Friday, May 20, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 09, 2016

Necessary Invention: Dual Call Waiting/Voice Mail

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