Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

September 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

transformers-age-of-extinction-poster

It’s a sad world we live in that Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, is 2014′s most successful movie, not only in Taiwan but around the world.

To be honest, I actually quite the first Transformers film — watching special-effects-made giant transforming robots battle it out on the big screen while humans ran around screaming and making cheesy jokes was kinda fun. The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was more of the same, but made some improvements both visually and stylistically, and though I found the experience wearing me down by the end I still felt there were some positives to take out of it. By the time Dark of the Moon rolled around I was firmly entrenched in the anti-Michael Bay crusade. It was far too loud, too long, too abrasive, too obnoxious. It was just too…everything, and it made me wonder how the hell I ever enjoyed the first two.

And so I thought the fourth Transformers film would be a welcome and much-needed fresh start. They kept the machines but got rid of unbearable leading man Shia LeDouche, replacing him with the likable Marky Mark Wahlberg. Instead of unrealistic love interests in the form of Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, they got Marky Mark a daughter (Nicola Peltz), who probably never (mistakenly) thought she’d be a in worse movie than The Last Airbender. They also threw in a new hunky race-car-driving boyfriend, played by Irish actor Jack Reynor. The rest of the cast was filled out by solid veterans like Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar, all of whom are, let’s face it, looking for a paycheck. Surely it couldn’t be worse, or so I thought.

I don’t know if Age of Extinction is worse than Dark of the Moon when judged as a standalone film, but if you’ve seen the other ones in the franchise you’ve effectively seen them all, and the accumulated damage is something that’s almost impossible to overcome.  Age of Extinction is vintage Michael Bay. It’s 165 minutes of robots blowing shit up and beating the crap out of each other, with the gaps filled in by bad acting, trite dialogue and cheesy humour.

Marky Mark is a struggling — albeit very buffed — inventor (yeah right) who finds a dormant Optimus Prime while trying to ways to pay for his daughter’s college education. Meanwhile, there are some government agents who are trying to kill all robots, good and bad (makes sense to me), a Transformer bounty hunter wreaking havoc, and a desperate need to get the film to China at all cost to appease its Chinese co-producers.

If the film was cut down to about 100-120 minutes and it was the first time I ever watched a Transformers movie, then I can see how I might have enjoyed it. Instead, I spent the entire film trying to shake the feeling that I had seen all of this before, except not as loud, not as excessive, and certainly not as long. After a while, I became totally numb to all the colourful robots causing carnage to each other and their surroundings. Ironically, all the “action” made the film less exciting. It actually wasn’t that easy to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys amid all the rolling around and explosions and shit, and frankly, I didn’t care. And every time I thought the movie was about to end, more stuff happened.

It was just too much of the same, cranked up to 11 (and that’s Michael Bay’s 11, which is like 37 for everyone else). There’s always some special, magic object that bad guys want to get their hands on. For some strange reason humans, who are basically like ants to the Transformers, always tend to be tasked with important things and are the key to saving the universe. The male leads love to act macho but are goofy and love to spew one-liners. The girls are always dressed in tight outfits, love to scream, and have no brains. And there’s always some massive battle in the end where half a city gets destroyed before the humans help the good robots claim an unlikely victory.

I do see attempts to add something fresh to the franchise, like the idea of the Transformer bounty hunter. But seriously — Tranformer dinosaurs? Transformer rabid dogs? Transformer laser guns that are perfectly human-sized for some reason? Ken Watanabe as a Samurai Transformer? And that whole “Chinese elements” crap that dominated the whole second half of the movie. I was more distracted by Li Bingbing trying to speak English and all the cameos from Hong Kong and mainland actors — and even Chinese boxing Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming — than trying to keep up with what was happening in the movie.

Fans of the over-the-top nature of the franchise — and they are clearly in abundance — will likely lap this shit up as they wait for the fifth and sixth instalments, which will probably be exactly the same as every entry except longer and louder. Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse. Transformers was never that good to begin with, but at least it was fun and flashy. What Age of Extinction proves is that the franchise is in dire need of a new direction, something I doubt Michael Bay will grant us as long as he’s raking in the big bucks.

1.5 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Cybercrime in the Greater China Region’ by Lennon Yao-chung Chang

July 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

cybercrime

Hey look, this is not the type of book I would usually read out of interest, but since I reviewed it for a trade publication a couple of months ago and found it pretty interesting I thought I would share my thoughts.

The full title of this 2012 book is Cybercrime in the Greater China Region: Regulatory Responses and Crime Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait. It is the PhD thesis of Taiwan-born Lennon Yao-chung Chang at Australia National University. It might sound kinda boring — and there are stretches that remind you very clearly that this is an academic paper — but there are plenty of interesting ideas here because of the fascinating political dynamics at work between Taiwan and China, both of which rank near or at the top in terms of malicious internet activity (in terms of perpetrators and victims).

As this is a relatively untapped area of research, the paper does suffer from limited access to data, especially in China, where every question from a Taiwanese academic would naturally be met with scepticism. The majority of information is therefore accumulated through empirical data and interviews with internet professionals in the private and public sectors and law enforcement on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Don’t worry if you don’t know much about Taiwan-China relations, cybercrime laws or internet terminology, because those are the things Chang addresses first in the book. He combs through the political situation between the two countries and the official lines of “reunification” and “independence”, and how this would pose difficulties in co-operative cybercrime investigation, prosecution, enforcement, and the concept of dual criminality. He also discusses at some length the legislative provisions from both countries — some of which, particularly in Taiwan, were not developed until only a few years ago (to my surprise, given Taiwan’s reputation as a technology leader).

Chang also explains what are malware, torjans, viruses and bots, which can turn computers effectively into “zombies” that can then be controlled to attack others. The problem with these cybercrime tools is that they adhere well to criminal theory — low cost, low risk and high reward, lots of opportunities and targets, and the lack of a proper reporting system.

The leading legal document tackling international cybercrime is the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, but it happens to be relatively useless to both China and Taiwan. The problem with China is that they are just not that interested in the convention because its laws are too different, and more importantly, the Chinese government wants (or arguable needs) to maintain more control over its internet channels at the expense of the privacy and free speech of its citizens. On the other hand, Taiwan would love to be involved, but it’s not recognised as a country by signatories and is not part of the United Nations.

While the China and Taiwan have in place a number of cooperation agreements between non-governmental organizations that could potentially cover cybercrime, laws still cannot be enforced without government assistance. There are, of course, no official bilateral agreements between the two countries on cybercrime.

The discussions about these diplomatic difficulties and contradictions are where the book gets most interesting. China is really only willing to co-operate with Taiwan if it is also a victim of the same crime, and even then, there are the complexities of the Chinese concepts of guan-xi (personal relationships) and ren-qing (favours) which could prove to be huge stumbling blocks in any joint effort. Even the latest debacle involving Edward Snowden, the ex-NSA contractor who spilled the beans on US internet and phone surveillance, shows just how hard it is to get anything done when Beijing is involved.

The parts of the book I enjoyed the most were the painfully hilarious interviews with Taiwanese experts and officials on cybercrime issues. The problem with Taiwan’s cybercrime enforcement can be summed up as follows: the people who understand the law don’t understand the technology; the people who understand the technology don’t understand the law; the people who want to change the law don’t have the power; and the people who have the power don’t want to change the law. On top of that, all cybercrime investigation teams in the country are pitifully small and often can’t be bothered chasing cybercriminals because of the low success rate.

My favourite quote from the whole book comes from a Taiwanese cybercrime professional. The quote, sadly, would be less funny if it weren’t so true:

Even if the laws are adequate, our…judges and prosecutors are all IDIOTS in the area of technology. This is what I feel ashamed of…We have advanced laws, retarded law enforcement officers, and an insufficient law enforcement system…Almost all the law enforcement officers, around 99% of them are idiots, what can we do? That is nothing to do with laws. Brains need to be changed. What I am always emphasizing is that courts need to be professional. If judges are not professional, then how can we persuade others that our courts are professional?

So how does Chang suggest we can change the situation? Well, the last portion of the book is dedicated to his recommendation, which is to develop a “wiki” approach to cybercrime that embraces an information-sharing platform with a gatekeeper and very specific protocols. The voluntary Aviation Safety Reporting System is noted as a possible blueprint.

Chang also calls on the media, especially in Taiwan, to not sensationalise cybercrime and to change the “image” of the victims, who often do not report out of fears of losing face and being audited. He compared the victims of cybercrime to the victims of sexual assault and infectious diseases in the sense that there is a stigma attached to them — this has to be changed in order for cybercrime enforcement to take the next step, he says.

Giving this kind of book a rating is difficult because as an academic paper it lacks of proper narrative thread and has many dry patches that could put anyone not using the book for research (and probably them too) to sleep. The fact that English is not Chang’s first language often sticks out like a sore thumb, notwithstanding the best efforts of his editors. The lack of data and cooperation from China was also frustrating at times. But I suppose for an academic paper it does have some very interesting sections and even a few that I found quite funny. Given the dearth of information available about this topic for now, the book is also possibly the most authoritative piece of research on it, so extra brownie points for that.

But let’s not pretend anyone would read it unless they had to.

3/5

The Beijing Diaries, Day 1: Arrival

November 8, 2012 in China, Travel

G’day, Chairman Mao

November 6, 2012

The last time I was in Beijing was 1990, merely 8 months after  Tiananmen Square. I don’t remember much of that visit apart from my sister enjoying a Forbidden City bento box no other member of the family would touch out of hygiene concerns. This time, I’m going as a reporter to cover China’s 18th National Congress.

For those of you who know jack, the national congress is a big deal in China — and these days, the entire world. It happens once every five years and every second congress they swap Communist Party leaders. This year, Hu Jintao is handing over his title of Communist Party General Secretary to his successor Xi Jinping. It’s gonna be very RED.

The 18th National Congress runs from Nov. 8-14, and it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll be in Beijing for a total of 11 days, including 2 days before and 2 days after for contingencies. Not like I really had a choice in saying no, but for me, the only drawback is that I’ll be away from my wife and 10-month-old son. And it’s a major drawback. In the 10 years I’ve been with my wife (including before we were married), I had only been away from her for more than a week on two occasions — Hong Kong for a month in 2003/4 and Singapore for a week in 2006 — both for work purposes. And needless to say, I’m dreading being away from my son. What if I miss his first unaided steps or more new words?

Anyway, this was the day I travelled to the Chinese capital, and it was quite a journey. I had been battling the effects of a nasty stomach virus in the days leading up to the departure and my head was still stinging by the time I got to the airport, which was jam packed with Chinese tourists. One particularly memorable image was three Chinese tourists on a travelator heading towards their (my) gate. For some inexplicable reason, they stood about 10m apart from each other, though it did not prevent them from having a full blown conversation that sounded much more like a screaming match.

The plane ride was also an experience. As I had not selected my seats until check-in, I ended up smack bang in the Chinese tourist section right at the back. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before. It sounded like a meat market and people were literally climbing over each other and testing the limits of the overhead cabinets by cramming in things that probably should have been checked-in. The middle-aged woman who sat next to me was quiet enough, but she kept encroaching onto my space while attempting to find a comfortable position to sleep in. In the end I basically just let her lie against me.

Luckily the Xanax I took for my severe flight anxiety mellowed out any intentions I had of biting her in the face.

I landed at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport (because it’s the capital, duh) at around 7pm. It’s supposed to be the biggest airport terminal in the world, bigger than all 5 Heathrow terminals combined. I must admit, I had some preconceived notions of Beijing despite everything I had heard about it, and my first impression of the airport was that it looked just like every other major airport in the world.

It wasn’t until I was waiting in line for my taxi to the hotel that I experienced my first real taste — of thick clouds of cigarette smoke in an area with 47 “No Smoking” signs (I counted)…and phlegm hocking on surround sound. Not to mention the little bald man who thought no one would notice if he just squeezed in front of everyone.

The hotel booked for me (by a colleague from a sister paper) is situated in the Dongcheng district and about a 20-minute walk from the Great Hall of the People where many of the congress sessions will take place. It’s a 3-star hotel. Not that I look down on 3-stars because most 3-stars are perfectly fine, but my fear was that it would be a “China 3-star”, if you know what I mean. I had been too pampered on former business trips working for a rich law firm where everything was business class, 5-star hotels and gourmet meals, so the type of travel “perks” you get from a poor news agency (well, maybe not poor, but definitely cheap) came as a rude awakening.

The ruder awakening, however, was finding out upon arrival that my hotel room had been cancelled. As it turned out, my colleague typed the wrong mobile number in the booking form and when the hotel called to confirm the booking the woman on the other end said she had never heard of me (because she hadn’t!).

A furious search for other hotels in the same chain ensued, and a moment later I was told that I had 30 minutes to get to this other hotel or that booking would be cancelled too. I was also told — while carrying a big suitcase and a massive backpack and all — that it would be difficult hailing a cab at that time of the night and I was better off catching a bus and walking.

I passed on that brilliant idea and found a cab. I grinned whenever the cab passed another bus with passengers packed like sardines.

At around 9pm, I finally checked into the hotel. To be fair, the hotel room is no worse than any of the 3-stars I stayed in during my Eurotrips. A flatscreen TV, a table, a big bed and free internet access. Notwithstanding that it was unnaturally dark in the room even with all the lights on, I though the room was more than good enough for me.

And so that ends the first day of my Beijing trip. I look forward to the rest of it with a mix of fear and excitement. If I don’t post on this blog again, I think it is safe to assume that I ended up like Richard Gere in Red Corner.

Farewell, China!

July 31, 2011 in China, Travel

Four months after visiting the place, my posts on China are finally at an end.  As with my other travel writings, I have set up a page with all my China posts, which can be found by hovering the cursor over the ‘travel hq’ tab in the header.

I’ll leave you with some photos of the iconic Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower and the Shanghai skyline from the area known as the Bund.

The haziness is apparently permanent in Shanghai…


Shanghai Brunch at Azul

July 28, 2011 in China, Food, Reviews, Travel

We’re almost at the end of my China series and I’ve saved one of the best for last.  For our final meal in Shanghai we went to a stylish Spanish/Peruvian tapas joint called Azul in the Xuhui district in southwest Shanghai.

Azul is very popular with expats who enjoy a lazy brunch on the weekend.  The bottom floor looks more like a tapas bar and the upper floor (where we ate) resembles more of a restaurant.  They have one of these big enticing menus that offer an assortment of delightful Spanish fusion dishes and beverages which you can order as part of a three-course brunch set + drink.

If you zoom in real close you can read what's on the menu!

The prices are not considered cheap for locals but they are affordable compared to overseas prices (120RMB for 2 courses and 160RMB for 3).

Here’s what we ordered (with pics!)

(click on ‘more…’ to see!)

Read the rest of this entry →

 
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