Movie Review: Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming (2014)
Something gets lost in translation. Right away.
The Chinese title is “Sa Jiao Nu Ren Zui Hao Ming” or, roughly, “Flirty women are happiest,” but reducing this to the English title, “Women Who Flirt” isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s the concept of sa jiao, which doesn’t really have an English translation. “To flirt” is probably the best we’ve got. Except in the west, both women and men flirt. But sa jiao? That’s for women and children. It’s women sounding like children to get something they want.
It can be freakin’ annoying.
There’s a great example of it here that had me laughing out loud. Our lead, Angie (Zhou Xun), a financial analyst, whose longtime friend, colleague, and secret love, Marco (Huang Xiaoming), is now involved with this flirty tease of a Taiwanese girl, Hailey (Sonia Sui). So her friends urge her to go on dates of her own. They’re disastrous, of course. It’s a montage, and one guy actually talks about taking a dump in the middle of the street—I forget why—and she looks at him and says, “Tao yan,” or “I hate you.” She says this to all of her dates. Later, her friends ask her how she says it, and she replays it for them—straight—and they’re like, no, and school her on the sa jiao way of doing it: turning the fake whining and pouting up to 11. Tao yan-awwwww. They keep doing it until she tries it. It becomes a game. It made me laugh. It made me flash back. When I lived in Taiwan, I heard that a lot.
As for the movie, yeah, no. It’s one of those rom-coms where everyone is so awful you don’t want anyone to wind up with anyone.
Zhou Xun needs a date
First, we have to get past the notion that someone as beautiful as Zhou Xun has to work to get a man to notice her. It’s like one of those Hollywood movies where Michelle Pfeiffer can’t get a date. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t begin to cover it.
So you immediately dislike Marco for not noticing either Angie’s otherworldly beauty or her interest. He sees her as, like, “a dude.” He keeps repeating this like it’s wisdom, but all I could think was, “What special brand of idiot is this?”
The girl he chooses instead isn’t half the beauty Zhou Xun is. Plus, it turns out, she’s wholly malicious. Like soap-opera malicious. She only picks up Marco—on a busride in Taiwan—because during the ride, despite her best efforts, he can’t stop talking about Angie and she wants to see what type of woman (who’s absent) can usurp her (who’s present). She’s not even interested in Marco. She gets involved in this long-distance relationship for weeks and months just to spite a woman she’s never seen.
Then there’s Angie herself, hung up on the doofus Marco, and going out of her way to win him. It’s a role that’s really beneath the dignity of Zhou Xun.
Hide and seek
A couple of moments aren’t bad. During the big confrontation between Angie and Hailey, the soundtrack music uses spaghetti western motifs, while the villainess’ dialogue anticipates Donald Trump:
Angie: Are you crazy? Love’s not a competition.
Hailey: That’s what the losers say. And I’m not a loser.
We also get this nice piece of advice from Marco’s father: “Do you know why kids like to play hide-and-seek? Because they want to be found.” That’s sweet. Although true? It’s probably the joy of the chase, the tension between being lost and being found.
Most of it, though, is beyond stupid. It’s both too timid (our leads) and shockingly crude (Angie’s friends). Marco finally comes to his senses and of course has to run to Angie, like all the Harrys and Jerrys before him, and win her over. And in front of her friends. Which he does! Which causes them to tear up! And we get this epiphany from him about sa jiao that took 90 excruciating minutes to realize:
After a while, all that sweet talk gets really annoying.
Actually, sooner than that.
Sean Spicer Resigns
It's tough to keep up with the news about the Trump administration. Every day a new disaster. Is anyone double-checking productivity in the U.S.? Is it going down because it's so difficult to keep up with this soap opera? John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” calls the Trump/Russia scandal “stupid Watergate” because it's like Watergate if everyone associated with that scandal was stupid. Similarly, you could call Trump “Stupid J.R.,” since he shares the unethical qualities of Larry Hagman's infamous nighttime soap opera character but without the smarts.
Anyway, the news this morning: Sean Spicer has resigned as White House press secretary. On principle.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, resigned on Friday morning, after denouncing chaos in the West Wing and telling President Trump he vehemently disagreed with the appointment of the New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. ...
Mr. Scaramucci, who founded the global investment firm SkyBridge Capital and is a Fox News Channel contributor, is known for his spirited on-air defense of Mr. Trump, but he also enjoys good relationships with journalists from an array of outlets, including those the president has labeled “fake news.”
In a way this isn't really news, since Spicer will be replaced by someone just as awful or worse. Think of it as a “Meet the new WH press secretary, same as the old WH press secretary” kind of thing.
And while everyone is jokily sending their condolences to Melissa McCarthy, who killed with her Spicer imitation on SNL over the last six months, the New York Times offers a jokes-aside look at the ways in which Spicer, and the Trump admin., has effed up the White House press conference: Not only with its lack of civility but with rewarding and calling on right-wing propaganda outlets over legitimate, mainstream news sources.
Mr. Spicer has also awarded first questions to reporters in the new “Skype seats” that appear on two large flat-screens on either side of the lectern, including one to the CBS affiliate in his native Rhode Island. In addition to local TV networks, Skype seats have gone to conservative radio hosts and a Kentucky newspaper publisher.
All of that, I'm sure, will continue.
Hope Spicer took notes for his book. Hope he puts country above party. Not holding my breath on that last one.
UPDATE: The new White House press secretary, hardly a surprise, is Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She'll be just as awful. Maybe worse.
UPDATE: Ryan Lizza doesn't pull punches for Spicer on the way out. He also writes about the odd way new communications director Anthony Scaramucci was chosen: over the objections of the White House chief of staff. I do find it interesting that in anticipation of being hired, Scaramucci sold his investment firm to prevent conflicts of interest. In this way, he's already leagues ahead of his boss. And yes, not hard.
UPDATE: The bigger story could be the resignation of two of his attorneys, including Marc Kasowitz, although maybe the shift is simply from the NY-based Kasowitz to the DC-based Ty Cobb and John Dowd. (There's also Jay Sekulow but the less said of him the better.) Cobb and Dowd could play good cop/bad cop for Trump's legal strategy, since Cobb's rep is easy-going while Dowd is known for combativeness. Then there's the baseball theme. Cobb is a distant relative of his more famous baseball namesake, while Dowd helped investigate Pete Rose in the 1980s and repped Ted Williams in a civil lawsuit.
Dirty, Russian Money
“Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money. Some ran a worldwide high-stakes gambling ring out of Trump Tower—in a unit directly below one owned by Trump. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics. 'They saved his bacon,' says Kenneth McCallion, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Reagan administration who investigated ties between organized crime and Trump's developments in the 1980s...
”.. whatever his knowledge about the source of his wealth, the public record makes clear that Trump built his business empire in no small part with a lot of dirty money from a lot of dirty Russians...“
-- Craig Unger, ”Trump's Russian Laundromat," The New Republic, July 13, 2017
The Mess of Texas
Why did Trump happen? Why is there such political gridlock? Why aren't things getting done? Why is one political party insistent on taking away insurance from tens of millions of Americans for a tax break for the wealthy?
You might want to look not only to the post-Reagan obstinance of the GOP, (first exemplified, stridently, by Newt Gringrich in 1994), and to the rise of right-wing media and propaganda (Fox News, Rush, Breitbart, Sinclair, Drudge, and on and on and on), and to all that right-wing money being poured into races and so-called think tanks (see: Jane Mayer's “Dark Money”), but to redistricting and gerrymandering.
Native Texan Lawrence Wright has a piece on the history of politics in his state in the July 10th New Yorker, and it ain't pretty. An excerpt:
In May, 2003, the redistricting plan came up for a vote in the Texas House. .... The redistricting had a revolutionary effect. Today, the Texas delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives includes twenty-five Republicans and eleven Democrats—a far more conservative profile than the political demography of the state. The Austin metropolitan area, the heart of the Texas left, was divvied up into six congressional districts, with city residents a minority in each. All but one of these districts are now held by Republicans. I'm currently represented by Roger Williams, a conservative automobile dealer from Weatherford, two hundred miles north of Austin. Another Republican congressman, Lamar Smith, lives in San Antonio, but his district includes—and neutralizes—the liberal area surrounding the University of Texas at Austin. Smith, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, in Washington, denies that human activity affects global warming. He heads the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which oversees nasa, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Lloyd Doggett is the only Democrat representing the Austin area, and his district runs along I-35, from East Austin to East San Antonio, scooping up as many Democrats as possible in one basket.
Texas's redistricting process has since been replicated in statehouses around the country, creating congressional districts that are practically immune to challenge and giving Republicans an impregnable edge in Washington. “Texas became a model for how to get control,” Craddick told me.
And ever since, the GOP has been out of control. Wright's piece, by the way, is called “The Future is Texas.” God help us.
Movie Review: Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Thirty years ago I remember my friend Craig telling me he liked to begin his plays with characters entering the stage and basically saying, “Whew, glad that’s over.”
“Island of Lost Souls,” based on H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and which I watched, yes, because it was referenced in “Paterson,” begins similarly. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is picked up by a ship, the S.S. Covena, half mad on a life-raft, and for a moment I wondered if we’d get his tale in flashback. Nope. This is his “Whew.” His previous ship sunk, he seems to be its only survivor (no thought is given to the rest of the crew), and aboard the Covena he recovers nicely enough to deck the captain, a drunk piece of work named Davies (Stanley Fields). As reward, Davies sucker-punches him and deposits him, along with Davies’ cargo of wild animals, at their first port of call, which, earlier, he’d called “An island without a name. An island not on the chart.”
Thanks for everything, Julie Newmar
I’ve never read the novel, nor, before this, seen any of the story’s roughly half-dozen screen versions—from Germany’s “The Island of the Lost” in 1921 to John Frankenheimer’s 1996 remake with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer—but I knew the basics: a doctor plays god with man and beast on an island. But I had always assumed Moreau was tinkering with both man and beast—that he was mixing genetic pools. Nope. Or not here anyway. Here, he takes animals and speeds up their evolutionary processes, which, he says, always tend toward the human. Apparently it’s not just apes that evolve into man; it’s everything.
Since his knowledge is incomplete, so are the results. He gets mostly missing links—hulking, hairy, monosyllabic creatures—although M’ling (Tetsu Komai) is a half-dog houseboy, while Lota (Kathleen Burke, film debut), Moreau’s most successful creation, is, as her film credit goes, “The Panther Woman.” Indeed, in the movie poster, she incorrectly gets all the credit. And the blame:
THE PANTHER WOMAN lured men—only to destroy them body and soul!
This is, what, eight years before Catwoman appeared? And 10 years before Simone Simon in “Cat People”? So we were already on board with that cat fantasy. Poor dogs, they get scraps. No superheroes, mostly pejorative metaphors.
Ever the scientist, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) decides to throw Parker and Lota together. Can she seduce him? Will he fall in love? Will she? At the same time, like an idiot, he keeps experimenting on animals in the “House of Pain,” and since one cries out (in pain), Parker investigates. He draws the wrong conclusion: “They’re vivisecting a human being!” Like an idiot he confronts Moreau, who, like an idiot, explains everything. He even ends the macabre lecture in half-shadow, intoning ominously, “Do you know what it means to feel like a God?”
Way to go, Doc. Cards close to the chest, Doc.
In the midst of all of this, there’s a truly creepy moment when Parker and Lota flee, and they’re surrounded by the creatures in the jungle. She’s about to be assaulted by the hairy-faced Lawgiver (Bela Lugosi) when Moreau appears with a whip and we get this call and response:
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Yep, that’s where Devo got it. I never knew. Apparently “Island of Lost Souls” was particularly popular among bands of the ’80s and ’90s . Cf., “House of Pain.”
Banned in Britain
In the nearly 100 years since its release, what we want out of a horror film hasn’t changed much—this thing is still way creepy—but what we want in a leading man certainly has. Arlen is that 1930s all-American male: blunt, uncharismatic and unimaginative. You watch him act and think, “B pictures,“ which is where he wound up, despite co-starring in the award-winning “Wings” only four years earlier. He continued to act in movies and on TV into the 1970s.
I did like Leila Hyams as Ruth, the smart fiancée who tracks down Parker (she stopped making movies in 1936), and Paul Hurst as the captain of the ship who reluctantly joins the search (he died in '53). At Moreau’s, he’s plied with liquor, takes it all with a smile, and turns out to be not drunk at all. “Oh, you oughta see me when I’m real...” he says with a wink.
But it’s Laughton’s show. There’s a moment when he tells Parker the lengths it took to get his creatures to talk. Then he smiles a pleased-with-himself smile and says, “Someday I’ll create a woman and it’ll be easier.” I love that it’s both a joke (because women talk a lot, ha ha) and an inside joke (since he’s already created Lota), and Laughton manages to capture both of these feelings.
The ending is poetic justice. Moreau orders one of the missing links, Ouran (Hans Steinke), to kill Hurst before he gets to his ship. Since this goes against the Law, and since Ouran gets away with it, the creatures know the Law is bullshit. So they go after the one they truly hate: Moreau. They get him, strap him to a table, break out the knives. Cue scream. That, and the vivisection, got “Island of Lost Souls” banned in Britain until 1958, and even then it was censored. The original Paramount version wasn’t available in England until 2011.
So are movies like this where so many Americans get their anti-science bent? ”Lost Souls" understandably focuses on the horror of what Moreau does but not enough on the fact that, you know, he actually does it. He takes a panther and turns it into Kathleen Burke. I'm not saying he's not the villain, but give the man his props.
Quote of the Day
A reminder of the big bullet we all dodged, from the New York Times article, “How the Senate Health Care Bill Failed: G.O.P. Divisions and a Fed-Up President”:
Senator Susan Collins of Maine criticized the Trump administration's often specious descriptions of what the [GOP healthcare] bill would actually do, bolstering other more quiet critics' resolve.
“The only change that Obamacare made in Medicaid was to give states the option of expanding coverage with increased federal funding,” said Ms. Collins, who opposed the Senate legislation. “Yet the Senate bill would have cut hundreds of billions of dollars from this program, imposed an entirely new formula and reduced the reimbursement rate below the cost of medical inflation.”
The changes, she added, “would have been made without the Senate holding a single hearing to evaluate the consequences on some of our most vulnerable citizens, rural hospitals and nursing homes.”
I'd also like to know who put pressure on McConnell and company to try to push this bill through. What awful moneymen behind them wanted this?
Ding Dong, Mitch is Dead
Sen. Mitch McConnell and Pres. Donald Trump were gearing up for a fight nobody wanted but that fight finally seems over. Even when it was over—even when Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) pulled support from a procedure to even debate the Republican's shitty healthcare bill—McConnell continued to flail about. Monday night, he said that rather than repeal-and-replace Obamacare, the Senate would just repeal it and figure on replacing it down the road. When they got ... what .. smarter? More immune? When they purged voter rolls of more Democrats so it didn't matter that 80% of Americans disliked whatever draconian measure the GOP came up with? When conservatives bought up even more media, as Sinclair Broadcasting is doing now, so they could propagandize further?
Both Trump and McConnell are awful. I figure Trump can't support Obamacare because it has someone else's name on it and you know how much he likes his own name—even on shitty products. But McConnell? Does his antipathy for Obama go beyond party lines? Is it personal? Racist? Some combination?
Either way, stick a fork in him. Senator McConnell? He dead.
- “It is time for the Senate GOP to replace Mitch McConnell so that President Trump can actually get some of his legislative policies advanced. It is not conservatives who are the obstacle, but the Senate leader himself.” — Erick Erickson, Fox News
- “Widely considered a brilliant tactician, in fact McConnell has never had to craft conservative legislation that would survive in the real world, as long as President Obama stood ready with his veto pen. Now, with control of the House, the Senate, and the White House, Republicans have had to confront the anti-government derangement that animates the party's right wing—while so-called moderates and even some conservatives come to terms with the ways that their constituents increasingly rely on government assistance, especially the ACA, and don't want any part of House Speaker Paul Ryan's fantasies of a world without Medicaid.” — Joan Walsh, The Nation
- “While the governors got a direct presentation of the budgetary impact of the Medicaid expansion reductions, The Washington Post reported that McConnell told members of his caucus last week that the cuts to core Medicaid would likely never be more than theoretical. ... it was enough to anger Wisconsin's Ron Johnson, a conservative who only reluctantly offered support for the BCRA. Johnson pulled his support from the motion to proceed to debate on the bill, claiming that McConnell had engaged in 'a pretty serious breach of trust.'” — Edward Morrisey, The Week
- “Many [GOP]senators are annoyed with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the rushed, secretive process that produced the health-care bill, and for threatening to cancel their August vacation for a potentially fruitless legislative session.” — Molly Ball, The Atlantic
- “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell failed the president and his party on health care twice in less than 24-hours...Despite having 7-years to prepare for this legislative moment. ... A recent Fox News poll shows McConnell's favorability just 25-percent.” — Lou Dobbs, Fox News
And on and on. It's fun to read. Does McConnell have any friends left? Is there a procedure to relieve him of Senator Majority status during a session? Will the GOP risk it? Is the bigger risk to do nothing? Could he finally lose in Kentucky in 2020?
I almost begin to feel for this man without feelings. Yes, McConnell is awful but then so is the GOP and Fox News and the pundits above blaming McConnell for failing to pass an impossible bill that would cut tens of millions from insurance, cut many billions from Medicaid, while presenting a huge tax break for the uber-wealthy. It's the bill, stupid. It's the heartlessness. It's your stupidity, stupid.
It's a good moment but nothing's over. To Dems, a reminder from Ben Bradlee: Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up... 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We're under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing's riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.
Movie Review: Paterson (2016)
You assume going in that the title character of “Paterson” is a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver: “Girls,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”); but the title character could also be where he lives, Paterson, New Jersey, a working class town that is the home, or at least a home, to American poets: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Costello.
The movie, a week in the life of the bus driver, is a veritable love letter to the city. Every ride on every bus is a history lesson into one of its famous residents. On Monday two black kids talk “Hurricane” Carter. On Wednesday two white kids (the now-teenage stars of “Moonrise Kingdom”) discuss Italian anarchist and assassin Gaetano Bresci. There are clippings of other famous residents behind the bar at the little dive Paterson goes to every night, and it seems our bus driver can't sit anywhere in town without someone wanting to talk poetry with him. Is this a Paterson, N.J. thing? Because it's not an American thing. Not in my lifetime.
Paterson, the character, is oddly disconnected. So is Paterson, N.J., seemingly, from the worst aspects of modern life. There are no addicts on these buses, no homeless, no one who raises their voice. Everyone's so fucking polite. One day the bus breaks down, and the kids on it are docile and helpful, and the old folks on it are worried but reassured. Two guys talk girls, but pathetically rather than predatorily. They tell stories of “hot girls” who were interested in them and how, well, they just didn’t follow through. The guys didn't. They had work the next day or some such. They had excuses.
No one really follows through in this movie. It’s oddly sexless. It’s an old man’s rhythm, and I guess writer-director Jim Jarmusch is an old man now.
The Jarmusch Variations
Here’s Jarmusch on “Paterson”:
I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life: that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.
Well, he did that. Every day, Paterson wakes up between 6 and 6:30 next to his hot, enthusastic, often annoying girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), kisses her, then trundles down for coffee and Cheerios and to think his thoughts, which wind up as poems in his secret notebook. Then it’s off to work. It’s early autumn, jacket weather, but always pleasant; no rain, wind, or blinding sun. At the terminal, Donnie (Rizwan Manji), Paterson’s colleague and/or supervisor, wakes him from his poetry reverie with complaints about his own life; then it’s the drive. Evenings, Paterson returns to their small house with the crooked mailbox out front to hear Laura’s latest enthusiasms: what she’s painted black and white; how she wants to make a mint selling cupcakes; how she wants to learn guitar and become a great country singer in Nashville like Tammy Wynnette. After dinner, he takes their English bulldog Marvin for a walk and always winds up at the local bar, where Paterson nurses a beer, chats with the bar’s owner, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), and where we get another installment of Everett’s pathetic attempts to win over Marie (William Jackson Harper, Chasten Harmon, respectively).
At times, I liked the day-to-dayness of it, its appreciation of small things and moments and just being, but more often I felt trapped. The movie is insular to the point of suffocation. Does Paterson have other friends? Does Laura? How did they meet? He was in the military once—we see the photo. So is this mundaneness designed to protect him from the drama he experienced there? I wondered if Paterson felt as suffocated by his life as I did; if he was going to snap. Nope. It’s Everett who snaps. He pulls a gun on Marie, propeling Paterson into action, into saving the day. But the gun is a prop, Everett’s pulled it before, and Paterson’s heroism is completely unnecessary. It’s a neutered moment in a movie—a life—full of them.
Half an hour in, I figured if anything was going to “happen” it would be one of two things:
- Early on, a local tells Paterson that his dog is an expensive breed, the type that gets dognapped, so be careful. Paterson isn’t, leaving Marvin tied up outside the bar. So maybe Marvin gets napped?
- Laura pleads with Paterson to make copies of his poems before something happens to them and they’re lost forever. So maybe something happens to the poems?
It’s the latter. And it’s telegraphed.
On Saturday, Laura’s cupcakes are a hit at the farmers market, so they celebrate by going out to dinner and then to a 1932 horror film, “Island of Lost Souls,” one of the first cinematic adaptations of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” But Paterson leaves his notebook on the couch and when they return it’s chewed to bits by Marvin. Sunday, and the rest of the movie, is how Paterson deals with this loss. He finds that it matters to him. Serendipitously, at the Great Falls of Paterson, his favorite place, he runs into a Japanese tourist, a poetry lover who has traveled to Paterson because of Williams’ five-book series, “Paterson”; and after a slow conversation, the tourist gives Paterson a new blank notebook. Alone again, Paterson writes a new poem about the musical lyric “Or would you rather be a fish?” I actually liked that poem. It's the only poem of his that I liked.
And that’s pretty much it.
As you can tell, the movie didn’t do much for me. That Japanese tourist, despite carrying a book of translated poetry, says, “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,” and that’s what “Paterson” felt like to me. Its main character seems to be in a fugue state, and the movie puts us into a kind of fugue state, too. It’s not just disconnected; there seems to be a real fear of connection in it. It’s almost a horror film: an island of lost souls.