as it does like a really big budget TV pilot for a live-action Ninja Turtles series. If this were on TV, it would definitely get me hooked as a series, assuming more of the backstory and characters would be fleshed out in future episodes. As a movie, I wished they hadn't operated on the assumption that they could leave all of that for the sequels. Still, the action's alright. The jokes aren't bad. Megan Fox seemed to return to the level of acting she displayed in the first Transformers movie, (which I know wasn't great, but she definitely got worse after that movie.)

Definitely do not see it in 3D. I saw it in 3D partially because after seeing Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D I thought that maybe studios had nailed the art of making a film post-converted into 3D look as good as one shot natively. That, and my friends picked the showtime. While Guardians felt like a film that was shot with 3D effects in mind, Ninja Turtles was definitely not. If director Jonathan Liebesman was shooting it with 3D in mind, he certainly didn't know what he was doing. There are far too many quick visual cuts and shaky camera work for it to be comfortable to watch. Even in scenes where the camera is steady, it's clear that the conversion work is poorly done. For example, one scene that takes place in the rain looks like you're watching it through a shower curtain when the 3D effect is added.

If you're a fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you'll probably enjoy the movie well enough. If the characters are completely new to you, the film isn't likely to make a fan out of you, but you still might enjoy it as a "put your brain in neutral" kind of movie. Either way, you might want to wait until it comes out on video. I'm sure it's a much more enjoyable film if you pay $1 to see it, versus $10, but if you've already seen Guardians of the Galaxy twice, and you want something fun and brainless to watch in cinemas, sure go head and see it on the big screen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is arguably Marvel Studios' biggest gamble to date. It's based on one of the more obscure teams of Marvel heroes, specifically an incarnation of the team that appeared in a series that only ran for two years, back in 2008. (Of course, Marvel revived the series in anticipation of this movie.) I imagine that when the film was first announced, I wasn't the only nerd who had to flock to Wikipedia to find out just exactly who or what the Guardians of the Galaxy even were.

Like many of my fellow nerds, I had faith that Marvel would deliver a solid movie. After all, Marvel Studios has had an unbroken string of hits worthy of Pixar, starting with Iron Man. (Not to be confused with properties Marvel licensed out to other studios, such as X-Men, or Spider-Man, which have certainly had their shares of hits and misses.) However, many were worried that Marvel was bound to stumble eventually, and that when it did, it would be with the crazy space-adventure movie, starring characters nobody ever heard of.

If Marvel does eventually stumble, it sure as hell isn't with Guardians. I'm not going to be so bold as to say that it's on par with a movie like Star Wars: A New Hope, but Guardians certainly captured the feel of A New Hope in ways that the prequel trilogy didn't. Guardians is full of the roguish space cowboy types that made Episodes 4-6 of Star Wars so enjoyable, and that were strangely lacking from Episodes 1-3.

The fact that Guardians worked so well as a movie is actually a bit surprising. On paper, it sounds like it should be a bomb. Of the five heroes, only one is human. Of the four non-human protagonists, one is a talking raccoon, and one is humanoid tree, capable of only saying the words "I am Groot." While the current trend of comic book movies is to tone down the more comic-booky aspects of the source material when adapting things for the big screen, such as dropping code names or costumes, Guardians fully embraces its comic book origins. Characters retain their names such as Drax the Destroyer and The Mad Titan Thanos. The story has the Guardians trying to stop a villain named Ronan the Accuser from trying to destroy the planet Xandar. This sounds like it should be the sort of movies nerds make fun of for years, as the worst possible idea anybody could come up with for a summer blockbuster, and yet it's proven to be one of the best ideas to come around in a long time.

Quite frankly, I'm sure that if this film had come out twenty years ago, it would have bombed in theatres, having been torn apart by 90's critics for it's wild and fun nature, and unabashed comic book feel, only to re-emerge as a cult classic after finding its audience on video. In other words, Guardians would have experienced the same treatment The Fifth Element received.

Yet, Guardians works as a movie, even if it doesn't sound like it should, because the filmmakers know when to play things for laughs, and when to play it straight. Despite the unquestionably sci-fi pulp nature of this film, the film never treats the story as being campy. It's loaded with (sometimes incredibly juvenile) humor, but treats its core story as earnestly as every other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The cast they lined up for this film is perfect, and there are a few unexpected performances among them. Obviously, Zoe Saldana is great as Gamora, but having seen her in Star Trek, there's no reason to expect anything less. No, the bigger question was how Chris Pratt would do as the main character, Star Lord/Peter Quill. He's certainly developed a loyal fan base from his role as Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation, but aside from his voice-over work in The Lego Movie, he had yet to take on the leading role in a movie. Considering how much hoopla he's generated over getting in shape for this film, he better get used to sticking to that regimen because he's definitely proven he can helm a movie, and not just as a comedian.

The performances that really surprised me were from Karen Gillian and Dave Bautista. I had only seen Gillian as the kind natured Amy Pond on Doctor Who, so it caught me off guard how frightening and intimidating she was as the villain Nebula. As for Bautista, when I saw the trailer, I figured he'd been cast as Drax the Destroyer strictly for his size and muscle mass, but it turns out he's got a knack for delivering deadpan comedic lines, some of which make up the best moments in the movie.

Finally, there's Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser. I've been a fan of Pace ever since his roles in Pushing Daisies and The Fall (which is easily on my list of top 5 movies.) Personally, I think he's one of the most underrated actors out there right now. This film is unlikely to boost his standing, but only because he's heavily costumed and covered in makeup. As Ronan, he is perfect in the role, giving his all portraying a villainous force to contend with, but you can tell he's secretly reveling in playing the character.

It actually shocks me to say this, considering how 3D adverse I am, but this is actually a film worth seeing in 3D. The first time I saw Guardians, it occurred to me it might actually be worth watching in 3D. When I saw the film a second time (yes, it does warrant watching twice in cinemas,) I did not object when my friend wanted to catch a 3D showing, and it certainly made for a more enjoyable second viewing. Not only did the film have dazzling visuals and a brilliant color palate, but every shot was composed in a way that it was clear that director James Gunn wanted it to look good in 3D. Even though the film was originally shot in 2D, they did a great job converting it into 3D so that everything from the wide-angle shots of deep space to the close up shots are not only easy on the eyes, but add to the immersive experience.

(Originally, I was going to comment that either they did an impressive job converting Guardians to 3D, or I've just gotten used to watching 3D movies, but I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 3D over the weekend, and that is a terrible, terrible conversion job. So yes, I can safely say the conversion job in Guardians is well above average.)

Now I can't talk about Guardians of the Galaxy without mentioning it's soundtrack. It's one of the first things about this film that grabs you. In particular, the opening credits gets its hooks into you with a scene featuring Peter Quill trouncing about a barren planet to Redbone's hit, "Come and Get Your Love." The film makes heavy use of 70's pop hits, but every one of them is as perfectly selected and placed as if it were in a Quentin Tarantino film. So for any parents out there with young kids, get ready for them to develop a sudden interest in the music your mom and dad listened to growing up.

For a summer that's felt like it's lacked a solid, knock-it-out-of-the-ballpark hit, Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie that should have been the anchor for the July 4th weekend. It may have been an audacious move on behalf of the marketing team to give this film the tagline, "You're welcome," but the film backs that tagline up, as well as prompting me to say, "Thank you, Marvel."