Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Poker Boom

I spent about five hours last weekend watching poker on TV. Pathetic? Of course. But it could've been worse: I could've easily watched ten hours, high off the buzz of my $200 win last Friday night. (I basically got lucky on draws on big hands.) What's frightening is that you can cobble together a all-Poker cable channel on any given night: ESPN, Bravo, the Travel Channel, and Fox Sports all run pro poker programs. Nowadays I see Howard Lederer's mug more often than John Edwards'. And even the NY Times is getting in with a poker feature story today.

Are we at the saturation point? I know a surprising number of guys who play online poker, either on PartyPoker or Poker Stars. And I get the sense that poker tournaments are held on every block, especially in the Asian neighborhoods. It looks like the fixer-upper boom, a bubble just about ready to burst. But I'm betting there's still more room for poker to grow. The game's pull is too great: (1) it looks deceptively easy (an amateur shlub, Chris Moneymaker, won the World Series of Poker last year) ; (2) nothing feeds the ego like outwitting somebody with a bum hand; and (3) poker is competitive capitalism in its purest form.

And now, with round the clock poker programming, they've created genuine celebrities. (I got load of the excitement generated when Minh the Master showed up at a club my cousin promoted. With all the buzz in the room, you'd think J.Lo dropped by...bottomless.) People want to play like Gus Hansen, and look as intimidating as Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, and learn all the cool chip tricks. The most tempting thing is you don't have to have a 40 inch vertical to make a great poker play.
In short, the poker boom shows no signs of abating. If I had money and connections, first thing I do is open a poker room.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Because it had to be linked...

Q. How do you know when the Maxim culture has won?

A. When even the Fast & the Furious types are publishing their own how to be a playa manuals.

Unbelievable. Of course, it's not kosher to dis a book you ghost-wrote, but still....

(Thanks for the link, Jo.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Hero (Zhang) B-

Can a movie be too beautiful? Or perhaps a better question is: when is mere beauty not enough?

In the most awesome swordsplay picture ever, Tony Leung stars as an ill-fated, emotionally wounded swordsman, while Maggie Cheung gorgeously ruminates on lost chances. The costumes were sensational, and the fight scenes rushed by like a feverish dream, all captured by the unparalleled lensing of Chris Doyle. That movie is called Ashes of Time, and it's the most ravishingly beautiful martial arts film by a considerable margin. It's full of arresting imagery like this:

Posted by Hello

Here's strange but majestic canted-angle of a swordsman set in bold yellow against an expansive rich blue sky. The composition is unbalanced (with the eye point at the far left of the frame), framing the heroic figure with circular lines that create a sense of an alluring phantasmagoria. It's a strange but effortlessly cool shot, and Ashes of Time is full of them. In his unconventional color scheme, use of space, scale, composition, and especially lighting, Wong created an expressionistic masterpiece, a movie where every shot promises something you've never seen before, from the hatching shadows that shroud Leslie Cheung's pouty visage to the dance of shadows evoked by Wong's step-printing techniques . But it's not just innovative shots for its own sake. As David Bordwell explains in his seminal study Planet Hong Kong, Wong's action sequences allude to King Hu, Zatoichi, and Tsui Hark, while retaining their unmistakable Wongness. And it's all in the service of a movie that gets deeper, richer and more moving upon repeated viewings.

By that measure, Zhang Yimou's Hero can barely step into the same ring. An immaculate Fabergé Egg of a film, Hero is something to set on a red silk pillow and ensconce in a sterilized glass case. To be sure, Hero is a "magnificent" spectacle. Every hair is in its right place, every shot "masterful," every cut perfectly timed. Certain eye-popping scenes -- especially Cheung and Zhang Ziyi fighting in a swath of red -- have the feel of a dazzlingly staged performance dance piece. If you're blown away by rigorous movies where "every shot feels exactly right", you'll be hit by multiple orgasms watching Hero.

But to my eyes, those same beautiful shots are pleasing but painfully obvious and derivative. Everything's color-coordinated and art-directed to the point of asphyxiation, every shot is perfectly composed and mostly uninteresting. The vaunted color schemes are nothing more than the set and costume designer coming up with 30 shades of green or blue. Grand battle scenes are mounted in the tedious manner of Kurosawa's Ran, where toy soldiers are lined up in geometric formations for that extra formalist ooomph. Shots of Jet Li and the Emperor are rigidly centered and cross-cut in that predictable Zhang way. And the bad CGI process shots and poor understanding of action cutting leads to dreadful scenes like the one where thousands of arrows launched on the caligraphy school. We see Li jumping around deflecting obvious CGI toothpicks and Cheung inexplicably performing rhythm gymnastics on the rooftop.

I'd swallow these complaints if these decorative visuals served a greater purpose. But they don't. One problem is Hero lacks poignancy. The supposed heart of the movie, a love story between Maggie and Tony, felt like a second-hand borrowing of Wong and the Chow Yun-Fat/Michelle Yeoh dynamic in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ultimately existing solely so Zhang can stage a cheesy "operatic" last scene. (No comparison with Tony's incredible exit scene from Ashes of Time, kissing the egg shell girl before furiously destroying a hundred swordsman, all set to that heart-stopping "Eastern Morricone" score.) Then, there's Jet Li, who reprises the grim, humorless superhero he plays in his subpar American films. Watching Li's joyless turn, it's easy to forget that Li's charisma and good humor (and Tsui & Ching's thrilling action staging) can lift his movies, like the second most awesome swordsplay movie ever, Swordsman II, into the stratosphere. A pity Jet does little but squint his eyes and fight now. The one standout is Daoming Chen's Emperor, who can give Wen Jiang a run for his money in embodying a kind of imperious, paranoid arrogance.

Posted by Hello

Another problem is that the Rashomon-like structure, rewinding and portraying a different telling of the same event, stalls the movie's forward momentum. An already stately, sober affair is made more enervating by this gimmick.

My griping, it must be said, overlooks one important element: Hero's ultimately a paean to Confucian authoritarianism. (Click on that link -- it's good.) Zhang's classical style, the humorless characters, and even the Rashomon structure work together seamlessly in support of this idea. Basically, it's an old school, classical style to support a philosophy that lionizes tradition. Well, the last part about structure may not be obvious, but keep in mind Hero only pretends to be, like Rashomon, about subjectivity and unknowability of Truth. By the end, the glob of tien xia ("All Under Heaven," or the poorly translated "This Land") subsumes all. The movie makes the very Chinese point that the individual (and diversity) should kow tow to the greater good, to a unified and greater China. In other words, the radical subjectivity implied by the movie's structure is ultimately obliterated by Nameless and Broken Sword's "recognition" that individuals/minority cultures must sacrifice themselves to a greater, objective good. Diversity may be precious and beautiful, but conformity is necessary. We can't have thirteen ways of writing the character "sword" now, can we? Hero mythologizes rebels for a while but only to conclude that they must martyr themselves at the altar of unity, authority, and conformity.

I've already expended too much time elsewhere discussing this film's propaganda elements. Just a few short points: contrary to widespread misunderstanding, to say that Hero works as government propaganda doesn't necessarily suggest that it's communist propoganda. Hero's not communist at all, but zealously nationalist and profoundly Chinese. So in a way, it doesn't betray its cultural origins and indeed sets forth as succinct a statement of a dominant Chinese viewpoint -- Confucist authoritarianism -- I know. While, it's a viewpoint I personally find noxious (hence the negative treatment here), one can't deny it's a popular one.

Hero serves as a kind of national origins myth for the expansionist nationalism that the Chinese government has been pushing relentlessly for years now (and which holds the heart of most Chinese I know). Nationalism is China's central ideology. To understand this idea, think of the U.S. Just as the Bush/Rove GOP isn't so much conservative as it feeds nationalistic and jingoistic language to poor, rural whites to maintain power, the Chinese government hasn't been interested in Marxist-Leninism for some time now. More than anything, the Chinese government is after securing power and stability, and it feeds nationalistic propoganda to rural Chinese (abandoned by the government which focused on foreign capital investment and urban improvement) and the military in order to do so. China's bellicose rhetoric on Tibet and Taiwan -- territories of no special national security signficance in the nuclear age -- can be explained only when domestic stability concerns are factored in. "You think life is tough now, but you need to suck it up so China can be great again", the Chinese government tells its downtrodden masses. The sad thing is that the man who once made The Story Qiu Ju now tells his viewers the same thing.

[If you're tired of my negativity and yearn to sink your teeth into a meaty positive piece, check out Chinese cinema guru Shelly Kraicer's take. It's pretty damn good.]

Monday, September 20, 2004

Kerry stepping up his game

Look, I was worried, too. But the hand-wringing among Democrats for the last two weeks was a little much. Yeah, Kerry made some missteps, but the sky hasn't fallen. And the widespread panic only made liberals look more wimpy. But at least with all the alarms ringing Kerry suddenly got on his game. He's been sharp for the last week, and today's Iraq speech offers the best, most concise (at least for Kerry) and most complete rationale he's given for why we need a change. It's not the vacuous, focus-group-tested nonsense he served up in earlier months. Kerry identified all the specific problems in Iraq and traced it to Bush's consistently awful judgment and decisions. He's making the case he needed to make. And it's now even possible to decipher Kerry's own position!

What I'm excited about is that he's staking his chips on Iraq, as he should. This is the big issue -- the most disastrous decision made by a president in the last twenty years -- and you have to tackle it head on. The pollsters and appeasers who've been urging him to run away from Iraq and change the subject to domestic issues are the same folks who got the Dems routed the 2002 mid-terms. Kerry's turning the boat back and rushing straight at the enemy. Take it out on the big issues. And if Kerry can't hang the mismanagement of Iraq as the noose around Bush's neck, he doesn't deserve to win.

So far Kerry's proven to be an awful front-runner. In the primaries, he started off as the favorite only to completely flame out before the first votes were cast. As late as December 2003 Kerry was a dead man campaigning, but he stormed back by betting all his chips in Iowa and running with renewed vigor.

The last couple of months, Kerry's been running up the middle and playing prevent defense with a 3 point lead and a quarter to go. He was way too cautious, appealing way too early to "persuadable" swing voters who by their very definition sway with the wind. These swing voters will say in the polls and in focus groups that they want a "positive" campaign, but the fact is *they aren't paying attention*. If they end up voting, it will be on the basis of "general impressions" which is created by the campaign (and the media) framing the debate in your favor.

For a better understanding of the campaign so far and where it has to go, let's bring back our much duplicated but never tired poker analogy!

In poker, you've got four general types of players. One is the "calling station", the loose/passive player who plays a lot of hands and calls most bets. This is a very poor player. Second is the "maniac", a loose/aggressive player who bluffs a lot and will raise on bad hands. This is also a poor player, but a more dangerous one. Third is the "rock." This is a highly predictable tight/passive player who calls only on very good hands and raises only on sure winners. These guys know what's a good hand and play the percentages. So while they win some, they're not very dangerous -- they're way too predictable because they just play the cards. The fourth is the more successful poker style: tight yet aggressive. These players play both the cards and the players. They fold most poor hands but will raise in situations with mediocre hands if they get a good read.

Kerry's naturally a mediocre poker player, someone with "rock" instincts. Hyper-cautious and largely passive, he voted (in a terrible calculated gamble) to authorize the president to use force in Iraq largely to position himself as a hawk. His cautiousness has come back to bite him, but in a table full of loose players (Dean, Clark), a tight, cautious game tends to win, and so Kerry won the early rounds.

It started off okay for Kerry when he took the same cautious game to the general campaign. Initially, he won some hands but then he quickly began to sit on his chips. Bush, who's been dealt pretty bad cards, has been taking hands by being aggressive, using strong bets to force Kerry to lay down better hands. Kerry was playing his cards; Bush was playing Kerry. By the end of the RNC, an over-privileged, drug-addled cheerleading, draft-dodging pussy became, by general perception, a tougher, more macho he-man than a guy who actually fought courageously for both his country and his convictions.

Bush has a game plan and he's executed it with ruthless efficiency. Kerry's a flip-flopper who will waver in the fight on terror, he says over and over and over and over again. Kerry won't protect the country, blah blah blah. Since the campaignstarted Kerry assumed a passive, reactive stance: "Bush says he's optimistic? Well, I'm the optimistic one. Bush is stronger? I'm just as strong." Instead of reframing the debate, to define leadership as a combination of strength, judgment and competence, he simply tried to out-flank Bush on Bush's terms. That's one big mistake. By repeatedly calling Bush's raises, Kerry let the Rethugs take complete control. Compounding that passivity, he neutered the DNC Convention to appease the "swing voters" and pundits who decry "Bush-bashing." He de-fanged his most lethal surrogates, when Kerry needed the spotlight to pin the country's wrong direction on Bush himself. By calling passively instead of raising on his strong hands -- by pandering to the apathetic, ignorant, and fickle instead of taking control and defining the election for those groups -- Kerry lost his advantage.

As the chips dwindled away, the Democrats began playing on "tilt", displaying "maniac" and "calling station" tendencies by betting on everything like the National Guard stuff that led to today's embarrassing memo-gate mea culpa. Too cautious with the lead, then too reckless when behind -- sure signs of a losing player.

Bush panders as well, but his campaign and supporters have seized the debate and framed the agenda. The GOPers are disciplined and unflappable, sticking to their gameplan even when they were down. What would Kerry do on Iraq, they asked? Why does Kerry hold so many positions? With Iraq going to shit, it's Bush, not Kerry, who needed to answer questions. This was Bush's war all the way, and he bore all responsibility. But Bush kept Kerry on the defensive, raising and re-raising until Kerry folded. Now, finally, with a short stack, Kerry decided to raise on his second pair and let Bush make the tough call.

Kerry's making better plays now. If he keeps up his style (and if he keeps being dealt better cards that Bush), he'll be alright. By the most reliable measures, he's only about three points down right now. He's can close the gap in the next two weeks before the debates. By finally playing to win rather than not-to-lose, Kerry's back on track to prevail.

Next on Kerry's hit list should be: That August 2001 "Al Qaeda Poised to Attack U.S." memo and Bush's non-response.