Friday, April 13, 2018

Movie Reviews: Ready Player One, Game Night, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, The Phantom Thread, Loving Vincent

Sorry guys; five disappointing movies ...

Ready Player One: From Steven Spielberg, this is a shallow, uninteresting movie is about a guy who plays in a virtual world looking for three Easter eggs, or "keys", so that he can gain ownership of the company that owns the virtual world. While he is at it, others are also looking for the keys, one of whom is a woman who joins him as love interest (along with some other guild members), as well as certain high-financed players backed by people who are willing to kill you in the real world if they discover who you are and that you are a competitor.

Within five minutes of the start of the movie I found myself not caring about the boy or anyone else, since there is zero character development. Astonishingly, the amount I cared continued to drop as the movie went along. I didn't think that was possible, since I already didn't care at all, but I managed to continue to care less and less. I eventually figured out that this was because the score was very good. It cued me into thinking, every once in a while, that something that I might care about was about to occur. Each time, however, this never happened.

The amusement of the movie is supposed to come from a) watching other people play video games, which is a colossal bore (unless the player knows how to fill the time with snarky commentary, as people often do on YouTube), and b) seeing hundreds of throwbacks to 1980s video games and fiction. Unlike recent media in which this worked, such as Stranger Things and even Super 8 to an extent, it did not work here. I didn't get 90% of the references, and, anyway, simply seeing references on screen is not what made those other media good; the other media had good stories. And, I guess, we are supposed to be amused by c) the suspense as to whether the main character will solve the rather obvious and uninteresting puzzles and ultimately find the keys and triumph. Duh.

There is not a scrap of emotion in the entire movie. Someone gets killed at one point, but it's someone who we were barely introduced to and who is not shown as having any emotional connection to the main character. I am really in shock at this. This is the emotionally manipulative director who brought us Jaws? E.T.? Shindler's List? Bridge of Spies?

Whatever. I guess, while it is a useless and dull movie, it is not particularly offensive, at least. Oh wait, it is: at the end of the movie the narrator tells us that we shouldn't be spending all of our time playing video games / in virtual reality, but should instead interact with each other more in the real world. Thanks for that very important message; never would have known that.

One more thing that irritated me: T.J. Miller played the exact same character in this movie that he played in Silicon Valley. I liked it in Silicon Valley, but it was pretty out of place here.

Game Night: This is ninety minutes of one joke, the kind of joke that is funny only if it comes once, unexpectedly, in the middle of an otherwise serious situation, but is not funny when it comes repeatedly for ninety minutes. This is a farcical remake of The Game (1997, Michael Douglas). Instead of a strange combination of gaslighting, pursuit, and trying to figure out what is going on as the terror mounts, in this movie the terror happens, but everyone keeps making stupid jokes. It's supposed to be funny, because they keep making light of things while bad things happen; that's the one and only joke, really. The acting, directing, and cinematography were fine. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are always cute.

The movie that did this well is The Man Who knew Too Little (1997, Bill Murray), which was a cute and silly movie. I was appalled enough at this movie to happily walk outside the movie theater twice to answer phone calls (I had it on vibrate, guys). If my friends hadn't been with me in the theater, I would have gone home and not gone back in to the theater to finish the movie. In the movie's defense, my friends liked it. They said that they like to see a mindless, silly movie once in a while (I think that's a slight directed at me and my movie choices).

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri: This is a well-acted, grim piece of midwest Americana. Mildred's (Fances McDermott) daughter was raped and murdered several months ago, but she hasn't heard anything from the police who are busy (according to her) chasing and shooting blacks who aren't really doing anything. So she puts up some billboards that pointedly call out the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) in a low-trafficked area. What makes it interesting is that a) she is actually friends with the chief of police, b) the chief is dying of cancer and should really not be at work, and c) the rest of the police dept doesn't take kindly to this, especially one lunatic racist violent hotheaded police creep. Things come to a boil, especially after the police chief shoots himself.

This movie is relentlessly depressing, representing a lot of the worst aspects of American prejudice, violence, despair, and hatred. Just about nobody supports Midred, not even her son. Interestingly, the lunatic police guy actually makes a kind of (unbelievable) change around two thirds into the movie. This should have given us a bit of hope. However, the movie ends just as bleakly and miserably as it started.

Other than being relentlessly depressing, what actually ruins the movie for me are the multiple acts of outrageous criminal behavior performed by multiple people on multiple occasions, some of it incredibly brutal and most of it performed in sight of multiple witnesses. These acts are done and never have repercussions. And I'm not saying that the bad guys weasel their way out of repercussions, I'm saying that the movie doesn't seem to believe that any reactions by the witnesses or police is expected. What the hell? Is this a video game? While I expect to sometimes find injustice in the system, the system still exists; treating violence like it's just a video game broke the reality of the movie for me.

The movie has compelling performances and some good ideas, but it's ultimately not realistic enough to recommend.

The Phantom Thread: Daniel Day Lewis gives another astounding performance as Reynolds, a dressmaker / bachelor / bully and all around a**hole in 1950s London. He is joined by other great performances by Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, and everyone else in this beautifully shot and artfully scripted period piece about a dressmaker who obsessively creates beautiful dresses, but only if his cadre of assistants take care of his other needs and none of them interrupts his "solitary genius" thinking. This genius is, apparently, sufficient excuse for everyone to give him his way, and for him to throw toxic vitriol at anyone who expresses any kind of opinion, presence, or personality. Like a spoiled baby, as one of the other main characters eventually says.

Krieps plays a waitress, Anna, who is drawn to this bully and who follows him to London to be a dress model and eventually a lover. She falls deeply in love with him - because he is such a genius - and even goes and does some of his bullying for him, both - because he is such a genius - and because she hopes he will one day fall in love with her and allow her to butter her toast in his presence without cursing her out. Even taking into account that this is the 1950s, she is really pathetic; in the first two thirds of the movie, not a moment is shown where she has a relationship with anyone else but him. No family? No friends or neighbors at all?

SPOILERS follow, because really you shouldn't watch this movie, and if you do you should be prepared for what happens.

Anna has a little strength in her, just enough to keep wanting him to love her. And so, one day after she suffers great abuse from him, she poisons him, and he falls sick and can't work for the next few days he is too sick to abuse her, so she is happy. And then, he comes back from his illness and proposes to her.

Okay ... but maybe he doesn't know that she poisoned him?

After the marriage, things go back to as they were, obviously, and he begins to heap abuse at her again until one day she overhears him complaining about how he doesn't want her around as she is disrupting his work. So she poisons him again, and this time he knows it and goes along with it. And he loves her.

And that's the movie. Okay...

So this is a sick, toxic (literally) relationship that works for both of them. She is only happy when he is poisoned and helpless, and he, despite his passion and perfection for work is apparently only able to love her when his work is taken from him and he is poisoned and helpless. Apparently he makes the choice to let her poison him. Perhaps he really doesn't want the endless pressure of being a genius after all? It's hard to say, as the screenwriter leaves it a mystery.

Like Whiplash, I recognize great performances and interesting screenplay, but I can't watch it. Who really wants to watch two hours of repulsive people, where the main character is an abusive, horrible person? A little bit of it in a movie adds color. You know that the scriptwriter threw it in for you to not like the abusive character. But, if the whole movie is about an abusive character who doesn't learn the error of his ways, you get the impression that the scriptwriter thinks that we should be entertained by it, or even sympathetic to this toxic white privileged male jerk.

But I wasn't. And I wasn't. I was simply repulsed. And the perfect "solitary genius" who is too important to be bothered with having to be nice to people is a myth.

Loving Vincent: Like a number of other animations I have reviewed, this work is one of astounding, gorgeous animation but also utterly boring. The plot, such as it is, is ... um ... well, there isn't one. A police officer wanders around trying to deliver a letter and asks a few questions about how Van Gogh died. It is all shots, and scenes, and music, and flaccid unimportant dialog. And nothing happens and there are no characters.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Books vs Movies 1/2: Books I Read After Seeing the Movie

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Movie: One of those movies that uses it's actors like juggling balls rather then for their talents and performances. Filled with a self-indulgent hyper-kinetic freneticism that is supposed to overawe but only makes me feel as empty as I do after watching forty minutes of Marvel movie fighting. I couldn't take more than a half hour of it.

The movie contains only the barest outline of the contents of the book (which is well over 700 dense pages).

Book: A classic, beautifully written, deeply insightful, and filled with a rich panoply of characters and events. I just don't like it. Why? Because it's filled with despair , depression, and the oppression of a soulless bureaucracy. I need someone to root for in my media, and there are no redeemable characters in the book. Anna starts out likeable enough, but soon becomes single-mindedly fixated on her adultery and filled with despair. Levin is kind of interesting as he works out the basics of communism, but hardly someone to identify with. Kitty is vacuous during the first half of the book, but she gains a few morals by the middle; unfortunately, her character just isn't that interesting.

Arrival, Ted Chiang

Movie: Quiet but phenomenal: intelligent, suspenseful, beautifully acted, scripted, and directed, and thoroughly engaging. It was only an hour after the movie ended that I figured out exactly what had been going on. One of my favorite movies of its year.

Book: A very nice short story, written in an economical style, well-plotted and thoughtful. To be honest,  the movie is so good that it makes reading the story kind of superfluous. The movie contains everything in the original story (with a few irrelevant changes) and more.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Movie: A beautiful movie with some haunting cinematography and outstanding acting. Some of the scenes and characters are haunting, and it contains some of my favorite actors. The story is clean and harsh.

Book: Very well-written, the movie is fairly close to the book. Both were enjoyable.

Bridget Jones' Diary, Helen Fielding

Movie: A very well-made chick-flick romcom that is a modern remake of Pride and Prejudice. A defining role for the fetching, sarcastic, and sympathetic Renee Zellweger. Actually a lot of fun, although kind of devolves a bit at the end as romcoms do.

Book: Slightly better than the movie, with a sharper satirical voice. The movie pretty much follows the book, but the book has its own distinctive voice.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok

Movie: A classic coming of age movie set in two Jewish 1940s Brooklyns that intersect. Contains some lessons in overcoming prejudices, making friends, and dealing with the heavy roles placed on us by society and family.

Book: As I recall, the movie is pretty much a reflection of the book, but the book is longer and deeper. Honestly, it's been a long while since I read it.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Movie: An iconic live-action Disney musical and performance by Dick Van Dyke. Very reminiscent of his overacting and production, like Mary Poppins. Fun in a nostalgic kind of way.

Book: Holds up better than the movie It is aimed at young readers and has good pictures and a simple clean writing style. The movie basically follows the book but changes several story elements to make it more child-friendly.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial, William Kotzwinkle

Movie: A classic Spielberg movie, with an absent father, cute kids, realistic dialogue that can veer from maudlin to annoying, and an incredible sense of wonder and magic. Beautiful cinematography and direction.

Book: A novelization of the movie, and I remember being thoroughly underwhelmed. The book adds some inner dialogue to the book that somehow managed to destroy the magic of the story.

East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Movie: A great movie, one of the three major films starring James Dean. Powerfully shot and directed, with iconic performances.

Book: A powerhouse classic novel, one of the best American novels ever written. It is large, wide and epic, as well as thought-provoking with biblical allusions, well-drawn out characters, and interesting moral questions. The movie only superficially covers about the last quarter of the book.

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Movie: A great movie; could be considered a chick-flick but it is so much more, with sweeping characters caught in a global war and a series of interesting character dynamics and coincidences. Beautifully shot and acted, and very engaging.

Book: The movie follows the book fairly closely, and may be slightly better, but the book is also great. A very good read.

Escape to Witch Mountain, Alexander, H. Key

Movie: I loved this as a kid. It's kind of dated and a bit hokey, but still pretty fun to watch.

Book: Aimed at a rather young audience, so very easy and quick to read. The movie and book are nearly identical.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J. K. Rowling

Movie: An interesting movie, more low key than the Harry Potter movies. Two thirds of its time is spent on the pastoral main character and his doings and only in the last third do the hinted-at dark elements come to the fore. In this way, it is actually a closer representation of Rowling's writing style than the HP movies.

The main character is not a fighter, but a nurturer, which is quite an unusual choice for a movie that seems, superficially, to be more about action. It was well shot, had quirky characters, but was perhaps a bit slow. And then there was a battle sequence which went on too long, or at least with too much monotony. But it was enjoyable, all the same.

Book: Has nothing to do with the movie; it is a small fictional encyclopedia, which will eventually be written by the main character of the movie. You can skip it.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

Movie: Cute but disappointing. The characters were nice, the message was upbeat, but it was mostly predictable. The movie had a particularly bad misstep by setting a romantic scene in The Anne Frank House (ugh) and one particularly good scene near the end in a car. The rest was fine, occasionally charming, but too tame and pedestrian.

Book: The movie very closely follows the book. The book is slightly better, but has basically the same flaws.

Freaky Friday, Mary Rodgers

Movie: Here I refer to the original movie with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, I suspect that it is now pretty hokey, like many made for TV Disney films, but may still have some charm. I remember find it very funny and entertaining when I was a kid. The remake with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan was watchable but often over-produced and dumbed down. I think I might try to find the original again.

Book: Has several major differences from the movie, as I recall, as it follows almost entirely the point of view of the daughter in the mother's body. I don't remember it, although I remember my brother owning a copy. It was aimed at young teens.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Movie: I saw this in high school and wasn't ready for it. It's pretty grim. Well made, but not really entertaining.

Book: A well written classic, and far more expansive than the movie. The movie covers most of the book, but skips the first few and last few chapters and glosses over a lot of the middle. The book is also grim, but the good writing brings the characters to life, and it is more engaging.

Heaven Can Wait, Leonore Fleischer

Movie: Another somewhat dated movie (1978). While the special effects are hokey and the timing and performances of the actors are sometimes a bit off, it still holds up pretty well. I really enjoyed it when I was young.

Book: Actually, the movie is based on the 1941 play Here Comes Mr. Jordan by Henry Segall. This is the novelization of the above version of the movie. It wasn't that bad, just a straightforward telling of what you see on the screen. Not worth seeking out.

The Hours, Michael Cunningham

Movie: A beautiful, thoughtful movie about three women in three different realities, connected by visual clues and emotional eddies. Perhaps a bit heavy handed on cinematic allusions, the directing and production are nevertheless solid, as are the magnificent performances by several incredibly talented actors. Emotional and hopeful.

Book: Was a disappointment after seeing the movie. It's not a bad book, but it is pedestrian in comparison. The movie essentially follows the book, with some cinematic licenses.

The Hunger Games (1), Suzanne Collins

Movie: I loved this movie so much that I immediately bought the entire trilogy of books knowing nothing about it. The performances are fantastic and the story and execution is beautiful. It's a great movie. Even so, the movie glossed over certain side themes and characters. It tried to both denounce the games while at the same time glorify them on screen, which didn't really make sense.

Book: The book is phenomenal, an instant classic, beautifully written with evocative characters and settings. The book presents the correct balance of despair and terror that the movie glosses over.

The second and third books are just as good or even better, while the subsequent movies got progressively worse.

John Carter (A Princess of Mars), Edgar Rice Burroughs

Movie: Roundly condemned for being boring, disjointed, and derivative, it was a huge box office bomb. I liked it. It was quirky and even daring in certain instances, and the plot, while somewhat far-fetched, was easy enough to follow. The characters and plot were shallow, but not boring.

Book: From 1912, the book is pre-golden age of science fiction, which explains its bizarre far-fetched plot. It is a decent read. The movie follows the book fairly closely, but expands on the text and plays with the start and end in order to provide a more compelling explanation of how the protagonist travels to Mars. Neither book nor movie are amazing, but they are both entertaining enough.

Julie and Julia, Julie Powell

Movie: A fun Nora Ephron movie about blogging, New York City, marriage, and cooking. Amy Adams is cute as Julie the blogger who decides to cook through Julia Childs' fat-laced Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Meryl Streep is delightful (of course) as a young Child as she first learns to cook. The fact that, in present time, Child acknowledges Julie only to dismiss what she does as a stunt is disconcerting but somewhat telling.

Book: The movie is actually based on Powell's book Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously as well as an autobiography by Child from the same year. Powell's book corresponds to the Julie scenes in the movie, and is written well enough. I can't really recommend the book: it's okay, but the author has some questionable morals.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

Movie: An iconic, fantastic Spielberg movie that still works so well that you don't even mind the just ever-so-slightly off effects (except for when the girl says "It's a UNIX system!" which elicits a groan of pain from me every time). Has the usual daddy issues and cute, precocious children. Wonderful, magical film, with a great cast especially Goldblum), superb action and humor, and even a timeless message.

Book: The movie pretty much follows the book, which is also excellent. The book leaves out some of the great lines from the movie, but goes deeper into the characters, science, terrain, and so forth, and has a slightly darker more ominous tone, especially the ending.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Movie: A stunning work of cinematography, with a good story and good acting. This was one of my favorite movies of its year.

Book: The movie pretty much follows the book, but the movie is more fun to experience.

Me Before You, JoJo Moyes

Movie: Shallow and predictable. Its assets are the impossibly perky Emilia Clarke as Lou and the handsome and winning Sam Claffin as the wealthy but paralyzed Will. Everything else were just devices to have the main characters interact, trade barbs and glances, and share hearts. During the movie, when it appeared to be leading to a tragic ending, the realization of its inevitability evoked some emotion out of me, but that was its only real good point. When it ended I suspected that the book would be better.

Book: I was happily surprised to discover that the book is not only better, but it is excellent, well worth the read. The book goes deep into the poverty and struggles of Lou and her family, the dynamics of Will's parents and sister, the ethics of suicide and assisted suicide, and the lives and struggles of quadriplegics. The book takes its time and is well researched. Even Lou's boyfriend is more interesting in the book: in the movie he is one dimensional and you know he will be kicked to the curb a few seconds after he shows up on screen; in the book, he is still an ass but more well-rounded and sympathetic. I recommend the book.

After you read the book, you can enjoy the movie more, because you now know the back stories of the characters that were glossed over by the movie. Or you may also be even more disappointed in the movie for cutting the heart out of the book.

Message in a Bottle, Nicolas Sparks

Movie: Not a bad chick flick, it is solid but also not particularly daring. Paul Newman steals all of the scenes he is in.

Book: It's Nicholas Sparks: the plot is simple and fun, the writing is good enough to tell the story and not much more. The movie pretty much follows the book.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

Movie: A fabulous movie about a strange teen and his mysterious problems and the odd friends he makes in high school The movie is beautifully scripted with several concurrent themes running through it, some serious and some light, and they all work together Great performances and music, too. Inspired me to read the book as soon as possible.

Book: Also great, a longer and more complex version of the movie. The movie managed to portray most of the book's major plot elements, but the book makes them more gripping with an attention to details and events more fully realized. Worth the read.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Bryan Lee O'Malley

Movie: A fun, wacky and engaging movie that inspired me to read the comic series as soon as possible. The movie is so random in some ways, and yet it cohesively uses video-game semiotics to metaphorically convey the main character's reality, while the main plot is its own metaphor about making a relationship work while dealing with the ghosts of past relationships. I loved it.

Book: My joy of the movie was lessened after reading the powerhouse that is the graphic novel series. Scott Pilgrim the six part comic series is incredible and incredibly deep, funny, original, cute, cool, and so much fun. The movie more or less covers book 1, some of book 2, parts of book 3, a teeny bit of book 4 and 5, and then nearly entirely rewrites book 6. The plot ends in a totally different place, and so much of the important story, character development, metaphors, depth, and life lessons from the last four books are absent from the movie. The movie is just a shadow of the incredible book series. I still enjoy the movie, but do read the series.

The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

Movie: An adult story set in New England mostly Maine) about loneliness and mediocrity, the movie is pretty good, although it doesn't really have a lot to say. The main characters are not all that sympathetic, but its a decent watch.

Book: A more fleshed out and sympathetic portrayal of the story, the main character transforms and grows by the end of the book. It is written solidly and a good read. Scenes that were flat in the movie are richer in the book since we can see can experience the characters' inner struggles. I enjoyed it more than the movie (and that feeling is only exacerbated by knowing what we now know about Kevin Spacey).

Slumdog Millionaire (Q and A), Vikas Swarup

Movie: A highly-praised movie, and well deserved. It manages to be funny and yet still explore some of the dark areas of Indian poverty, child abuse, and crime. Great acting and sets, and an engaging plot.

Book: Definitely better than the movie, well written and more satisfying. The book contains background information, relationships, and even entire scenes that are skipped over by the movie, so that many of the characters and their motivations make more sense. Not a long book, and worth the read.

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

Movie: The movie that introduced me to Kristen Stewart, it is a neat, quiet, but powerful little teen drama about an event that is hard to speak about. It is very well done, almost a classic teen movie.

Book: The movie essentially follows the book. It is something like two different people telling the same story - all of the plot elements are there, but the coloring and which parts are given weight is slightly different in each telling. A very good teen read.

Star Wars, George Lucas (Alan Dean Foster)

Movie: Not much to say here, I think.

Book: A novelization of the movie, adding only a bit of interior dialogue. It was nothing special. Foster went on to write the first sequel to Star Wars - Splinter of the Mind's Eye - even before The Empire Strikes Back came out. As a result, that book doesn't entirely adhere to the SW universe; it was a pretty good book, however.

Superman III, William Kotzwinkle

Movie: Superman was a little soporific, but also iconic in many ways. Superman II was pretty great; from today's perspective, its timing, some effects, and some of the dialogue is off, but it's still a good watch. Superman III tried to be a comedy with Richard Pryor, but it wasn't funny. It was pretty tiresome to watch, and its computer elements were as ridiculous as they come in movies. Some scenes with Clark Kent fighting his evil instantiation were okay.

Book: Like E.T.'s novelization, this book was pretty awful, robbing what little interest the movie held with poor cutesy prose. I hardly remember anything from it except that I didn't like it.

The Sword in the Stone, T. H. White

Movie: One of the minor Disney efforts, it's a barrage of meaningless, psychedelic, and silly visuals and jokes. The move has only passing reference to the book's form, missing nearly all of the rich descriptions, all of its important concepts, and all but the last, major plot point.

Book: The movie glosses over the first book of a five book series on the Arthurian legends. The first four are collected under the title The Once and Future King. The first book, rather like The Hobbit, is the juvenile entry of the series; the other four are more for adults. The entire series is a must read, an absolute classic of English literature, on par with The Lord of the Rings. Yes, it's that good.

The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Movie: Certain movies, like this one, just work, and you can tell that from the first ten minutes. This is a lovely romance movie, which uses its science fiction element as an allegory (as all good works of science fiction do). Heart-warming and captivating, but very much an emotional roller coaster. It falters a bit when it veers into trying to explain things scientifically, and then certain story elements aren't exactly explained well (like how their time traveling daughter can possibly survive, at a very young age, the same kinds of experiences that the protagonist went through as an adult).

Book: Like Perks of Being a Wallflower, the movie is a condensed version of the book. The book gives a richer tapestry of the events, including expanded scenes and an ending that are more satisfying than the movie. A beautiful read, good to read together with a loved one.

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer

Movie: Not bad, although it also somewhat shallow. Like The Time Traveler's Wife, the central fantasy is a metaphor about sexual tension between an older boy and a minor girl, but it is also an action movie. It doesn't quite successfully juggle both elements, and Kristen Stewart doesn't give us much character depth, but that is more the fault of the screenwriter and director than hers. The movie is aimed at tween girls, and they like it, so that's that.

Book: Somewhat better than the movie, still aimed at tween and teen girls. Again, it's not bad, and certainly more original than the hundreds of similar books that it inspired and that came after.

The Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum

Movie: A wonderful movie that, amazingly, hasn't lost its charm. Full of great moments, great quotes, and great characters, and some very funny and scary moments you always seem to forget.

Book: Called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I was never able to get into it. The author's writing is not as good as the author's imagination. Dorothy is someone who things happen to, rather then someone who does things. The movie really makes the story shine.

Wonder, R.J. Palacio

Movie: I anticipated this being a boring movie with a straightforward story about a disfigured boy who goes to school, is bullied, makes a false friend and then a true friend, finally wins over the school, etc, blah blah. Actually, half of the book is about that, but the other half is told from the point of view of others in his life, and those stories are more interesting. Some of these side stories don't even revolve around the boy, which make the whole thing a richer experience. So I enjoyed the movie, although the main plot was somewhat shallow. I anticipated that the book would contain things left out of the movie.

Book: But the movie nearly exactly follows the book, even the structure of telling stories from the perspectives of the different characters. The book and the movie are essentially the same, so, while the book was also fairly enjoyable, it was not much more than that.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Movie Reviews: Black Panther, The Shape of Water, The Greatest Showman, Darkest Hour, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, McEnroe vs Borg, Fifty Shades Freed

See all of my movie reviews.

Black Panther: So far, the only Marvel movies that I think are actually really good movies are X-Men 1, Iron Man 1, and the first two Tobey MacGuire Spider-Mans. I also enjoy the first The Avengers and was at least passably entertained by a few others, in that empty candy calorie sort of way.

That said, Black Panther is one of the better ones, possibly about as good as The Avengers. The most important thing that it does right (and please, please, movie producers, learn from this) is that it doesn't simply present us with a Big Evil bad guy and a two hour slug-fest until one of the heroes finally hits him hard enough. Instead, the bad guy has a compelling point of view; in fact, he is actually kind of right ... except that he takes it way too far. To mildly spoil things ...

Wakanda is an African nation with advanced techology that it hides from the rest of the world for ... reasons? Black Panther's father, the king, was killed in one of the other Marvel movies, and now BP is king, but a long lost cousin battles him for the throne, because said cousin has been living with the black people of the world and thinks that Wakanda's technology should be used to help them out of their oppression.

Ummmmmm .... yes, it should. Not to mention, Wakanda's advanced medical technology could be saving millions of lives around the world, instead of being kept hidden for no apparent reason.

Fortunately for the plot, cousin usurper doesn't simply want to help the world's black people out of their oppression, he also wants to help them kill and/or oppress everyone else, because it's "their turn". So, evil. If they had actually made his goal a little less obviously evil, the movie would have really risen to great. But then how would we be able to end the movie without a clear good guy and bad guy beating each other up in a slugfest until the hero finally hits the the bad guy hard enough?

The movie gets extra kudos for the same reason that Wonder Woman got extra kudos: it proves that a black cast, black writers, black director, etc can write a perfectly good and relatable superhero movie (why this should have had to be proven is still beyond me), which will hopefully lead to many more black characters as hero/protagonist in the future. It also has powerful black women fighters, which is still pretty rare.

The movie revels in a particular version of African culture - drums, clothes, hairstyles, language and tribes, etc. That doesn't speak to me as a white American/Israeli; it didn't bother me, either. I can't speak for its authenticity, as others do, but I guess it's a pretty idealized version of a monolithic idea of what African culture is supposed to be; I'm sure it is as representative of African culture as A Stranger Among Us was representative of Jewish culture.

The Shape of Water: It took me four tries to finish this movie. It is freakin' boring, predictable, and unoriginal. Well shot and acted is about all I can say for it. It is, nearly exactly, one part facile imitation of the movie Amelie - crossed with three parts non-amusing version of Splash. With a dash of gore, nudity, and cursing thrown in. The music is indie French accordion (something like what you heard in Hugo), but if it had any melody I forgot it.

In the 1960s, an American research institute has some kind of weird aquatic humanoid life-form in a top-secret lab - with what must be the worst security ever seen in a motion picture: the cleaning staff and Russian spies waltz in an out of the the creature's room and spend hours alone with it, all with nobody noticing or challenging them until the break-out scene. A mute cleaning women falls in love with the creature who is scheduled to be dissected, so she breaks it out of the lab. The scientists/military are caricature villains, the next door neighbor is a friend/artist who is useful as an interpreter and assistant to the plot. Another cleaner, played by Octavia Spencer, shows up in half of the movie's scenes but really serves no useful purpose to the plot, at all.

I was so uninterested with what was going on that I kept turning it off. And this was nominated for best film? Good grief.

The Greatest Showman: This was a fairly enjoyable musical, probably only green-lit for production after the success of La La Land. Its music was somewhat more forgettable than La La Land's was, but it was not too bad. Dancing and choreography were nice.

This is the sanitized story of how P.T. Barnum began his circus of human oddities and animal acts, with Hugh Jackman starring as Barnum. Barnum starts in poverty and marries a lovely woman Charity before starting his circus. After a slow start, he is successful, but he is mocked by the arts establishment as a low-brow panderer, and constantly facing protest from moral groups and "concerned citizens" (i.e. mobs) as a purveyor of filth (people with deformities and odd talents). He takes on a playwright as a partner and also flies in a European opera performer to try to raise his stature in the arts community with some success, but also some additional trouble. Meanwhile, the circus's "exhibits" are happy to be out of the shadows and be part of a family, while simultaneously upset at not being treated as humans. This last subject is, unfortunately, only given cursory treatment in the movie; also fairly neglected by the movie is anything having to do with US current events of the 1850s, such as slavery and so forth (despite there being at least one black person in the circus troupe).

It was quite fun, if a little overly showy at the expense of deeper characterization. I would see it again.

Hard to understand why the circus didn't get Wolverine as an exhibit, however; wasn't he around in the 1850's?

Darkest Hour: 2017 has several movies that covered the same ground or connected with other movies. This movie is the second of two about Winston Churchill, and it also managed to fit neatly in with Dunkirk; in fact, this movie and Dunkirk could be merged to form one movie. They cover just about the same amount of time and end at the exact same moment.

It is well acted, scripted, and shot, with great visuals and sound. There were a few scenes that crept into the same territory that ruined The Iron Lady - too much acting and not enough plot. Thankfully, most of the movie avoids that, and instead concerns itself with Churchill's coming into power and the enormous pressure he faced to sue for peace with Hitler's far larger and aggressive Germany, particularly since Great Britain was facing the imminent loss of their entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk.

It's a slice of history movie, not as thrilling as Dunkirk, and perhaps a little limited in scope, but still a success. But not one that I would see again (unless someone makes the merged movie that I suggested, above).

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women: The second movie about Wonder Woman from 2017, this one is not starring Wonder Woman, but instead the somewhat true story about the comic author and his weird life, perversions, and scientific theories and achievements. William Marston developed a minor psychological theory called DISC theory, which describes personalities based on dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. He also, apparently together with his wife Elizabeth and their lover Olive, created the lie detector.

Not surprisingly regarding someone who could come up with DISC theory, he and his wife were into kinky games, and so, eventually, was Olive. All three loved each other, and this was not exactly a relationship that could be made public at that time (or even today, really). After suffering fallout due to the relationship being made public, he created a superhero comic book about domination and submission - based on his theories and his sex life and one of the fetish outfits that Olive had worn. Since it was also the first superhero comic with a strong woman (albeit one who was subject to domination by men, on occasion), it filled a niche in the comic world.

Kind of a far cry from the other Wonder Woman movie that we saw last year.

It's a well-told, well-made movie, a little kinky but not really (less than Fifty Shades of Gray, and it didn't have any nudity). It was well acted and shot, and the script moved well enough. The movie touched on a number of different subjects - morality, kink, DISC theory, lie detection, relationships, societal disapproval. All of these are touched upon, but the only one that really comes into focus is the last one: at least according to the movie, they really did all love each other in a way that was not acceptable by society, and that can be a hard thing to get around.

McEnroe vs Borg: The second 2017 move about a famous tennis match: Battle of the Sexes was the other one and was far better. This one is simply a depiction of the lead-up to McEnroe trying to prevent Borg from winning his fifth Wimbledon. McEnroe, as you know, was young, ill-tempered, and rude in a way that no tennis player had ever been (it was always considered an English gentleman's sport), and Borg was rumored to be an emotionless machine. Screentime is devoted in flashbacks to both of them as up and comers, and to the few days before the match, as well as the match itself.

I found the movie to be a big bore. Just watching the actual tennis match would be far more entertaining. You see scenes of them having difficulties and facing them, as well as people booing McEntosh and his young obnoxious ways. But the movie never makes us feel why we are watching them or gives us a reason to care one way or the other about the outcome of the match.

Fifty Shades Freed: Sure, why not? I saw the first one and actually thought it wasn't too bad. The second one was dismally bad. This one was somewhere in the middle. The first hour or so is shots of Anastasia and Christian on vacation with some furrowed brows over how Jack from the previous movie is still angry with them for ruining his life. The last 25 minutes or so is a kidnapping scene and a rescue that was shot and scripted well enough if not exactly surprising. This last part might have worked well as a mid-season episode of a drama show.

Everything about the movie, aside from the last 20 minutes, is dull. Dull scenery, dull characters, dull "tension" scenes, dull sex scenes. In some ways, the subplot with Jack is a bit of a shout-out to the #MeToo movement, since he acts like the perfect example of a sexual harasser, but, honestly, he is almost nothing compared to Christian. Christian continues his stalker ways ever worse than he did in previous movies. At least in those movies he made some moves in the direction of growing out of his obsessive, harassing, and terrifying behavior. In this movie he continues to do things that would make any sane person run screaming in terror from him, but Anastasia simply chastises him and then forgets about what happened moments later. And he hasn't changed at all by the end of the movie. Anastasia is somewhat more into submission by the end, but that doesn't even make sense, since Christian's dominance is shown to be the result of a severe pathology rather than a harmless kink. So are we supposed to be happy now that they found each other? Ugh.

Don't bother. Go watch Secretary, instead.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Movie and TV Reviews: Lady Bird, The Post, Molly's Game, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Westworld, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

See all of my movie reviews.

Lady Bird: Greta Gerwig's first outing as a director is a smashing success. I have complicated feelings about Greta, in that I admire her intentions in writing and playing in quirky comedies, such as Frances Ha. However, I felt that her movies were not quite there yet, not quite jelled. The characters were too unrelatable, and the plots too chaotic and off-putting. This is the first one she really gets right.

Christine is a teenager who calls herself "Lady Bird" for no discernible reason. The movie is basically an arc in the life of Christine and her relationship with her mother as she navigates the last year of high school in Sacramento. She makes and loses friends, fights, makes up, and fights with her mother, and tries to get into a college on the East Coast that will get her far away from her family.

I have been a big fan of Saoirse Ronan, from Atonement to Hanna to Brooklyn. She and Laurie Metcalf, as well as the rest of the cast, give perfect performances. If there is any flaw to the movie it is that it could have been more: more sweeping, maybe have another deep relationship arc in addition to the main one. But that's hardly a flaw. Worth watching.

The Post: Hanks, Streep, and Spielberg give us another newspaper drama, this one about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers that broke the story about how a series of US presidents and higher ups were all lying about the Vietnam War, pretending that the US was fighting to liberate South Vietnam when they knew all along that the war could not be won and the real aim was to broadly fight China.

It's a good movie, if not a great one. Roughly on par with other newspaper movies I've seen, including Spotlight and All the President's Men., but with a narrower aim. The main conflicts are a) publish or not? and b) can Streep's female character assert authority at the paper without making a major blunder? Streep plays the owner of the Washington Post, a position she inherited from her late husband, and a woman bullied by her all male board. She is seemingly willing to let them bully her until she finally takes a stand. Hanks plays the chief editor who is pushing to report a story while the government wants to sue them for espionage.

If you happen to draw a parallel between the historic ideals of freedom of press versus a tyrannical, corrupt president and anything happening today it's because we once trumpeted these ideals very clearly. Reality has a bias toward the truth, which any amount of modern obfuscation cannot truly suppress. And it is good not to lose sight of the ideals for which we stand.

Molly's Game: If it's been a while since you've seen a Sorkin picture, you'll find it is like riding a bicycle. You will immediately be expecting to see Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborne walk in from some corner of the screen.

This is the story of a woman who uses some incredible insight, people skills, and brass balls to end up running a high stakes poker game for important celebrities and executives, first on the West Coast and then on the East. The enterprise lasts until the feds and the mafia move in on her. The story is told from a series of flashbacks interspersed with her finding a lawyer and navigating her legal case. It is based on a true story.

Jessica Chastain does a fine job in the lead role. Everyone else does fine, except Kevin Costner who seems out of place as her often distant but high pressuring father. Regardless, it is a Sorkin story, which means witty, clever, entertaining dialog and characters who are ten times brighter and more accomplished than most people you will ever meet. Well crafted with great cinematography.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: The story of A.A. Milne, his wife, and his son Christopher Robin, how the Winnie the Pooh books came to be, and the effect they had on their lives. Spoiler: on the one hand the books are the most successful children's books of all time. On the other hand, they destroyed the life of Christopher Robin and his relationship with his parents. The movie actually gives us a slightly happier ending than the real life events.

Milne's wife is shown to be a bit of a shrew, with just enough redeeming moments to make her two-dimensional, but not really likable. Alan Milne is more sympathetic, although he blatantly and blindly uses his son poorly without much thought. It's all pretty tragic.

It's a decent movie for what it aims to be, somewhere on the same level as Becoming Jane or Miss Potter. It is well acted and lovingly directed and filmed. It tells its story well enough. But it's not a very important story or movie, for all that, and only the falsified, slightly happier ending gives the viewer any kind of comfort.

Westworld (season one): I saw a few episodes of Humans and couldn't get into it. I was a little concerned about the level of violence I heard about in this series (I won't watch Game of Thrones). Somehow, the fact that the violence happens to robots makes it easier to take, although the question remains exactly whether the robots are or are not conscious, so you have to decide that for yourself if the violence is watchable or not.

I am a huge fan of Evan Rachel Wood; she and everyone else do fine jobs. Unlike Humans, the stories are quite captivating, with a number of whodunits and what's going to happen nexts that got me hooked. The stories take place in the facility that creates and maintains the robots, as well as in the play world of Westworld, and they include scenes that occur as flashbacks from the robots' perspective, despite the fact that the robots are not supposed to have memories.

There is nudity, but respectfully done and never gratuitous. The sex scenes are all pretty unsexy.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season one): The next series from Amy Sherman Palladino (Gilmore Girls, Bunheads), this one succeeds better than Bunheads did. Bunheads had a few great scenes, but it was too unrestrained in ridiculous plot and ridiculous dialog, which made it hard to relate to. This series only has one Bunheads-style conversation that set my teeth on edge in episode two. Thankfully that was the only one.

Midge is a perfect 1950s Jewish housewife who is supported by her husband and who in turn supports his occasional forays into standup comedy. He's not good at it, and one day he decides that she is not supportive enough of him and he leaves her. She then discovers, albeit reluctantly, that SHE is good at comedy. Cue a lot of denial, drinking binges, and attempts to make a go at standup comedy, all the while continuing to navigate her 1950s Jewish family, neighbors, friends, children, and still husband, all of whom remain blissfully unaware of her secret life as a comedienne.

It's not as good as Gilmore Girls, which had the great triple relationships between the three women, as well as their suitors, husbands, and the funky Connecticut town Stars Hollow as color. The supporting characters here are not as fun, there is no funky community background. But we have a few great scenes with a young Lenny Bruce. The best scenes are the ones where she does her Lenny Bruce style-standup, something which could not really have happened in the time period of the show, and so represents a kind of wish fulfillment on the part of Amy and for the viewers.

Amy's dialog is distinctive, and it's fun to hear. I just wish the show also had a teenage daughter.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Reviews: Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi (spoilers), Battle of the Sexes, Wonder, Coco

See all of my movie reviews.

Battle of the Sexes: It feels like forever since I've seen a movie with real, engaging three-dimensional characters, instead of the one or zero dimensional characters you get in Disney and Marvel movies.

The story starts with some background on Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Riggs is an older former champion tennis player, a sexist but talented socialite, who is having difficulty with his family and looking for a new challenge. King is young and at or near the top in women's tennis, but disgusted that, while women's tennis draws the same ticket sales, the athletes get paid 1/8 what the men do, "because". So she starts her own league. Riggs challenges King to a battle of the sexes.

The trailers for this movie made it seem like Steve Carrell's Bobby Riggs was going to be a caricature of the real Riggs (who was certainly flamboyant). Thank goodness, Carrell, and his screenwriter and director, do a fantastic job in giving us a fully-fledged person that we can care about, even as he is, essentially, the bad guy. So, sucky trailer. Emma Stone does an equally fantastic job as Billie Jean King, as do several of the accessory and side characters, who are fleshed out in full glory (or at least as much as their screen-time allows).

The story lingered perhaps a little too long here and there on some scenes, like the initial haircut scene where she falls for her hairdresser (Carol did a better job with its similar love at first meeting scene). And maybe a little more time could have been added to the story to make it feel like a real epic. But never mind. This was a fun, fine, and satisfying movie to watch.

Wonder: From the trailer I wasn't expecting much for this movie, and in fact wasn't planning to see it at all. It seemed like a straightforward movie about a disfigured boy (Jacob Tremblay) being bullied in school, making and losing friends, and ultimately triumphing. Ho hum. So, once again, sucky, sucky trailer.

That story is, indeed, the backbone of the movie, taking up around 50% of the screen-time; if it was all there was to the movie, the movie would be as expected: not bad, but ultimately nothing special and predictable. But the movie spends the other 50% of its screen-time telling other people's stories, sometimes rolling back the same scene multiple times to view it from different points of view. We spend a lot of time with the sister, but also the mother, the sister's friend, the sister's boyfriend, and two other kids in the boy's class. And all of those stories are better and more original than the main storyline, making the movie so much more than just a story about a bulled boy.

The story is screenwritten by Steve Chbotsky (based on a book by RJ Palacio), the same screenwriter and author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I saw and loved that movie and wanted to read the book afterwards. The same thing happened with this movie: the movie is good, but you can see the left-out parts of the book peeking about here and there, and you really want to get more into depth with the characters.

Yes, the story is still a bit of a tearjerker, sentimental and emotional, but it is also narratively creative with some interesting, less predictable characters and story arcs. The main, predictable arc (basically told in the trailer) is raised up by being interwoven with the other stories, although it, too should have been better. Well worth a see, especially for kids and teens. Note: Chewbacca is in the movie, which makes it a candidate as an entry in the Star Wars canon, in my opinion.

Coco: Coco follows in the tradition of Moana, Brave, and Mulan in presenting not only a story of a hero's journey but a journey that is kickstarted, guided, and resolved in consonance with the literalization of a non-American cultural mythology. And I don't know how I feel about that.

A Mexican boy's (Manuel) family refuses to have anything to do with music because the great-grandfather ran off to become a musician, leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves. Naturally, Manuel wants to be a musician. It is the Day of the Dead, where everyone puts up pictures to the dead in order for the dead spirits to be able to (spiritually) visit, but of course a) there is no picture of the great-grandfather and b) Manuel doesn't want to have anything to do with his family. Manuel's idol is a famous musician, and Manuel learns, by accident, that this famous musician was, in fact, his great-grandfather. To compete in a music contest, Manuel steals a guitar from this musician's shrine and finds himself cursed into the land of the dead. Who are happily visiting the relatives who have posted pictures for them. The ones whose families have not posted pictures of them are unhappy. Manuel needs his dead family's blessing to get back to the real world, but they won't give it to him unless he promises not to pursue music. So he runs off to find the spirit of his great-grandfather.

Many of the themes, including the central theme, are reminiscent of the ones in the other movies I mentioned, and the movie also borrows some narrative elements from Up. It has a lot of "learning moments", which are familiar, and a few nice musical scenes. It leans heavy on appreciating your cultural heritage, by turning mythological aspects into real ones.

Which I find kind of bothersome. When mythology becomes fact, it is no longer a question of faith or practice or choice. While in real life there is no easy answer as to whether choosing to honor or not your dead ancestors makes you a good or bad person, movies like this imply that you have no choice not to believe in your family's traditional stories: If you don't, you are murdering or causing tremendous pain to actual beings who walk, talk, and feel exactly like any other living beings do. I'm not comfortable with that message. A mature individual recognizes that what we do to honor the dead and our traditions has nothing to do with the dead, but is about ourselves, our families, and our communities. Coco is aimed at children, sure, and this is just a children's story. But I thought that this movie was supposed to be sensitive to the cultures it was representing, not trivializing to them. You can't really have it both ways.

There are no glaring flaws with the movie, although a Mexican family rejecting all music for several generations seems a bit of a stretch. The movie is filled with pretty art, colors, and architecture which I presume represent both historical and modern Mexican culture. I'm not sure that modern children will appreciate the music, except the few numbers that are obviously meant to appeal to them. I'm not sure in what time period the movie is supposed to be; it must be modern, but no one has cellphones or computers. Is that normal for a modern, large Mexican town? Anyway, I liked it more than I did Moana, which I found derivative and boring. I'm sure that kids will enjoy it.

Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi: Star Wars once had something that was different from other sci-fi movies and worlds, something precious and important. Unfortunately, the makers of the current movies don't see that. Instead of making Star Wars movies, they are making modern sci-fi movies indistinguishable from other modern sci fi movies, with the iconography of Star Wars. Which is very painful to me. Chris Bateman bemoaned something similar after watching the Star Trek reboot, and I didn't get it, then. I think I get it now.

Update: see the end for thoughts after a second viewing.

The new Star Trek movies, the X-Men movies, the Marvel movies, the Ghost in the Shell remake, the Blade Runner movie, Looper, Valerian, Avatar, DC's movies, and many other sci-fi movies in the last 10 or 15 years  have a vast similarity to each other, in much the same way that all modern Disney, Pixar, and other American animated children's movie have vast similarities to each other. They may have different writers, directors, and casts, but they are all, essentially, dumbed down. The creators of these movies avoid complex messages, plots, and themes, throw in snarky slapstick between action sequences, fill the screen with copious action sequences at nearly the same points in the movie, present emotions and dialog that is one-dimensional and transparently representative of the characters, and hammer you with neat and simplistic moral messages in their denouements that are understandable and suitable for a 4 year old. Family is good. Be brave. Be true to yourself. Be loving to creatures, the natives, and the environment.

Star Wars 4-6 and 1-3 were not like that, at all. Well, okay, they often had one-dimensional emotions and dialog, but otherwise. Star Wars did not have tons of snarky dialog, except for Leia, and hers was not slapstick snark but a very specific kind of frustration snark. A Star Wars movie took itself seriously, because the movie was about space opera and adventure, not about instant entertainment. The message about choosing the good side of the force was given, not saved as a discovery for the end of the movie. The dark side of the force and the light side of the force were about our moral choices: people could contain both of these powers, but choosing light meant - by definition - choosing good, while choosing dark meant choosing to be selfish, and therefore evil. People could be ambiguous, but there were clear moral choices. Heroism was heroism: choose good and act on it. Every movie felt like it was part of a world that extended well before and after the movie: what you were seeing was a small part of a great epic, because the movie took time to show and make you feel time passing: Luke's daily routine on the farm represented years, his efforts on Dagobah months. The force presented an exploration of mysticism, not just firepower or "lifting rocks". The movies were NOT just sci fi movies with cool weapons and critters; they were NOT Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a close movie in structure, but just as far in feel as all the others.

The came The Force Awakens. The Force Awakens struck an iffy balance between Star Wars ala Lucas and modern sci fi movies. It felt, at times, too much like a Marvel movie. It was missing a lot of the feel of the Star Wars epic and the mysticism, it felt less like an epic and more like a sequence of events. But the characters, especially Rey, were compelling and the structure was well done, so I had hope it might move in the right direction after the makers received feedback from the fans.

Here be some spoilers, but nothing major.

This movie felt like a Star Trek movie with bits of Star Wars thrown onto it. For the first 25 minutes of the movie, I was in pain, holding my head in my hands aghast at the vast empty, non-Star Wars feel to the movie. Then we got to Rey and Luke, and it was filled with snarky scenes that were supposed to be funny, and I felt my stomach drop. It was supposed to be funny that Luke casually tossed the light saber over his shoulder? Really? It wasn't funny AT ALL, not only because it wasn't funny, but because it wasn't what Luke would do, even if he were disgusted by the force and everything it stood for. He would throw it away in disgust, perhaps, or at least show some emotional acknowledgement that this was his saber he had lost. Or ask some questions of Rey. Anything! The scene was a disaster, and I began to get a headache.

The main part of the movie is dull, with an hour long chase scene where nothing of consequence happens. Poe and Finn basically accomplish nothing in the entire movie. Instead, the entire enterprise of heroism is called into question, because, as one character puts it, we don't kill what we hate, we save what we love? What??? So heroes aren't heroes? It is implied not only that people can have both dark and light in them, but that dark isn't maybe so evil and light ins't maybe so good! What??? That destroys the entire freakin' metaphor! I don't want another vague morality movie that tells me that morality is relative. I don't want a treatise on how heroes aren't heroes, because they should follow orders. And I don't need a new lecture on how both sides are just as bad, and another on how we shouldn't treat animals badly (seriously, the movie took about twenty minutes of run time to tell us this).

The scene on the casino was a phenomenal waste of time; maybe it was supposed to be funny, but it wasn't, and it wasn't Star Wars funny. Even the pod race in TPM made more sense and had more meaning than this. And then we have a scene with Ren gratuitously without his shirt, a callback to the underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. The whole movie takes place over what? Three days? So no story development. Please repeat after me: a character learning something isn't character development. It's just learning. Marvel characters learn things, too, but that doesn't make them less cartoonish. Development takes introspection, depth, complexity, time, and sensitivity.

So yeah, I had problems. Not only in the first 25 minutes, but many times after.

However .... admittedly after the first 25 minutes, some of the scenes were really great, and even really Star Wars great. The Rey-before-Snope and the lightsaber battle afterwards were beautiful, because of the shifting nature of the alliance and the confusion that the characters felt in the process. And the battle over the salt fields with the red plumes were a beautiful thing to see. I liked the dynamic between Ren and Rey, and the Luke and Ren scene, too. I liked Rose, but I didn't like most of the scenes she was in. I hated the multiple BB-ex-machina scenes, even more than I disliked the C3PO nuisance scenes in ESB.

Seen from the non-Star War perspective, the movie dragged in several scenes in the middle, but it was at least as entertaining as any other modern sci fi movie, and better because of the interesting characters of Rey and Ren. But I despair about the future of the franchise. With the exception of certain threads and scenes, these are not Star Wars movies, and for that I mourn. I like these threads and scenes; I want them to be in better, far different movies.

Also ... more spoilers ...

Callbacks: So many scenes were callbacks to TESB and TRotJ: training the Jedi, including entering the "dark side" cave, Rey giving herself up to Ren to be taken before the emperor and snatching up the lightsaber, and others. The resistance flying head on into the marching first order elephant things. And, admittedly, ESB spent mosy of its time simply chasing after the Millennium Falcon.

Things I didn't have a problem with that others might: The above callbacks. The changes in the force, such as the mindlink and the projection. Yes, it's odd that previous generations of Jedi never did these things, but they seem like the kinds of things that they would do, and I'm cool with that. This includes the water actually traveling through the mindlink and that Luke projected an image was of his younger self.

Other minor problems: If this takes place only days after the last movie, how could the republic and/or first order be in any kind of different state than it was in the last one? What happened to the galaxy? Why do they keep calling them rebels, instead of the resistance? Pick one. Since when do bombs fall in space when you release them? Fall which direction? What happened to Snoke insisting on training Ren? Or Rey? What the hell was Snoke? He shows up larger than life, he seems to be stronger than the emperor, and then he just dies? Why didn't the new admiral Holdo just tell Poe what the plan was, instead of waiting until the evacuation? Why did she wait until nearly everyone was dead before light-speeding her ship into the enemy? If that's a thing, can't you rig a bunch of ships to do that and decimate your enemies more frequently

Update: Having now seen the movie a second time, my thoughts are adjusting a bit. The parts that I disliked the first time I dislike now even more: in particular the comedy and the BB8 scenes, which are as annoying as Jar Jar but take up even more screen time. There is a difference between conversational humor, which I can enjoy, and slapstick humor directed at the audience, which I don't. I'm further down on the arrangement of scenes and the pacing. I don't like any scenes with Hux. I don't like the plot about, or even the idea that, spaceships run out of fuel in this universe. I still don't like how the director taunts the audience by not paying off stories about Rey's parents, Snoke, the R2D2 map, Chewbacca's grief, and other things.

The parts that I liked before I like even more, which is also what happened to me with TFA. However, after the second viewing,  I'm feeling a bit better about the neutral parts of the story. I don't LIKE the story - both the good and the bad guys throw away the past, Finn and Poe are reigned in as heroes instead of being heroic - but I'm okay with that being the story.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

MagicGate: Toxic Misogyny Invades Tabletop Gaming

Tabletop gaming has always had its share of women-hate and male toxicity.

Sexes were historically separated from playing together for thousands of years in order to avoid licentiousness. This was simply an extension of the general separation between the sexes. By the 19th and early 20th century, at least in Europe and the US, the sexes had found ways to mingle by means of parlor games, many of which we would consider overly racy today (a great many of them involved kissing and/or groping, for example).

The last hundred years of tabletop games saw women relegated to "women's divisions" (in Chess, for example), "girls" games (aka pink and/or about makeup and jewelry), or even the kitchen in the belief that they don't have what it takes to play at a man's level. They often don't, if you exclude them from serious training opportunities, exclude them from playing against top players, diminish their desires, goals, and accomplishments, require them to deal with unchecked harassment, and require from them a fanatical devotion to play for endless hours with unwashed, excruciatingly rude, and sexist jerks. Despite this, there are always a few women who are able and willing to complete with many of the top men in any game.

I had hope that in our little corner of the world, harassment would get no worse than that, and hopefully better. While anyone of any sex might get killed playing Dominoes in a Jamaica coffee shop or throwing dice on the streets of Taiwan, tabletop games remain a relatively safe, family-friendly, and gender-mixing activity. Chess, Go, and Bridge have women's divisions, but the majority of their competitions are mixed and relatively safe. Wargaming is a men's club, but it's not toxic to women as far as I know. CCG and RPG events are/were known to attract mostly young male jerks, which scared off some women (see above) but I hadn't thought that these jerks' behavior rose to level of toxicity associated with Gamergate. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Women are not only harassed, but sexually assaulted at these conventions; the organizers and police are often unable or unwilling to help them. Apparently the CCG and RPG players who grew up  in their little boys' club are now adult enough to feel entitled and powerful enough to join the ranks of the male toxics, white nationalists, and "pickup artists", just like the Gamergate folks. And just as in Gamergate, douches post harassing videos and posts claiming that woman who complain about harassment are lying for the attention, as a result of which teeming hordes of similarly minded jerks harass them more, and more seriously. And when called on it, of course, they post endlessly, harassing everyone with why they are right and everyone else is lying and "missing the point". Ho hum, how familiar.

Seems like this behavior is getting worse, not better, and I can think of a few reasons why. I just wish that they didn't infect my hobby.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Movie Reviews: Thor: Ragnorak, Justice League, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Victoria and Abdul

See all my movie reviews.

Thor: Ragnarok: This movie has received heaps of praise, and much of it is for the very things that I hated most about it. And I basically hated this movie.

First off, the plot (spoilers, as if): there isn't one. Thor has to escape from something, then he and Loki get lectured at by their dying immortal father, then their sister shows up and breaks Thor's hammer, then Thor gets caught in some arena, has to fight Hulk for some reason - which is pointless, since they are both indestructible and anyway we all know they won't die. Then they escape, and then Asgard blows up and Thor and the rest of the cast is in a spaceship.

It's not a plot, it's a series of disconnected comedy and battle sequences, with zero tension and not a single character worth a damn. Every hero is going to survive, and even if they don't, there is not a whit of emotional interest if seeing them survive or not (and if they are killed, they'll probably just get resurrected again in the next movie). Hela is so unbeatable, that every fighting scene she was in was a complete waste of screen time: everyone else is beaten, whoop-dy do. Why bother filming it? Loki, the one person who at least had some interesting character in his other movies, is now useless window dressing with almost no character at all. There is only one memorable scene in the movie, and it's the only scene in which Loki displays his old trickster character. It lasts for 30 seconds, and then we're back to an endless blank nothing of emotional involvement.

I honestly don't remember a single line of dialogue outside of "We work together!" and the scene I mentioned above. Was the movie funny? I cracked a smile three times. Admittedly, if I had not seen the trailers, I would have cracked a smile four times. The acting is mostly adequate but unremarkable, and the sets, visuals, directing, and so forth are adequate and unremarkable. There is one pretty scene which would have been enjoyable if it wasn't basically a copy of the scene we saw a few months ago in Wonder Woman. Four cracked smiles are not enough to sustain a movie. There is no tension, and there is nothing and no one to root for. There is no bigger message to learn. There is no real reason for this movie to exist.

There is no explanation as to how Thor's hammer is so easily broken. Thor rips out a hammer shaped piece of plumbing that causes as much damage as his original hammer. Huh? Even after smashing into the Hulk and vice versa, the hammer shows not a single piece of wear. Banner falls hundreds of feet onto a solid surface - without turning into the Hulk - and, rather than dying, the scene is played for laughs (he is unscathed, of course). Thor must have lived for thousands of years, yet he doesn't remember that he is the freaking God of thunder and lightning until he cries like a baby because he does not have his hammer to play with - what a puny god. Any one of these was just freaking insane. But mostly, who cares??? The movie is a bunch of unfunny attempts at insult and slapstick humor and Attack of the Clones levels of emotional dialogue. It's like Deadpool, only I hated Deadpool more because Deadpool was also immoral and visceral, which made me feel sullied. This movie was merely a pathetic waste of time.

Justice League: DC comics follows up a series of boring, gritty, dark, mumbling slugfests - followed by the excellent Wonder Woman - with a return to boring, gritty, dark, mumbling, slugfest. They never learn.

If there was more than 90 seconds of daylight in the movie, I must have missed them. The origin stories are cookie cutter and uninteresting, the characters are one dimensional, at best, and no one has a relationship or seems to care about anyone or anything other than being cool. With the exception of Amy Adams, who has nothing to do but be Superman's girlfriend.

Ezra Miller's Flash takes the role played by Spider-man in the Marvel movies: wisecracking and boyish, but hardly relatable. Gal Gadot continues to be superhuman, but all she gets to do is bash people and make a few encouraging remarks. Henry Cavill as Superman managed to use his tiny screen time to exude a little more personality than the others. The bad guy, the other heroes, and the mcguffin were forgettable.

As were the action scenes. Look, guys, good fight scenes are not ones where lots of people get bashed repeatedly until one of them finally bashes harder and wins, while everyone else walked away un-scarred. Good battle scenes are ones where the bashing is kept in context and a story continues to unfold. Where victory is not finally bashing a lot harder, but where humanity is exhibited, emotional connections are made or rebuffed, and entirely new things come into play (for example, see The Dark Knight). You recent superhero film makers just don't seem to get it; I mean, you make lots of money, so I guess you're fine. But your movies are emotionless shells. They are no better than episodes of superhero TV shows.

Please: give me stories and characters, not beams of light, wisecracks, things going smash, and guys in suits posing. Lots and lots of posing.

This movie was, at least, not terrible or fatally flawed, so it earns its place among the watchable but forgettable of superhero movies.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: This flawed, beautiful movie was incredibly creative and generally fun. It has a simple Avatar-like theme of some peaceful creatures, some big bad bosses, cute creatures, and mystery. It also has two cute main characters who look like they are barely out of their teens (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne). Unfortunately, while they act well, there is not a smidgen of chemistry or fun between them. A major subplot hangs around their emotional relationship, written by someone who has no clue how to write relationships. So, although the characters are not exactly one-dimensional, they are not engaging.

The move is still fun, since the main plot - who is attacking the floating spaceship and why? - works fine. It is so inventive and fresh, you kind of wish that whomever is behind the visuals and the bestiary would have been working for the Star Wars production team. A visual feast full of surprises, directed and shot well.

Victoria and Abdul: This flat biopic introduces a topic but doesn't do much with it. Apparently, Queen Victoria spent some of the end of her life in the presence of some Muslim Indian man who was plucked out of India to perform a meaningless ceremony for her, but whom she came to think of as a teacher, despite his occasionally hiding or omitting certain aspects of the truth from her. Everyone around her hates him because he is Indian, not to mention that he is taking time and attention away from things she should be doing.

Judi Dench is a treasure, of course, but Abdul (Ali Fazal) and everyone else puts in fine performances. Costumes and cinematography are adequate. But it's not really much of a story, and the story that there is is not developed properly. For example, the movie introduces a Chekhov gun by having Abdul tell Victoria about a mango early on in the movie. In the middle of the movie, someone brings her a mango, but it is rotten. I'm not an expert filmmaker, but even I know that somewhere near the end of the movie there needs to be another mango. Either Victoria finally gets to eat a ripe one before she dies, or Abdul returns to India and reflects on a mango tree, thinking of Victoria, or something. But no. We never hear of mangoes again; the thread is simply forgotten.

Other interesting story elements were hiding in the screenplay, but they also never made it out. Victoria and Abdul walk and talk, everyone else threatens them (both), and then it's all over. The main characters' changing feelings towards each other are presented, but not well. I was left feeling hollow.