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Movie: City of God

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What a profoundly depressing movie. And yet, it's so engrossing... City of God is about a slum of the same name near Rio de Janeiro. The town is so poor that crime is just an accepted part of life. When gangsters hold up a propane truck, the women and children rush to loot the gas canisters. Violent gangs are full of kids... Prepubescent children wave real guns around, hold up grocery stores, and talk about who they plan to kill next.

The movie is based on real life, and a couple hundred residents of the City of God participated as amateur actors. Perhaps the subtitles mask awkward delivery, but every character is totally convincing to me. Their lives feel very real, and they follow the brutal logic of lives of crime. One character starts out as an idealist and a nice guy. But when he is hurt and shamed by a gangster, he thirsts for revenge. He doesn't want to hurt any innocent people, and every move he makes seems to make sense at the time, but we see how logic can lead to tragedy.

The story is narrated by "Rocket", a teenager who aspires to be a photo journalist. Most of the head gangsters were his childhood friends, but he doesn't take part in the violence himself; he provides us with the perfect eyes. In one subplot, Rocket is constantly striving to lose his virginity. When he finally succeeds, it's in a way he least suspects, in a way that's a sign of the life he has chosen. Head gangster Li'l Zé has the same difficulties in love, but we see how he deals with his problems in a very different way.

There are many other characters, and the director (Fernando Meirelles) develops them much more subtly that I've described here... You never feel like you're being preached to, and the ideas and the motifs never feel heavy-handed. Because no one in the City of God can live without sin, the director makes no judgments about them. He just shows us each character as a fallible human being. Everything always makes so much sense. As odd or surprising as a development might be, it always feels like it couldn't have happened any other way.

The poster for this movie quotes a critic saying, "An exuberant chronicle of crime!" (No doubt the marketing people added the exclamation point.) Yes, the director keeps the story moving with style, but he takes care never to glorify the violence. As "cool" as many of the shots in the film are, the violence never does. In this sense, City of God is more successful than Saving Private Ryan was. With Saving Private Ryan, I found myself claiming that it showed us the horrors of war, but I was actually rather excited by the special effects, excited by the violence. I'm a bit ashamed of it, but there it is. With City of God, the violence never feels good. It always feels rather icky, as killing should. When I got excited, it was because of sudden bursts of understanding about the characters.

Like I said, this is a depressing movie, but it's so well-told, so well-filmed, and it feels so real that I'm very glad to have watched it. I feel like I learned a great deal about the nature of the City of God, from the overall social logic down to the individual motivations. It's a rare movie that can accomplish both so seamlessly.

State of Our Union

Paul showed me this nifty graph of Bush's approval rating over time and also this State of the Union Address Drinking Game that you can play tonight.

Bush, Toilets, and Printable Spleens?

First, a very amusing State of the Union remix. Second, truly ingenius human user interface design. Third, replacing the ink in toner cartridges with cells, and printing tissues. Let's just hope they don't get sued by Lexmark.

Want to spite Bush?

So I just read this very political Story Minute. Last year, Congress approved $34 million in funding to the UN Population Fund, an organization that supports family planning and AIDS education in developing countries. Despite the fact that the fund does not directly support abortion, Bush still vetoed the money, since he's for abstinence-only education. The 34 Million Friends Campaign is aimed at collecting money for the causes that the US money would have gone to. They ask for people to donate (by mail or online) at least $1 to the cause.

Women's rights regressing in Afghanistan

Things are not going so well for women in Afghanistan outside of the capital. Many places have closed schools for women or are even subjecting women to "chastity examinations". Changing a culture is not so easy.

US judge declares X-Men not human

In the world of the X-Men, they struggle for acceptance and fight against discrimination. Yet, a US judge has now declared the X-Men "not human". Supporters of the X-Men are in an uproar.

They "stand as potent witnesses for their status as nonhuman creatures," one side argued. How could they be humans if they possessed "tentacles, claws, wings or robotic limbs?"

The US Justice Department defended the X-Men, arguing they each exhibit "distinctive individual personality." Wolverine, they insisted, was simply "a man with prosthetic hands."

The Judge said that she subjected them to "comprehensive examinations." At times, that included "the need to remove [their] clothes." She declared that they are mutants who "use their extraordinary and unnatural ... powers on the side of good or evil," and that they are thus "something other than human." Case closed.

What a sad way to celebrate MLK Day. Please read the Wall Street Journal article for yourself.

Onward and upward

% ssh kenlu@athena.dialup.mit.edu
Received disconnect from 15:
You are not allowed to log in here: Unknown username

I had anticipate this... My MIT account was officially put to rest today, 6.5 years from when I first got it. But this blog is now in full swing: 68 entries and 81 comments! So I guess it sort of marks this new phase of my life.

The other day, after chatting with my law school friend Eva about various copyright law stuff, she asked me if I've considered going to law school and being an activist tech lawyer. I actually had to stop and think about that for a moment. I guess I'm happy as wannabe lawyer for now. A wannabe lawyer! Whodathunk! :)

The Eldred decision definitely seems to have catalyzed the start of a larger public domain advocacy movement, and I'm rather interested in taking part in it. I'm wary of getting too emotionally wrapped up in it and all irrational and stuff, though. Please slap me if I ever start to resemble a PETA or Greenpeace activist! :) (For that matter, please slap me if the copyright:other stuff ratio of articles on this blog get too high!)

Mickey speaks out!

Here is an interview with Mickey Mouse himself ("locked up for another 20 years!") on the Supreme Court decision. Informative and amusing. :)

How the baby partridge got up the pear tree

Dr. Kenneth P. Dial of the University of Montana has discovered a new use for stubby wings. His teenage son was helping him to study the flight of chukhar patridge chicks. One day, his son noticed that the chicks were rapidly climbing some obstacles instead of trying to fly over them. Upon further study, Dial noticed that they weren't using their wings for lift; rather, they were beating them sideways and using them as spoilers to increase traction for climbing.

Dial hypothesizes that "proto-birds" may have used this behavior to escape predators by climbing trees and such. Longer feathers made the technique more effective, until the feathers were actually capable of providing useful lift. The utility of proto-wings in evolutionary history has been a matter of debate, and this provides a new possibility. Hurray for people named Kenneth! Hopefully, this will balance out Starr. :)

Copyright extension challenge loses

No surprise, really, but the Supreme Court has made a decision on the Eldred v. Ashcroft case: 7-2 against Eldred, et al. (This is the challenge argued by Lawrence Lessig against the Sony Bono copyright extension act.) Here is the Associated Press article. You can see the opinions of the court in Lessig's blog. Lessig is very personally saddened by the loss, and as he says here, he hopes maybe this will mobilize people to care more about the cause. At least Justice Stephen Breyer dissented. He went to my high school. Yay Lowell! :P

The dangers of democracy

Here is a Salon.com review of World On Fire by Amy Chua. The book talks about the dangers of rapidly implementing free market and democratic reforms in developing countries. Often, the free markets widen the wealth gap between economically powerful minorities (like Chinese in South-East Asia or Jews in Russia) and the poor majority. When such countries then implement democracy, the majority revolts. In Rwanda, free elections allowed the majority Hutus to dominate and exact "revenge" against the Tutsis that the Belgians had favored.

It just made me think about how say that we're so great because we have democracy, but democracy is actually very flawed. I'm sure everyone has had the following experience when they were little: You're hanging out with a couple of friends, siblings, or cousins, and you get into an argument. It might even be something with an objective answer; you just don't have access to proof at the moment. You know you're right. But your friends say, "Two against one! We win!"

I very much appreciate the founding principles of the United States, but it's not the democracy that I find most amazing: It's the protection of the minority. The majority might not like certain ideas, but we have freedom of speech. The majority might want to lynch someone, but we have due process (most of the time, anyway :P). Even our wacky electoral college system was originally designed to prevent the people from electing a demagogue. So we can't just go to a country, slap in some elections, and hope that everything will be peachy.

London police and London drivers

After I got pick-pocketed last month, the police called me back for more info, and they sent me a bunch of nifty pamplets on victim support groups and the like. "After my flat was robbed, I just don't feel safe any more!" etc. I thought it was kind of amusing. :) But I guess it turns out they don't really care:

According to a new policy, the Metropolitan (London) Police will only investigate serious crimes or easily solvable crimes. What surprises me is that they even list "assault" as a "less serious crime"! Unless there are "special factors" or compelling evidence involved, they'll just log it and move on. No investigation. secure beneath the watchful eyes indeed.

On the flipside, the police get no respect from drivers in London.

  1. Back in both SF and Boston, when you hear sirens, you get out of the fast lane, and you stop. That's the law,and people pretty much follow it, in my experience. Now, I don't know what the law is here, but people don't stop. They just keep moseying along, and they don't get out of the fast lane! They get out of the way if the emergency vehicle is right behind them, but rarely before that.

  2. Back home, if you hear a siren on the cross-street, and you have the green, you stop anyway. Last week, i saw a cop car trying to get into this intersection, and cars on the cross-street just keep on going! One after the other! Worst of all, just as the cop car gets into the intersection (slowly; see point 1 above), this van from the cross-street has the audacity to drive right into the middle of the intersection, cutting the cop car off in order to make a turn.. into the lane that that the cop car is in! The cop has to drive around and pass them! Sadly, the police vehicles here are tiny and puny. I wish it had those bigass American bumpers so the cop could just give that bastard a friendly little fender bender before moving on.

  3. And just this morning, I watched a cop car travel down a big street toward this intersection. The opposing traffic has a protected right turn signal (those are the big turns here, recall), but the first car there stops anyway at the intersection, in order to let the cop car pass. Finally, a reasonable person, eh? Well, guess what? The guy behind him honks! Was he deaf?! The car ahead of him stops to give way to a police car, sirens blaring, and he honks?! What does he want? A head-on collision?

No wonder the cops don't care about us.

Cloning and Iraq

Paul pointed me to a very clever article on the gullibility of the press. On the other side, you'd think that Kuwaitis would be scared right now, and, sure, they're having regular chemical attack drills and such, but property values in Kuwait are actually booming, especially on the Iraqi border, because people hope that Saddam will be kicked out and trade will then resume with Iraq. I find it strange to see people on the front line so ebullient about an impending war.

The accelerating pace of cultural change

One thing I forgot to mention in my earlier rant on copyrights is the issue of the accelerating pace of cultural development. Just as science and technology have been developing far more quickly than before, our culture is changing faster than ever as well. Thus, while quoting philosophers or building on music from decades or centuries earlier might have been sufficient in the old days, we need to build on more recent works today.

You've heard the joke: "That's SOOOO last year!" By saying that, we're making fun of the challenges of keeping up with rapid change. Fact is, we can do interesting things with works of art from the 19th Century.. or even from the 70s or the 80s... but what really drives society forward is development of ideas from this year, from this week, from yesterday. That's where the cutting edge is. That is why 95-year copyright terms are far, far too long.

Society is changing faster and faster, and, instead of dropping works into the public domain while they're still relevant, Congress is making copyright terms longer and longer. Does this really make sense to anyone?

Copyright-infringing art exhibit

There's an art exhibit called Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age. It features works of sight and sound that use bits from copyrighted works. (Unfortunately, the server's being hammered, and the videos are very slow to download, if they load at all. I got the songs just fine, though.) Most of the items are politically motivated, because activists are the ones most willing to push the line with regard to copyrights, but there are enough non-political examples to suggest the impact of copyright restrictions on creativity in general.

Many of the items featured have already been sued for copyright infringement, sometimes even forced off the market, but the exhibit boldly presents them anyway. Even more, it's providing them on the Internet for anyone to download, often without permission. So far, no one's sued the exhibit, probably thinking that the negative publicity wouldn't be worth it.

Comic: Scary Go Round

[Link] Today, I direct you to Scary Go Round, a fun little comic that's filled with cuteness, pathos, and zany hijinks! The (British) author wrote a webcomic called Bobbins for several years.. It had this sense of dead-pan, cheerful silliness that I loved. But then he wanted to do something a bit more structured...

Thus, Scary Go Round was born, with a newfound focus on the paranormal, sort of. It's got the cutest zombie you ever saw. :) The new (ongoing) strip is episodic, with miniseries of stories with beginnings and ends. It's only been around since June of last year, so I suggest you start reading from the first strip. Enjoy!


We got snow today in London.. a couple of inches, too! One of my coworkers pointed out that he could notice lots of people just smiling on the streets. :) One of my favorite things is walking into the breeze when it's snowing. The snow blows right at my face, and I feel like I'm in warp drive or something. :)

17th Century Weblog

Through a BBC News article, I discovered the Samuel Pepys Diary Weblog. Pepys was a guy living in London during the English civil war, and he started writing a diary in 1660, shortly after the death of Oliver Cromwell. His diary is somewhat famous, apparently. It chronicles both juicy tidbits of his personal life and major events in London, including the Great Fire and the Plague.

So this guy named Phil Gyford decides to start serializing it an entry a day on the web using the same blogging software I use. People can comment on the entries, often to write explanatory notes on how much a shilling was worth, how years used to start on March 25 back then (wacky!), and what a slice of brawn is. It's pretty neat.

(I can't help but note that this project is based on a publication of the diary that's in the public domain. See what nifty things people do when they don't have to worry about violating copyrights?)

Kill Bill Trailer

Go check out the trailer for Kill Bill, the upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie. It's Tarantino's homage to Bruce Lee movies and the like, right down to Uma Thurman's wardrobe. Looks like it'll be great cheesy fun. It's one of the great trailers that tells you the feel of the movie without giving away any of the plot. Well, I suppose it does ruin the ending in the tagline itself, which tells us that Uma Thurman is going to kill Bill. ;)

Movie: Chicago

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I haven't seen the musical, but this film version was great fun. The director, Rob Marshall, is a choreographer making his feature debut, but he uses the medium like a master. Instead of letting characters spontaneously burst into song, he places the songs in a sort of surreal fantasyland, mixing it with reality. The songs play like windows into the characters' minds, and the editing is glitzy and fantastic.

The productions of the songs are lavish and extravagant, while scenes set in reality are harsh and spartan. It seems to reflect the corrupt world of 1920s Chicago in which the story is set. If only this weren't a musical, this would be the perfect movie for that "IN A WORLD..." trailer voice guy. Yet, the story is presented in a light-hearted, joking manner; it's like a cheerful celebration of corruption. Innocence can be bought, reporters are like puppets, the courtroom is a stage, and we love every minute of it.

The film is very well-cast, with all the major players in their signature roles. Renée Zellweger is as cute as ever in that innocence-losing girl role that she does so well, Catherine Zeta-Jones is stuck up and full of herself, Richard Gere is sleazy but charming, and I think John C. Reilly is the best solicitor of pathos since Charlie Chaplin. Reilly's "Mr. Cellophane" number, where he sings about how insignificant he is, made me want to walk to the front of the theater and hug him.

Unlike the production of the musical Fame I saw in Oxford last week, this movie was well-acted. Musically, any deficiencies of the stars (and I didn't find anything grating) was more than made up for by the razzlin', dazzlin' productions. I guess I'm just more used to this medium, perhaps. I'm sure live versions can have more energy, of course, but there was plenty here to keep me happy.

In 20s Chicago, newspapers read like pulp magazines, and they turned murderer suspects (not just already famous ones like OJ) into stars. It made me think about how reality TV might actually be a good sign... Perhaps it means that sensationalistic crimes and corruption are rare enough in our society now that we have to make up "reality" conflict on our own. Always the optimist, I am. :)

Bush vs. Science; MIT taking a stand

Here is an Associated Press article on conflict between gov't and university interests. The gov't has been asking for more control over research that they fund. They now often insist that papers meet their approval before being published. MIT has so far negotiated to remove such clauses from funding contracts. A few months ago, though, the gov't insisted that they approve all foreign students working on a project. The NSA refused to budge, and MIT turned down $400K.

Movie: The Quiet American

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The Quiet American falls under a genre of stories I really like: Human dramas set during times of war, but not directly about the war. Michael Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a reporter for the London Times living in 1950s Vietnam to cover the war for independence against the French. He is cynical and detached. Living with his beautiful mistress (Do Thi Hai Yen) and away from his wife back in London, Saigon is his paradise; the ever-present sounds of bombs are but background noise. Then an American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) arrives, and everything changes. Pyle is in the country to provide with medical support, but he quickly falls in love Fowler's mistress.

The film is a morality tale on multiple levels about lies, detachment, and difficult choices. "There is a war going on," Fowler says at one point. "People die every day." Wars destory the comfortable social conventions that people rely on, and they suddenly have to start making moral decisions for themselves. Philip Noyce has mostly been directing action flicks lately, but he's slowed his pacing here. He gives us time to take in the environment that Fowler is lost in, so we can see the world from his perspective. Sometimes, it feels a little like Out of Africa with random violence. (Oh hey! I just noticed that Sydney Pollack is one the executive producers of this movie. Call me unsurprised.)

My complaint about the film is that we don't see deeply enough into Fowler's mind. The fateful decision he has to make comes and goes a bit too quickly after the leisurely pace of the rest of the movie, and the moral issues don't have as much weight as they could. Still, it was a very engrossing experience.

In the late 50s, Graham Greene wrote the novel that this film is based on. According to other reviews, the original novel was harshly critical of American foreign policy in South-East Asia. Noyce focuses more on the human relationships than on the politics, and he portrays American foreign policy as well-meaning but misguided. One line on the situation then is particularly relevant today: "So you give people the right to choose. They vote, and they elect Ho Chi Min. It's complicated."

Indeed, events surrounding the film provide as much opportunity for social criticism as events in it: Miramax stalled the release of this movie because they were concerned that it would be seen as too unpatriotic after September 11. They only gave it a minimal two-week LA/NY release before the end of the year to qualify for the Oscars. Given all the critical praise for Michael Caine's performance, they'll probably relent and give it a wider release soon. But still! Sheesh! Times of war are precisely when we need more critical debate!

Even Steamboat Willie was a derived work

As a follow-up to my recent rant on copyright limits, I found this fascinating post in Lawrence Lessig's blog about how Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey cartoon, was a take-off of Buster Keaton's Steamboat Bill. Moreover, the script specified that the orchestra was to play the opening music from Steamboat Bill, music that was (and still is) in copyright.

Btw, Happy New Year, everyone! And since it's January 2nd already, happy Isaac Asimov's birthday! :)

About January 2003

This page contains all entries posted to the klog in January 2003. They are listed from oldest to newest.

December 2002 is the previous archive.

February 2003 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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