Two Fireflies (For H.S.W.)…

February 17, 2011



Under the lamppost there now lies

Brittle remains of two fireflies

Their lights faded, their wings grown still

They do not move, they never will

But there in the previous night

You would have seen a golden light

They shone to see each other fly

Under the lamppost they now lie


Oscar, Oscar…

February 14, 2011

First of all, Happy Valentine’s Day!  A day for love and romance or crass commercialism at its disgusting worst?  You decide.

Anyhow, I’ve spent the last ten days or so on a big movie kick.  Specifically, I’ve been watching the films up for the upcoming Academy Awards.  It all started when I kept hearing all the hype surrounding The Social Network and The King’s Speech, and I was curious to see which one I would like better.  And once I got my answer (see below), I figured I’d go ahead and watch the rest of the nominees to get fully Oscar-ized.  The only Best Picture nominee I decided to skip was Toy Story 3, as I’m not particularly big on animation (aside from The Simpsons, Galaxy Express 999, and Dumbo, which brought me to tears as a boy), and I didn’t want to have to watch through Parts 1&2.  So with no more ado, here are my thoughts and ruminations on the rest of the Best Picture nominees along with a couple more that are up for acting awards:

**Alert:  Yes, there are likely to be spoilers**

INCEPTION:  One of the three films I actually watched in a theater in 2010 (along with Salt & Eat Drink and Pray), and it was easily the best of the lot.  I usually end up finding big-budget, special effects-laden movies to be silly and paper-thin in terms of story, but this one was a welcome exception, successfully combining a complex, multi-faceted plot that challenges our notions of reality with action sequences that managed to be cool without patronizingly cartoonish.  Add in great acting performances all around (esp. from Mr. Dicaprio & Marion Cotillard, who I think should’ve WON for Best Supporting Actress but wasn’t even nominated) and a what-the-hellishly ambiguous ending (though I’m firmly in the “It began to wobble, so it must’ve fallen” camp), and it’s a great achievement all around.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B+.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK:  Yes, this story about the origins of Facebook is well-constructed and well-acted (especially by the guy who played Marcus Zuckerberg), but I found it too cool for its own good.  Basically, I didn’t find myself caring about any of the characters, all of whom were clever, privileged, and intelligent but never displayed much humanity or sense of caring about anything besides themselves.  Ultimately, betrayal or not, they all ended up millionaires (billionaires?), and I found the whole thing just as impersonal and flippant as I often find Facebook itself.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=C.

THE KING’S SPEECH:  Surely the least epic film ever made about a king, and that sense of intimacy helps the movie succeed quite well in its quite modest goals.  Basically, royalty or not, it’s about a movie about a guy who tries to get over his stuttering problem, as simple as that.  Really, it’s not a whole lot different that “The Karate Kid,” with Colin Firth in the place of Ralph Macchio and Geoffrey Rush playing Mr. Miyagi.  The performances are really quite impeccable (Firth and Rush play off each other like virtuosos), and the story is pleasant and uplifting, but never quite provides that adrenaline rush of Daniel-san delivering his iconic crane kick.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B.

THE BLACK SWAN:  This is an interesting one.  It’s really two movies thrown together in a cinematic blender.  One is a beautifully shot and acted character study on an artiste suffering for her work.  The other is a cheesy, campy thriller with an obligatory “shocking” ending that belongs on late-night cable.  The two parts are well-represented by two of its performances:  the first, by a never-smiling Natalie Portman who acts and dances with perfect precision throughout, and the second by a madcap, over-the-top Winona Ryder who camps it up with trashy, Mommie Dearest glee every time she appears.  It’s an odd mix all right, but it’s all so beautifully shot that I was buying into it right up to the final few scenes in which feathers began to sprout, blood began to flow, and any remaining sense of realism went out the window.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B (Would’ve been an A with a more convincing ending).

127 Hours:  Poor guy.  Yikes.  Poor guy.  YIIIIKKKKEEESSSS!!!  Those are pretty much the only thoughts that ran through my mind as I watched this.  To put the story in a nutshell, James Franco (likable as always) gets his arm stuck under a rock while out exploring nature, suffers for the eponymous number of hours, then cuts his own arm with a cheap Swiss Army knife to finally escape (all based on a true story!).  It’s not usual film fare, and I’ve got to give the film credit for pulling it off (sorry, no pun intended), but I’m still not sure why anyone would willingly pay money to watch this.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=C.

THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT:  Ever watch “Little Miss Sunshine”? (If you haven’t, I definitely recommend it)  This one’s got a very similar vibe with another likable yet mildy dysfunctional family.  Annette Bening and Julianne Moore are lesbian moms raising two teenagers, and then they come in contact with the guy who donated the sperm that spawned the two kids, which causes all kinds of trouble for the family.  It’s a fun, highly watchable film, but really, it’s all fairly standard (almost sitcom-ish at times) and nothing particularly new, lesbians or not.  In fact, the plot’s almost identical to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, in which a rich family “adopts” a homeless Nick Nolte, who unintentionally raises similar havoc in their lives.  Also, I’m a bit puzzled by all the praise being heaped on Annette Bening.  I thought she was good but didn’t have to do a whole lot; just speaking in a lower-than-normal voice and then act sad when she finds out her wife is having an affair with the sperm donor.  I don’t know; I didn’t even think she was the best actress in the film, as I found Julianne Moore more convincing.  I also didn’t care much for the ending and how shabbily the sperm donor character was dealt with (it’s not like he forced Moore to have an affair with him).  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B-.

THE FIGHTER:  Okay, now we’re talking.  This film is about a small-time boxer and his dysfunctional family, and it was the first one on the list that I found myself completely engrossed by.  And I even hate boxing!  But this film, like most boxing films, really uses the “sport” as an allegory for Man and Life, how we all have to suffer, and often bleed, to make our dreams into reality.  The acting by everyone in the cast is pitch perfect (by everyone from Marky Mark to the Handbag Girl from The Office!), and every scene feels so darn real.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed by the Rocky-esque ending, the only part that came off remotely cliched, but seeing that it was based on a true story and that’s what really happened, I couldn’t blame the movie too much. (In many ways, it reminded me of “The Wrestler,” which was even better)  TOMMYLAND GRADE=A-.

TRUE GRIT=I don’t really like Westerns, and this one didn’t change my opinion one iota.  It’s kind of like “The Kids Are All Right” in that aside from one twist, the basic story is one that’s been told time and time before.  Here, the twist is that the main character is a 14 year-old girl who’s trying to get a cowboy bounty hunter to find the villain that killed her father.  It was all fine as Westerns go, I guess, and I thought that the young girl gave one heck of a performance (movies need more girl characters like her), but I just couldn’t get into it.  And I don’t think Jeff Bridges should’ve been nominated for Best Actor; all he had to do was act “grizzly”!  TOMMYLAND GRADE=C-.

WINTER’S BONE:  I had never heard of Jennifer Lawrence, but wow, she made one heck of an impression.  She, like this movie, knows when to let silence tell the story.  The movie is about a teenaged girl living in a drug-addled community supporting her crazy mother and her younger siblings whose methhead father goes missing.  To keep the family from being evicted from their house (the father had put up the house for his bail bond), she has to somehow find him, dead or alive.  This is easily the bleakest film here (yes, even bleaker than the story about James Franco’s arm) with little hope or beauty found anywhere, but what IS there is the strength found in the human will to survive, and to help those we love to survive along with us.  It’s about being heroic in the best way possible, quietly and without a touch of self-aggrandizement.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B+.

RABBIT HOLE:  This one’s not nominated for Best Picture, but Nicole Kidman is up for Best Actress, and deservedly so.  It must be tempting to get all mushy and dramatic when you’re playing a mother grieving the loss of a child, but she knows when and when not to pull the emotional trigger, making her performance all that more touching.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn’t really match up.  Aaron Eckhart is just okay, and the young guy who plays the driver who accidentally hit Nicole’s son gives such a lumpy performance that I’m surprised Nicole didn’t slap him and yell, “Can’t you even TRY to keep up with what I’m doing?”  TOMMYLAND GRADE=B-.

BLUE VALENTINE:  Again, not a Best Picture nominee, but Michelle Williams is up for Best Actress, and I really wanted to watch this as I’m a sucker for movies about relationships gone bad.  And really, that’s pretty much all there is to this story:  Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love and get married, and then boy and girl start emotionally destroying each other little by little shortly thereafter.  It’s all very simple, but it’s also the most devastating movie I’ve seen since Schindler’s List.  Nothing really huge happens in the film, no big “twist,” no big fireworks, no happy ending with a chase to the airport or any other rom-com cliche.  It’s just one scene that leads into the next, each offering us a layer of how this couple fell in love and how far apart they’ve grown despite both being good, decent people underneath.  It’s sad, sad, sad, but oh so real, real, real, and I loved every minute of it.  Would I recommend it as a Valentine Day’s movie to watch with your significant other?  No, not unless you’re in the mood to break up with that person.  Still, for me, it was the best movie on this list, and my favorite film of 2010.  TOMMYLAND GRADE=A.

Best Picture Pick:  THE FIGHTER (Too bad Blue Valentine wasn’t nominated, though.)

Best Director Pick:  CHRISTOPHER DOLAN (Inception was such a difficult movie to pull off with all its different facets, and he succeeded admirably.)

Best Actor:  COLIN FIRTH (I thought he was kind of overrated in the overwrought “Single Man,” but here, he brings humanity and vulnerability that can come from the burden of having more power than you think you deserve.)

Best Actress:  MICHELLE WILLIAMS (She doesn’t make one false, pandering move.)

Best Supporting Actor:  GEOFFREY RUSH (Restrained yet all the more powerful for it; just brilliant.) 

Best Supporting Actress:  THE GIRL FROM TRUE GRIT (She totally carried that film with her moxie and riot (cow)girl power; she really should’ve been nominated for Best Actress.)

Finally, here’s the song that’s used perfectly and heartbreakingly in Blue Valentine:

You and Me – Penny & the Quarters

Nothing Spells FUN Like D-M-Z…

February 1, 2011


Doo doo, just another Tuesday come and gone.  Well, actually, not quite.  Let me rewind the tape a little.

Having lived in South Korea for much of the last ten years, one of the places I’ve always meant to visit is the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Well, I was working on my novel last week when it hit me that the main character should visit the border for a number of symbolic reasons.  Of course, I couldn’t write about it without doing it myself.  So after a quick call to the American USO Office in Seoul, I was all set to visit one of the most notorious and volatile areas on the planet.

I got up at 5 A.M. this morning to be able to get to the USO by 7.  Once there, about 30 of us boarded a bus and headed up north towards the border.  Our guide was a young Korean woman in her early twenties who was pretty and perky and quite proficient-of not all the way fluent-in English.  (I’ll call her Janie.)

As we drove for about an hour and a half, the huge buildings of Seoul gradually disappeared, replaced by the Imjin River and the barbed wire fence that ran alongside it to prevent the North Koreans from crossing over it.  We soon crossed a short bridge called the Grand Unification Bridge and drove on to an army compound, which had the feel of a summer camp retreat, with small, dull-colored buildings scattered here and there, the only signs of life being the few soldiers standing at attention at checkpoints.

We got off the bus at a small building called the Visitor Briefging Center where an American soldier stepped up on stage and gave a historical overview of the Joint Security Area (JSA), where we would soon be visiting.  To clear up the various names, the DMZ refers to the area that runs 2 km north and 2 km south of the border, officially known as the Demarcation Line.  The JSA is the small, smack-in-the-middle part of the DMZ where North and South Korean officials have meetings and North and South Korean border guards virtually co-exist.   It’s about as tense an area as you can get, especially with crazy events such as the 1976 Axe Murder Incident when North Korean soldiers wielding axes attacked and killed American soldiers who were trimming down a tree in the JSA.  (The axe in question is now housed in the North Korean Peace Museum; apparently, irony is alive and well up north.)

After the presentation, it was time to see the JSA for ourselves.  We were escorted by the American soldier who warned us not to bring our bags into the JSA (in case North Koreans accuse us of trying to bring explosives in) and also not to try to communicate with or gesture towards the North Korean soldier we were likely to see on the other side of the JSA (in case we get accused of trying to antagonizing them).

The Smurf Blue Buildings of the JSA

We got off the bus and entered a big, gray building called the Freedom House, where meetings betweens North and South Korea sometimes take place.  Once we crossed the building, we came face to face with three small, sky blue buildings (each about the size of a mobile home) and then in the distance, a bigger, gray, multi-story building known as the Panmungak, North Korea’s main building in the area.  The one North Korean guard we could see was stationed in front of Panmungak’s door, dressed in a green uniform with red stripes on the shoulders.  I kept watching him and when we appeared, he took out a pair of binoculars and took a good look at us.  (I would love to know what went through his mind at that moment.)

Can you spot the North Korean soldier?

Our American soldier escort then led us to one of the sky blue buildings, the MAC (Military Armistice Commission) Conference Room, where talks take place between duty officers from both sides.  It’s basically your everyday conference room, dominated by a shiny lacquered wood table surrounded by chairs on both sides.  The crazy thing is, the table served as a microcosm of the border itself; when we crossed the table, we were officially in North Korean territory.  Also, there were two South Korean soldiers standing at guard, one standing near the table and one standing in front of the door on the opposite wall.  As it was explained to us, when North Korean tour groups visit the DMZ, they enter the same room, but the South Korean guards leave and are replaced by their North Korean counterparts, one of whom blocks the entrance that we came in.  It was just kind of mind-boggling to look at this room and this table-a nice table, but STILL!-and ponder the meaning of it all.  As some of us crossed the table, we noticed a dead bug of some kind lying on the floor.  Someone wisecracked, “It must have died while trying to defect.”

The Table

Soon, we said goodbye to the room and to the Korean guards (they never spoke, and our guide warned us not to touch them since “they will hit you”) and got back on the bus.  As we drove away, the American soldier pointed out where the Axe Murder Incident took place, and we also passed the Bridge of No Return where after the Korean War, POWs were given the choice to either cross and go to the other side or to stay where they were (apparently, the bridge is depicted in one of the James Bond movies, and I’m pretty sure it’s the bridge Angelina Jolie walks across to meet her husband in the beginning of “Salt”).

The Bridge of No Return--Once You Cross, You Could Never Go Back

We next drove on to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, one of the secret tunnels North Korea dug to get into South Korea for surprise attacks.  It’s not much to look at, basically just a short, rocky cave with a low ceiling (we all wore helmets, and I was never so happy that I wasn’t tall).

North Korea said they were just "coal mining." Riiiiiiiiight...

Afterwards, we went on to the Dora Observatory located on top of Dora Mountain, where we were theoretically supposed to get a grand view into North Korea, namely the Propaganda Village (where almost no one actually lives) and the ultra-high flagpole with the North Korean flag perpetually waving (in a classic case of phallic competition, the South Koreans outdid the original North Korean flagpole with a higher flagpole of their own, only to see the North Koreans come back and build a higher one still).  Well, that didn’t really happen in reality as the day was too hazy to see pretty much of anything aside from the humbled South Korean flagpole. 

After that, we moved on to the final place in our itineary:  Dorasan Station.  It’s pretty much your average rail station with the requisite lobby and counters and railroads and stop signs.  The only thing it’s missing is an actual train.  A few years back, a railroad between North and South Korea opened with great fanfare, and a train actually ran from Dorasan Station (the northernmost station in South Korea) to stations in North Korea for a little while.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last, and now the deserted station now plays host only to visiting tourists. 

Dorasan--A Stationary Station

Looking at the railroads heading up north to God-knows-what-it’s-like-over-there, I thought about all the things I saw today, and I don’t know, I can’t say that I came to any epiphany or some greater understanding of anything, really.  I think issues of North and South Korea, of war, of families torn apart for the rest of their lives, it’s all beyond the grasp of anyone who hasn’t experienced them firsthand.  The tour today was intriguing, interesting, and thought-provoking, yes, but for me to claim that they brought me any real insight into the Korean War and its aftermath would be pompous and asinine.  Ultimately, if today taught me anything, it was that there is so much that I do not know, so much that I cannot understand.  It was a completely humbling experience; that’s the best way I can describe it.  And really, I think it’s a good thing.  We all should be humbled every now and then; otherwise, we’d never strive to be more than what we are now.  So that is how I chose to leave the DMZ at the end of the day:  absolutely humbled, and utterly grateful for it.

So Which Way Now?