Saturday, August 27, 2016

Poem: Headstrong

O golden robed Moses, divinity-defier, is that you levitating in a wavering nimbus under an absent moon?
Where do your open soled sandals of glory fly tonight?
Come black-bearded shepherd, passionate prophet of awesome consequences,
Come perambulate among the remnants of your descendants in their stateless state, a dead line drawn from your flame-haloed bushtop to decades of dispute.

Come tap your magic staff on children tussling in the dirt you were denied, earthen and iron idols in their hands, hunting for virtual gods. Their leathered footsteps have trod every centimeter of this land.

We built your broken tablets into silicon halls, shopping malls, and supermarkets. Come walk the aisles of our exile, where artificial orange heads push cartons of crembos, occlusions of cantaloupes, cheese loaves and labane for Friday night beach blankets. Your stiff-necked people heed scribbled signs about 10 items or less as surely as they heed your engravements about 10 commandments.

We built your pitched basket of tar and reeds into roads that would amaze you, but we drove out the white haired goats and dripping honey dates. Come argue with our reckless chariot drivers who peel sunfruit by the yard, mustaches spitting stolen olive pits and politics. We plastered those gossiping spies carrying grapes and bemoaning the inhabitants onto every brochure as our national symbol for welcome.

If you are wondering what happened to your omnipresent ever-protective clouds of smoke and fire, they are still belching as the sun burns red-orange over Haifa bay.

Did the leaders you so carefully picked to minister to the hundreds, the fifties, and the tens sell their favors for hundreds, fifties, and tens?

Come swing your compelling compass needle to the backgammon players, sunflower seeded sabras and saviors, baby angels learning all night instead of living all day. Here the Arabs dance as Jews, the Jews dance as Christians, and the atheists patrol the watchtowers.

Here knives stab without hands (apparently), bullets spring miraculously from bodies (allegedly), Midianite spears pierce the wombs and genitals of righteous zealots, and hatred is the cream in our morning coffee.

How quickly can we rush to birth to offset our rush to death? Bodies struck down and buried in the sand don't stay buried here for long.

(I take your hand and pat a jagged stone wall, wet with blood and papers and thorny brush falling to a discordant dissolution. Your sister's tambourine was knocked out of her hand by a folding chair.)

Dear introvert, shy shepherd, wolf-tamer, what do your circumcised lips utter so softly in your trembling lisp? Is this the vision of the borders of Israel that the Almighty showed you as He cupped you in His palm and raised you over the majestic mountains of Gilead?

Copyright 2016 Yehuda (Jonathan) Berlinger

Communication Blackout

I'm going on another little communication blackout vacation - this week I will be at the Dead Sea working on my book: no phone, no internet while I'm working. Unlike last time, I will open the phone in the morning and evening, so it won't be total radio silence. My kids agreed to come with me under these conditions; they will be on their own as far as entertainment goes during the day.

Of course, this supposes that I will survive an early Sun morning dental appt that may result in a root canal or tooth extraction. I have been in pain for a few weeks now. Owie. I may spend my first day/s at the hotel actually sick, rather than writing anything at all.


Monday, August 08, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (XIII): Review

See all of my movie reviews.

Star Trek Beyond is the third in the Star Trek alternate universe reboot, and the thirteenth overall. (6.5 of The Original Series, 3.5 of The Next Generation, and these 3 which are not based on a television show at all.)

Previous Star Trek reviews: 1-3, 4-6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Plot: in the opening scene, Kirk offers a piece of a dead weapon as a peace gesture on behalf of some race of beings to some other race of beings (in a familiar looking "arena" like hall). The offer is not accepted and he is chased back to his ship. The Enterprise heads for some R&R after three years into their mission: Kirk is tired and ready to give up his command in exchange for a promotion if he can leave Spock in charge, while Spock (unbeknownst to Kirk) is ready to go back to Vulcan and do Vulcan things. Sulu has a man friend and a daughter at the R&R spot, Uhuru is ready to give up on her quest to bed Spock, and so on.

An alien shows up at the R&R spot, requiring assistance to get her stranded crew off of some planet inside some nebula (and so out of contact with the Federation). Kirk and co go to rescue them. But they also get attacked, abandon ship, and are stranded, and most are captured (losing the Enterprise, yet again). Meanwhile, by strange coincidence, the enemy that attacked them is after and eventually finds that piece of a dead weapon; he has the other half and intends to use it to kill many people, for reasons.

Will Kirk and Spock rescue all of both of the stranded crews that are still alive? Will they find a way off of the planet? Will they stop Mr Bad Guy from killing anyone, after he has killed his fair share of red shirted characters? What do you think?

Reactions: This was a fun movie, one of the best of the Star Trek movies, which proves that there is still life in the franchise, and also proves that it will never be as good as Star Wars.

This movie is far more like Star Trek than either the first in the reboot (11), which was a fun but generic sci-fi movie, or the second (12) which was a boring, generic, and needlessly kinetic and violent sci-fi movie. This movie doesn't mention the prime directive, but it returns us to the sense that the Enterprise and crew are on a mission on behalf of a larger organization. This movie is also more like Star Wars than any of the previous ST movies. The crew crash on the planet and get separated, meeting up with various aliens - good and bad - and then reuniting with the purpose of rescue and sabotage - a lot like Return of the Jedi. The various life forms and interesting worlds are Star Warsian. Even a few of the lines are lifted from Star Wars; a male character says to a female one "I'm here to rescue you", only to get a look of bemusement and a soft rebuke. Where have I seen that before ... twice?

The plot is solid and moves well, leaving time for character development and reflection, but never dragging. The much ballyhooed scene of Sulu's partner is short and insignificant, but feels nice and natural. There is plenty of action, but not unending or insensible. Funny lines are naturally funny in the right places, and not thrown in just so that they will appear in the trailer. Acting, directing, and cinematography are universally polished. The tech is cool without being overwhelming. You care for the characters by now - they all have strong scenes in the plot (unlike 11) - so the tense scenes are gripping and only occasionally over-the-top.

That doesn't mean that the movie is without flaws. The bad guy is only so so, and his motivation is weak. The relationship between Spock and Uhura continues to be ridiculous. The ability for centuries-old technology to continue to function and work impeccably (without a full repair shop and crew) is beyond belief. It's still rather convenient when the bad guys choose to kill, or when they just choose to take prisoner. And just as stupidly, when a good guy allows a bad guy to talk long enough to let himself get distracted; the movie could have ended neatly if the good guy had simply shot the bad guy at the first opportunity (on stun), locked him up, and listened to his life story at a later time.

So why can't this franchise compete with Star Wars. Many reasons. One, it doesn't have ligthsabers. Sabers are not only far more cool to watch in battle than firing spaceships (which everyone has) or fist fights, but they also represent a level of class and nobility that this and other sci-fi franchises can't match. Two, although it has some funny lines, the entire universe of Star Wars is just more fun: more furry creatures and ridiculous droids. Three, the characters in Star Wars are also more fun, more roguish, more independent. Four, the whole Star Wars story has an endless stream of locations and personalities, but they are all fighting and facing the Big Bad empire and much cooler bad guys. Five, The Force. The fantasy of the Force gives us more personal involvement and nifty make believe than an entire crew of boring humans (or the equivalent) having to work together. Six, the most you're even going to get from Star Trek are lessons about bravery and the strength of friendship and working together. Star Wars brings in so much more, with mystical elements and classic storytelling techniques mixed with the new ones [1]. Seven, every Star Wars movie is part of a continuing story, while every Star Trek movie is essentially an independent adventure (ST's 2, 3, and 4 are all slightly better because they formed a continuing story).

But anyway. If you were waiting for ST to be good again, this is probably as good as it's going to get.

My ranking: 4, 13, 11, 9, 8, 2, 3, 12, 10, 7, 6, (5 and 1 which are both the same and horrid).

[1] Update: This is true ever since we lost the Vulcan mythology, which was a part of ST universe until the 4th ST movie. If they bring it back, it would re-add a key missing element of the ST universe.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Movie Reviews: Jason Bourne, Me Before You, Cafe Society, Sing Street, Ruby Sparks, What If

See all of my movie reviews.

Jason Bourne: I liked the original Bourne trilogy, even though I'm not a fan of Matt Damon. It certainly beats the Bond reboot movies, and it is close to the MI movies. I didn't see the Bourne reboot movie from a few years ago.

I went back and forth while watching this movie. Was it really necessary? Not really. It's a retread, the way that the new Star Wars movie is a retread, but the new Star Wars movie is at least setting up something new and different. This movie's only excuse for newness is to have Bourne unable to remember yet one more thing - his father's death and how he died - so as to set up the same sequences - and give us an excuse for continuing the manhunt. We liked the tense scurrying around in public places in the first three movies, so we get an even larger percent of them in this movie. It turns out that the first three had just the right percent of them; the extra percent of them in this movie kind of drags on.

The camera is even shakier here, but the acting and directing are steady.  Although, Alicia Vikander as the maybe-good girl seems to have walked right off of the Ex Machina set on to this one.

The car chase sequence at the end is ridiculous: a swat car, whose frame is higher off the ground than a typical sedan, literally plows through rows and rows of cars, tossing them off the front hood out of its path; uh, that can't happen, physically. And anyway, come on. At some point these cars and their occupants can't take all of this damage and keep driving.

As usual, anyone who knows anything about computers will find some of the computer sequences laughable. I don't know how Jason has the money to live or travel like he does, or where he gets his weapons, or how he smuggles them across borders, or why he is never stopped by immigration (even with fake passports), but whatever.

You won't be missing out on much if you skip this one, but you also won't feel cheated. It's the least of the four, but it's still Bourne. There's a lot of shooting, crashing, fist fights, and tossing about the word "asset". Politics are a thin smear in the background.

Me Before You: Yet another book based on a Nicholas Sparks book ... excuse me, a John Greene novel ... no wait, someone named Jojo Moyes. Whatever. A happy-go-lucky down-on-her-luck young British woman from a working class family lands a job with a ridiculously wealthy family to be the social companion to a ridiculously wealthy young man who is quadriplegic (due to an accident), surly, and depressed. The young man looks like he is heading toward suicide. Will they fall in love? Can she stop him?

Do surly, pampered people in books/movies suddenly stop being surly when, approximately a quarter of the way through the book/movie, the unhappy, recently introduced, fetching opposite sex protagonist yells at them for being spoiled, surly, and pampered?

I'm assuming the book was better. The movie was very shallow. It's okay to have a predictable movie, if the acting is deep and engaging, the characters smart and poignant and emotional (c.f. The Age of Adeline). It's okay to have a shallow movie if it's entirely original, very funny, or has something else going for it. This movie has a few things going for it - Emilia Clark has a big smile or a perky pout and is fun to look at, Sam Claflin is totally in that wheelchair, and the scenery is adequate - but it's less original, and about as deep, as Fifty Shades of Grey. Speaking of 50SoG, what's with the lazy storytelling of romance movies with a shlub of a woman and a super-rich man? I know it's a Big Fantasy for women to be desired by rich men who can fly them on private jets, but it makes for a very small story when it involves rich people who can do whatever they want with no limits. Part of the enjoyment of movies is struggling with limitations, and when all but the single, central conflict of the story is removed - and the rest is fairy tale perfection - it makes for dull story-telling.

The characters, including the supporting characters, are weak. The story is perfunctory. I guess the resolution will take some people by surprise (I guessed it when the girl's token, unsuitable jock boyfriend was unceremoniously given his predictable exit), and the movie contains some moments of pathos in its second half, due to the strength of the directing in a few key moments. It's fun to watch Emilia smile and pout. But that's about it.

Update: Owing to Emilia Clark's smile and charm, I watched this again, with lower expectations. I enjoyed it more than the first time. With lower expectations, the movie manages to live up to its purpose as a sweet, simple movie with a few strong moments of joy and pathos, which is not a bad thing. I'm going to raise my rating a little.

Cafe Society:  I'm a little wary of supporting a Woody Allen film, and anyway I'm not exactly a big fan. I find his earlier period a little juvenile, I love Annie Hall and Manhattan, and I like some of his eighties films. Most of his films since then have been passable, at best. Still, this one seemed like it might be ok, and the alternative was seeing Jason Bourne, which I already saw.

This is another passable, not great, movie. Slightly better than To Rome with Love. with a few storytelling and character flaws - I expected character flaws, but I was surprised by the writing flaws. In short, it's the 1930s, and a Jewish boy Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is sent to get a job at his uncle Phil's (Steve Carell) in Hollywood. The uncle is a big time producer. The boy's family in New York includes his nebish parents, his uncle who is a gangster, and his aunt who is married to a communist. The uncle doesn't know what to do with him, so he passes him off to one of his secretaries Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him around. Boby eventually hobnobs with big society, moves back east and manages his gangster uncle's nighclub. Before that, Bobby falls for Vonnie.

Spoilers: Unfortunately, Vonnie is having an affair with Phil. Phil won't break up with his wife, so she eventually is sympathetic to Bobby's entreaties (but not apparently in love with him). Phil finally ditches his wife, and Vonnie chooses Phil over Bobby. Bobby married a different Vonnie (2) in New York (Blake Lively), and has a child, but some emotions are stirred up when Phil and Vonnie 1 visit New York for a short time.

End spoilers.

The movie has a talented cast and director (of course). I have always admired Kristen and here she gives a good show. I fell in love with Blake in The Age of Adeline, and she's fine here, too. Steve and Jesse handle themselves fine. Cinematography is top notch. The music is lovely. Most scenes - except when the gangster uncle is around - flow well, and you feel some sympathy for Bobby.

Bobby is the Woody Allen here - I think I speak for most of humanity when I say that I'm tired of Woody Allen stand-ins in his movies. Allen is a tired comedy writer; comedy has evolved past the one line zingers and shallow philosophical quotes that he espoused in the late 1970s, but Allen is stuck there. Writing the same character into every damn film is lazy writing. Furthermore, his situation comedy is fine, but his punchlines are boring. When he quotes philosophy, and then follows the quote with a twist ("Life is a comedy ... written by a sadistic comedy writer", or "Socrates said 'The unexamined life is not worth living' ... but the examined one is no bargain."), I wonder: really? That's the tired quote you're going to use? That's the best you can do for a punchline? Worse, these lines don't even fit in with the conversations happening in the movie; it's like he collected a bunch of them and really wanted to use them, so he threw them out of context in the movie (and then they end up out of context in the movie trailer).

The gangster and the (to a lesser degree) the communist uncles are pitifully flat and one-dimensional. Every line that comes out of their mouth screams "gangster" or "communist". The nebish father is nearly as bad; at least the nebish mother has some funny lines. The other characters are better.

The main problem is that the central plot conflict is badly written.

Spoilers: The end of the movie has Bobby and Vonnie 1 staring off into space, apparently wistful for the love they gave up because she married his uncle instead. But  - apparently - still loves Bobby? Loves Bobby more? That seems to be the only conclusion that one can draw from those looks, but Woody never showed us that she loved Bobby at all: she felt sympathetic to him and was - maybe - willing to marry him, since Phil wasn't available, but she never said she loved him, and she never showed or looked like she loved him. So what's with the wistful staring? Where does she have any conflict? Maybe that got dropped from the script.

End spoilers.

All in all, the movie doesn't fit together, but it's often passable entertainment with some funny moments and pretty outfits.

Sing Street: By John Carney, the same guy who made Once and Begin Again, two of my favorite movies about a girl and a guy, each in their own lapsed or near-lapsed relationships, making a record together, comes a story about a much younger guy making a record, who finds a girl in a quasi-relationship to star in the music videos for it. The girl is 16 or 17, the guy is 15. The decade is the 80s and we're back in Dublin.

This is a very good movie, though not quite so good as the first two. But I may feel that way only because a) it's the third movie with a similar theme, and b) I didn't like the music as much. Still, it's very good. The boy is a writer and a bit of a guitar player and vocalist, and he recruits the usual suspects of friends to create the band. He suffers from parents who fight with each other and are likely headed to a separation and from in an Irish Catholic boy's school, where both the head priest and some other students are bullies. He takes a chance and befriends the girl, who lives across from the school in a home for girls with dead or absent parents.

Ireland is always so pretty on film, even if everyone in the movie who lives there thinks it's a hellhole because "somewhere else", such as London, has more opportunities. The boys learn about music through MTV and his brother's records. With each new band they see on MTV, the boys imitate the musical style of that band, down to the musical beats, the clothes, and the ridiculous hair and makeup. Meanwhile, the girl is a model who may or may not head off to London with her boyfriend before our hero can get her.

A nice movie, sweet characters and connections, and a good date movie. It goes about where it should go in the end, which is fine. One element of the story bugged me: the boy is supposedly too poor to buy the black shoes that are required for school (his parents took him out of private school to send him to this free Catholic school), but every time he changes his band's image he shows up at school with an entirely new outfit, including overcoat, sunglasses, and a new hair style. Similarly, the girl is in an orphanage, yet she always dresses top notch-Madonna (or Duran Duran babe) style with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and pounds of trashy jewelry; that was a bit hard to swallow. But you can ignore that little detail and enjoy the movie anyway.

Ruby Sparks:  An odd romantic comedy somewhere in the same ballpark as Stranger Than Fiction. Calvin is having trouble writing his second book, so he writes about a girl haunting his dreams who suddenly manifests into a live girl who is his girlfriend. This takes some getting used to. He tries hard not to write anything else about her, but when things go sour and he becomes afraid of losing her, he resorts to writing changes to her personality. Unfortunately, this takes her into the uncanny valley where she no longer seems human. After a final, horrible confrontation, he is forced to do the responsible thing.

It starts out as a male wish-fulfillment. He is supposed to learn that you can't dictate your desires onto someone else who has their own life; you have to deal with him or her as he or she is. The screenplay was written by the girl who plays Ruby, who is the granddaughter of Eli Kazan.

When we got to the point where things began to go sour and I knew - I just knew - that Calvin was going to start trying to change her, I stopped the video and didn't want to see the rest. I hate slavery, especially mental slavery, and I knew where the movie had to go. But I forced myself to continue, gritting my teeth, until the end. The Scene goes on a tad too long, and there were a number of other ways it could have gone, but thankfully it ended okay.

The magic behind the main theme is never explained, which is fine. Some rather odd ex nihilo objects and events don't bear the weight of analysis, so I tried not to go there. The main characters are sweet and have a nice chemistry, but the supporting characters - his brother, mother, other friends and relations, his agent and fans - are even better. They were complete characters, and I would have been happy if they had their own stories in play. California provides a pretty backdrop to the action. The director creates some beautiful camerawork with heads poking over staircases and bodies positioned for just the right effect.

The movie provides fruit for some interesting questions and discussions, though it's a bit lightweight.

What If: This is a pretty standard romcom, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Wallace and Zoe Kazan as Chantry. Chantry is in love with Ben, Wallace meets her at a party, and they agree to just be friends. Ben spends most of the movie working abroad, and obvious things happen. Wallace's friend and his wife tease and taunt Wallace about his secret pining; Wallace almost sleeps with Chantry's sister.

The strength of a good formula romcom is in exceptional dialog or exceptional scenes or acting, but this movie doesn't have that. Really bad romcoms have stupid characters, slapstick, or people you couldn't care less about, but this movie doesn't have that either. It's just unexceptional, that's all.