Thursday, March 27, 2008

One perfect movie plus others

Why has no one ever told me that The Big Lebowski encapsulates one of my obsessions? No, not bowling - name doppelgangers! It has been ten years since its release and it is clearly a cult classic but it was not until the recent HD DVD fire sale that I decided to give it a chance.

In the movie, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is repeatedly mistaken by thuggish debt collectors for Jeff Lebowski, an LA millionaire. After one of the thugs pees on his rug, The Dude decides to visit his name doppelganger for retribution of some sort. Of course, everything becomes more complicated from there.

Not only does the name doppelganger feature appeal to me but one of the main characters reminds me of my friend, Army Jon. Every time John Goodman's character, Walter Sobchak goes military on the people around him, I chuckle and flinch.

The blind purchase of The Big Lebowski was worth the risk, not like that pretentious piece of crap, Donnie Darko.

Speaking of crap, I recently saw some free movies at the grand opening of the new AMC Theatres at the corner of Yonge and Dundas. All of the movies shown have been released on DVD but here are some mini-reviews in case you were thinking of giving these movies a chance.

Alien vs Predator - Requiem
Joe and I joked that we might not be able to follow the plot because we have not seen the first AVP. Fortunately, the plot is predictable with all characters being paraded like cattle to the slaughter for the Aliens and the Predator. Likely to survive: the mother who has just come home from a military tour of duty, the well-meaning former convict. DOA: the teenage girl who strips down to her underwear, her asshole boyfriend, the woman who says, "Why would the Government lie to us? The Government never lies." Wish he had died: the former convict's milquetoast brother who gets beat up by the asshole boyfriend. The fight sequences are more like badly lit sex scenes; a confusing flurry of torsos and dark limbs. Pretty bad but not bad enough to recommend.

The Mist
Surrounded by unknown dangers hidden in a thick mist, townspeople stuck inside a supermarket struggle to stay alive. There is much suspense generated by the mystery of what will attack next but the greatest tension comes from inside the supermarket where prejudice and scapegoating become the real dangers. There are the usual idiotic characters who deny that anything extraordinary is happening and Marcia Gay Harden's religious nut is a caricature. However, you have to give points to characters that find the growing mob mentality inside the supermarket scarier than whatever might be lurking outside. Worth renting and watching with friends.

Charlie Wilson's War
A look into the people behind the secret American financing of the Afghan rebels during their war with the USSR in the 1980s. I am not a fan of Tom Hanks but as the title character in this movie, he balances sleaze and political acumen believably. The movie also does a balancing act of being a good political satire though by the end, when the shadow of 9/11 is cast most strongly, the movie's treatment of the topic seems too slight in retrospect. Enjoyable but likely a case of preaching to the converted.

3:10 to Yuma
I have been waiting to see this movie since Air Canada rudely disrupted its screening during a recent flight home. So, needless to say, the movie is compelling enough to draw viewers in. Poor Christian Bale spends most of movie being bullied by land barons, Russell Crowe and even his teenage son. In a bid to save his ranch from seizure and get a little respect, Bale agrees to escort outlaw, Crowe to meet the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison with trouble dogging his every move. The acting saves the whole film from becoming as hokey as it sounds.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Turned Japanese - Part 3

On our last night in Japan, we decided to stay at a traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan) near some natural hot springs (onsen). From Tokyo, we took a train that looked like it originated from the 1970s and all the locals turned into paparazzi everywhere it went; locals stood with tripods on the side of the tracks to capture it.

After the unintentional detour, we arrived at the Bunzan Ryokan. Upon our arrival, we were served green tea whipped up into a bright green liquid, and sandy cakes. The woman looking after us was very talkative in spite of the fact that she spoke almost no English and we understood almost no Japanese. This was not a problem during the small talk segment but the instructions on how to use the onsen were more crucial.

Joe and I found the private male and female segregated indoor baths easily enough. Having read the guidebooks extensively, we knew the etiquette: bathe before entering the bath, do not stand while bathing - use the provided stools, etc. (The bath for women is seen on the left. The window to the right overlooked a parking lot so that any driver who looked up could see everything.)

However, we were a little confused on how to get to the outdoor baths for both men and women. However, we were willing to risk embarrassment to find out since the photograph of the onsen seen at the top is what convinced us to go to an onsen ryokan in the first place.

We decided to go exploring first then retrieve whatever equipment we might need later. When we got to the entrance where we had left our shoes behind, we found that our shoes had been replaced with rubber boots in our sizes. These were necessary because the area was covered in snow and because the ice deterrent of choice was a steady spray of water over the pavement. Scary but true.

Joe and I walked merrily over to hot springs, past some caged bears (explanations were in Japanese and therefore unreadable), and found change rooms just outside the springs. After a quick inspection, we marched back to our room and changed into the provided yukatas: three layers provided enough warmth to allow us to walk outside in freezing weather wearing nothing else.

It was not until our return home that realized that we had committed a few social faux pas in spite of our best efforts. The first was at the mixed gender outdoor onsen. Swimsuits were not allowed to prevent contamination of the water. The men covered their crotches with tiny face towels while the few women present covered their torsos in full towels, even in the water. Since I had brought only one towel and did not want to get it wet, I decided to take it off once I got into the water. It seemed like a reasonable idea since it was dusk by the time we got into the water and the steam coming off the water covered almost everything. Turns out that I was supposed to keep the towel on at all times.

So, there I was: the onsen slut, sitting nude in the water while children frolicked close by. To top it off, an obnoxious American started sidling over to me until I prompted Joe to move to the other side of the onsen. Later in the change room, Joe overheard him complaining that there weren't enough nude Japanese women and that he would have to get himself a Russian woman, maybe two.

Our second social faux pas was during the never ending dinner in our room. I made the mistake of sitting in front of the decorated wall while Joe sat facing it. As the man in the relationship, and therefore the assumed head of the household, Joe was supposed to sit in front of the decorated wall. That way, I, the woman and inferior, could admire him in front of the decorated wall. So I sat boorishly in front of the decorated wall, with my legs splayed out under the table. Again, so wrong, in retrospect.

The meal consisted of muliple dishes: flavoured tofu, sashimi, grilled river trout, fresh vegetables, and our favourite, shabu shabu: fondue of kobe beef. Since we did not understand the woman serving us, we reacted with a combination of delight and pain every time she appeared with another course to serve.
Our futons were laid out for us and they were extremely comfortable. We spent the evening watching Japanese television, imagining the various explanations for the relationship between the kickboxer and the nun in one live action remake of a popular manga.
When we woke up the next morning, we were served a huge breakfast consisting of unsweetened yogurt with a berry sauce, poached egg, salad, various pickled items, grilled fish, and my favourite, fermented soy beans (rotting). A bus was scheduled to take us to the train station but we had time to walk around and take photos like the one below.
Our trip to Japan was great and one I would highly recommend to anyone, not only because the culture is so fascinating but also because the locals are so tourist friendly in spite of the language barrier. We'll definitely be back, but with a better grasp of the language and hopefully, the etiquette.

Friday, March 14, 2008

New fangled taste!

I don't like to think of myself as a mindless consumer and yet, I love the new Shreddies campaign. It's hilarious! I can't think of an academic explanation for my enjoyment so hopefully, this ad will make you laugh, too, and then you'll forgive my support of a marketing campaign.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Beijing: countdown to an anti-climax

In debates with friends, I am usually critical of China and their drive towards becoming a world economic powerhouse. My point of contention is usually the short-sightedness of the men in power. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing is meant to be the country's showcase of their potential. And yet, the lead up to the event has only served to confirm what critics have expected of China.

China was awarded the 2008 Olympics back in 2001. In the past seven years, the country has worked furiously to build state-of-the-art venues and update infrastructure in anticipation of the event. What they have failed to make much, if any, progress on is their environmental and human rights records, which now threaten to make one of the world's biggest public relations event moot.

With seven years of preparation, China has had the time to clean up the air pollution problem. Yet, the marathon world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie recently stated that he is unlikely to compete in the 42 km race at the 2008 Olympics. As a sufferer of asthma, Gebrselassie fears that the pollution in Beijing might permanently hurt his performance, reducing his chances of besting his own record in the future. One might dismiss Gebrselassie's fears as those of a diva, but they are shared by lesser known athletes in other endurance sports. Olympic chief, Jacques Rogge himself made an unusually strong comment about the air pollution in Beijing on the occasion of the one year countdown to the start of the 2008 Olympics.

Supporters could point to the economic detriment of shutting down the offending factories as the reason why China has delayed environmental action. The fact is that no country puts on an Olympic event because it is profitable. China has already invested much money and effort into showing themselves off in the best possible light; the pollution problem should have been at the top of their image rehabilitation list.

As well, the pollution problem is not unacknowledged by China. Factories have already been shut down while others have been moved out of the city. Clearly, China was willing to tackle the problem and take the economic hit. I'm not sure if the continuing poor air quality in Beijing is the result of underestimating the problem or a lack of proper planning.

Another point on which China has been criticized repeatedly is their human rights record. Tibet is the obvious killjoy at the party with the repeat call by Tibetans and their supporters to be free of China's oppression. It is an old story that may get easily swept aside in the spectacle of the Olympics. Yet China has stirred up a hornet's nest with their recent crackdown on dissidents. In a bid to circumvent possible political humilition during the Games, China has arrested online bloggers - 51, as of January 2008 - and placed other political activists under house arrest. These acts of prevention seem to do as much, if not more, damage to the image of China as any obscure, freedom loving blogger. China is playing the role of the villain exactly as detractors had predicted seven years ago.

Yet, in spite of the lacklustre environmental effort and the hyperactive vigilance over dissidents, the 2008 Olympics will proceed much as any other. Haile Gebrselassie has already stated that he will run in the 10,000 m event. Tibetan activists will find a way to picket the games. In the end, there will be no showdown; the sound and fury of both Beijing supporters and critics will come to nothing, and the 2008 Olympics will fade in memory into the usual flurry of flags and limbs.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Turned Japanese - Part 2

Looking over our most recent credit card bill, Joe and I were filled with remorse. We had anticipated heavy spending in Japan but the outstanding balance proved that we had exercised too much restaint. It is not that Joe and I possessed outstanding self control while shopping in Tokyo. Rather, we were overwhelmed by the abundance of choice.

Like Hong Kong, shopping is a hobby or even a sport in Tokyo. You have to do your research to figure out which product is right for you and then you do a lot of walking to find exactly what you want. Unlike Hong Kong, prices in Japan tend not be of the bargain variety so you have to be choosy otherwise you would go broke buying every variation of what you want.

Consumerism is so strong that whole buildings and malls service niche markets. 109 is a shopping mall eight stories high that caters to the fast and cheap fashions of teenage girls. More to my taste was Parco, another shopping mall that focused on moderately priced, current fashions for young women. Meanwhile, in Akihabara, manga enthusiasts could find six storey high buildings filled with nothing but manga and related paraphenilia (including life size mannequins of your favourite characters, seen above).

Unused to such a level of choice, Joe shut down and bought almost nothing for fear of succumbing to his need to possess every $200 robot and new notebook he saw. Drowning in Japanese fashion, I found myself seriously considering styles that I would not otherwise consider back home ("Do I want this cute maternity styled top? Think! Think!"). It was in Japan that we discovered that I have a far greater capacity for shopping than Joe, who uttered the words, "I'm tired of shopping for electronics" (!).
Apart from shopping, our other main pursuit in Japan was going to shrines: Asakusa Kannon Temple (seen above), Toshogu Shrine, Meiji Shrine, and various shrines in Kamakura. We even took an impromptu 2km hike in Kamarkura to get from one shrine (Kencho-Ji Temple) to another (Daibutsu statue). We quit at the 1km mark when it became clear, after an hour spent scrambling on all fours, that we were unprepared for the steep and muddy terrain.
The shrines were all very beautiful, historical, and actually varied widely in style but by the time we went to Kyoto, we were all shrined out. Even as I chased geisha with my camera, I found myself thinking, "I wish I was shopping in Tokyo." My best capture was at Kiyomizu Temple, seen below.
To be continued...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Turned Japanese - Part 1

I recently returned from Japan and showed off all my photos on Facebook. However, some things need more explaining than a mere caption so here it comes. I will try not to turn this into a Robert Jordan-like story like my previous travelogue on London (Not to speak ill of the dead but Jordan was mentally and financially draining his fans).

The 14 hour flight to Tokyo was not too bad. When I first flew to Hong Kong as an 11 year old, an equally long haul, it was torture. Now, with less of an urge to run around, the flight has become a source of relaxation. As an adult, when else do I have the luxury to sit around for 14 hours, watching movies or reading a book, sleeping whenever I feel like it, and eating without having to cook? The only hitch came during landing when cabin pressure caused my head to feel like it was about to implode. My brain throbbed for days afterwards.

The Japanese food we consumed, for the most part, was cheap, convenient and carb-heavy. At our local convenience store, it was not unusual to find fresh set dinners, ready to be microwaved, for about $6CAD, featuring udon noodles with a side of soba noodles accompanied by a garnish of a bit of meat and pickled vegetables.

Our breakfast of choice was onigiri: balls of rice covered in seaweed with a little surprise in the middle. Well, for most Japanese consumers, it was no surprise since the ingredient was listed on the packaging. Joe and I relied on the calorie rating to guess what we might find. The highest caloric rating usually equalled salmon.

When we did splurge, the food was excellent. The sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market was so fresh that it melted in our mouths, and in one instance, moved. Our favourite, the fatty tuna, is featured in the photograph to the left.

Tokyo was everything you would expect: very busy at all times of the day but especially at night, very clean, and lit up with neon. What I did not expect was the level of courtesy everywhere. For such a bustling metropolis, the citizens are surprisingly polite and helpful. English is not widely spoken, even in Tokyo, and yet, the language barrier did not discourage strangers from going out of their way to assist us.

An especially touching experience of Japanese helpfulness was when Joe and I boarded the wrong bus to our onsen ryokan (hot spring hotel). We missed our stop and started getting worried. The bus driver spoke no English except to say, "Wait" everytime we tried to ask. In a panic, I tried to communicate with the other passengers. They talked amongst themselves until one of them came forward to ask in simple English where we wanted to go. They then converged on the bus driver to ask for an explanation. It was then relayed to us that the driver intended to drop Joe and me off at the correct stop on the drive back. We were relieved but probably looked a little pale. As the other passengers got off at their stop, they passed some pastries along to us and the bus driver - something to help us feel better, I suppose. We waved to eachother as the bus drove away.

If mere strangers can be so kind, you can only image what customer service is like in Japan. Local burger chain, Mos Burger, looks like a normal fast food joint but after ordering your food, you are given a number to place at your table where your food will be served to you. More shocking was the takeout service. An employee will carry your order to the door for you then bow (!) as you leave. At most retail outlets, including convenience stores, there were more employees than you would expect and all of them were eager to serve. The whole experience made me bitter on my first day back in Toronto, when I stood at an empty check out counter for more than 2 minutes, waiting for the cashier to notice me then waddle over.

To be continued...