Thursday, April 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 01, 2016

UX vs Game Design

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

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

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

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

Understanding Cloud Based Virtual Desktops

The following is a sponsored post:

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

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

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

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

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