Monday, June 27, 2016

Movie Reviews: X-Men: Apocalypse, Clouds of Sils Maria, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Finding Dory, Love and Friendship

See my complete list of movie reviews on my movie review page.
 
X-Men: Apocalypse: This movie had a lot going for it until it made a monstrous stumble about midway. It nearly recovered, but in the last quarter it became simultaneously entirely ridiculous and completely boring for the rest of the movie.

The story is not much to write home about: we've seen it before. A big baddy gets buried in Egypt and then awakens in modern times (ala The Mummy). It assembles a bunch of mutants as henchmen in an attempt to destroy the non-mutant world (ala X-Men). Bad guys assemble here, good guys assemble there, and then they fight.

Some of the good guys have some backstory that nearly works. Nearly. They give a good attempt to underscore how mutants try to live normal lives but always end up getting tormented cruelly. Unfortunately, Magneto's excuse for joining the bad guys is that his family is killed - yet again - but making a Holocaust survivor become, in turn, genocidal, is a mistake (come to think of it, that was one of the problems with X2, also). The other mutants are so much stronger than normal humans that you would think they would be worshiped or imprisoned, not harassed by morons. Quicksilver and Cyclops nearly had backstories, but possibly these were cut. Quicksilver is given a nifty scene like the one he had in Days of Future Past; it's fun, but it's the same fun we had in that movie.

The monstrously bad decision is to have Magento rip down Auschwitz: it's the same kind of awful decision that basically wrecked the denouement of The Fault in Our Stars. You do not bring in The Holocaust for your entertainment, no matter how respectfully you think you're treating it: you're not treating it respectfully. It's the real, recent history and memorials of millions of starving naked men, women, and children burned, poisoned, and gassed to death or killed slowly of disease in a rotting torture hellhole that was enacted by the consent, indifference, or deafness of the world. You don't devolve that into a fictional story where your heroes face their personal pain of not getting everything that they want, or come to realize that it can all be better if we just love one another (or knock down a Holocaust memorial).

I nearly recovered from that idiocy and was ready to consider it yet another standard Marvel movie when we got to an ending that left me shouting at the screen.

Spoilers: First the ridiculous parts: How does Apocalypse learn anything from touching a TV set? It's just a 1980s TV set, not a DVD ROM with an archive of everything that was ever broadcast; he can't see what was broadcast 50 years ago on it, no matter what his powers. If Jean is in a cage where her powers are turned off, why don't the bad guys in the helicopter see her (since she can't block their minds)? Similarly, if the X-Men are in the cage where their powers are blocked, how does Professor X's telepathy reach them?

Magneto creates MASSIVE gravity waves around the world, enough to tear metal out of the buildings and bridges. I don't know much about planetary physics, but I'm pretty sure the entire world would have been destroyed by that, and pretty quickly. If the moon can cause tidal waves, he pretty much just drowned the world. What about all the airplanes and so on? What about the metal nuclear missile orbiting the Earth? Why are super-magnetic powers in movies so selective?

The movie shows Magneto only killing about several million people. And when it's over, he just walks away smiling and friends with everyone, and no one tries to bring him to justice. Wha? And why does everyone smile when Professor X returns that woman's memories to her after he tells her that he raped them out of her mind in the last movie? I would be pissed off, not grateful.

Now the boring parts: Apocalypse is entirely non-human, and his power is so destructive that there is no possible end to the movie that does not have him totally destroyed. That setup makes for a rather predictable ending. Yet, the end goes on for 40 minutes (or it felt like it). 40 minutes! I don't mind a movie with multiple finale scenes; Back to the Future had several, and they were all cool, because each one was the finale to a different problem. Same thing with Lord of the Rings. But this was the same scene, over and over, with five or six different finales. People throw things at him really quick and he expends energy disintegrating the things as fast as possible. First two guys throw everything they have at Apocalypse. He's losing, he's winning. Then a third guy. He's losing, he's winning. Then another guy. He's losing, he's winning. Then oh my god, slow motion?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Please just end this already. NOTHING is HAPPENING. Here are a few shots of his henchmen fighting some other good guys ... but those fights are boring. And that guy who's about to crash and die in the airplane: can't he FLY?? And oh look, back to Apocalypse and another guy in slow motion. Just end this already!!! I don't care about any of the characters, anyway. Ugh. 40 minutes of this.

Clouds of Sils Maria: This is a fascinating movie in a few acts. It's major theme is an older actress struggling to come to terms with her age vs the parts she has to play. That's not an entirely new theme, but it is incredibly well done here.

The main focus is on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a forty year old actress who launched her career twenty years ago playing a twenty year old seductress of a forty year old woman, and her twenty year old assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who plays girl Friday to Maria nearly 24/7. The movie starts out with Val managing Maria's calls, Maria's social life, and Maria herself. Maria reluctantly accepts the part of the forty year old woman in a re-staging of the same play that made her famous. She spends the bulk of the movie running lines with Val, determined not to understand the motivations of the part or the talent of the young twenty year old Hollywood actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will be playing Maria's original role. Val spends that time having her own vocal ideas about the role, the young actress, and Maria's stubbornness, while stealing a few precious hours here and there to live her own life.

Maria and Val run dialog in ways that bleed into their real life conversations; the roles begin to affect real life. More interestingly, the real life roles that both Juliette and Stewart have played (outside of this movie) also seem to creep into the conversations, making it surreal; that had to have been intentional.

Both characters are complex and involving. Juliette is one of my favorite actresses, and Kristen is an actress who I always thought could be. Here she does a fantastic job, narrowly stealing the movie from Juliette (despite Juliette being the "main" character and being featured more prominently on the movie poster); even when Val isn't on screen, her absence is palpable. Chloe doesn't have much to do, but she does it effectively. The script is not predictable.

Probably the best thing about the movie, other than the fine actors and the odd and engaging script is the interesting cinematography: the director fades out or tracks scenes at unpredictable times and in unpredictable movements. The scenery is beautiful, but that's only part of it. The metaphor of the movie - the snake-like clouds that surround the remote house where most of the action takes place - is rather obtuse, but here goes: these cloud formations have rolled in since time immemorial. Like people, they follow a natural course. They form and perform like a thing of beauty, but then they fade and dissipate. They can't go back in time. The next day brings new clouds.

This is not a perfect movie, or a movie for everyone. It goes places that will leave you wondering what just happened, it has a few uneven spots, and it doesn't wrap up neatly. It's a rare glimpse into the life of actors and their assistants, and a fine, thoughtful movie.

Alice Through the Looking Glass: The first movie came out in 2010, but I didn't get around to seeing it until last week, since it had mixed reviews and I'm not a fan of Tim Burton's: it was fantastic. It was quirky, unpredictable, charming, wondrous, and fantastical. It didn't talk down to you and it was sweet and winning. (Its one major misstep was telegraphing that Alice was going to fight the jabberwock right from when Alice enters Underland, which made the major tension of "O! Who will fight this jabberwock for us?" a rather uninteresting one.)

This movie is just a disaster. Instead of all the unpredictability and charm, we get a story so bad that it is hard to see how this could have gotten out of development. Something uninteresting but annoying is happening in the real world to Alice (who is a sea captain of her father's ship), but she falls into the proverbial mirror. There, the Mad Hatter is sad because he thinks his family is alive, but no one believes him. Alice steals a doodad that destabilizes the entire world in order to go back in time to change the past or at least learn what happened, in order to make the Mad Hatter happy again. Really? That's your premise? Make the Mad Hatter happy again?

All of the characters you knew and loved in the old move are back in this movie without a single interesting thing to say. They wander around bumping into each other, falling down, and wringing their hands hoping that Alice will save them. The premise - that Alice will destabilize the world so that the Hatter will smile again - is so dumb, that it makes Alice the bad guy in the movie. She is chased by Time who wants the doodad back to prevent the universe from dying, and who can blame him? But that's not the big problem - the big problem is that the movie gracelessly wanders from place to place with Alice doing nothing on her foolish quest, while people bump into each other narrating what's happening on the screen ("O, Alice has to get back in time or we will all die!" "O! The clock is falling apart! I will now run around in circles and then fall over!") and that's that. Like the X-Men movie, the end is a foregone conclusion and it takes wayyyyy too much screen time to do it already.

Finding Dory: Honestly I wanted to dislike this, but I couldn't. Interspersed with flashbacks to when Dory was little, Dory sets off to find her parents with the help of Marvin and Nemo and some other helpful do-gooders, including a way too patient camouflaging octopus. All of the obstacles are environmental; they head to the coast and navigate a marine life institute to find her parents, assuming they are still there.

It's a decently funny movie; it's more intense than Finding Nemo, Ellen Degeneris gives a fantastic, heart-rending performance as Dory, and everyone else is fine. I thought perhaps that it made no sense for Dory to believe that her parents were still alive a year after the events of Finding Nemo, but it turns out that blue tangs live 10-20 years, so I guess that's okay. It was kind of ridiculous that these fish know how to find a marine institute (and what a marine institute is), understand what signs, pipes, and other human inventions are, and can even read maps, let alone read English, but whatever. The story has too many coincidences and exactly the Right Thing in the Right Place too often (those fish should be dead twenty times over), but the sequences were well crafted, so I was amused by them most of the time. It has a cool sequence that parodies a scene from Alien, which almost went over my head but then I got it.

I have one major problem with the movie: the use and misuse of memory loss as the driving plot device. Disney ignores the basic idea of what chronic illness is and presents the message: if you try hard enough you can do anything, including wish your illness away (or lessen it's effect). Well smack my hind with a melon rind and call me Nancy. Is that really the message we want to give kids with diabetes or who have no legs? A person with chronic memory short term memory loss from birth isn't going to start remembering things from her childhood just because she "tries harder" and it will move the plot forward.

Of course, this movie could not have any plot if Dory didn't remember things; how would she commit to her quest? Or remember who her friends are? Or that she has parents? But then the movie shouldn't have given her the severe prenatal condition in the first place. Watch 50 First Dates, a movie whose plot is about short term memory loss and one whose plot doesn't require the victim to regain her memory in order to work (and the only good Adam Sandler movie). This movie even makes the mistake a second time, with a shark who has lost his echolocation; the shark tried and tried, but couldn't regain it. Yet, just when the movie needs him to, he "tries harder" and wham. He has his echolocation back. And it happens yet again in the ending.

If you can ignore the above, and you don't mind a sequel that is really just another take on the first movie, it's enjoyable.

Love and Friendship: Whit Stillman crossed with Jane Austen. This movie is actually based on the novella Lady Susan, which is not one of her six major novels. In this movie, Lady Susan tries to handle her deceased husband's family and she tries to get her daughter married off and perhaps herself, as well. Susan secretly feels superior to everyone, including her daughter, but excepting one close American friend, so she manipulates everyone around her. Some of them fall for her manipulations and some see right through her. The movie is a comedy, with some hilariously stupid people, and the kind of personalities that generally populate Stillman movies.

In particular, Susan prattles endlessly with great authority about what other people are feeling and thinking and how she is in complete control, can easily manage them, and does so for their own good, which is the familiar character trait of certain main characters in Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress, or any movie featuring Greta Gerwig. Naturally, these self-deceiving characters must always come fact to face with some kind of thwarting of their plans and some kind of self-realization. In this movie, less of this eventually happens than in the other above-mentioned movies.

It was hard to follow the first third of the movie, and the loud classical music cues were often too prominent. Susan is certainly not sympathetic, but neither is she thoroughly dislikeable, which is good, because this allows everything to turn out okay. In contrast, Emma from the eponymous book/movie suffered from the desire to perform the same kind of manipulations and lack of self-awareness, but was thoroughly likeable and quite serious about doing good in the world; the other characters around Emma were good characters, drawn out fully. Emma provided classic scenes, lovely dialog, and excellent lessons. This movie/book has some partially drawn characters, average scenes, some nice quotes and put-downs, and covers much of the same ground already covered by Emma. So it's not really a necessary movie. Watchable.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What I've been up to

I am down to 12 sections left unwritten out of about 300 in my book on games. Every time I sit down to write a section, I end up writing 3: the one I was going to write and 2 more that I forgot to add.

Mind you, it's just the first draft. the whole thing will have to be rewritten, expanded, reorganized, edited, and prettied up after that. I would love to share with you some of the juicy parts, but it will have to wait. In the meantime, I've had a busy few weeks ...

Thu 9: Bar Mitzvah 1 - I went to the bar mitzvah of the son of some good friends. It was out in the woods, overlooking Ein Kerem, as the afternoon turned into evening. The kids spent some time building a wall (park restoration). The other guests were all people I didn't know since we don't have overlapping friends; but they are very good friends. I posted pictures on Facebook.

Fri 10: I had friends over for shabbat dinner, including three friends from Raanana, Nadine, and another family from Jerusalem. I gave a dvar torah.

Sat 11: After shabbat was Shavuot; I ate dinner at some other friends, at which I gave the same dvar torah. Then I went to a "sermon slam" at a friend's apt, which is like a poetry slam, except everyone brings poems related to a religious theme (revelation, in honor of Shavuot). In this case, we didn't have the "slam"; we just read our poems and talked. I invited friends, and they invited friends, and we were a whole contingent that descended on my friend's apt. She had a few other mutual friends over, one of whom was my ex Rachel; both of us were warned beforehand that the other would be there, so it was fine. It's to be expected, as we were together once for reasons, one of which was that we both love bible and poetry and another of which was that we sometimes like the same kinds of people.

Sun 12: Our synagogue had a pot luck lunch. My friends from Fri and Sat nights both asked me to give the same dvar torah, again, to the synagogue, even though I told them that I was planning to give it on the synagogue's shabbaton the next weekend. So I gave it again.

Mon 13: Wedding 1 - I went to the second marriage of a friend from Raanana. The bride and groom each have four children under 10 years old. It was "small", around 225 people I guess. The guests included former acquaintances and friends from Raanana. I posted pictures on Facebook.

Tue 14: Wedding 2 - I went to the wedding of the daughter of my second cousin in a haredi neighborhood in central Israel. It was a quick ceremony, hard to see because the chuppah was crowded with photographers. The guests included my immediate family, my aunt and uncle, and some cousins. I posted pictures on Facebook.

Wed 15: Wedding 3 - I went to the wedding of the son of Jerusalem friends; this one was closer, in Ein Yael, only 2 minutes from my work. It was outside in the woods, which is always the best way to have a celebration. The bride was half Indian/half Moroccan; the groom was Ashkenazi, but the ceremony was a mix of many customs. The guests included many of my friends from my synagogue. I posted pictures om Facebook.

Fri 17: Synagogue shabbaton - We stayed at the field school in Achziv, on the beach, nearly at the top of Israel's coast. Very pretty if you like the sea (it was nice, although I prefer woods and freshwater streams). And I gave the dvar torah again. Amazingly half of the attendees hadn't already heard it, although for some of them it was the third time.

Sun 19: Writing in a cafe at First Station, having bought a book at one of the stands selling books in celebration of Israel Book Week.


Coming up Wed: Tal arrives back in Israel (she is studying abroad for a semester) for a weekend visit.

Coming up Friday: Wedding 4 - my (ex)step daughter Ariella is getting married.

Next week  Poetry event 2 and Wedding 5, and a new tenant moves into one of my spare bedrooms. The following week Bar Mitzvah 2. It's hectic, but it's a good hectic.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Movie Reviews: Captain America: Civil War, Straight Outta Compton, Noah, Anomalisa, The Prophet

Captain America: Civil War: Another Marvel MCU movie. Yippee.

Iron Man (1) is the only MCU movie that I think stands as an actual good movie. The Toby MacGuire Spiderman movies were also good movies, but these apparently don't count as MCU movies. (Spiderman 1 and 2 were very good movies; Spiderman 3 was a good but rather silly movie: a good movie ruined with too much "Jar Jar Binks". I don't consider any of the other MCU movies to be "good"; they are entertaining, sometimes fun or funny, but their stories are puerile, characters are one-dimensional, the conflicts have no tension (since no one ever dies, and frankly we wouldn't really care if they did), and they engage nothing but a love of cinematic special effects.) Still, I enjoyed The Avengers, I kind of enjoyed The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and kind of, sort of enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy.

Add this one to the list of MCU movies that I kind of enjoyed. The central conflict is a rehash of the plot of 2000's X-Men and this year's Batman vs Superman (which just goes to show you how empty of ideas these movies are. By the way, I also consider X-Men to be a good movie, and I kind of enjoyed X2, X-Men Last Stand, and X-Men First Class, and X-Men Days of Future Past). The plot of these three movies is:

Government(s) wants to register people with special abilities. Those who have them take sides as to whether they wish to comply with the registration. Some kind of misinformation gets cooked up, people with more muscle than brains start fighting each other, but they try to avoid actually hurting each other. The setup is always far-fetched and highly unlikely. In the end, they have to combine to fight something even bigger, typically someone who was behind pushing the registration act to begin with (which was a front for some nefarious purpose).

They never really explore the actual implementation of this idea in any of these movies. Apparently, America registering superheroes is more of a theoretical problem than an actual one. What would happen if it was China or Iran that wanted to have a say about these guys? How would this impact the Israel-Palestinian conflict, for instance?

Anyhoo, this movie rises a little above the fray in that it doesn't start from a blank slate (as if the other superheroes don't exist) or end up all back where it starts, which is the case for most of the other MCU movies. So something happens. Just not enough to really matter.

I was unimpressed with yet another Spidey backstory. I was unimpressed with Black Panther; in fact, his existence diminished Captain America's specialness. Bucky seems like he could have something interesting to provide, but his screen time is wasted in action sequences.

Still, the movie is upbeat and friendly looking, unlike the recent Batman vs Superman. It remains comic. It moves from sequence to sequence without feeling like it is dragging. The acting within its limited scope is fine, and the directing and production are top notch, and usual. Go team.

Straight Outta Compton: This is perhaps the best movie of 2015, bearing in mind that a) I only watched about twenty movies from 2015 (I haven't seen The Revenant or Room), and b) I actually enjoyed some of those movies more (The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, Ex Machina, Inside Out, and The Age of Adeline). That it was only nominated for one Academy Award is a crime.

It is roughly based on true material and has no specific story arc. It follows the creation, disbandment, and near recreation of N.W.A., who are essentially the co-creators of gangsta rap or reality rap: rap music that doesn't just play around, but speaks poems of gang bravado as well as the pain, frustration, and anger about the treatment of blacks at the hands of whites. These latter themes are only now recognized in the wider community, following the ongoing publicity of apparently indefensible beatings and killings of unarmed or unhostile black residents in major American cities.

The story revolves primarily around Easy-E - it's really his story - Ice Cube, and Jerry Heller (the manager). The characters of the other band members are less defined, although Suge Kinght and Dr Dre play important roles. The acting is superb and so is the direction. Jerry the Jewish manager has a complex story arc: he is both the person who recognizes their talents, promotes and positions them for success, and defends them as best as he is able against irrational police harassment, as well as the person who ultimately drives them apart by favoring Easy over the other members (and apparently embezzling some of their money; the real Jerry is suing the movie for defamation of character, so it's hard to know exactly how much of this is true). Easy E and Ice Cube transform in believable ways.

It's entirely possible that you will hate the music and still like the movie. You may also hate the unabashed explicit language of the songs. Their lyrics are horribly misogynistic and occasionally antisemitic. Now, there is a difference between casual, cultural antisemitism and deep personal antisemitism. Casual and cultural antisemitism can be unlearned when its purveyor actually meets and listens to a Jewish person. He or she can unlearn bad habits and learn to be respectful. Deep personal antisemites never learn; they interpret every Jew they meet and every event that happens in the light of their antisemitism. It either reinforces their narrative or they see it either as an aberration or a conspiracy. I would like to think that the antisemitism of N.W.A. was casual and cultural - which is what the members have said, apparently - although that doesn't make me feel much better about it.


The sexism appears to have been pretty deep, however. (Who are the girls that show up at these parties and take off their tops and clothes? What are they hoping to achieve in life? Money and drugs?) The movie doesn't help with this. Of the two women who have any major roles in the movie (and these are not very major), one is a mother who forces her kid to get a job and the other is a girlfriend who has a single moment in the movie where she uncovers Jerry's shady accounting practises.

You may also find something oddly unsettling about the message: some of these guys really WERE gang members, dealing cocaine, carrying unlicensed firearms, and occasionally killing or threatening innocent people. The police's methods were highly ineffective, they were unnecessarily brutal and corrupt, and they harassed many innocent people, and maybe they harassed these guys for no reason on many occasions, but you can't exactly claim that you're innocent victims when you are often and demonstrably not. In one song you talk about being the biggest and most violent gang member who will blow away innocent people just for fun, and in another you complain about being harassed by the police for just being black. Well ...

Noah: This is a story that is not actually the story of Noah from the bible. It uses the semiotics of the story to tell another, parallel myth. Which is okay by me, but bothered my friend Bill a lot.

In this version, Noah wanders about trying to find safety for his family. He has some kind of vision to build the ark because the world will be destroyed; this vision is confirmed by Noah's grandfather Methusellah. He is able to built the ark because of a magically grown forest, magical troops of animals that make their way onto the ark and then fall asleep, the magical refidim - fallen angels that look a lot like treants from Lord of the Rings, and the lack of coordination to stop him by the rest of humanity, apparently led by Tubal Cain (in the bible, he is the son of Cain).

The movie introduces a number of conflicts to the story, apparently out of thin air: Shem finds an abandoned girl to marry named Ila - Emma Watson (I kept wondering how Hermione ended up on the ark, and then I remembered that she might have misused the time turner). However, she is barren until Methusella magically heals her, for some reason. Noah's other sons, Ham and Japhet, don't have wives, and Noah is determined for them not to have any. Why? Because the extent of his communication with God was just enough to know he has to build an ark and that humanity is going to be wiped out. He then makes up the idea that God intends to wipe out ALL of humanity, including his line and the line of his children; he thinks this whole ark thing is so that there will be a witness to the destruction? Who then dies out and has no one to tell about it? Huh?

And then, when Ila mysteriously gets pregnant, Noah decides to kill the baby if it is a girl to enforce his non-divine interpretation (Isn't her miraculous pregnancy a sign of something? And how would killing her baby boy stop her from getting pregnant again?). His wife tells him that if he does this she will abandon him. And Ila gives birth to two twin girls (which should also be a sign, since Noah has two unmarried boys). Noah tries to fulfill his mission of killing the babies. Does he succeed?

Meanwhile, Ham, who is upset that he couldn't bring his own girlfriend onto the ark, lets Tubal-Cain onto the ark and hides him for many days until Tubal-Cain is ready to kill Noah with Ham's assistance. Tubal-Cain is convinced that the ark is humanity's means of survival, not just a window to its destruction, and that Noah is misguided. Which makes sense. Will Tubal-Cain and Ham kill Noah?

It's a big spectacle movie, and I've left out the resolutions of these conflicts. Frankly, I'm not sure about the accuracy of the moralities displayed by the main characters. Did motherhood really work like that back then? Did wives issue ultimatums to their husbands about the possible killing of their grandchildren, especially after keeping silent about hundreds of thousands of other deaths? Where did they get all of that Crusader-looking armor and those British accents? Why is Noah more like a modern false prophet who makes up his prophecies rather than a real prophet?

The movie isn't bad, and it's rather odd - it's certainly not the bible story. It has a few things to say, but the spectacle and oddness drown out these messages in a mix of adventure, conflict, and confusion.

Anomalisa: This is a stop-motion animated movie for adults: it's sad and depressing, par for the course for a Charlie Kaufman film.

The main character is a male author traveling to a hotel to talk about one his books about sales or motivation or something. He has Fregoli delusion: everyone sounds like the same person to him. Small girls and grown men all have the same voice, even his ex-wife. To bang this home, the animation is perfectly realistic, except that everyone's face looks like a mask.

Until he finally hears the voice of a woman who sounds like a woman. There doesn't seem to be anything special about her, but it's an exciting change that lasts until ...

Well, really not much happens in the film, which takes place over the course of a single night and the next day. It's surreal and well developed, and they probably saved a bundle on the voice acting talents since they only needed three actors. It's also grim and depressing, the way small town films about people who aren't going anywhere tend to be.

It makes a great film for an student of films and animation. It makes an interesting exploration of symbolism for those who can tolerate grim films about sad people. It's not a date movie.

The Prophet: This is a cartoon story that incorporates some of the text of The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran's famous and lovely series of poems (read it online here) about love, children, work, death, and so on. Some of the book is beautiful, some is rather obscure and unspecific, which is to be expected from a work whose author called it "The Prophet".

The movie has an added plot that is not in the book: A young woman who lost her husband two years ago, and her daughter, visit The Prophet who is under house arrest for the last seven years. The girl hasn't spoke since her father died; she is a known troublemaker and thief in the small village, but she is also good-hearted and curious. The guard at the house appears to be in love with the woman. On the day of the movie, The Prophet is "freed" on condition that he immediately board a boat and leave for his country. On the way to the dock, he stops and recites several portions of the titular book to the crowds. At the dock, he is told that he can board the ship only if he signs a paper disavowing all that he has said and written; if he doesn't he will be killed the next morning.

The recited portions of the book are accompanied by beautiful animations by different artists in varying styles. Some of the more beautiful animations didn't work for me: they were too pat; some of the lesser ones, such as a dancing couple, were quite moving. Some of the poems are simply recited (by Liam Neeson, who is a fantastic voice actor). Some of them are sung, and these didn't work at all, since they cut out most of the words of the poem, it's hard to understand the words, and the melodies are unremarkable. The one exception to this was the song On Love, sung by Lisa Hannigan and Glen Hansard, beautifully sung with clearly enunciated words.

The subject matter of the book, the recitations, and the apparent death sentence would have made this a perfect film if it had been aimed solely for adults. But some of the in-between scenes of the walk to town are done in the silly, slapstick method prevalent in modern cartoons aimed at young children, which makes the entirely somewhat disconcerting. Is this for kids or for adults? Kids are going to be bored by the poetry. Adults don't need the slapstick.

Overall, it's rather prettily done, but not enough. Only a small part of the book is brought into the movie. Not enough to really make it into an epic work. The story of the girl and the mother fits thematically and adds something, but it doesn't add enough or go anywhere. The movie is a nice introduction to the topics and the ideas of the book. It makes a nice date movie. Better to just read the book.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Necessary Invention: Dual Call Waiting/Voice Mail

Has anyone ever heard: "If this is an emergency, press 1 to go to call waiting. Otherwise, leave a message at the beep"?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Movie Reviews: Zootopia, Batman v Superman, The Jungle Book, The Tale of Princess Kayuga, 20 Feet From Stardom

Zootopia: A funny and interesting addition to the Disney canon. I think I enjoyed it more because I literally knew nothing about the movie before seeing it, other than its name, promotional poster, and that it was well received by both critics and the IMDB public.

The story takes place in a world where a) everyone is an anthropomorphic hoofed, rodent, or jungle mammal: no simians or marsupials (I may have missed one); b) animals once had an uncivilized past, where predators preyed on prey, but now animals are civilized: they wear clothes, talk politely, and have human-like jobs, if their physique is suited to it. The city Zootopia is divided into climatological and size-scaled zones. Somehow this city has a single police force, made up of large, imposing prey animals with a few predators mixed in. 90% of the population is prey; 10% are predators.

The story is about a rabbit from the country who decides to be on the Zootopia police force, and somehow manages to get onto it. The large imposing captain assigns her to traffic duty, since he doesn't think a rabbit can do much actual police work. She runs into a fox who is a con artist, and together they end up looking for a missing mammal and a mysterious case of one or more predators that may have relapsed back to their vicious animal state. It's essentially a buddy cop/detective story.

Other than its humor, the movie's major goal is to teach political correctness. It features a strong and brave female protagonist without any hint of a love angle, which is a breath of fresh air for a children's cartoon. The fox is captivating, too; he's not really a criminal, he's just a con artist, buying low and selling high. Like all modern Disney movies, the visuals are spectacular. The story is coherent and entertaining. One scene with sloths working at the DMV (M = mammalian) is particularly funny. There are several denouements. There are references to other Disney movies and other movies in general (The Godfather features prominently), and one rather odd scene in a mammal "nudist" colony where the animals don't wear clothes. The female protagonist is shocked at the nudity, but when the animals bend over or spread their legs there is just a blank expanse of flat monochromatic surface.

The movie has heavy-handed tolerance, anti-stereotyping, and anti-racism messages: don't jump to conclusions about animals based on their type or history. I counted at least half a dozen cellophane-veiled translations of PC messages about stereotyping, cultural self-definition, appropriation, racial insensitivity, and so on, all within the first few minutes of bunny arriving in the city and all using the same language you will find in numerous YouTube videos about blacks, Muslims, and so on (at least it's a nice break from the "be brave" and "family/love matters" that pretty much dominates every other Disney movie). A not very deep analysis of the actual messages of the movie are more muddled. I can't discuss it without giving away the plot. but some of the PC messages seem to contradict each other and sometimes I wasn't sure if they were saying what they thought they were saying, since what they were actually saying didn't make much sense given the biology or situation on screen. Nevertheless, the context was always clear.

No reason not to bring everyone to see it: it has some good messages and it might make for some interesting discussion afterwards.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: You've probably already heard everything you need to know about this movie. Batman is upset about the collateral damage caused by Superman in his battle to save the world from Zod (in the previous Superman movie). He thinks that Superman is too powerful and too reckless. Meanwhile, Superman thinks that Batman is too much of a vigilante and not following the rule of law. Lex Luthor arranges for them to fight, for some reason, and then sics a Big Bad Boss on both of them. In this movie, Superman and Lois Lane are lovers, which, if you read Man of Steel, Women of Kleenex, you would know is impossible.

I didn't watch the previous Superman, since it looked unrelentingly grim. This movie is also unrelentingly grim, and the setup is unbelievable, so there is little to the movie other than the fights. Superman and Batman are both powerful and acting outside the law. It is ridiculous for everyone to hate on Superman when he obviously saved the world. Unlike the superior Batman trilogy, the moral quandary in the movie (whether absolute power corrupts absolutely) is cursorily raised but not really dealt with.

Plus, you know that no one important is going to get hurt, or if one does, he/she is just going to come back to life again, just like they do in the Marvel movies, so the fight is without tension, a senseless spectacle of booms and crashes. Lex Luthor is ok when he is not overly annoying, but it's hard to see why Superman doesn't put him on ice very early on. Wonder Woman is the best part of the movie, catalyzing the only humorous and/or less grim verbal exchanges, but she has little on screen presence; if she was the main protagonist, the movie would have been much, much better (she has her own movie coming soon). Amy Adams is forgettable as Lois Lane. Holly Hunter is good as a politician, but also on screen for too little time.

Watch it if you like that kind of thing. It won't be on my replay list.

The Jungle Book (2016): I fail to understand the need for reboots and reworkings that we are seeing nowadays. While this movie is ok, it is entirely unnecessary, just like last year's unnecessary new version of Cinderella. Still, it's very well executed, and some of the story is original. Neel Sethi as Mowgli is the only human on screen, and he is on screen the entire movie. Since he likely had to act the entire movie in front of a green screen, his performance is most impressive.

They reuse lines and the occasional snippet of songs from the original movie. I suppose if you never saw the original, the line reuse won't be noticeable. But the two songs taken from the first movie are halfhearted - only a verse or two without the accompanying music, and their presence makes no sense in context, given the seriousness of the movie.

The story is a combination of the original movie and the original book, filling in many of the grimmer aspects of the story. Mowgli is a human child who somehow has survived in the wild, raised by wolves and a panther. He wanders around with a bright red cloth around his waist (a) why is is still bright red? b) wouldn't it attract attention from predators? c) why does he feel the need to wear this when it doesn't protect his body from the elements?). There is little fun to be had; the exception is Bill Murray's Baloo, and his scenes are out of place given the rest of the story. Something is off with the timing of his lines. I blame either the director or the editor. Shere Khan is nasty but oddly not as frightening as the cartoon one in the original. The final battle is insane and doesn't make sense, at least to me. Mowgli has skills with axes, cutting, and ropes that even a trained boy scout would find difficult, and it's impossible to believe that he would have learned these living with the wolves.

Pass.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya: It's always good to step away from Disney once in a while to see what else is possible in the world of animation. Disney creates ever-more beautiful and realistic animation, but always in the same way; like a single art movement, without variance. There is no artistic difference between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Zootopia; they're just on a spectrum of drawing talent. (There are a few exceptions to this: Fantasia and the original 101 Dalmatians had some distinctive animated styling.) Disney's stories, on the other hand, while they are getting better, are still mostly insipid. The best you can say is that some are touching and some are very funny. The messages are always simplistic and boring: be brave. Be true to yourself. Family is important. Don't be judgemental. La la la.

Kaguya is a stunning piece of art. Every frame is a absolutely gorgeous: pause is at any moment and you could frame it. Looks, of course, are not enough (c.f. Song of the Sea). The story is also lovely and mythical, and feels ancient: a peasant finds a miniature girl and a pile of gold when he cuts into a bamboo tree. He raises the girl and takes her to live in the city as a princess using the gold. Various suitors compete for her hand, while she pines for the ordinary life of her childhood. There is much more to the story than that, but it is complex, and yet simple enough to understand on many levels.

Admittedly, the story is sometimes slower than the frenetic pacing of a Disney movie, and may test the patience of modern children. Set in an ancient Japan, the young peasant children spend a lot of time roaming around naked (anatomically correct, although tastefully presented), which is also something you won't see in a Disney movie. I wasn't thrilled with the ending, but I can't really complain about it, as it suits the story well enough.

20 Feet From Stardom: The idea of hearing about the backup singers of famous singers is a good one. This movie is a documentary with interviews of both the famous singers and their backups, with a bit of some of their backgrounds. The cinematography is fine, and the movie is filled with good music clips, but it's nothing more than a shallow praise of a few of these singers, particularly black backup women singers.

It seems like there were a whole lot of interesting stories that could have been told but weren't. They very briefly mention that backup singers were all white until so and so came along, so there might be something interesting to say about racial barriers and so on, but the movie doesn't go there. They briefly mention that some early records with a backup singer's vocals were incorrectly attributed to the famous singers instead, so there might be a story there, too, but other than a shake of the head, the movie doesn't go there either. The movie didn't cover how they became backup singers (except cursorily), how much they are paid, what their relationship with the famous singers or with each other are like, or any other interesting questions. After 2/3 of the movie basically saying nice things about some women and going nowhere at all, I gave up.

Friday, April 01, 2016

UX vs Game Design

Speaking of cloud computing (see my previous, sponsored post), I will be celebrating my birthday on Sunday by attending an all-day UX conference at UX Salon in Tel Aviv, including evening cocktails on the rooftop of Wix at Tel Aviv harbor. Ok, that's not exactly cloud computing, but my company Ex Libris is sending me, and their platforms are heavily based on cloud computing.

Learning UX is parallel to, and integrated with, being a better technical writer, as I wrote in my presentation at MegaComm.

I feel that game design and gamification are opposites but parallels to UX design: game designers want you to spend more time with the product because they want you to find it entertaining or recreational, while UX designers and technical writers want you to spend less time with the product because they know that you're using the product in order to accomplish something else. A game should be involving and engaging; figuring out how to run the game or use the controller should not be, unless that's part of the entertainment.

Both of them carefully consider presentation and how to create a better user experience. I feel, after having been a game designer and having learned gamification, and now working for many years as a technical writer and starting to learn UX, that I am filling in my knowledge on both sides of the same coin.


Understanding Cloud Based Virtual Desktops

The following is a sponsored post:

Cloud based virtual desktops combine two powerful trends in technology – virtualization and Cloud computing. Virtualization or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) enables more efficient use of the resources of a physical machine such as a desktop or server. Similarly, cloud computing results in more efficient use of network infrastructure, servers, and expert resources; while improving accessibility, reliability, and security. Combining the two, a virtual desktop behaves like a regular windows based desktop, but lives on a server located in the Cloud and is accessible from all kinds of devices.

Among the different virtual desktop and application platforms available today, Microsoft VDIs are the favorites; based on Hyper V, these VDIs need Remote Desktop Services server role in Windows Server 2012. The Microsoft VDI platform uses Remote Desktop Gateways to support individual user PCs, individual and pooled virtual desktops, session-locked desktops as well as RemoteApp software. Across devices that run on Windows or Windows RT, Mac OS X, iOS, and Android, a Cloud Desktop is able to provide a personalized yet consistent user experience.

As for the end-users of virtual desktops, they can use any workstation/device with internet connectivity such as PCs, laptops, netbooks, tablets, slates, or even smartphones to access the VM over the internet – they will go through a remote display protocol which makes the virtual desktop get rendered locally. Among several other inherent benefits, virtual desktops heavily bring down the support as well as management costs. This is made possible by virtue of centralized and simplified administrative tasks; more significantly, the budgets needed to maintain and keep the individual PCs up to date is also done away with – Microsoft VDIs can even work well with thin clients or dumb terminals.

In term of technical administration, a quick rollout of Microsoft virtual desktop can be automated by configuring server roles using the Deployment Wizard. Direct/network attached or clustered/storage area network route can be used by the administrators for storing and accessing the VMs. A single console for management helps in centrally managing the server roles, the users, and the VMs as well. A Microsoft VDI implementation involves two licenses – for the virtual desktop infrastructure connection and for access to the virtual Windows Client OS. In addition, those using RDS for accessing the infrastructure would also need to procure a license for RDS client access, which would be calculated on the basis of each device or user. Users that are under the Windows Client Software Assurance (SA) will not incur any additional charges for VDI, while those who do not hold SAs will have to pay Microsoft for each device’s license through Windows Virtual Desktop Access on a per year, per device model.

Tier -1 Microsoft Cloud Solution Providers like Apps4Rent simplify this whole process and offer packaged plans for Microsoft VDIs (see https://www.clouddesktoponline.com) that are made available and go live in a matter of minutes. The latest Microsoft VDIs from Apps4Rent even come with the option of Office 365 ProPlus pre-installed, making them a truly comprehensive cloud desktop solution. Users can install, connect to and use all their custom/line-of-business applications from anywhere, exactly the same way they would on a regular PC. Besides, these Apps4Rent virtual desktops also come with 24 x 7 technical support that is available over phone, live chat, and email to help the end-users resolve their issues in the quickest possible time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Movie Reviews: Spotlight, Hail Caesar, Brooklyn, Mistress America, Carol

Spotlight: This is a nicely done, tight movie about the Boston Globe investigation that brought to national consciousness the abuse of children by Catholic priests and the systemic attempt by the church and their sympathizers to cover it up. The story is nearly all journalism, with small bits here and there about the lives of the reporters, but not much, really.

The natural comparison is to 1976's All the President's Men, which is unfair. The earlier movie was a far better movie, not only because it came first and had Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman at their peaks, but because the story of Watergate was a completely unknown story that had to be revealed from scratch. The various pieces of the priests' abuse stories were actually known - buried on pages 27 here and there in different papers. A lot of the journalism was just putting together these stories and finding a pattern.

But still, this is a very good movie. There are no re-enactments or fights or anything, just a journalism arc and the resistance from the community and the church. Well worth a watch.

Hail Caesar!: Behind the scenes at a Hollywood studio in the 1950s, a "fix it" man has to attend to problems as they occur. I went into this movie knowing it was a Coen Brothers movie, and resigned to that fact, but it turned out to be even more so. I'm not a fan; I liked Fargo a lot, tolerated The Big Lebowski, and couldn't be bothered to finish any of the others.

This movie is basically a comedy, except it's not funny. Well, it's almost funny in a few offbeat ways. It's a "send up" of 1950's behind the scenes Hollywood. The scenes of dancing sailors that seem kind of "gay" to us now are redone by "gay" actors, which they probably were, anyway. A giant statue that is supposed to look impressive doesn't look impressive when only its bottom half is extant. The only real communist is the only non-Marxist. A British director can't get a southern guy to speak a line without sounding like a southerner. It's supposed to be funny, but I stared and yawned the entire movie, waiting to see something that impressed me. There was no drama, no tension, and no real interest in how it would end.

I can only say that the movie is undoubtedly, frame for frame, exactly what the Coen brothers intended it to be, some kind of perfectly shot directorial exercise in self-indulgent narcissism that will appeal to Coen brothers fans and just about no one else.

Brooklyn: This is a mildly flawed but otherwise beautiful dreamy movie, also about the 1950s but worlds away from the above Hail Caesar! In this movie, a young Irish woman, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), leaves her small gossipy town, mother, sister, best friend, and not much else for work in a department store in Brooklyn, where she lives with and among many other Irish who have come to do the same. She starts off homesick, meets a lovely, uneducated, but hard working Italian man Tony (Emory Cohen (a Russian Jew?)), and then has to go back to Ireland to visit her mother where she rediscovers the beautiful country she forgot and finds opportunities that she hadn't had before she left. Will she stay in Ireland or go back to Brooklyn and her Italian fellow?

The filming is beautiful, as is the acting and directing. I loved the clothes, all of them, from the cable-knit sweaters and green overcoats of Ireland to the print dresses, skirts and bobby socks of Brooklyn. And those sunglasses! The central drama is not one we see in movies too often, and it was laid out pretty well: personal love vs love of country. The movie takes its time showing how the characters develop and, at least in Eilis' case, the development was satisfying. Actually the movie starts off fairly slowly, but I was captivated from the moment that Jessica Pare showed up, and enthralled from the moment the guy started singing at the church.

And now here be the problems and spoilers, but don't let it worry you: this kind of movie is seen for the experience of the acting and period costumes, and the heartfelt choices that have the heroine in tears for nearly half of her time on screen.

One problem is that Tony is perfect (other than being uneducated), a true gentleman so well-mannered and hard working that he is hard to believe. But the main problem is that Tony and Eilis marry before Eilis returns to Ireland. She hides this fact from everyone in Ireland. The cover up is supposed to add something to the tension, but it didn't make any sense to me. Yes, I believe that Tony would WANT to marry her before she returns for her "visit" to Ireland, in fear that she may not return. But the movie shouldn't have let it happen. If they had remained engaged, then there would have been believable tension: I could have believed that she might end the engagement to stay in Ireland. But once she was married - and she is Irish Catholic - there is no way that she is going to fall in love with an Irish guy and stay in Ireland. And it was pretty sucky of her to string an Irish guy along for five weeks and then suddenly say "Hey, I'm married! Sorry!" So the ending was forgone, although, given the screenplay, the process in getting there was as well done as could have been.

Mistress America: I'm beginning to think that Greta Gerwig isn't capable of playing more than one character: quirky and self-deluded. That's her here, to a T, just as she was in Frances Ha, basically playing the same character. She plays Brooke, and her foil is freshman in New York Tracy (Lola Kirke), her soon-to-be step-sister and straight girl to dazzle with her free-thinking, half-formed, enthusiastic and obviously doomed projects.

The group takes a trip to Connecticut to get money for a restaurant that will never happen, and they spend an hour or so in a house where odd people come in and out and motives are questioned in a Neil Simon-like manner. It is cute and diverting, in the way that Frances Ha was, and it's fun to watch, but ultimately doesn't add up to much.

Carol: This is a well-shot and acted movie about a lesbian relationship, also in the 1950's. The movie reminds us of the great difficulties that such relationships had to - and occasionally still have to - endure: sham marriages, secret encounters, charges of depravity, and threats of losing one's children.

The movie is based on an important book, one of the first to portray a lesbian relationship that might in fact end happily. Unfortunately, the story is dated; it is a somewhat insignificant story, unless one keeps in mind its significance. Our society is hardly shocked to hear about either lesbianism or the adverse reactions to it. You can try to forget that and enjoy the fine acting and filmography.