Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Monday, June 27, 2011

Movie Review: X-Men: First Class

I don't usually do reviews of movies like X-Men First Class.  Not to say I don't enjoy typical summer popcorn entertainment as much as the next guy but if I'm honest, I had figured I would catch this installment of the X-Men franchise on DVD when it came out. 

But Tammy and I were watching the BBC news before church on Sunday morning and a movie review and interview with James McAvoy, who plays the mutant leader Charles Xavier, came on.  I hadn't realized that the new movie was a period piece set in 1960's Cold War America and that McAvoy would be assuming the younger version of the role Patrick Stewart played in the original 3 movies of the franchise.

Now, I'm a sucker for movies set in the '60's.  Besides the fact that it was the decade that brought yours truly into the world, the style of the time mixed with the US-Soviet paranoia makes for a fantastic film backdrop. No cell phones, internet, or Facebook.  Just good old fashioned CIA-KGB espionage with guys wearing cool horn rimmed glasses. 

Anyhow, the reason I'm doing a short post on the movie is because it so surpassed my expectations.  The four of us (yes Ethan was there) caught the 3:00 showing at Elements Mall and half way through I leaned over to Gabriel & Tammy and said, "This one is much better than the first movies."  To which they both nodded.

I'm not going to go into all the details but James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender's versions of a young Charles Xavier and Erick Lensherr (Magneto) surpassed even those of their more distinguished predecessors, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen respectively.  Watching the blossoming friendship between the two knowing that they will end up becoming mortal enemies is one of my favorite plot devices.  Smallville used it so successfully when it built up the Lex Luthor / Clark Kent feeling of brotherhood only to feel, as the viewer, the internal turmoil personally when you see it disintegrate.  X-Men First Class surpasses expectations because it's focus is on these two and their love / hate relationship.  Super powered fights and special effects were secondary to the feeling of a Shakespearean tragedy that was unfolding on screen before your very eyes.

And again, the 60's motif was another key element.  What could be more '60's than having Xavier & Magneto playing a game of chess in an English mansion next to a roaring fire while sipping martinis in their turtleneck sweaters?  They even segwayed the story into the Cuban Missle Crisis.  Superb!

Oh, and I can't finish this post without mentioning Kevin Bacon. When is this guy going to get an Oscar?  I mean, no he won't get one for X-Men First Class, but the guy brings his A-game to every film he's in.

Anyhow, get out to see X-Men: First Class...its well worth it!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Big Brother, Little Brother" comment riles Vietnam in the South China Sea

The potential for conflict in the South China Sea is heating up.  While American forces continue to concentrate on Afghanistan and the 40 or 50 al qaeda members still left there, more ominous issues in the Pacific region are developing. 

Last week Chinese fishing boats allegedly attempted to cut the cables of Vietnamese gas and oil exploration vessels.  China lays claim to roughly 90% of the South China Sea and responds that it is simply exercising its jurisdiction despite the fact that the incident occurred within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam recognised under International Maritime Law.

China has been using these "fishing boats" on a regular basis in an attempt to enforce  its claim to a number of island chains supposedly full of untapped oil and natural gas.  Vietnam has responded by holding live fire navel maneuvers off its coast near the disputed region in an escalating show of force that is designed to highlight its view on the matter.

As various foreign affairs experts weigh in on the geo-politics of the dispute one particular comment, made by Mainland born academic Wang Hanling recently, has grabbed the headlines.  In response to Vietnam's use of naval drills in the area he says,

 "If the big brother bullies the younger brother it is not good and is something that should not happen, [but] if the younger brother challenges or bullies the older brother, it's just ridiculous."

This comment demonstrates the gulf in understanding between the West and China in regards to foreign affairs.  The West wants debate on territorial disputes to center on aspects of Internationally recognized maritime law.  China in contrast tends to see its role in International relations, particularly in Asia, as a paternalistic father that  will deal favorably with its children, or in this case "little brother" provided they display proper filial piety or "proper relationship" in keeping with the Confucian view of the world.

One could only imagine what would happen if President Obama reacted to trade issues with Canada with speeches suggesting that "Little brother" Canada needed to be less belligerent to its "Big Brother" if it wanted to stay in favor within the family.  While this line of reasoning seems peculiar to Western audiences, it is a way of looking at the world held by a country that is quickly becoming a regional, if not yet a global, superpower.

This Sinocentric view of International relations held by China, while largely ignored by the West in past decades, will have to be taken more seriously as the Middle Kingdom expands economically and militarily in South-East Asia.  Long held International laws are chafed at by a China that had no say in their creation and thus feel less bound by their stipulations.

The United States needs to keep its eye on the ball.  As a global player with no territorial claims in the area its role as peace broker is needed now more than ever.  The smaller countries of the region are looking to America for leadership on the matter.  The last thing they need is an America that is war weary, debt ridden, and withdrawn. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Macau trip post lost!

Had one of those crazy computer glitches last week.  I'd been on a roll trying to keep up with the blog posts here at Beyond the Pale and a few days back I spent about an hour writing a post on my recent trip to Macau.  It included anecdotes of a good time spent there as well as a little history of the 500 year old former Portuguese colony for those readers not from Hong Kong or China
Alas, when I had the photos correct and the post just the way I wanted it, I hit "Publish Post"...and then whole computer froze!  A sudden panic turned to relief thinking that blogpost saves regularly and the loss, if any, should be minimal.  Re-booting the computer however proved otherwise.  For some reason, nothing was saved...and for those of you saying, "Did you try such and such"  the answer is "Yes, I did...and it didn't help" 

My wonderful blog post detailing our stay at the Hard Rock Hotel, exotic dinner at Fernandoes, and the Vegas style extravaganza show "House of the Dancing Water" was forever lost into the digital abyss.  The thought of trying to recreate it was too depressing a thought to contemplate. 

Actually, I was furious... but rather than pounding on my desk like a madman and using language that my mother would disapprove of, I went to the gym and had an amazing work out. Now after avoiding this blog for the last 5 or 6 days....I'm back!  Here are the pictures from the post you never got to see

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Review: Rob Lowe's "Stories I Only Tell My Friends"

I'm a sucker for a good showbiz memoir. Those of you that know me well also know that a move to Hollywood  and an attempt at movie stardom was the road ALMOST taken.

Yeah, in 1988 I was saving up for the big move to Los Angeles and often regale my friends in Detroit on what my Oscar acceptance speech was going to be one day or what quirky anecdote I was going to share with David Letterman when I was asked to be a guest on his show.

Alas, Jesus had other plans for yours truly and I took all that money I'd saved and headed out to Asia to be a missionary. I remember sitting in the parking lot of Burger King one day and saying to my friend Dave, "Should I move to L.A. and become a movie star or to Asia to be a missionary?"  Dave looked up from his Whopper, wiped his mouth and replied, "Steve, only you could be contemplating choices at such opposite ends of the spectrum."  In the end, the Holy Spirit got His way and overseas I went  

Of course I remember at one point laying on a bamboo floor trying to sleep in the hot Borneo heat thinking of all my L.A. money I'd shot to come there and saying to myself, "What in the hell have I just done?" 

Anyhow, back to Rob Lowe and his new memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends.  In it Lowe has delivered an insightful, intelligent, and very grounded look back at a career that has had both highs (The West Wing) and lows (dancing with Snow White at the Academy awards.) 

Because of his almost preternatural good looks Lowe can sometimes be erroneously dismissed as a "pretty boy".  This is unfortunate because what Stories instead reveals is a man with a sharp mind and a keen insight into the human condition.  For instance, when relating some of the tragedy to befall a number of friends and aquaintances living in the hedonistic counter culture of mid-1970's Malibu he states:

"To be counter to the culture, you are by definition willully and actively ignoring the culture, i.e. reality.  And when you ignore reality for too long you begin to feel imune to, or above, the gravitational pull that binds everyone else.  You are courting disaster"

Stories is filled with these observations and the former Brat Packer seems to both relish his successful situation as well as critiquing the absurdity of the system that got him there in the first place.

Lowe also has the uncanny "Forrest Gump" like quality of somehow connecting with every major person or event of the last 30 years.  For example as a 14 year old "nobody" his step father's sister is doing some technical work on a "Cheesy western" Sci-fi type movie.  She says it's stupid but if he wants to come down and watch some filming he can.  He goes to the warehouse where they are shooting and he gradually reveals that this "cheesy-western" Sci-fi movie is in fact Star Wars.  Whether he is meeting Liza Minelli, being chased on Halloween night by a baseball bat wielding Martin Sheen, or hanging out in history class with this funny kid sitting next to him named Robert Downey Jr., you are left thinking, "This guy has a lot of good stories to tell."

Lowe also seems to be aware of his audience.  This is no trashy Hollywood movie star "tell all".  He doesn't attempt to hide some of his bad choices but when addressed, are done tastefully in a manner that suggests that he has written this not just as a movie star, but as a husband and father. 

Anyhow, I literally can't put the book down and recommend it highly to readers of Beyond the Pale.  For someone who is fascinated with movies, story, and the creative process, I find myself enthralled with Lowe's tales.  He's a guy whose been around a long time, has seen a lot, and finally has sat down and wrote about it.  Ok, full disclosure. When I first saw St. Elmo's Fire in 1985, I came this close to getting an earring like his character Billy had in the film. Yep, it was the 80's and we did weird things.

In the end I find myself wishing I knew this guy personally just so I could hear some of these stories first hand over a nice meal and a cold beer.  Guess I'll just have to settle for the book...