Monday, June 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What I've been up to

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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