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Month: November 2004

Whip and chain

The Red Cross says conditions in Guantanamo Bay are problematic, but won’t confirm a New York Times report that said the Red Cross claims prisoners were effectively tortured.

The official White House response is not exactly conclusive: “We strongly disagree with any characterization that suggests the way detainees are being treated is inconsistent with the policies the president has outlined.” Well, that’s all very well and good, but it’s not entirely clear that it is inconsistent with the Red Cross claims. The President’s policies may or may not authorize actions that are effectively torture, after all.

Go back a few weeks, and you find official US reports regarding abuse at Guantanamo which mesh fairly well with much of what the Red Cross is saying. The parties responsible for events reported therein have been disciplined. The question boils down to whether or not that discipline has been sufficient to curb the problem or not; seems like the Red Cross is saying not.

Who’s telling the truth? Well, the actions described in those reports do not violate the recommendations in the Gonzales memos.

Get it right

Given the current state of the Ukraine, it is enlightening to look back on the history of Ukrainian nuclear weaponry. The Ukraine doesn’t have nuclear weapons because Senators Nunn and Lugar worked hard to convince Ukrainian leaders not to have nuclear weapons, backed up by government funding.

Funding for Cooperative Threat Reduction peaked under Clinton in 2000 at $475.5 million. In 2001, it dropped to $433.4 million. In 2002, it dropped to $403 million. More on this here (PDF).


Embarrassingly, up until very recently I had not seen a lot of Wong Kar Wai. By which I basically mean none. But I am determined to correct my cinematic errors and last night, desperately needing something to clear my brain from the mediocrity that was Alexander, I dug around and came up with Days of Being Wild. It was the right choice; it’s haunting me.

It reminds me of the Bayeux Tapestry. Wong flattens out the passage of time, deliberately eschewing conventional sequential techniques. There’s no build-up, no climax to the scenes. Things happen, flat against the backdrop of the world. The four protagonists shuffle around, touch each others lives, talk in pairs, and shuffle again. Time passes like a metronome, without emphasis.

It reminds me of the 60s, not just because it’s set in the 60s, but because it breathes cool with every understated frame. Wong’s camera, aided and abetted by Christopher Doyle, glides from shot to shot. He has an unerring eye for the significant angles of everyone’s face. Maggie Cheung’s in particular, of course, but he doesn’t stint on Leslie Cheung’s spoiled handsomeness either. Set the pop star actors against Christopher Doyle’s superb cinematography, and you’ve got the most elegant movie in the world.

There’s this fine line Wong walks there: the actors are filmed as beings of glamour, but their characters are bit players living out ordinary lives. Which does not, mind you, deprive them of importance. That’s another underlying truth to the world Wong creates: people are important because love is important because connections are important. They recur, no matter how much one might hide from them. Wong’s a romantic.

In the end there’s a climax to the movie. It only resolves one story, though. Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau and Carina Lau and Jacky Cheung, they’re still floating in 60s Hong Kong, looking for ways to connect, finding little hope.

Days of Being Wild will be playing at the MFA in Boston, February 25 through March 1, 2004. Or cut to the chase and get it from Kino, either alone or as part of their Wong Kai Wai box set.

Blunt sword

I have this picture of Oliver Stone going “Yeah, so we’ll do the entire thing in narration, Anthony Hopkins will just tell us what happened, and then we’ll sort of intersperse moments where Alexander says something glorious and inspiring.” Then for some reason everyone else said “Good idea!” It was not, in fact, a good idea.

Val Kilmer was pretty good as Phillip. Hopefully Oliver Stone’s failure will brighten up the prospects for Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander movie. No other silver linings are visible.

Question and answer

Lifted from The 20’ by 20’ Room:

1. What is the first RPG you ever played?

Tunnels and Trolls, solo. I loved it. I still love it, actually.

2. What RPG do you currently play most often?

If you count D20 as one RPG, it’s D20. Otherwise it’s a split between D&D 3.5 and Adventure D20, both of which I play once every couple of weeks.

3. What is the best system you’ve played?

Hard to answer. Most fun? I think this remains Feng Shui. Best system? I am hard-pressed to choose anything other than Hero. Certainly Hero is the most impressive accomplishment in system design.

4. What is the best system you’ve run?

Feng Shui, insofar as it’s the best system for me to run. I’ve run other systems I consider better (see above) but haven’t run them as well.

5. Would you consider yourself an: Elitist/Min-Maxer/Rules Lawyer?

How are these defined? I’m an elitist, definitely, in that I like roleplaying with smart people. Min-maxer? Yeah, I can milk a ruleset for all it’s worth. Rules lawyer? I care about the rules of the game, but I don’t argue with the GM as a matter of course.

6. If you could recommend a new RPG which would you recommend? Why?

Depends on who I’m recommending it for. West End’s Star Wars is actually a really good choice — everyone knows the world and the system is pretty easy for a newcomer to pick up.

7. How often do you play?

Alll the time. Couple of nights a week, generally.

8. What sort of characters do you play? Leader? Follower? Comic Relief? Roll-Player/ Role-Player?

Interesting ones. Leaders as necessary. Usually I play characters who are capable of being impulsive because I don’t like too much fluttering around when it’s not in service of anything.

9. What is your favorite genre for RPGs?

Action! Heh. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite. If pushed, I’d say pulp.

10. What Genres have you played in?

SF, horror, fantasy (modern, historical, futuristic, and otherwise), pulp, superheroes (teen, dark, etc.), multi-planar. Ones I’m forgetting, too, I expect.

11. Do you prefer to play or GM? Do you do both?

I’d rather play than GM. I do both, however.

12. Do you like religion in your games?

It’s part of human nature, no? I played a character once who fell in love with an angel.

13. Do you have taboo subjects in your games or is everything “fair game”?

I’m OK with whatever.

14. Have you developed your own RPG before?


15. Have you ever been published in the gaming industry? If so…what?

Yep. I’ve done work for White Wolf (mostly on Trinity), Atlas Games, Eden… I think that’s it. I’m not a frequent freelancer by any means.

Knife flight

House of Flying Daggers is the latest movie from Zhang Yimou, the guy who directed Hero. Depending on how much you counted on Zhang Yimou to keep making beautiful art movies, it’s either the final step in his commercialization or a slam-bang action movie without all that complex flashback stuff. Either way, those who complained about the politics of Hero will hopefully be relieved to find that House of Flying Daggers is light on the political subtext.

What you get is, really, a Shaw Brothers movie for the new millenium, with superb production values. There are rebels and an empire in decay and lovers and jealousy. There is not extended meditation on the nature of truth and lies, and while honor is important, it’s important as the substrate for the passions of love and lust.

Andy Lau really is a pretty good choice for that particular kind of story, too. He’s cute and roguish and all. I’m kind of wishing that Zhang Ziyi wasn’t in all the kung fu art flicks we get on these shores, but I have to admit she’s doing a good job with the roles.

Back to the kung fu: if Hero was Zhang Yimou’s practice run for a kung fu movie, then House of Flying Daggers is where he cuts loose. There’s stuff in here that’s going to be remembered for a while. In particular, there’s a fight scene towards the middle of the movie in a bamboo forest which is startlingly fresh and new, not so much in the actual kung fu but in the way in which he uses the environment. Nobody’s ever done quite that with trees before.

If you’re in LA or New York, you can see it on December 3rd. Everyone else is waiting till the 17th, or you can be a region-free liberated DVD watcher like me and get it early. I’ll see it again on the big screen, though, you betcha.


If Bill Condon’s going to keep making such great movies, I guess it’s OK that he only makes ‘em once every six years or so. Kinsey was awfully good. Not perfect, but awfully good.

You have to start with Liam Neeson, who turned in a brilliant performance, not stinting on either Kinsey’s flaws or his strengths. Laura Linney is the obvious key co-star, but I gotta say nice things also about John Lithgow, who was perfect as Kinsey’s father. The movie explores, briefly, the way in which Kinsey became as much a preacher as his father was, and that would not have worked half so well if Neeson and Lithgow hadn’t worked so well together.

Not that Linney and Neeson weren’t great in conjunction. They’re young together and middle-aged together and old together and the passage of time is sketched out by the way the pair becomes comfortable with one another. If they gave Oscars for best joint performance, these two would get one. Since they do give out SAG awards for best cast, maybe that’ll make up for it a bit. I hadn’t realized how good the cast was: Oliver Platt, Tim Curry, Dylan Baker, Timothy Hutton, yum.

What you get out of such a good cast, in part, is the ability to create yet another brief focus of Kinsey that I really enjoyed. I think Condon absolutely nailed the tension that arises from attempts to liberate sex from emotional ties. There’s a strong taste of this in Kinsey’s own personal life, and later on, when his staff slips into polymorphous sensibilities, there’s a great five or ten minute sequence which eloquently shows the problems that can arise. Couldn’t have worked without such a strong cast.

You know, it’s a real stocking full of presents, this Kinsey. There are a lot of fairly brief brilliant explorations of various subjects — the realization that one’s bi-sexual, Kinsey’s relationship with his father, the tension of polygamy, the competition between Kinsey and Tim Curry’s character, the way Oliver Platt’s character comes to appreciate what Kinsey brings to the university… and yeah, this is about the only quibble I had with the movie. Condon’s good enough to hit each topic with unexpected depth, but you get to wishing he’d linger more. Whoops, Kinsey’s had his realization about sex with other males; time to move on to the next topic. Bit of a whirlwind.

On the other hand, the underlying themes — Kinsey’s emotional life and the celebration of diversity — continue throughout. And man, are they ever worth it. What a tremendously cool movie.

Anything else? I didn’t think the framing technique quite worked. The movie starts with Kinsey training his students on interview techniques by making them interview him, and that’s filmed in black and white. This is interspersed with flashbacks to his childhood, in color, which threw my time sense off. (“Shouldn’t the flashbacks be black and white?”) Then midway through the movie the flashbacks catch up with the frame and the frame vanishes. Didn’t work for me.

Still — pretty minor caveats. I enjoyed Kinsey a lot.