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  • Jeff Marker


    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

China Diary Day 1

I recently taught at Zhejiang Normal University (ZJNU) in Jinhua, China for three weeks and tried my best to keep a diary of my time there. My writing became more sporadic the longer I was there, but I did take loads of pictures. I’ll share everything worth sharing over the next few weeks. Below is the first entry.

Today was my first full day in Jinhua, and thanks to the professor with whom I will be teaching, I got to see some of the campus and surrounding community. The professor’s name is Tao, but like most Chinese people I have met, he has an English name, which is Chris. I first met him during a very brief visit to the university back in March, and it took about an hour for us both to realize we were going to be fast friends.

Chris earned his PhD from Beijing Film Academy, which any film studies academic can tell you is terribly impressive. It’s on par with an American engineer with a degree from MIT. I mean, the period of film history called the Chinese Fifth Generation, the defining period in all of Chinese cinema, is so named after the fifth class of graduates to come out of Beijing Film Academy, and it is notoriously difficult to get into. Yet he is totally unassuming and one of the most generous people I have met. Quite a person.

Chris took me for coffee and we discussed the lectures I would give. It was very helpful and made me feel much less nervous about teaching the next day. When he heard that no one from ZJNU had set me up with a meal card or shown me around, he seemed a little miffed. He called someone from the international office and made sure they’d set me up with a card tomorrow. They had already requested it, but the place isn’t open on Sundays. So he took me to the North Gate area and explained a few things.

Béimen, or the North Gate

Béimen, or the North Gate

North Gate (or Béimen in pinyin) is one of four gates that border the campus. (Bet you can guess what the others are called.) But when people use the phrase Béimen they are usually referring to the neighborhood surrounding the actual gate. Half of it, on one side of the gate, is on university property, but the rest of it is Jinhua property. Altogether, though, this area is the lifeblood of the non-academic ZJNU experience.

The Jinhua side of North Gate

The Jinhua side of North Gate

If you swivel around the other way, you get the view on the left. The fruit vendors were out in force that day, and we tried litchi and yangmei. I liked them both, so Chris bought me some. They became my breakfast for the next few days.

North Gate is constantly busy, teeming with life, loud, and chaotic. I loved it. The energy there is amazing. And you can buy just about anything in these little shops. I’m not a fan of mysterious meat served on sticks, but if that’s your thing, you’d love it here, too.

Here is a view of the ZJNU side of the North Gate neighborhood.

A view of the campus side of North Gate

A view of the campus side of North Gate

A view of North Gate from the second story of the row of shops.

Middle of North Gate looking northward

Middle of North Gate looking northward

Another view of North Gate from the second story. Notice the big tree at the end of the row in the middle of the street. Everybody calls this “the big tree” (I didn’t learn that phrase in Mandarin, sorry.) If you want to meet up with someone, you usually say you’ll meet at the big tree. It didn’t strike me until I started writing this post that I didn’t get a good picture of the tree.

North Gate looking southward

North Gate looking southward

One last view of North Gate. Note all of the scooters. Most of them are electric, and they are everywhere on the ZJNU campus. I took this photo in the middle of the day, which is why there aren’t many people. It gets very hot in the middle of the day, and campus usually clears out. It’s a shame, because on a busier day this whole street would be filled with students – and all of the female students would be shading themselves with parasols. Umbrellas/parasols are not just functional here, they are a very important fashion accessory. It always makes for a charming view.

IMG_0560

After we had wandered around for a while, Chris took me to one of the campus canteens where faculty, staff, and students can use their university cards to pay for meals, and he bought me lunch since I didn’t have mine yet. Then he gave me his card to use until I got my own card. The following day, he gave me one of his old phones to use while I’m in China. Like I said, quite a person.

Oh, and if you’re wondering what yangmei, the fruit I mentioned, looks like, here is a photo. They are delicious. Both these and litchis are native to the region and fairly important to their agricultural industry and daily diet. I will always associate my time at ZJNU with the taste of these gorgeous little fruits.

yangmei

yangmei

 

A Layover in Incheon

During a recent, very brief trip to China, a colleague and I had two layovers in Incheon, one on the way there and the other on the way back. The first night, we were exhausted after a 15-hour flight, the usual airport madness, and a shuttle ride. We went out seeking a quick bite to eat, and it turns out most things in that neighborhood in Incheon close by 11:30. Luckily – and oddly – there are 3 Mini-Stops within a 4-block area. That little convenience store saved us, but my dinner that night was a Hite beer and these chips:


I think they were sweet onion? Regardless, they hit the spot. We were so tired we did no sight-seeing, and these are the only photos I took that night:

For the record, I rarely stand in the middle of the street in foreign countries to take pictures. In the morning I discovered our hotel is very serious about shower sponges.

Then off we went to China the following day. During the second layover, on the way back a couple of days later, we had more time and energy but it was 40-degrees and raining. So again, not much sight-seeing. If I’m being honest, this neighborhood in Incheon didn’t have much to offer anyway. Its entire economy is driven by airport traffic, so the only businesses are hotels, restaurants, and an amazing number of coffee houses. Sadly, though, most of those coffee shops don’t open until 9:30 AM. Strange, from an American perspective. But the city does begin to come alive around dusk, and I snapped a few more photos that night.

Our hotel was not nice at all. The best I can say about it is there was plenty of very hot water for my shower (which allowed me to feel the satisfaction with refreshing, thank goodness). Given the sad state of affairs inside the hotel, this advertisement on the outside of it seemed pretty funny.

But maybe you had to be there.

Random Act of Fandom

There I was in the Incheon Airport near Seoul, Korea, waiting in line to get my boarding pass, when I noticed a large group of young women pointing cameras at a kid getting his boarding pass in a lane to my left.

Oops, there is at least one young man in there, isn’t there. As you can see, some of those cameras are rather expensive, so it appears to be a mixture of fans and paparazzi. (Ironic sidenote: some of the girls acted pissed that I took this picture!) This little gaggle continued to grow, so obviously the kid further down to my left was a celebrity. I wish I had gotten a good picture of him, because he looked like an average kid to me. I would never have pegged him as a celebrity if all these photographers hadn’t been hounding him. He wore skinny black jeans, a black cap with the bill popped up, and sunglasses.

When he got his boarding pass and tried to make it to security, the real spectacle began. See if you can even spot the celebrity kid in this little moving scrum.

http://youtu.be/mgSWFWHq0yM

I asked the ticketing agent if she recognized him, and she just waved it off. “Happens all the time,” she said. It was a first for me, though.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Review

guardians-galaxy-movie-trailer-humorGuardians of the Galaxy is the most purely entertaining movie of the summer. It isn’t even a contest.

X-Men: Days of Future Past strung together a sprawling yarn which smartly steered the franchise toward new possibilities. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes used next-level motion capture techniques to offer stunning character complexity for a movie about apes. Both are highly sophisticated as tentpole releases go.

But Guardians of the Galaxy is sheer hedonism. It’s a laugh-per-minute spectacle that never takes itself seriously yet takes us on an escapist jaunt through a bizarre Science Fiction universe.

In those ways, it is a quintessential summer movie. Forget about your cares, munch on popcorn, and just enjoy.

guardians-galaxy-gamora-zoe-saldanaGuardians is also the anti-Avengers.

We’ve come to expect earnest heroism and myth-building from all of the Avengers movies. Guardians indulges in almost none of that.

The Guardians are not superheroes. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is hyper-athletic, Drax (Dave Bautista) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are very strong, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) is highly intelligent. But none possesses superpowers. These characters are a band of outlaws and misfits.

Gamora is an assassin on the run from her adoptive father, the supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin). Drax is a mountain of a man with no sense of irony bent on avenging his murdered family. Rocket is a raccoon who was given human intelligence when he was subjected to experiments and is now a career criminal. Groot is a tree with a limited vocabulary.

They are led by Earth-born Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an average dude (and therefore a perfect role for Pratt) who makes a living selling recovered artifacts and gets out of scrapes using his charm and wits. And he really, really would like you to call him Star-Lord.

rocket-raccoonThe Guardians screw up half of the time and bicker constantly, and hilariously, over petty things. And every time the story builds toward a rousing speech or the type of sanctimonious hero worship that has come to define the Avengers movies, one of the characters undercuts it with a sarcastic joke.

Most importantly, the Guardians are flawed. The movie might be a tough sell because many will be turned off by how strange the characters seem to be. ‘You want me to watch a movie about a green girl, a talking raccoon, and a tree?’
Trust me, these characters are more human and relatable than any of the Avengers.

And they fight a genuinely scary villain, Ronan (Lee Pace), who is backed by Thanos and the ruthless Nebula, played by an unrecognizable Karen Gillan.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-drax-the-destroyer-02Peter and the others become the Guardians reluctantly and only due to circumstance. They’ve stolen something and made Ronan very angry. Each character is looking out for himself or herself yet ultimately can’t look the other way when Ronan threatens the entire galaxy.

Guardians is a very important movie for Marvel/Disney. Marvel and its monopolistic parent company have dominated the box office the past few years, but the Avengers phase of the studio’s plans is reaching its expiration date.

We’re done with solo Iron Man movies starring Robert Downey Jr., and we’ll see one more Thor and Captain America movie each. There will be two more Avengers movies, but Marvel needs to bring a new set of characters into the moviegoing consciousness, and Guardians is part of that plan. An especially important part, since Ant-Man has become a disaster before production has even started.

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_41744There really are only three things you need to know about Guardians of the Galaxy.

First, parents should be aware that the language is a bit rough at times. Second and with apologies to all of the Avengers, Guardians is the best Marvel movie so far. Third, prepare to see the movie twice, because the first time you’ll miss some of the jokes. You won’t be able to hear them over your own laughing.

LUCY Review

lucy-LCY_Tsr1Sheet_RGB_0523_1_rgbYou’re going to hear strange popping sounds Friday afternoon around the time of the first showings of Lucy. They will be the sounds of scientists’ heads exploding all around the world.

The movies are notorious for pushing junk science on naïve viewers. It’s possible junk movie science has never been junkier than it is in Luc Besson’s Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson plays the title character, who gains the ability to use more of her brain than the 10% most of us use. She utilizes more and more of her brain as the movie progresses and acquires new, scientifically nonsensical powers as she evolves.

I use the word “evolve” because it is a theme of the film. Much of the first act cuts between Lucy becoming entangled in a drug-smuggling ring under the control of Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) and Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) lecturing on what would happen if humans evolved in the ways Lucy does even as he speaks.

Science Fiction movies by nature exaggerate and fictionalize scientific reality or theory. One of the measures of quality for the genre is whether the movie follows its own rules. The story has to be plausible within the theory on which the movie is based.

Lucy fails spectacularly on this level. There is no logical connection between brain power and the physical powers she acquires, which become increasingly supernatural.

It’s the kind of movie that’s only entertaining if you turn off your brain. And surely you see the irony there.

Not that writer/director Luc Besson has ever cared about plausibility. He is much more interested in ideas, especially the ideas of transformation and transcendence.

He is also fascinated with taking wispy, Bohemian girls and turning them into impeccable killers. We’ve seen him create woman warriors in La Femme Nikita, Leon, The Fifth Element, The Messenger, and Angel-A.

Empowerment comes with machine-like precision and a large gun in Besson’s world.

None of Besson’s heroines have been as empowered as Lucy, though. As the trailers have already revealed, she develops the ability to control other people’s bodies and minds and to manipulate time and matter.

The concept is good for creating stunning visuals, and this movie uses more computer-generated imagery than any of Besson’s previous work.

But the concept is terrible for action scenes. Lucy clashes with dozens of henchmen but just as each fight begins, Lucy’s powers expand and she dispatches her opponents with ease. There isn’t one engaging action scene in the whole movie. The movie is too busy trying to be too many things at once to focus on what most viewers will want, which is seeing Johansson in action.

For a few minutes during the opening sequence, Lucy recalls the documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and its critique of modern life. The premise is embarrassingly similar to Limitless (2011). It’s also a quasi-philosophical movie that has as much in common with Terence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011) as anything else.

Besson has great fun with the evolution theme by intercutting wildlife documentary footage into his fictional footage, creating witty metaphors and puns. Unfortunately, this technique is also borrowed, from Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000).

I was rooting hard for this film prior to seeing it because it bucks so many current trends. It’s based on an original screenplay rather than a popular novel or comic book. It’s a taut 90 minutes rather than the standard 130-150 minute summer slog. And it’s in 2D.

But the movie becomes so unintentionally hilarious it’s only enjoyable because it has become “so bad it’s good.”

Lucy eventually gains the power to travel through her biological memory to the very first cell that split into two and initiated all evolution to follow.

If you plan to see Lucy, my advice is to similarly reduce your brain activity to that of a single cell before the movie begins.

Crazy Train, or The Time Republicans Sued the President

The House vote to approve a resolution authorizing Speaker John Boehner to sue President Obama should be a moment of truth for the Republican party. Want to know just how far off the rails your party has gone? This. This is how far.

Because this has nothing to do with the law. Trust me, Boehner wants nothing more than for a judge to stop the lawsuit from ever reaching a courtroom. Should it land in a courtroom, the decision won’t matter a bit. First off, legal wrangling would likely delay that decision until after President Obama leaves office. So no, it will not restore checks and balances. And since few Democrats hang their electoral hopes on Obama, the decision itself would have little effect on elections from that point on. Second, the defending attorneys would have a field day highlighting the contradictions and general ridiculousness of accusing the President of constitutional over-reach for doing something that was originally a GOP idea.

No, this lawsuit is intended to provide a temporary rallying cry for Republicans as they head home to campaign. That’s right: the leader of the Republican House is willing to expend numerous manhours and likely millions of dollars on a transparently frivolous lawsuit that has almost no chance of making it to court, merely as a campaign strategy. And he is doing this in the midst of a border crisis at home, Israel and Palestine engaged in an escalating war, Ukraine posing a very real risk of plunging the Western hemisphere into war, and numerous other serious issues. The lawsuit also comes after the Republicans have voted against the Affordable Care Act more then FIFTY TIMES. On that level, this is just the latest impotent attack. Meanwhile, can you point to one economic initiative House Republicans passed during the same timespan? There was a Recession on, and Republicans’ only contribution was pushing for the government to get out of debt – something that many economists say slowed down rather than pushed economic recovery.

The Republican House clearly, egregiously took an obstructionist strategy from the day President Obama was elected and thus already have a “do-nothing” reputation. This lawsuit appears to confirm the widely held theory that the GOP is in a downward spiral.

As if that isn’t bad enough, the cold hard look in the mirror moment for all sane Republicans should come when they consider who might be persuaded by this lawsuit. For Boehner to expect people to believe this is about checks and balances or the law is insulting to the intelligence. Anyone with half a brain and even a little political awareness knows it is not. Several Republican friends who never agree with me on anything, ever, agree with me on this lawsuit. “It is a waste of time when we have no time to waste,” as one of my friends very eloquently put it. Hell, even Neil Cavuto says so in this instantly classic interview with Michelle Bachmann.

Boehner is willing to take this totally unprecedented, distracting, absurd step to court the Bachmanns and Palins and the, I’m sorry, misinformed lemmings who follow them. A second of critical, common sense thought reveals that the Republicans are suing the President for doing something that they wanted done. But Boehner knows voter demographics and the political mindset of the country are changing in ways unfavorable to the GOP. Despite all the shameless gerrymandering, many Republicans cannot win their district without firing up voters on the farthest Right fringe.

I implore Republicans to consider whether this is really who you want to be. I am neither Republican or Democrat. Frankly, I’d be happiest if both parties withered and died. The two-party system has become an embarrassing failure, especially during the past several years. But this is the system we have, and the only way it works at all is if we have two parties that reflect large portions of the electorate. Which is why we – even non-Republicans – desperately need the GOP to come to its senses.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY Review

the-purge-anarchy-PG2_Final1Sheet_RGB_0609_1_rgbThe Purge: Anarchy is a political polemic disguised as a horror film. I view that as a good thing, but horror fans may not.

The Purge was released one year ago while the country was still feeling the effects of the recession more acutely and its premise tapped into class tensions that have pervaded the country for years.

The title refers to one twelve-hour period each year during which all law and order are suspended, an annual ritual established by the New Founding Fathers of America. Americans are free to kill each other with no consequences. The weaker members of society are purged, thus reducing unemployment, the prison population, and the crime rate for the rest of the year.

The Purge did a fine job of establishing this provocative scenario, but then it backed away from the very sentiments on which it was based and devolved into a formulaic home-invasion horror movie. Once it set up all of its hot-button ideas, it shied away from them.

The Purge: Anarchy, however, pulls no punches. In many ways, this is the film The Purge should have been.

The story is stronger and less formulaic, and the social commentary is more forceful, memorable, and coherent. Despite some confounding stylistic choices (I could rant for paragraphs about the nonsensical use of a mirror shot during one scene alone), Anarchy improves over the original in numerous ways.

purge anarchy 1This sequel follows a new set of characters. There is a vengeful, well-armed father (Frank Grillo), a working-class mother (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zöe Soul), and a yuppie couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) on the verge of a break-up, all of whom find themselves on the streets on the one night when they shouldn’t be.

This setup allows the filmmakers to lead us through the city and to explore the types of people who participate in the purge, and that’s when the film goes after its social and political targets.

Some characters in The Purge: Anarchy have twisted Christianity to a point where worship of the government is synonymous with worship of God, and the lethal use of firearms is theologically acceptable.

Others use the purge to target the opposite gender. The first act of violence shows a man attacking his female neighbor merely because she ignores him and rejects his advances. The scene brings to mind the ongoing discourse about male sexual entitlement and rape culture.

More generally, characters who would otherwise be regarded as normal take part in the purge. The horror genre has progressed to a point where humans have taken the place of monsters who embody our darker sides. The Purge: Anarchy pushes that idea to the point where this is barely a horror movie at all.

Sure, there are some gotcha moments, but there are really only two scary things about the movie. As with The Purge, the most frightening aspect is the degree of plausibility in the concept. The scenario is absurd, but not completely. It taps into some real phenomena and beliefs apparent in contemporary American society.

purge anarchy 2The other chilling element is the possibility that some people will watch this in the same way they would watch any horror movie. Echoing the premise of this very franchise, horror movies can be cathartic, and it is totally acceptable to respond to onscreen violence in a horror movie with excitement.

To react to the The Purge: Anarchy with any kind of delight, however, is to miss the whole point. That some viewers will not make that distinction is perhaps the most terrifying thing about the film.

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