Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Movie and TV Reviews: Being the Ricardos, The Duke, Encanto, Licorice Pizza, Marry Me, Worth, ...

Being the Ricardos: This is an Aaron Sorkin biopic about Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman), Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), and the other cast and crew of the iconic show I Love Lucy. The film is about the week leading up to one episode of the show: the table reads, the production, the blocking, the run-throughs. It is also about three crises facing the Ricardos that week (historically, they were actually in different weeks, but they were shoehorned into one to add drama): The media is alleging that Desi is cheating on Lucy, the media has picked up that Lucy was once registered as a communist (to please her uncle), and Lucy and Desi want to incorporate Lucy's new pregnancy into the show, which may cause trouble with some conservative segments of the viewing public. It also highlights Lucy's keen insight into exactly how to run the show, from the media issues down to the actors movement in specific scenes.

Aaron Sorkin's name comes first in the previous paragraph because his heavy-handed touch nearly ruins this film. If you've never seen another Sorkin production (The West Wing, Sports Night, Molly Bloom, etc) you will find nothing wrong with this movie. If you have, it will be difficult to watch this movie and disappear into the characters, because every time one of them opens up her/his mouth you hear the characters from Sorkins' other movies speaking. In other words the characters are not new, fresh characters or biopic approximations of the original. Instead they are collections of witty dialog with certain personal characteristics.

It is a tight production, highly dramatic with snappy dialog and good acting ... i.e. a Sorkin production. But he gives the actors the same lines and characters that he gives in all of his movies, much in the way that Woody Allen did. I just didn't feel this was Lucy Ricardo. It is still fine to watch once.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus (TV series): This show is set between the two Blade Runner movies. A girl has amnesia and flashes of being a replicant. She goes to seek vengeance on people who abused her, and to seek answers as to who she is. She meets help, and kills enemies, along the way.

Blade Runner purists are like purists everywhere: they don't like anything that is not a perfect extension of what they already know, and they hate strong female characters. So they didn't like this. Some of them also abandoned the show after the first 1 or 2 episodes because there are no blade runners until the 4th or 5th episode.

Some of them also didn't like the show because the animation quality is not "great", which may be true if you are familiar with many other anime series, but not true if, like me, you are not. It seemed fine to me. And because the action was "like a video game", which is may be true if you are familiar with many video games ... ditto.

I thought there was too much violence in some of the episodes, the first in particular. And the story arc teases some characters as important who turn out to not be. Other than that, I thought it was fun, captivating, and captured the Blade Runner world well. Lots of atmosphere, callbacks to the movies, and the same general plot about replicants, police, a big corporation, and a seedy underworld. The story is not wholly original or deep; not all of the 13 episodes are essential viewing. But I enjoyed it, and I think if you are a fan of the movies - but not a purist - you will like it.

The Book of Boba Fett (TV series): The Mandalorian was the best thing in Star Wars since the original trilogy, and I had hopes for this. As we learned in that series, Boba Fett somehow escaped from the Sarlac pit and stayed on Tatooine to take over the Hutt operations on the planet. He has an assassin for help, Fennec Shand. In this series, he walks about Mos Isley trying to assert his authority but running into resistance of various kinds. The backstory of what happened to him to get to this point is also part of the first 4 episodes, out of 7.

The first 4 episodes are fine. Not great television if you are not already a Star Wars fan. The story meanders from past to present. The backstory is a traditional story of an encounter with the natives and being taken into their tribe (Sand people). The present is mostly introducing characters for some eventual conflict. Not as bad as some people made out, but somewhat mediocre, not essential viewing.

Episodes 5 and 6 had nothing to do with Boba Fett, at all (he gets like 10 seconds of screen time altogether in both episodes). Instead, we get the continuing story of the Mandalorian, and it is fantastic. Then, in episode 7, you get a merged story of both of them: The Mandalorian, Boba Fett and his crew, and the big conflict this was all leading up to. It was good.

I think you can skip the first 4 episodes and just watch the last 3. You won't miss much. if you are a Mandalorian fan, you must watch the last 3 episodes, at least. And here is looking forward to the next season of The Mandalorian.

Duke, The: The essentially true story of a pensioner (Jim Broadbent) in Newcastle Upon Tyne who, in 1961, steals an expensive painting from the British National Gallery in London with some idea of forcing the British government to make the TV tax free for veterans and the elderly. The government thinks they are dealing with a sophisticated art theft gang and are shamefaced when he turns himself in and returns the painting of his own volition.

Helen Mirren plays his very sour and ornery wife Dorothy. A host of other actors (the most famous of them being Matthew Goode) play family members, locals, and lawyer (Goode).

This is a light movie. Subplots include their daughter who died in a car crash (years ago) and a little about their sons who have their own relationships. Mirren's Dorothy is so mean-spirited and sour at the beginning of the movie that it nearly sunk it for me: too much negativity in a supposed comedy movie. But I made it through and I enjoyed it more in the second half. Okay to watch, not worth going out of your way for.

Encanto: A huge success of a Disney movie, about a multi-generational extended Colombian family that escaped some kind of conflict and ended up in a magical village with a magical house that protects them. The family owns the house, and the rest of village relies on them or something (not clear). Each member of the family has a magical gift that they gain when they come of age, ... except our protagonist, Mirabelle. Poor Mirabelle. And they don't talk about Bruno, an uncle whose magic was predicting calamitous events (mostly minor ones) and who seems to have disappeared.

One day Mirabelle sees cracks appearing in the house. And she tries to find out why and how to save it.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the songs, many of which are super good. I am not a fan of his endless rap-style narrative songs (Hamilton, In the Heights), but the score was done by someone named Germaine Franco, which must have helped. I say many of the songs were good: they were all good, but some of them, particularly the first song, had voices that were too low or too fast and I literally did not understand a word they were singing until the second of third time that I watched the movie (or until I looked up the lyrics online).

Not all of the movie makes sense, especially the central conflict. I don't really understand who learned what or why, or what changed. But it was pretty, colorful, tuneful, with sweet, pathetic, or vibrant songs, and it was fun to watch.

Hawkeye (TV Series): Another Marvel TV series. I saw a few episodes of Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones, but I never watched the rest of these series. I saw the entirety of Wandavision, which I most enjoyed (more after the first 3 episodes), and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which was mediocre okay except for the last episode which was silly.

This series was probably the best of the bunch. This may be due to the charming Hailee Steinfeld as Kate Bishop, who joins Hawkeye as a fellow archer protege, and the captivating Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova out to kill the man (Hawkeye) who killed her sister (Natasha Romanoff).

Kate runs into a criminal organization selling black market extraterrestrial tech from the NYC event (Avengers) and tries to get involved, as does Hawkeye. The plot is not that important, serving as a basis for scenes between: Hawkeye and Kate, with Hawkeye trying to keep Kate out of the way as he does serious work, while she wants to help; between Hawkeye and Yelena and between Yelena and Kate, who arrives as a wildcard to complicate matters; and between Kate and her mother and her mother's boyfriend, who may be involved with the criminals. And some Avengers cosplayers. And lots of quips and archery.

Wandavision is still the most original of these shows. This one is simply tight and well-structured. Worth watching is you enjoy the Marvel movies.

Licorice Pizza: This is a weird comedy hi-jinks movie. It is wild, original, infused with historical 1970s California detail, and full of frenetic energy. It is partly about Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour), a 15 year old boy who is a driven entrepreneur and child actor. He spends some of his time pursuing some kind of relationship with Alana (Alana Haim, from the music group), a 25 year old who floats between jobs, including photographer's assistant, political campaign assistant, and working for Gary. He spends part of his time creating businesses, such as mattress store and a pinball parlor. And it is partly about Alana and her family and choices. And it is partly about early 1970s Hollywood and a lot of crazy people.

Speaking of parts, part of me didn't like this movie while I was watching it. The narrative wanders all over the place, the characters are often unlikable, and the plot is hard to follow. Another part of me was thrilled at watching something so interesting and unusual. It is atmospheric, with memorable scenes and characters. I really need to see it again.

Mind you, the premise of a 15 year old boy maybe having a relationship with a 25 year old woman is somewhat disturbing, and the movie doesn't do enough to make us think that there is a problem here. But I think an original film like this is worth watching, and I applaud its gumption. The supporting characters are played by some astoundingly great actors, including Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.

Mitchells vs. The Machines, The: This highly recommended film was disappointing, boring, bland, and stupid. It is action, gags, and shallow, heavy-handed family drama, the kind that changes tone too abruptly and too frequently to be funny. The kind that transparently and unsubtly tried to shove poignant emotions at you without going through the work of making you care about the characters. The kind of drama that makes no sense considering the context of what is happening on screen. The plot is unoriginal - an AI goes wild and sends robots around to kill everyone, and the child protagonists are the only ones who figure out how to stop them. Heard that one before?

It is also a tech based movie about runaway AI, so of course the tech also makes no sense, which doesn't matter but is annoying, nevertheless. It is nice that the unambiguously gay daughter is part of the family and not at all part of the plot, which is pretty groundbreaking for a family animated film. How this got so much praise from the critics is beyond me.

Marry Me: Jennifer Lopez plays a global pop star, about to marry a fellow global pop-star in a big televised on-stage wedding. Then she discovers he has been cheating on her. So she jumps at the chance to marry some dude in the audience holding a "Marry Me" sign in a leap of faith/moment of desperation/act of revenge/something. The sign-holder just happens to be a single dad (Owen Wilson) and a math teacher. And it wasn't even his sign (he was briefly holding it for his lesbian friend (Sarah Silverman)). He goes along with it ... out of compassion for someone who is in trouble, or something?

This movie makes no sense, from beginning to end. So many questions are just unanswered. Why does she do this? Why does he do it? How is this legal? She doesn't know his name or if he is even single when they marry. Why would he do this without regard for his 10 year old daughter? Why does he leave the concert without his daughter? What's happening??

I hoped that, with suspension of disbelief at the initial premise, that I could flow with the rest of the movie and maybe that would make some sense. Unfortunately, this movie feels like it was written by the 10 year old daughter. It hits every romcom plot point without once making any character or narrative sense in how it gets there. No work is put into how they fall in love, or why one of them tries to break it off, or how they end up in each location. These things just happen.

It's a bad movie. Very bad. I enjoyed Jennifer and Owen on screen, because I think they have some charm. But that's about it. Sarah's ubiquitous over-presence was grating, sad to say.

Saint Frances: Bridget is a very sad 34 year old who gets an abortion. Then she gets a job as nanny to Frances, daughter of two very sad women, Maya and Annie. Everyone is always sad, except for Frances who is sometimes sad. Near the end, some people are occasionally less sad.

I had to stop watching this for a while so that I didn't kill myself. It is technically well put together, if kind of gross (too much period blood dealt with dryly and comedic) in some places. It is kind of a comedy, despite everyone being miserable. If you can survive the first three quarters, the last quarter yields some redemption. Although the characters are original, the story is really not. The couple may be lesbian, but the story remains the same. It was well acted and well cast. Worth watching if you can stomach it.

tick, tick, ... BOOM!: The first of the only two plays from Jonathan Larson, and the second that we can now watch as movies, the other one being Rent (tragically, Larson died a few days before Rent's theater run began). The movie version of Rent is a well known cinematography failure, even though the songs are good. This one also has good songs with a slightly less depressing story and, thankfully, adequate cinematography. Andrew Garfield stars as the frenetic optimist Jonathan Larson, who wrote this autobiographical story about trying to write his actual first play, which never went into production.

The movie includes performers who starred in Rent, as well as cameos from other Broadway performers. The story pays homage to Steve Sondheim, played by Bradley Whitford (and one actual voicemail recording from Sondheim himself).

If you like musicals, and particularly Larson's style of modern, gritty but hopeful NYC musical, this is a must watch. I enjoyed it.

Worth: The true story of a lawyer (played by Michael Keaton) who specialized in assessing the value of human life. He is hired to administrate the Sept 11 compensation fund. His job is to get 80% of the people to sign onto the fund. If they don't, then a) the airlines may go out of business, and b) individual expensive lawsuits may result in some or many of the victim's families getting little or nothing. And c) it is good, politically.

Of course, putting value on people's live makes the victims furious: why is a CEO worth more than a janitor in human terms? Is the money symbolic, compensatory, punitive, a coverup, or a relief? This was well made, but rather long for a story that could have been told in a half hour television episode. It doesn't hit that hard, but tackles the subject well enough. It's okay watching if it's on TV.

Turning Red: A Pixar movie about a Chinese-Canadian girl who is going through puberty. She discovers that her ancestor's totem of a red panda means that she actually turns into a big fat red panda whenever she gets emotional. She has friends, a tiger mother, plans to see a boy band, and assorted other relatives. She has to undergo a ceremony to get rid of this new panda curse, but until then she begins to control it and use it to get what she wants, economically and socially.

This movie is a big old bunch of metaphors, one of which is nearly explicitly spelled out in the film. The first time she "turns red" and tells her mother to stay out of the bathroom, her mother thinks she has had her first period and brings her medicine and pads. While it doesn't get more explicit than that, it is still quite a concept for a Pixar movie. But that's what this is all about, isn't it: she smells funny, she can't control her emotions, she has longings for boys, she isn't in control of her body, she hates how she looks, etc, etc. Metaphor, anyone?

Unfortunately, aside from the metaphors, the story and conflict are pretty banal. She hides what she is doing from, and lies to, her over-controlling mother, so naturally there is a blow up and then some mutual understanding. It's just that some of Toronto (circa 2002) gets wrecked in the process. It's nowhere near as interesting as Encanto, but fine for younger kids.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Logic Wiz Sudoku - App to Play Sudoku Variants

Logic Wiz is an app to play 16 variations of Sudoku (probably more, by now). It was recently developed by Avner and Udi, co-founders of the company Logic Wiz, for Android and iPhone. Most variants and levels are free with ad support, some require payment.

There are other apps that offer Sudoku variants (I have not played any of these), some of which have levels with the same variant ideas found in Logic Wiz. However, Avner and Udi created some original variants, and they created, handcrafted, and implemented all of the boards in each variant. The app works fine and has a nice interface, with visual hints for newbies like me. It comes in multiple languages. Eventually it is supposed to come with leader boards of some kind.

Note: I am not affiliated with them. They sent me a premium-enabled copy to play with.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Movie Reviews: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Hearts Beat Loud, Jagged, Respect, Under the Skin

Spider-Man: No Way Home: I find it impossible to review this without spoilers, so here be spoilers ...

Tom Holland is back as Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, and we pick up moments after the last movie ended. His identity is revealed to the world, causing him, and all of his friends, no end of trouble. This is compounded by rumors that Mysterio, who Spider-Man defeated in the last movie, was actually the good guy, while he (Spidey) is the bad guy who caused all of the destruction and killed this great superhero (for reasons unknown, I guess). Those who believe this find new reasons to believe this as events in this movie unfold (this is a political commentary, I believe).

Peter tries to get Doctor Strange to cast a spell that will erase the memory of his identity from everyone. While Strange is trying to cast the spell, Peter continually interrupts him with requests for changes to the spell (MJ should remember him, ... and also Aunt May, ... and also ...) resulting in a botched spell that Strange has to contain. While doing so, he breaks small cracks in the multiverse, enabling many villains from the Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies to appear, apparently moments before these villains were killed in these movies (none of this makes any sense, but whatever). Naturally, the villains are confused, everyone in the MCU is confused (except for Doctor Strange), and so is everyone in the audience.

Strange says that he and Peter have to round these guys up with some McGuffin device that he has (this turns out to be super easy, barely an inconvenience). While doing so, Peter and his bleeding heart decide to "cure" them and so save them from death when they get sent back to their own universes. Again, this makes no sense. Strange disagrees, so he and Spidey fight. Spidey forces Strange out of the picture for a while, but also enables the bad guys to escape and regroup (with one who received the cure helping to face off against the others who did not). Meanwhile, Peter's friends MJ and Ned try to call Peter using some other McGuffin device, only to end up bringing into their universe both Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield's Spider-Men (or "Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" and "Amazing Spider-Man"). Much bonding, inside jokes, touching stories, and mutual support ensues, as well as a final battle that also brings back Doctor Strange. Peter has to make a final sacrifice in order for Strange to fix the rupture in the multiverse.

This movie has broken records, as the first pandemic-era movie to get to $100 million on its opening day, and the first to top $1 billion. It is the second-highest (or tied for second-highest) rated MCU movie, just behind Black Panther. It squashes together not only a dozen villains, characters, and heroes into one movie (ala End Game), but also squashes together three cinematic universes, which is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. So I was prepared for another boring fan-service Marvel movie that is a) well-made and entertaining, b) shallow, a collection of irrelevant actions scenes with superficial emotional "growth", c) watchable, but not good.

I am pleased to say that it is better than the usual Marvel movies, although still not a great movie. It was entertaining, well acted, and well shot (of course). It was not too shallow. The characters and the story moved and developed more than usual. Yes, it was a collection of action scenes, but the scenes between the kids (Peter and his friends) and between the Spider-Men were interesting and contained depth. These are actual characters who have real backstories and real arcs to use as backgrounds for their reactions and dialog, and this helped. Tobey and Andrew were particularly welcome and captivating, as was William Defoe's Green Goblin. Still, a few scenes with depth is not a deep movie, like a real drama movie.

On the down side, unless you have seen all previous Spider-Man movies, as well as the Avengers Infinity Wars/End Game movies (and some Daredevil, and maybe some other MCU, television shows), some of the backstories and characters will be new to you, and therefore will have less depth. You will then watch the film and feel less, since these backstories, with some notable exceptions, are not explained. This detracts from the movie for such viewers. Also, the extended fight scenes, while pretty to look at, as usual were eye candy with little dramatic depth.

If you are a fan of these kinds of movies you will love this one. If you are not, you probably won't change your mind but it will not feel like a waste of time. If you actively dislike these kinds of movies, this one won't change your mind.

Hearts Beat Loud: A little independent movie starring Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as father and daughter Frank and Sam. Sam and Frank play music together informally in their house. Sam is off to college soon. They create a song that Frank thinks might give them a chance at music success, so he pesters Same into recording, playing, an maybe touring, while Sam is more interested in her new girlfriend and upcoming college.

This plays almost like a John Carney movie (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street), with original music interspersed with scenes and dialog pregnant with emotion. The lyrics and music, written by Keegan DeWitt, counterpoint, recapitulate, or develop the story. The movie and some scenes may be a bit slow, and the story may be unoriginal, but it is sweet, the music is pretty, and everyone does a fine job. Other featured actors include Toni Collette and Ted Danson, who shine (understatedly) when they are on screen.

I didn't know anything about Nick Offerman before watching this, other than that he is Megan Mullally's husband and a comedic actor of some kind. It was a nice surprise to see him perform in an appealing comic/dramatic role, and do it well. Worth watching if it comes your way.

Jagged: A documentary about Alanis Morissette, told in her own (current) voice and the voice of her band, from the time of her childhood up until Jagged Little Pill came out and upended music in the 1990s. I have seen many documentaries about musicians lately; this one stands out. It might be because I love Alanis' music, especially from that period. Or it may be that she is a great musician, this is an important piece of music, and it is a decent story. Not a fantastic story, just a decent one (a decent story seems to elude most other music documentaries).

Alanis has famously distanced herself from this film, saying that she was betrayed in its making and that it represents distorted facts. I am not sure what her problem is, and I wish she would clarify. There are only two negative insinuations that she makes. One is that she was involved with adult married men in the music business when she was 15 years old, and that, over time, she has learned that these men took advantage of her and were, in fact, pedophiles and abusers. I don't think this is a huge revelation, since she sings about this in Hands Clean and other songs. She does narrow down the people to specific times and companies where she was working in the documentary. The other negative comment is about her all-male band-mates who attracted and slept with many female fans during their first tour, which she found, in retrospect, to be distasteful and anti-feminist. Again, I don't think this is a huge revelation.

Worth watching if you are into the subject at all, at least until we hear some kind of clarification from Alanis.

Respect: A biopic about Arethra Franklin, the Queen of Soul Music. Jennifer Hudson plays Arethra (before she died, Aretha actually picked Hudson to play her), Forest Whitaker plays her father, and Marlon Wayans plays her (first) husband. Marc Maron plays the famous producer Jerry Wexler who releases most of her music, and Mary J. Blige plays family friend and singer Dinah Washington. The movie takes us from youth until her 1971 Amazing Grace gospel performance.

This film follows the same cookie-cutter story of every other musician biopic: early struggles, a troublesome marriage, first success, a fight with a music label that results in a change of labels, a troublesome addiction, too much success leading to bad behavior, and a denouement that involves a re-centering and launch into future success with a heartfelt performance at a special place. Maybe that's just the story of all successful musicians. The movie hits all of these tropes, without getting anything deep or original out of any of them. Its distinguishing factor is her struggle with religion and her deeply religious (yet philandering) father.

It was enjoyable. While it is technically well done, it is not amazing. Everyone does a fine job, even if some parts of her life are left unexplained and unexplored. And Hudson is a great singer in her own right.

Under the Skin: Scarlett Johansson plays one of two aliens. She drags women and (mostly) men off into some kind of death or stasis in order to understand them or transport them to her planet or something. She wanders around, sometimes naked, talking little. Weird scenes occur in some kind of odd space where her naked victims follow her as she walks on a flat surface while they descend, step by step, into some kind of black oil, in which they float and can still see. It must be metaphorical, but I didn't see the point.

Looking up on Wikipedia ... From a synopsis of the book on which the movie is based, the themes are supposed to be about animal cruelty, environmental decay, sexism, and immigration. I didn't get any of that from the film. All I got was nice scenery, tedium, confusion, lack of a comprehensible story arc, and an unsexy look at Scarlett Johansson. The film took a chance by being different from the usual sort of films we see. It fails spectacularly, but I give it some credit for that.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Movie Reviews: Dune (2021), Eternals, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Father, King Richard, Pixie, Spencer

Dune (2021) - As an aside, I saw this in a 4X movie theater, and I can tell you that 4X movie theaters are not worth the extra cost. Every once in a while my seat vibrated, slightly distracting me from the movie. Then I felt the seat kicking me in my bottom (there are kids who will do that for free in regular movie theaters). Finally, during a huge rain scene on film, I felt a slight mist in the theater. Skip the 4X.

On the other hand, this is a huge, well-made sci-fi film of multiple worlds that deserves to be seen in a theater. As for the story and characters, the director Dennis Villeneuve and the rest of the staff do a great job enabling the characters to emerge. The story retains its essential form while being accessible to people who have not read (or forgot) the book, at least I think so: it's possible that the emperor sending troops to aid the Harkonnens' fight against the Atreides might get lost on someone who never read the book, which is important but not critical (at least to this movie, which is only the first half of the novel).

The story: Dune is a planet with an important spice that enables interstellar travel, while also turning blue the eyes of anyone who hangs around it for a while. The planet is nearly entirely desert, with little water and little life. However, there are some desert mice, some huge-ass sandworms that detect the slightest movement on the surface, and the freemen, nomadic and (essentially) Bedouin native warriors who resent the presence of the spice mining operations of the empire.

The emperor kicks the Harkonnens off of the planet, for some reason, and sends the Atreides faction to continue the operations, but it looks like they might have been sent to fail. The Harkonnens sabotaged some of the equipment, and they (and the emperor) later attack the Atriedes on Dune.

Meanwhile, Duke Atreides wife Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, some kind of mystic with mental powers in a long line of trained woman mystics, who has a son, Paul, that she has trained in these ways, much to the annoyance of the rest of the Bene Gesserit. She did so because she thinks Paul may be the fulfillment of a thousand years of prophesy. Simultaneously, Paul seems to fulfill some freeman signs of being a prophet, too. And he is having visions of a freeman woman he will meet and wed, and maybe die in her arms?

Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and others do fine jobs: not too mopey, not too dreamy, not too chaotic. Effects, music, and cinematography do what they should. It's not the greatest film of this decade, but it works and I enjoyed it. I am looking forward to part 2.

Eternals - This boring entry into the Marvel universe is a collection of Marvel scenes apparently written by (not exceptional) 12 year olds. Once again we have a bunch of "super"heroes with undefined powers that can do anything, except when the plot wants these powers to not work so well, so as to provide some tension (didn't work). Once again immortal and invulnerable non-human beings run through every human emotion and die from human fatal wounds like asphyxiation (although they don't breathe) and chest wounds (although they have no circulation or blood). Once again a Marvel movie tries, and fails, to explain why super-powerful beings did nothing while the other movies played out ("not getting involved in Earth events" is not an excuse for not stopping Thanos). Now, suddenly, they seem to care about humans, but they did not, apparently, during the last five millennia. Once again a Marvel movie fails to explain where all the other Marvel superheroes are at an event that threatens the entire planet Earth; some of these other superheroes are gods, right? And, once again, a Marvel movie glosses over massive destruction that should wipe out a planet; instead the destruction affects only a few miles around it.

The characters are fine, but one dimensional. The Marvel humor runs shallow. The plot makes an attempt, at least: the Eternals have to choose between helping keep humans alive on Earth or helping a celestial be born, which is their actual mission. So there is some, slight, moral dilemma. Otherwise, whatever.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye - I knew very little about televangelists and about prosperity gospel before this movie, and only a little about Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, played beautifully by Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain. Based on the documentary of the same name, this film must have involved a lot of input from Tammy Faye, who is portrayed quite sympathetically, as is televangelism in general.

The story is how the two met in college, where Jim was promoting the idea that wealth = God's blessing, and so they should make money by promoting God. Various other televangelists and other kinds of ministers have other ideas (with this and with each other), so, while, on the whole, they are all working to turn people from sin and to Christianity, they also present different, sometimes contradictory methods and messages in different styles. The Bakers end up collaborating with and butting heads with others. For example, Tammy believes in loving everyone, including homosexuals, and bringing them closer to God, while Jerry Falwell and others reject this idea.

The movie covers the financial fraud and theft by Jim Baker, as well as his (and others) possible homosexual dalliances. It skips some of the nastier things that the Bakers and other prosperity preachers did, such as telling the poorest people to take out bankrupting loans to give them (the Bakers) money as proof of their belief. This was supposed to result in being paid back many times over by God, but typically resulted in lost fortunes, bankruptcy, and even death (when people ran out of money to pay for cancer treatments, etc). But that would make it harder for Tammy to be a sympathetic screen character.

This was quite a good movie, interesting, well acted, well scripted, and well shot. I didn't see the documentary; if it is good, some might ask the question why this movie needs to exist.

The Father - This tour-de-force from Anthony Hopkins is a crushing look at a man with Alzheimer's. It's impossible to describe without giving away the film, but the simple explanation is this: Anthony plays a man who has Alzheimer's. He does not accept this, but he is not always sure of his memory. Olivia Colman plays his long-suffering daughter. Other characters appear or disappear, and that's all you need to know. Both of them, as well as the director, play the scenes with sensitivity and creativity. It is engrossing, puzzling, and marvelous.

This is not a feel good movie. While it is sometimes depressing, it is so well done that it doesn't really matter (think, oh, let's say Kramer vs Kramer level of pathos). But it's not as miserable as some movies, like ones about slavery, poverty, or horrific abuse, so you don't want to kill yourself after watching it. Still, that makes it a movie that is not for casual movie night with friends. Worth watching.

King Richard - This is an okay, feel good movie, that is something of a crime in its conception.

This is the story of the father of Venus and Serena Williams; about his plan, from before their birth, to raise tennis pros who would rise up out of the ghetto (Compton), compete at international level, and make a lot of money.

Will Smith produced the movie and also plays Richard, the father. While he does a credible job with the role, he remains a slight-change-in-dialect version of Will Smith, so he's fine but not great. Aunjanue Ellis plays his wife, and mother of the two stars (as well as mother of three previous, also successful girls), and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton play Venus and Serena. Everyone acts well; the directing is somewhat heavy-handed at times, but not often and not too much.

This is an okay sports movie about a man (with daughters) and his struggles to overcome his surroundings and his own demons. He overcomes a few of them, but some of his actions and decisions were pretty bad and the movie never takes him to task for them. I understand that Venus and Serena were consultants on the movie, so it is based somewhat on reality, at least (I hear that Richard was actually a lot more of a hard-ass than he appears in the film). As a film, it works fine.

But this movie is still a crime. Here was the opportunity to tell the story of two fierce, beautiful, successful, amazing young Black girls/women, and instead we get a movie about a man, where the two girls/women are props in his story. Why? Seriously, why do we need this story? It's not a bad story, but it's also not that original or dramatic. The Venus and Serena stories are barely told. This would be so much better if it were their story, with their father as a prop. So it is a little depressing.

Pixie - This Irish movie is a throwaway mafia/road film. It's a comedy about various criminals on the run, occasionally double crossing each other. It has some violence, but not enough to make me turn it off while watching it on the airplane. The characters, though insane, were at least sweet enough for me to watch through to the incredibly ridiculous and, yet, entirely predictable end.

Forgettable, and not worth watching, but not terrible. Beautifully shot in Ireland, and capable acting.

Spencer - This movie is directed by Pablo Larraín, the same person who directed Jackie, a movie that I disliked. I thought Jackie was directed (or possibly written) very poorly: mostly closeups of Natalie Portman's face and endless screen-time with her looking forlorn and pitiful. That's really not entertaining. People laud the acting of someone in closeup who is forlorn for 2 hours, but it doesn't make for a good movie. So I was not looking forward to see what this director would do for Lady Diana. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised.

I was not pleasantly surprised. In fact, it was exactly as poorly directed/scripted as Jackie: lots of closeups of a miserable, forlorn face. People close to Diana said that Kristen Stewart inhabited the role well, with all of the correct mannerisms and intonations. I thought the acting was affected, distracting, and overdone. Too bad, since I like to give Kristen the benefit of the doubt, but am often disappointed.

The movie is about a weekend that Diana spends at a castle with the royal family. She struggles with her eating disorder and her difficult husband, tries to visit her old family home, and runs afoul of royal expectations. She leaves early, takes the children, and separates (one presumes) from Charles back in London.

The rest of the casting, costuming, and cinematography is fine. The story is not: it's just moaning, warbling, and fretting, with the occasional pointed conversation in between. I was fine with the conversations, but that was only about 1/3 of the movie. Just watch The Crown.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Another Roundup of Social Issues in Tabletop Games

Gloomhaven designers follow in the footsteps of other RPG companies in working to remove racial and colonial assumptions from their upcoming edition of Frosthaven.

Workers at Paizo follow the footsteps of workers at other RPG companies in raising issues about excessive work hours, low pay, minority tokenism, and other abuses.

Meanwhile, some workers at Broken Token (makers of inserts) posted and/or confirmed stories of abuse and sexual harassment by the founder, leading to many manufacturers and gaming associations to stop working with him.

Board games that address issues of race or gender often do so using a single idea: unequal starting positions and rewards based on your race or gender. The latest to do so are the 50th anniversary edition of Blacks & Whites, a Monopoly clone from the 1970s, and Disparity Trap, a game where, I think, the results of the cards require you to scan QR codes to find the results (the exact rules are not on the site)

Black Progress Game is a more upbeat roll and move game about the Black experience.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Movie Reviews: Street Gang (Sesame Street documentary), Toy Story 4, The Truth, The Vast of Night

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street - This fantastic documentary outshines the mediocre documentaries I have watched lately. Children Television Workshop's Sesame Street, incorporating Jim Henson's muppets, was a game-changer for television and a global phenomenon, and this film makes you feel it. I learned a lot about the people and history of Sesame Street that I did not know, such as the groundbreaking use of research and educator input used to create an educational program, together with comedians and puppet makers to make it appealing to both children and adults. The nostalgia I got while watching it made me sing along with some of the songs that I had not heard since my childhood.

I guess if you never saw SS you won't get this nostalgia. The film could have presented some of the data that lets us know that the children that they targeted actually had better school performance as a result. Aside from this one missing element, this was a treat and worth watching.

Toy Story 4 - Featuring a who's who of celebrity voices, this fourth installment in the Toy Story series is only slightly lesser quality than the first three, which were all great. Still enjoyable, still funny, still fun, and still full of heart, only the story is a little more scattered.

Woody and co are now Bonny's toys. Woody sneaks along with Bonny on her first day of school to check up on her and helps her create Forky, a stick figure made from crappy plastic. Forky thinks of himself as garbage and that he should be thrown away, but Woody tries to keep him around for Bonnie's sake. Meanwhile, they travel to an RV park, where Woody meets Bo, Gabby Gabby, Duke Caboom, and other toys who have various plans to become owned by children or to reunite children with their toys, all the while trying to not get separated from Bonny.

There are messages about the nature of reality, what it means to belong or to be useful, what is worth sacrificing, and where our higher purposes lie, all in the form of kinetic action, comedy, and pathos. If you watched the first three, of course you will watch this one. If you have not, it might be slightly confusing to follow, so watch, at least, Toy Story 3, first. Hard to believe they have been doing this for 25 years, and that they haven't messed it up, yet.

The Truth - A French drama starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, and Ludivine Sagnier. Fabienne is a famous but aging actress writing a book. Lumir is her screenwriter daughter, who, with her husband Hank and daughter Charlotte, is visiting her mother in France. Fabienne lies to Lumir, Lumir lies to Fabienne, and this continues for the whole movie. Fabienne did, and does, many insulting things to everyone around her, oblivious to their pain. Fabienne's excuse is that she is a liar and a pathetic wife and mother because she gave it all to her art of acting. Meanwhile, Charlotte may learn something - maybe the wrong thing? - from them both.

This is a dialog heavy open-ended drama where you quickly realize that you are never going to find out what the actual truth is, because everything you know comes from the mouths of the actors, and they are thoroughly unreliable. That is both tantalizing and infuriating. It is a movie about acting and aging, and about what you get from your mother vs what you need from her. It is similar in feel and plot to the very good Clouds of Sils Maria  that I saw a few years ago. That was better, but this is also good; how could it not be, considering the talented cast? Worth watching on a small screen. Mostly in subtitles.

The Vast of Night - This is a strange but wonderful film for film-buffs only. Rather than watch this for the plot - some kind of lights have been seen in the sky above a small New Mexico town in the 1950s, and some high schoolers who work with radios try to discover what is happening ... that's it - you watch it for the acting, suspense, and cinematography. It stars Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz as the high schoolers Fay and Everett.

The film has some fantastic shots. The opening is a series of walk and talks with the main characters at long shots, off screen, or behind things, giving us a sense of something off-kilter. There are several more long shots of Sierra or Jake fielding phone calls from bewildered townfolk, or talking over the events while rummaging through old recordings. One impressive and fascinating long take swoops from Fay at one end of town, traveling for a mile at ground level, over fences, and through the high school basketball game to Everett at the other end of town.

What does it all mean? Who knows? The acting, sets, sound, and camerawork are phenomenal. The dialog is mysterious and captivating, even though very little actually happens. But the same is true for all suspense movies, where things may be happening but it's hard to know what. After a lot of dialog, it ends with a run through a field when the mysterious lights come into sight. This whole movie would have been the opening 3 minutes of an X Files episode. If you want standard, passive entertainment, you should probably pass, but it is sure fun to watch if you love to watch something really good and really different.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Movie Reviews: Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, The Last Letter From Your Lover, The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Red Turtle

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Marvel with a Chinese mythology spin. Simu Li plays Shaun/Shang-Chi, a trained warrior and son of the 4000 year old, more highly trained, more warriory Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung). Xu is immortal because of his use of the mysterious and unexplained ten rings of power.

Shang-Chi is hiding as Shaun in San Francisco, working with his friend Katy (Akwafina, playing in another movie with dragons shortly after her role in Raya and the Last Dragon). Shaun, Katy, and Shaun's sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) are kidnapped by Xu to attack a gate near some village (led by Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh)) in another dimension in order to free his wife/their mother (who is dead, but Xu thinks his wife is calling to him and may still be alive). But this is a ruse by the evil Dweller-in-Darkness to ... uh ... take over the world. Sides are taken, pretty beasts fly around in the other dimension, people do martial arts and people fight. Sacrifices are made.

The movie attempts to give a backstory and character to Shang-Chi - a bit more than we saw in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - but this is still a Marvel movie, so the backstory is comic-worthy. Much of the plot setup and story is told in jerky walk-and-talks between fighting scenes. Like Black Panther, the directing and choreography try to honor Chinese culture with appropriate costumes, fighting styles, music, and landscapes, but, unlike that movie, it doesn't all gel. It feels paint by numbers and jumbled. Still, points for trying.

The ten rings are in the movie, but they come from nowhere, mean nothing, have no definition, and add nothing but glowing balls of light. There is a lot of annoying deux ex machina before the ending, and all of the fighting basically runs by itself; the people are mostly observers. The return to our world is satisfying, and some other MCU characters show up as a nice touch. This is one of the lesser entries in the Marvel canon, kind of boring, and not a film that I plan to see again.

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) - A documentary by Questlove about the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival, a series of music festivals celebrating Black culture. Owing to Woodstock, and to the media's generally ignoring Black culture, the event is not well known about outside of the Black community. The concerts had a combined attendance total of around 300,000 people, and the performers included Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, Glady Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and, perhaps most notoriously, Nina Simone. Simone gave a long speech about how she would like to see violent revolution and armed conflict by the Black community to fight against racial injustice.

From the hour-plus of the movie devoted to actually hearing the music, the music appears to have been good to great. Maybe there was not much more footage of the music, or maybe Questlove simply decided to use the rest of the movie to present the politics around the event. The movie is important in presenting an overlooked event of Black culture. Other than this, and Sly's performance and Simone's speech, the movie is just a standard documentary: it's fine, not great.

The Last Letter From Your Lover - Like Me Before You, this movie is high on sweetness and potential, but low on depth, which I assume, like Me Before You, is a betrayal of a deeper novel by Jojo Moyes. In the 1960s, Jennifer wakes from a car crash with little memory of what happened before, to relearn about her rich lifestyle, absent and problematic husband, and possible lover. In the modern era, journalist Ellie, who has her own commitment problems, discovers a series of love letters that uncover Jennifer's story. Will love triumph in the past and in the present?

The film is shot and costumed beautifully. It is watchable and well produced, but it does not present real characters well enough to engage our sympathies. Why did Jennifer marry this guy to begin with, and what is her life story, other than her husband and her possible lover? What else do we know about Ellie? It's all so shallow and pretty, that we don't learn much.

Which is a pity. The plot is easy enough to follow through the different time periods and the different happy and unhappy relationships. Shailene Woodley, Felicity Jones, and their various male counterparts do fine enough jobs given the script. I suspect that if you have read the book and already sympathize with the characters and their stories, that the movie is more enjoyable to watch. Or maybe just as frustrating in its lack of truly bringing the complete book experience to the screen.

The Man Who Knew Infinity - A sturdy biopic about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who, unschooled, formulated thousands of insights into mathematical formulae in his youth in India in the early twentieth century. He (Dev Patel) wrote to Cambridge University in an effort to find others who could understand his work, and so was brought over to England by G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). There he encountered many things in his short life before his untimely death: some of the usual racism of that period; contentious but highly respectful colleagues who insisted that he present proofs for his insights (most of which were right, but not all); a separation from his wife and culture in India and and a very different, atheistic culture in England (to his very religious Hindu one).

The math explanations are kept short and tidy, but their importance - other than that they are mathematically important in some way - is never explained. The film is also rather bleak and cold, even if it is the usual celebration of triumph in some small way. Everyone plays their part well, but, other than Ramanujan's decline in health, the occasionally amusing or troubling conflicts are eased through without much on-screen tension. As a result, the film is colder, less enjoyable, and somewhat more forgettable than other recent films, such as The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. It is worth watching, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

The Red Turtle - An intriguing myth in the shape of a movie from Studio Ghibli. A man is washed onto a deserted island. He tries to escape by raft a few times, but each time is stopped by a mysterious red turtle that keeps him trapped (safe?) on the island. In revenge, he attacks the turtle and flips the turtle over. Before the turtle dies, he tries but fails to make amends. He goes to sleep beside the dead turtle, but wakes up next to a woman in the turtle shell. They eventually make a life together and have a son.

There is no dialog, other than the occasional grunt. So what is the movie about? A treatise about nature? A metaphor about life, birth, and the womb? Pre- or post-lapsarian? All and more?

This may be a little slow for some viewers: although most of it moves as a good pace, a few of the sequences go on a bit long. The story, such as it is, doesn't hit you over the head with its meaning, so you have to bring your own. I'm a little annoyed at the use of a woman as a kind of object for the man, rather than as her own person, but this is only a problem depending on how you interpret the myth. It's not a tour de force, but it's fascinating, dreamy, and beautiful. Worth watching.