Daily links: Geopolitics and Tom Cruise

US teams up with Japan and Australia to invest in Asian infrastructure projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has competition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure projects in emerging Asia as part of Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Generals from the rival Koreas meet at the border to ease military tensions.

But there’s still a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. “Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker.”

Professor Stephen Cohen points out that in early 1986, President Ronald Reagan met alone with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for about two and a half hours, during which they discussed abolishing nuclear weapons, paving the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which was signed a year later.

Behind-the-scenes on Tom Cruise’s HALO jump from a C-17 military aircraft at 25,000 feet for the latest Mission: Impossible movie. HALO means high altitude, low open (i.e. the parachute is deployed at below 2,000 feet).

Reminds me of this incredible scene from Moonraker.

Tom Cruise is “our last remaining movie star.”

Daily links: Movies, Mars, and ancient nematodes

Steel Rain movie

Steel Rain

A large underground lake of liquid water is discovered on Mars.

Two Russian nematodes are brought back to life after being frozen for nearly 42,000 years, making them the oldest living animals currently on earth.

European astronomers track a star travelling through the gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and it exhibits gravitational redshift, confirming Einstein’s predictions.

Massive, brutal vivisection of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, via a series of YouTube videos deconstructing the film’s appalling writing. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The franchise will never recover from this.

Review of the South Korean spy thriller Steel Rain. I watched this on a flight from Seoul to New York. It’s good.

David Goldman challenges American complacency about China’s rise.

Russia liquidates more than 84% of its US Treasury holdings in the two months through May 31, leaving experts puzzled.

Daily links: Musk, Mission Impossible, US military

An amusing takedown of Elon Musk. For some reason, Musk is a deeply polarizing figure, viewed as either a visionary genius or a total charlatan. His increasingly bizarre and out-of-control behavior of late certainly raises doubts about his qualities as a business leader. The outlook for Tesla does not look good either.

New Yorker review of Mission: Impossible — Fallout. Very entertaining movie, although the crazily violent fight scenes and endless car/bike chases through Paris get numbing after a while.

All your base are belong to us: More than 300,000 American military personnel are deployed or forward stationed in 177 countries.

More US embassy weirdness: Bomb detonated near the embassy in Beijing.

Some salient questions about the US-EU announcement on trade relations.

North Korea returns remains of (allegedly) US soldiers in goodwill gesture.

What happens when a total stranger decides to destroy your life by posting false information about you on a sleazy grudge-settling website?

How will disaster movies ever recover?

THE SATELLITE DID IT

I thought The Day After Tomorrow marked the pinnacle of disaster-movie absurdity, with its infamous scene of a wave of killer frost literally chasing Jake Gyllenhaal across the New York Public Library.

But Roland Emmerich, the man behind that spectacle, surpassed himself several years later with 2012, in which a burst of neutrinos somehow disrupts the earth’s core, unleashing a Ragnarok of natural disasters that wipes out virtually all of humanity, including Danny Glover.

Nothing quite prepares you for Geostorm, though. This massive box-office flop, described as “the worst film of the year,” introduces a bizarre twist on the genre, in which a network of climate-controlling satellites is the only thing standing between humanity and the general concept of bad weather. So that when a computer virus makes these satellites go haywire, there is nothing to stop a gigantic tsunami from nearly eradicating Dubai. To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

This is a movie in which a wonky satellite causes: a hideous electrical storm in Miami, a Biblical hailstorm in Tokyo, an array of tornadoes pummeling Mumbai, and a brutal heat wave descending on Moscow. Among other, equally ridiculous things.

Now, The Day After Tomorrow was just silly, but fun, while 2012 was awesome and scary despite being scientifically preposterous. And that’s all good. Geostorm, though, is aggressively stupid, without a single redeeming quality. Even by the generous standards of disaster flicks, the storyline and dialogue are trash-tier, the characters behave in nonsensical ways, and worst of all, in the one area this type of movie absolutely must perform – namely, captivating visual spectacle – Geostorm does a sickening bellyflop into the pool of failure. Only the Dubai-tidal-wave scene sort of makes the cut.

For a couple hours of escapist entertainment that will do real and lasting damage to your frontopolar cortex, I give Geostorm a reluctant one thumb up.

A damn fine retrospective

Chicago’s Music Box Theatre (where I saw Donnie Darko) is running a great retrospective on the films of David Lynch. I’ve taken the opportunity to re-watch Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet and watch, for the first time, The Straight Story. (There is also a ton of other Lynch-related material on offer including short films, interviews and documentaries – ranging from interesting and illuminating to just weird.)

For me, seeing these productions on 35mm is a reminder that watching a great movie on the big screen is not just better than watching it on your TV – it’s a totally different experience. I would compare it to listening to a symphony in a concert hall vs. on a cassette tape. There’s that much of a gap. (I noticed this most dramatically when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time in college.)

Visually, Lynch’s movies – and I’m thinking especially of Blue Velvet – have a rawness and richness of texture on the big screen that’s entirely absent when you watch them on your TV or tablet or whatever. Then there’s the communal aspect of enjoying the movie with a large audience (the Music Box was surprisingly crowded every time I went). Among other things, it made the humor more funny. Lynch’s movies are filled with moments of deadpan comedy that had the audience laughing out loud.

Lynch is most compelling, to me, when his weirdness is constrained by a narrative that’s at least semi-coherent. Blue Velvet achieves the perfect balance of surrealism and narrative logic; all the Lynchian weirdness is wrapped up in a story that “makes sense” and is, in its outlines, a pretty conventional detective yarn. We are taking a trip through a nightmare-world, but the story acts as the emotional engine that gets us through safely.

Mulholland Drive is also a great movie, but it goes further than Blue Velvet in pushing the boundaries of narrative coherence, without quite flying off the rails into total incomprehensibility. Things get really weird towards the end, but the movie keeps our attention and demands that we try to puzzle out what the hell just happened. It’s a powerful and beautiful experience.

I haven’t seen Lost Highway for a long time, but I remember it being a total disaster of a movie, and this had to do with its over-the-top horror and surrealism with no discernible storyline or emotional hook for the audience. I also recall not liking Wild at Heart very much, though there were some scenes that stayed with me.

Lynch is famous for dredging up images and ideas from the murky depths of the unconscious. This only “works” if the stuff that’s dredged up is hammered into a coherent shape that the viewer can understand and relate to. Otherwise, it’s just annoying self-indulgence on the director’s part, like when someone tells you about the crazy dream they had last night.

The Straight Story is way on the opposite end of the spectrum. Lynch’s most “conventional” film (along with The Elephant Man), it’s perfectly coherent in terms of plot and writing. Most people wouldn’t suspect it was a Lynch movie at all if his name weren’t in the credits. Despite this, the movie has an unsettling quality that I can’t quite put my finger on. I would describe it as “Lynchian” and leave it at that.

The Straight Story hit me like an emotional freight train. I would recommend it to anyone who is inclined to dismiss Lynch as a weirdo or a sicko. Well, he may be those things too, but he can certainly make a damn fine movie. (And cup of coffee too, apparently.)

“28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes, 12 seconds”

Last weekend, I watched a 15th anniversary showing of Donnie Darko at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago’s Southport neighborhood. Gene Siskel called the ornate, atmospheric Music Box his favorite movie theater and I can understand why. Opened in 1929, it now shows indie, classic and foreign films.

Donnie Darko is a powerful, eerie and engrossing film with shades of E.T. that deserves to be seen on the big screen. I saw it many years ago on the family TV (Netflix DVD back when that was a thing?) but hadn’t remembered anything about it except the terrifying man-sized rabbit that visits Donnie’s house at night.

Here’s an interpretation of the movie’s ending for those who’ve seen it. Apparently you need to watch the director’s cut, which is 20 minutes longer than the original theatrical version I actually watched and contains a lot of explanatory material, to understand what the heck is going on.