BOOK REVIEW: Independence: The Tangled Roots of the American Revolution

by Thomas P. Slaughter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Pity the poor high school teacher of American History. They have so much required material to cover, along with an assortment of topics mandated by various outside agencies, that they cannot possibly cover everything, much less make what they do cover interesting.

I know from my own education (way back in the Mists of Time – the 1980s, to be precise), that when it came to American history we were briefed on the colonies in Jamestown and Plymouth – and then suddenly it was a century and a half later, and the Revolutionary War was starting in Boston. Slaughter attempts to rectify this omission.

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Movie Review: A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

Usually, when someone tells you a movie “has everything”, they are either lying or the movie tries to “have everything”, but it fails utterly at putting them together in a rational and balanced manner. A Chinese Ghost Story (literally: “The Ethereal Spirit of a Beauty”) has romance, action, horror, and comedy – and actually does integrate all of them successfully.

Ning Tsai-Shen (Leslie Cheung), a novice tax collector, arrives in a small town to carry out his work. Unsurprisingly, no-one is willing to give him a place to stay, so he ends up spending the night in a nearby ruined temple. There, he meets Taoist swordsman Yen Che-Hsia (Ma Wu), who tries to warn him away. But with nowhere else to go, he holes up in the ruins. There he meets the beautiful Nieh Hsiao-Tsing (Joey Wang), with whom he falls in love. Unfortunately, Hsiao-Tsing is a ghost, enslaved to a demon who uses a group of young women ghosts to sustain her by sucking the life out of men….

The gods must watch over novice tax collectors, since Tsai-Shen manages to somehow escape one peril after another. For example, on his arrival in the town, he is shoved up against a rack of scroll charms. They stick to his wet robe, causing him to be accused of theft. But that night in the temple, when he meets Hsiao-Tsing, it turns out that the fresh ink on the scrolls stained the back of his robe…and the charms were for Protection Against Ghosts….

Can this odd couple overcome the gulf between them and find happiness? Will Tsai-Shen’s luck run out, and have him become another victim of the spirits and undead inhabiting the temple? Will the demon find out that Hsiao-Tsing is betraying her by helping Tsai-Shen? Is Che-Hsia’s “Taoist Rap” one of the most awesome things ever committed to film? And just what the heck is the deal with that tongue?

The action sequences are amazingly well executed, the romance between Cheung and Wang is believable (and the pair are both easy on the eyes), the comic moments are deftly handled, and the scary parts are done very well. The artifice does show through a bit in some of the demonic scenes, but to Western viewers, the unfamiliarity with Chinese supernatural concepts is enough to compensate.

About the only thing wrong with this movie that I can see is that it is widely regarded as the epitome of Hong Kong cinema. So if this is your first exposure to that genre, you will have to live with the disappointment that no matter how much you look, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything better.

NOTE: There is an animated version of the same tale from 1997 (by the same producer), two sequels, and another movie (presumably a remake) of the same name from 2011. I haven’t seen any of them.

ANOTHER NOTE: Chinese names can be troublesome for a Westerner to get right. Forgive this humble “round-eye” if I have miswritten any of them.

Book Reveiw: Operation Nemesis

Operation Nemesis:
The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide
Eric Bogosian
Little, Brown and Company, 2015

This year marks another centennial; one that is going with very little memorial or commemoration, or even much more than a passing nod in the general press. In 1915, using World War I military operations against the Russian Empire as a cover, the Ottoman Empire began a program to systematically wipe out Armenians in their territory.

For various reasons, many countries still haven’t gotten around to calling it what it was: genocide. It’s not like Armenia is really going around demanding reparations or punishment for those responsible. After all, it was a century ago and everyone responsible is dead. In fact, some of those deaths were the direct result of the Armenians themselves.

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The Face on the Twenty Dollar Bill

You may have been noticing a few modest news articles and op-ed pieces about a proposal to take Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman. Thanks to the First Amendment’s protection of the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, a petition has been presented to the White House to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 in time for the centennial of the 19th Amendment – the one that gave women the right to vote.

The petitioners’ arguments are varied. While I understand and sympathize with their effort, I believe that if they really want to celebrate Women’s Suffrage, they really blew it.

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Final Thoughts on Eurovision 2015

The kitsch / camp / cheese factor that the contest has been known for seems to have vanished this year. There were no truly bizarre costumes or “WTF?” staging. The UK’s Electro Volta did have light-up costumes, but given their music video, something like that was to be expected. Same thing for the “air violin” woman with Slovenia’s Maraaya.

Even though there are breaks in the show where one could insert commercials or sponsorship announcements, I don’t think we’ll ever see it on TV in the US. No network, even a cable one, is going to want to sacrifice four hours on a Saturday afternoon without being able to get advertising dollars; and the European Broadcasting Union is not going to alter their format for a country that isn’t part of the festivities anyway.

People take it WAAAAY too seriously. Oh no! Did a malfunctioning smoke machine hurt Nina Sublatti’s (Georgia) chances? France says their poor showing is an “injustice” and are thinking of withdrawing next year!* How could the juries have scored Italy so low when the song was so awesome? An Australian juror knows one of the people who wrote Russia’s entry!!! SCANDAL!  Jeez. It’s just a song contest. The biggest in the world, to be sure, but still a song contest. It doesn’t decide which countries get to be part of the EU or anything really important. If you really want something to complain about, ask yourself why San Marino (population 32,000) and Malta (population 446,000) have as much influence on the results as France (population 64 million) and Germany (population 80 million). Chill out, and instead of whining about the unfairness of it all, just go out and buy the music from your favorite artists.

* The performance was very impressive, and the song in and of itself was quite good, but it probably wasn’t a good idea to bring a song that was essentially a memorial to war dead to Europe’s biggest party….

While it is OK to make a little fun of the singers, I wonder if the UK would do better if they weren’t so snarky and condescending about the whole thing.

All the songs – even those that don’t make it to the final, or those that get the dreaded “Nil Points”, are actually pretty good. Even at their worst, they are still worth a listen or two.

Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori

Senior Master Sergeant James Swartz (51), USAF, Staff Sergeant Joshua Schoenhoff (27), USAF, and Master Sergeant Daniel Pascal (27), USAF, all died during a typhoon in Okinawa on October 7, 2014.

Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Yeshable Villot-Carrasco (23), USN, died as a result of a non-hostile incident aboard the USS James E. Williams (DDG-95) while the ship was underway in the Red Sea on June 19, 2014.

First Lieutenant Adam Satterfield (25), USMC, and Captain Elizabeth Kelly (32), USMC, died on January 23, 2015, of injuries sustained after the UH-1Y helicopter they were flying crashed in the  Southern California desert.

 

Because not every military casualty happens in a war zone.

Eurovision 2015 – Part 4

The first round is just a week away. The performance order in semi-finals is set, the stage is built, rehearsals are underway… There’s only one question left to answer. Why does the United Kingdom keep sending such rubbish acts? To read the comments from the UK, it’s either that complaint or a snobbish comment that the entire competition is utterly beneath them.

The real question, of course, is who will win….

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The Name of the Movie is “STAR WARS”

Another May 4th has come and gone, and geeks everywhere display their true geekdom by referring to it as “Star Wars Day”. Seems that “May the fourth” is a lisping version of part of the famous (and overused to the point of tedium) quotation, “May the Force be with you.” The attempted joke was funny once… for a few seconds… but by now it’s just annoying. It’s as funny as the phrase “chicken butt”. Let it die in peace already.

Of course, Star Wars fans are all atwitter about the next movie in the series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, set to come out this December. With the previous movie (Revenge of the Sith) some ten years old, a lot of young new fans want to catch up on the series by watching all the previous movies.

I’m seeing a lot of stuff online about the correct order to watch them in. I strongly recommend watching them in the order in which they were made and released – Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith.

Actually, you can probably ignore the three “prequels”. They have offensive characterizations, overuse of green screens and computer graphics, tedious scenes filled with talking, the reduction of The Force into some sort of scientific gobbledeygook…

Worse, you already know how the story is going to end. You know Anankin will join the Dark Side and become Darth Vader. You know which characters must survive. There’s no real tension in any of them.

And it could have been so much better….

By the way…. The name of the movie is Star Wars. Not “Star Wars: A New Hope”, Not “Star Wars: Episode IV”, just Star Wars. Thanks to the Internet, you can go back to 1977 and see the opening crawl from the movie’s original theatrical release:

Notice anything missing? That’s right! There’s no “Episode IV: A New Hope” nonsense! Nowhere in the movie, in any of the reviews, or in any of the advertising and promotional materials was it mentioned that this was going to be part of a series, and therefore needed a number / subtitle. It wasn’t until Lucas was working on The Empire Strikes Back that he thought of making the movies a series. The “Episode IV: A New Hope” bit first appeared in the opening crawl of the movie in its 1981 theatrical re-release. Which, actually, was a year AFTER “Empire” came out.

So there.

Visiting Las Vegas – Part 3

A few more things to see and do that I can recommend, having done them at some point during my visits to Las Vegas.

Of course, there are many, many fine restaurants in Las Vegas. It will be hard to go wrong with your choice. However, when you get right down to it, there really isn’t much difference between four-star steakhouses. Or sushi bars. So try and get to a place that’s really different; a place you cannot find anywhere else….

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