Week 25.21: Spacing out

  • I noticed once again that my AirPods Max battery was draining faster than normal while not in use. Coupled with intermittent stuttering/connections issues, I decided to call it a hardware fault and contact Apple support for a replacement. One came via courier within two days and I am now listening problem free.
  • After several months of distracted 10-minute reading sessions, I finally finished Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age in one concerted go. I read Snow Crash in 2019, Cryptonomicon in 2020, and this makes three. I’d really like to just chain them and keep going but/because the density and brilliance of ideas in his work is staggering. If the stuff he was writing 15 years ago is just beginning to look like our future at present, I can’t imagine what he’s thinking about today. I could read one of his newer books and find out, but first, a break.
  • I decided to pick up Andy Weir’s new book, Project Hail Mary, after seeing some positive reviews, and it’s a return to the formula of a science-based, plausible, AND interesting life-threatening problem solved in the first person that worked so well in The Martian. I barely enjoyed his last book, Artemis, but I’m halfway through this now and can’t put it down. It’s about another guy in space, slightly adrift, needing to ‘science the shit out’ of a crisis.
  • I finished the Eizouken anime series on Netflix and can recommend it although it’s not so bingeable. It works well as an episode or two a week. What’s it about? A trio of high schoolers learning to produce anime. I thought it would be like Shirobako, but that one’s set in the real world of running a business, whereas this one is not grounded in reality and just works as a deconstruction cum demonstration of animation and filmmaking techniques you may not normally notice. It must have been so gratifying to work on this as an animation artist; it literally screams ‘appreciate me!’
  • Videogames: Played a bit more Persona 5 Strikers but am not really feeling it. It’s an example of the game getting in the way of the story. As a beat-em-up, it’s just not much fun especially after coming from Yakuza and Judgment. Started and finished Coffee Talk which is an indie game where you act as barista to a cast of cafe regulars and see their stories and relationships unfold. That’s it, you just make coffee and click through dialogue. A nice little afternoon killer. Went back to the Doom reboot on PS4 for a bit of mindless FPS action. That one’s an example of story getting in the way of the game.
  • Speaking of backstory in games, Mythic Quest’s second season is coming to an end on Apple TV+, and it’s a half-hour sitcom I’ve really enjoyed as a person who hates half-hour sitcoms. Both seasons play with a single flashback/world-building episode in the middle, which sounds like a bloody annoyance but the resulting achievement is art.
  • I also finished watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier which looks like a lot of tight movie money but plays out like a lump of TV fat. It’s often corny and disrespectful of the viewer’s time. But it does raise the bar for action sequences and production design. I haven’t seen Loki yet, but if it doesn’t deliver then I may just burn through the rest of The Mandalorian in fast forward and cancel our Disney+ subscription.

Meta-sabbatical observation: This was the first week where I’ve felt the days start to blend together. When we went to meet some friends on Saturday evening and someone said they’d come from somewhere other than the office, I asked, “oh did you have the day off?” thinking it was Friday. That wasn’t the first time I’d lost track of time. Perhaps I need more milestones and structure for the weekdays. I’ve started a to-do list of things to get done or try out.

Week 24.21

Went out just once for leisure purposes; we’re in partial lockdown after all. Saw an exhibition of Chinese ink paintings by Chinese-Singaporean artist Cheong Soo Pieng.

After 35 hours of virtual oden eating and street thug harassment, I finally finished Judgment on the PS4 with most side cases solved. I usually don’t enjoy tonal inconsistency, but I can’t get enough of how the Yakuza games (I include this one) just jump from serious melodrama to comic absurdity. You can be searching a murder scene for clues but also follow the sound of mewing to find hidden cats for bonus points. Some PI cases have you spying on suspected criminals, while others have you hanging expensive lingerie up on your roof to bait a local panty thief (who uses a drone). I can’t wait to revisit these characters in the sequel later this September.

Also finished watching all 24 episodes of Steins;gate 0 at 1.25x speed. I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more had I remembered the ending of the first series a bit better (it’s been a decade). So the ending of this was an anticlimax because I didn’t follow how the big problem was being solved — tying up time travel loose ends is more work than usual.

We finally saw our last remaining episode of Izakaya Bottakuri on Netflix. It’s a rather corny and harmless Japanese drama about two sisters who run a little izakaya they inherited from their parents. Most episodes involve a regular customer’s backstory and some closeups of food being fried. The one noteworthy thing about the show is how every episode has a character describe their beverage’s selling points in great detail: usually a domestic craft beer, or regional sake made with some special process. After the end credits, the lead actress comes back to hold up the bottle and talk about tonight’s alcohol selection. It’s blatant content marketing, but I am quite alright with the idea of a TV show bankrolled by booze companies!

I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s new film, Wrath of Man, which stars Jason Statham in the kind of badass role he’s perfected over god knows how many similar outings. But it’s probably one of his best. I appreciate what Ritchie brings to what would otherwise by a straightforward heist and revenge story: heaps of style and chronology jumping for the hell of it.

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Of course, it was also WWDC week. No new hardware products, but the curtain came back for iOS 15 and while there aren’t any big, must-have features to look forward to, some very nice quality of life upgrades all around. I’m especially looking forward to quicker on-device Siri, tags in Notes, and more intelligence in Photos. iPadOS could have gone further and pushed the new M1 chips with pro-level apps or even a goddamn calculator, but all we got were the long-awaited cleanup of the multitasking interaction model and free placement of last year’s widgets, plus everything else new on the iPhone side.

I may be remembering things wrong, but there wasn’t any news on the Apple TV apart from spatial audio support, and watchOS is just grinding out more of the same, expansion pack style, with new workout and mindful activity types.

Spatial audio is quite a big deal, though. I recently watched some Dolby Atmos enabled videos content on my new iPad with AirPods, and it really works. With the launch of Atmos music tracks on Apple Music this week, I spent some time listening to old and new tracks to put it through its paces. I tend to agree with everyone who’s observed that the rock music examples are generally terrible, and the effect works best on jazz and classical music — where even studio cuts usually strive to reproduce the context of a live performance. The new spatial remixes of vintage jazz records have more atmosphere and you can point around you to where each player seems to be seated. Perhaps it’s like colorizing old photos, gimmicky and impure to some, but bringing them closer in space and time nonetheless. I think the technology is a positive development.

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Next week: More reading. Wanna crush your Goodreads challenge? The New York Times Book Review has published a list of recommendations. I’ll be trying some of them out soon.

Of Monsters and Men: Pacific Rim and Man of Taichi

Two of the movies I’ve been waiting for in one weekend. Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D (found the 3D dull, dim, and uncomfortable), and Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut, Man of Taichi (thankfully in 2D). Both are films I’d like to go see again.

They are both fascinating in that Pacific Rim is the monster (kaiju) movie that Japan could never make, while Man of Taichi is the martial arts (gongfu) movie that Hong Kong could never make. Both borrow richly from their sources, but add something of their own. In Pacific Rim’s case, wads of special effects money and (unfortunately) Michael Bay’s apocalypse movie template. Andy Baio remarked on Twitter that it’s the worst of Transformers, Armageddon, and Independence Day rolled into one. While that’s a fair assessment of its characterizations and plotting, Del Toro at least executes his material as if he’s seen some anime and knows how to shoot a fight so you can actually see it.

What it really needed was a tight script and team dynamics you could both enjoy and invest in. Instead of Michael Bay’s template, I wish they’d taken Joss Whedon’s. But no, it falls back on faceless national stereotypes and comically bad romance tropes. Rinko Kikuchi may have an Oscar, but I wouldn’t trust whoever oversaw her doe-eyed scenes with bland Charlie Hunnam to direct traffic on a one-way street. Perhaps the Mako Mori character was just meant to be younger than Kikuchi looks, but her uncertainty and shyness were incongruous with having the coolest/most badass hair in the movie.

Pacific Rim's leads looking at each other
Character interaction looks much better in stills than in the film

Man of Taichi takes the best of Enter The Dragon, Bloodsport, and Ong Bak (fighting tournaments with explosive combat scenes), and adds both directorial and visual restraint to a philosophical story layer that HK films sometimes try to do (Ip Man, much of Jet Li’s period work), but almost always too heavy-handedly. For the genre of film that he’s taken on, I think Keanu Reeves has shown himself to be a good director. Not for an actor, or for a Hollywood man, but a good director, period.

Man of Taichi’s star is Tiger Chen, a stuntman that Reeves met during the production of The Matrix. I won’t complain about his performance in the film’s non-fight scenes, because it never gets in the way, which is more than I can say for Pacific Rim’s moments of downtime. When he fights, or is seen struggling with the Star Wars-like light vs. dark side moral dilemma of his pugilism, Chen’s placid face conveys exactly the intensity required. In the final moments of the film’s final fight, he uses it as a blank canvas to great effect — much like Keanu Reeves in his portrayal as Neo in The Matrix when we needed to believe a world lay inside a computer. Some see wooden acting, I choose to see inspired detachment.

Man of Taichi movie poster

Reeves is in this film too, as the main antagonist. My viewing companion was not impressed. Maybe I’m just a fan, but again, I found his typically one-dimensional portrayal to be perfect for the film. It’s so hard to see what’s going on behind the rigid, mechanical demeanor that it produces an oppressive sense of mystery, fear, and apprehension whenever he enters the room opposite the human, naive, in-over-his-head Chen. You simply don’t know what Reeves is supposed to be capable of, or if he’s even meant to be human. I felt the whole thing could go From Dusk Till Dawn at any point and literally reveal Reeves as Satan with Krav Maga training. Through the stark presentation, voice effects, sleek dark suits and occasional black mask, bloodlessly pale face, and perfunctory short utterances, you are invited to read his existence in the whole scenario as a let-it-all-hang-out metaphor for demonic evil. All villains are, but this one does it without overacting in the face!

Where Pacific Rim is happy to show great swathes of the world, and then gleefully destroy it, much of Man of Taichi takes place indoors, with only a few establishing skyline shots of Beijing and Hong Kong. Like Hong Kong, the sparse fight arenas are all concrete surfaces and sharp corners for flesh to get caught on, and you are constantly made aware of the combatants’ mortality. In Pacific Rim, the robot Jaegers are virtually invincible except when fighting the Kaijus, which are only flesh, and bleed. You could toss a Jaeger through a skyscraper made of the same metals, but it only malfunctions when punched in the face by a tentacle. Like in Man of Steel, which got flack for Superman allowing awesome amounts of collateral damage, Pacific Rim’s environment is an inconsequential foam that inhabits the fight space, to be ignored by everyone except the audience, whose job it is to be overwhelmed by enjoyable particle effects.

In both films, there is a man with a knife. One is played to the hilt by Ron Perlman, who talks a lot, wears gold shoes, sunglasses, and flips a flashy butterfly knife around for effect. I can’t remember if he had a cigar in his mouth but there might as well have been. In the other universe, Keanu Reeves pulls the blade out low at the waist, and stabs silently and mercilessly before you know it’s there. It is beautiful and unintentional asymmetry.

I recommend seeing both. Pacific Rim is a dream come true for many of us who love giant robots and schlocky movies with men in rubber monster suits, but by only improving upon visuals, its clearest future is as an HDTV/4K showcase at your local electronics dealer. I think Man of Taichi might become a cult martial arts classic talked about and recommended to friends for years.

Pacific Rim is obviously out now, Man of Taichi is out in Asia and is slated to be in the U.S. sometime in 2013.