Sunday, December 17, 2017

Movie Reviews: Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi (spoilers), Battle of the Sexes, Wonder, Coco

Battle of the Sexes: It feels like forever since I've seen a movie with real, engaging three-dimensional characters, instead of the one or zero dimensional characters you get in Disney and Marvel movies.

The story starts with some background on Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Riggs is an older former champion tennis player, a sexist but talented socialite, who is having difficulty with his family and looking for a new challenge. King is young and at or near the top in women's tennis, but disgusted that, while women's tennis draws the same ticket sales, the athletes get paid 1/8 what the men do, "because". So she starts her own league. Riggs challenges King to a battle of the sexes.

The trailers for this movie made it seem like Steve Carrell's Bobby Riggs was going to be a caricature of the real Riggs (who was certainly flamboyant). Thank goodness, Carrell, and his screenwriter and director, do a fantastic job in giving us a fully-fledged person that we can care about, even as he is, essentially, the bad guy. So, sucky trailer. Emma Stone does an equally fantastic job as Billie Jean King, as do several of the accessory and side characters, who are fleshed out in full glory (or at least as much as their screen-time allows).

The story lingered perhaps a little too long here and there on some scenes, like the initial haircut scene where she falls for her hairdresser (Carol did a better job with its similar love at first meeting scene). And maybe a little more time could have been added to the story to make it feel like a real epic. But never mind. This was a fun, fine, and satisfying movie to watch.

Wonder: From the trailer I wasn't expecting much for this movie, and in fact wasn't planning to see it at all. It seemed like a straightforward movie about a disfigured boy (Jacob Tremblay) being bullied in school, making and losing friends, and ultimately triumphing. Ho hum. So, once again, sucky, sucky trailer.

That story is, indeed, the backbone of the movie, taking up around 50% of the screen-time; if it was all there was to the movie, the movie would be as expected: not bad, but ultimately nothing special and predictable. But the movie spends the other 50% of its screen-time telling other people's stories, sometimes rolling back the same scene multiple times to view it from different points of view. We spend a lot of time with the sister, but also the mother, the sister's friend, the sister's boyfriend, and two other kids in the boy's class. And all of those stories are better and more original than the main storyline, making the movie so much more than just a story about a bulled boy.

The story is screenwritten by Steve Chbotsky (based on a book by RJ Palacio), the same screenwriter and author of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I saw and loved that movie and wanted to read the book afterwards. The same thing happened with this movie: the movie is good, but you can see the left-out parts of the book peeking about here and there, and you really want to get more into depth with the characters.

Yes, the story is still a bit of a tearjerker, sentimental and emotional, but it is also narratively creative with some interesting, less predictable characters and story arcs. The main, predictable arc (basically told in the trailer) is raised up by being interwoven with the other stories, although it, too should have been better. Well worth a see, especially for kids and teens. Note: Chewbacca is in the movie, which makes it a candidate as an entry in the Star Wars canon, in my opinion.

Coco: Coco follows in the tradition of Moana, Brave, and Mulan in presenting not only a story of a hero's journey but a journey that is kickstarted, guided, and resolved in consonance with the literalization of a non-American cultural mythology. And I don't know how I feel about that.

A Mexican boy's (Manuel) family refuses to have anything to do with music because the great-grandfather ran off to become a musician, leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves. Naturally, Manuel wants to be a musician. It is the Day of the Dead, where everyone puts up pictures to the dead in order for the dead spirits to be able to (spiritually) visit, but of course a) there is no picture of the great-grandfather and b) Manuel doesn't want to have anything to do with his family. Manuel's idol is a famous musician, and Manuel learns, by accident, that this famous musician was, in fact, his great-grandfather. To compete in a music contest, Manuel steals a guitar from this musician's shrine and finds himself cursed into the land of the dead. Who are happily visiting the relatives who have posted pictures for them. The ones whose families have not posted pictures of them are unhappy. Manuel needs his dead family's blessing to get back to the real world, but they won't give it to him unless he promises not to pursue music. So he runs off to find the spirit of his great-grandfather.

Many of the themes, including the central theme, are reminiscent of the ones in the other movies I mentioned, and the movie also borrows some narrative elements from Up. It has a lot of "learning moments", which are familiar, and a few nice musical scenes. It leans heavy on appreciating your cultural heritage, by turning mythological aspects into real ones.

Which I find kind of bothersome. When mythology becomes fact, it is no longer a question of faith or practice or choice. While in real life there is no easy answer as to whether choosing to honor or not your dead ancestors makes you a good or bad person, movies like this imply that you have no choice not to believe in your family's traditional stories: If you don't, you are murdering or causing tremendous pain to actual beings who walk, talk, and feel exactly like any other living beings do. I'm not comfortable with that message. A mature individual recognizes that what we do to honor the dead and our traditions has nothing to do with the dead, but is about ourselves, our families, and our communities. Coco is aimed at children, sure, and this is just a children's story. But I thought that this movie was supposed to be sensitive to the cultures it was representing, not trivializing to them. You can't really have it both ways.

There are no glaring flaws with the movie, although a Mexican family rejecting all music for several generations seems a bit of a stretch. The movie is filled with pretty art, colors, and architecture which I presume represent both historical and modern Mexican culture. I'm not sure that modern children will appreciate the music, except the few numbers that are obviously meant to appeal to them. I'm not sure in what time period the movie is supposed to be; it must be modern, but no one has cellphones or computers. Is that normal for a modern, large Mexican town? Anyway, I liked it more than I did Moana, which I found derivative and boring. I'm sure that kids will enjoy it.

Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi: Star Wars once had something that was different from other sci-fi movies and worlds, something precious and important. Unfortunately, the makers of the current movies don't see that. Instead of making Star Wars movies, they are making modern sci-fi movies indistinguishable from other modern sci fi movies, with the iconography of Star Wars. Which is very painful to me. Chris Bateman bemoaned something similar after watching the Star Trek reboot, and I didn't get it, then. I think I get it now.

Update: see the end for thoughts after a second viewing.

The new Star Trek movies, the X-Men movies, the Marvel movies, the Ghost in the Shell remake, the Blade Runner movie, Looper, Valerian, Avatar, DC's movies, and many other sci-fi movies in the last 10 or 15 years  have a vast similarity to each other, in much the same way that all modern Disney, Pixar, and other American animated children's movie have vast similarities to each other. They may have different writers, directors, and casts, but they are all, essentially, dumbed down. The creators of these movies avoid complex messages, plots, and themes, throw in snarky slapstick between action sequences, fill the screen with copious action sequences at nearly the same points in the movie, present emotions and dialog that is one-dimensional and transparently representative of the characters, and hammer you with neat and simplistic moral messages in their denouements that are understandable and suitable for a 4 year old. Family is good. Be brave. Be true to yourself. Be loving to creatures, the natives, and the environment.

Star Wars 4-6 and 1-3 were not like that, at all. Well, okay, they often had one-dimensional emotions and dialog, but otherwise. Star Wars did not have tons of snarky dialog, except for Leia, and hers was not slapstick snark but a very specific kind of frustration snark. A Star Wars movie took itself seriously, because the movie was about space opera and adventure, not about instant entertainment. The message about choosing the good side of the force was given, not saved as a discovery for the end of the movie. The dark side of the force and the light side of the force were about our moral choices: people could contain both of these powers, but choosing light meant - by definition - choosing good, while choosing dark meant choosing to be selfish, and therefore evil. People could be ambiguous, but there were clear moral choices. Heroism was heroism: choose good and act on it. Every movie felt like it was part of a world that extended well before and after the movie: what you were seeing was a small part of a great epic, because the movie took time to show and make you feel time passing: Luke's daily routine on the farm represented years, his efforts on Dagobah months. The force presented an exploration of mysticism, not just firepower or "lifting rocks". The movies were NOT just sci fi movies with cool weapons and critters; they were NOT Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a close movie in structure, but just as far in feel as all the others.

The came The Force Awakens. The Force Awakens struck an iffy balance between Star Wars ala Lucas and modern sci fi movies. It felt, at times, too much like a Marvel movie. It was missing a lot of the feel of the Star Wars epic and the mysticism, it felt less like an epic and more like a sequence of events. But the characters, especially Rey, were compelling and the structure was well done, so I had hope it might move in the right direction after the makers received feedback from the fans.

Here be some spoilers, but nothing major.

This movie felt like a Star Trek movie with bits of Star Wars thrown onto it. For the first 25 minutes of the movie, I was in pain, holding my head in my hands aghast at the vast empty, non-Star Wars feel to the movie. Then we got to Rey and Luke, and it was filled with snarky scenes that were supposed to be funny, and I felt my stomach drop. It was supposed to be funny that Luke casually tossed the light saber over his shoulder? Really? It wasn't funny AT ALL, not only because it wasn't funny, but because it wasn't what Luke would do, even if he were disgusted by the force and everything it stood for. He would throw it away in disgust, perhaps, or at least show some emotional acknowledgement that this was his saber he had lost. Or ask some questions of Rey. Anything! The scene was a disaster, and I began to get a headache.

The main part of the movie is dull, with an hour long chase scene where nothing of consequence happens. Poe and Finn basically accomplish nothing in the entire movie. Instead, the entire enterprise of heroism is called into question, because, as one character puts it, we don't kill what we hate, we save what we love? What??? So heroes aren't heroes? It is implied not only that people can have both dark and light in them, but that dark isn't maybe so evil and light ins't maybe so good! What??? That destroys the entire freakin' metaphor! I don't want another vague morality movie that tells me that morality is relative. I don't want a treatise on how heroes aren't heroes, because they should follow orders. And I don't need a new lecture on how both sides are just as bad, and another on how we shouldn't treat animals badly (seriously, the movie took about twenty minutes of run time to tell us this).

The scene on the casino was a phenomenal waste of time; maybe it was supposed to be funny, but it wasn't, and it wasn't Star Wars funny. Even the pod race in TPM made more sense and had more meaning than this. And then we have a scene with Ren gratuitously without his shirt, a callback to the underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. The whole movie takes place over what? Three days? So no story development. Please repeat after me: a character learning something isn't character development. It's just learning. Marvel characters learn things, too, but that doesn't make them less cartoonish. Development takes introspection, depth, complexity, time, and sensitivity.

So yeah, I had problems. Not only in the first 25 minutes, but many times after.

However .... admittedly after the first 25 minutes, some of the scenes were really great, and even really Star Wars great. The Rey-before-Snope and the lightsaber battle afterwards were beautiful, because of the shifting nature of the alliance and the confusion that the characters felt in the process. And the battle over the salt fields with the red plumes were a beautiful thing to see. I liked the dynamic between Ren and Rey, and the Luke and Ren scene, too. I liked Rose, but I didn't like most of the scenes she was in. I hated the multiple BB-ex-machina scenes, even more than I disliked the C3PO nuisance scenes in ESB.

Seen from the non-Star War perspective, the movie dragged in several scenes in the middle, but it was at least as entertaining as any other modern sci fi movie, and better because of the interesting characters of Rey and Ren. But I despair about the future of the franchise. With the exception of certain threads and scenes, these are not Star Wars movies, and for that I mourn. I like these threads and scenes; I want them to be in better, far different movies.

Also ... more spoilers ...

Callbacks: So many scenes were callbacks to TESB and TRotJ: training the Jedi, including entering the "dark side" cave, Rey giving herself up to Ren to be taken before the emperor and snatching up the lightsaber, and others. The resistance flying head on into the marching first order elephant things. And, admittedly, ESB spent mosy of its time simply chasing after the Millennium Falcon.

Things I didn't have a problem with that others might: The above callbacks. The changes in the force, such as the mindlink and the projection. Yes, it's odd that previous generations of Jedi never did these things, but they seem like the kinds of things that they would do, and I'm cool with that. This includes the water actually traveling through the mindlink and that Luke projected an image was of his younger self.

Other minor problems: If this takes place only days after the last movie, how could the republic and/or first order be in any kind of different state than it was in the last one? What happened to the galaxy? Why do they keep calling them rebels, instead of the resistance? Pick one. Since when do bombs fall in space when you release them? Fall which direction? What happened to Snoke insisting on training Ren? Or Rey? What the hell was Snoke? He shows up larger than life, he seems to be stronger than the emperor, and then he just dies? Why didn't the new admiral Holdo just tell Poe what the plan was, instead of waiting until the evacuation? Why did she wait until nearly everyone was dead before light-speeding her ship into the enemy? If that's a thing, can't you rig a bunch of ships to do that and decimate your enemies more frequently

Update: Having now seen the movie a second time, my thoughts are adjusting a bit. The parts that I disliked the first time I dislike now even more: in particular the comedy and the BB8 scenes, which are as annoying as Jar Jar but take up even more screen time. There is a difference between conversational humor, which I can enjoy, and slapstick humor directed at the audience, which I don't. I'm further down on the arrangement of scenes and the pacing. I don't like any scenes with Hux. I don't like the plot about, or even the idea that, spaceships run out of fuel in this universe. I still don't like how the director taunts the audience by not paying off stories about Rey's parents, Snoke, the R2D2 map, Chewbacca's grief, and other things.

The parts that I liked before I like even more, which is also what happened to me with TFA. However, after the second viewing,  I'm feeling a bit better about the neutral parts of the story. I don't LIKE the story - both the good and the bad guys throw away the past, Finn and Poe are reigned in as heroes instead of being heroic - but I'm okay with that being the story.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

MagicGate: Toxic Misogyny Invades Tabletop Gaming

Tabletop gaming has always had its share of women-hate and male toxicity.

Sexes were historically separated from playing together for thousands of years in order to avoid licentiousness. This was simply an extension of the general separation between the sexes. By the 19th and early 20th century, at least in Europe and the US, the sexes had found ways to mingle by means of parlor games, many of which we would consider overly racy today (a great many of them involved kissing and/or groping, for example).

The last hundred years of tabletop games saw women relegated to "women's divisions" (in Chess, for example), "girls" games (aka pink and/or about makeup and jewelry), or even the kitchen in the belief that they don't have what it takes to play at a man's level. They often don't, if you exclude them from serious training opportunities, exclude them from playing against top players, diminish their desires, goals, and accomplishments, require them to deal with unchecked harassment, and require from them a fanatical devotion to play for endless hours with unwashed, excruciatingly rude, and sexist jerks. Despite this, there are always a few women who are able and willing to complete with many of the top men in any game.

I had hope that in our little corner of the world, harassment would get no worse than that, and hopefully better. While anyone of any sex might get killed playing Dominoes in a Jamaica coffee shop or throwing dice on the streets of Taiwan, tabletop games remain a relatively safe, family-friendly, and gender-mixing activity. Chess, Go, and Bridge have women's divisions, but the majority of their competitions are mixed and relatively safe. Wargaming is a men's club, but it's not toxic to women as far as I know. CCG and RPG events are/were known to attract mostly young male jerks, which scared off some women (see above) but I hadn't thought that these jerks' behavior rose to level of toxicity associated with Gamergate. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Women are not only harassed, but sexually assaulted at these conventions; the organizers and police are often unable or unwilling to help them. Apparently the CCG and RPG players who grew up  in their little boys' club are now adult enough to feel entitled and powerful enough to join the ranks of the male toxics, white nationalists, and "pickup artists", just like the Gamergate folks. And just as in Gamergate, douches post harassing videos and posts claiming that woman who complain about harassment are lying for the attention, as a result of which teeming hordes of similarly minded jerks harass them more, and more seriously. And when called on it, of course, they post endlessly, harassing everyone with why they are right and everyone else is lying and "missing the point". Ho hum, how familiar.

Seems like this behavior is getting worse, not better, and I can think of a few reasons why. I just wish that they didn't infect my hobby.