Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Movie Reviews: Street Gang (Sesame Street documentary), Toy Story 4, The Truth, The Vast of Night

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street - This fantastic documentary outshines the mediocre documentaries I have watched lately. Children Television Workshop's Sesame Street, incorporating Jim Henson's muppets, was a game-changer for television and a global phenomenon, and this film makes you feel it. I learned a lot about the people and history of Sesame Street that I did not know, such as the groundbreaking use of research and educator input used to create an educational program, together with comedians and puppet makers to make it appealing to both children and adults. The nostalgia I got while watching it made me sing along with some of the songs that I had not heard since my childhood.

I guess if you never saw SS you won't get this nostalgia. The film could have presented some of the data that lets us know that the children that they targeted actually had better school performance as a result. Aside from this one missing element, this was a treat and worth watching.

Toy Story 4 - Featuring a who's who of celebrity voices, this fourth installment in the Toy Story series is only slightly lesser quality than the first three, which were all great. Still enjoyable, still funny, still fun, and still full of heart, only the story is a little more scattered.

Woody and co are now Bonny's toys. Woody sneaks along with Bonny on her first day of school to check up on her and helps her create Forky, a stick figure made from crappy plastic. Forky thinks of himself as garbage and that he should be thrown away, but Woody tries to keep him around for Bonnie's sake. Meanwhile, they travel to an RV park, where Woody meets Bo, Gabby Gabby, Duke Caboom, and other toys who have various plans to become owned by children or to reunite children with their toys, all the while trying to not get separated from Bonny.

There are messages about the nature of reality, what it means to belong or to be useful, what is worth sacrificing, and where our higher purposes lie, all in the form of kinetic action, comedy, and pathos. If you watched the first three, of course you will watch this one. If you have not, it might be slightly confusing to follow, so watch, at least, Toy Story 3, first. Hard to believe they have been doing this for 25 years, and that they haven't messed it up, yet.

The Truth - A French drama starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, and Ludivine Sagnier. Fabienne is a famous but aging actress writing a book. Lumir is her screenwriter daughter, who, with her husband Hank and daughter Charlotte, is visiting her mother in France. Fabienne lies to Lumir, Lumir lies to Fabienne, and this continues for the whole movie. Fabienne did, and does, many insulting things to everyone around her, oblivious to their pain. Fabienne's excuse is that she is a liar and a pathetic wife and mother because she gave it all to her art of acting. Meanwhile, Charlotte may learn something - maybe the wrong thing? - from them both.

This is a dialog heavy open-ended drama where you quickly realize that you are never going to find out what the actual truth is, because everything you know comes from the mouths of the actors, and they are thoroughly unreliable. That is both tantalizing and infuriating. It is a movie about acting and aging, and about what you get from your mother vs what you need from her. It is similar in feel and plot to the very good Clouds of Sils Maria  that I saw a few years ago. That was better, but this is also good; how could it not be, considering the talented cast? Worth watching on a small screen. Mostly in subtitles.

The Vast of Night - This is a strange but wonderful film for film-buffs only. Rather than watch this for the plot - some kind of lights have been seen in the sky above a small New Mexico town in the 1950s, and some high schoolers who work with radios try to discover what is happening ... that's it - you watch it for the acting, suspense, and cinematography. It stars Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz as the high schoolers Fay and Everett.

The film has some fantastic shots. The opening is a series of walk and talks with the main characters at long shots, off screen, or behind things, giving us a sense of something off-kilter. There are several more long shots of Sierra or Jake fielding phone calls from bewildered townfolk, or talking over the events while rummaging through old recordings. One impressive and fascinating long take swoops from Fay at one end of town, traveling for a mile at ground level, over fences, and through the high school basketball game to Everett at the other end of town.

What does it all mean? Who knows? The acting, sets, sound, and camerawork are phenomenal. The dialog is mysterious and captivating, even though very little actually happens. But the same is true for all suspense movies, where things may be happening but it's hard to know what. After a lot of dialog, it ends with a run through a field when the mysterious lights come into sight. This whole movie would have been the opening 3 minutes of an X Files episode. If you want standard, passive entertainment, you should probably pass, but it is sure fun to watch if you love to watch something really good and really different.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Movie Reviews: Shang-Chi, Summer of Soul, The Last Letter From Your Lover, The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Red Turtle

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Marvel with a Chinese mythology spin. Simu Li plays Shaun/Shang-Chi, a trained warrior and son of the 4000 year old, more highly trained, more warriory Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung). Xu is immortal because of his use of the mysterious and unexplained ten rings of power.

Shang-Chi is hiding as Shaun in San Francisco, working with his friend Katy (Akwafina, playing in another movie with dragons shortly after her role in Raya and the Last Dragon). Shaun, Katy, and Shaun's sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) are kidnapped by Xu to attack a gate near some village (led by Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh)) in another dimension in order to free his wife/their mother (who is dead, but Xu thinks his wife is calling to him and may still be alive). But this is a ruse by the evil Dweller-in-Darkness to ... uh ... take over the world. Sides are taken, pretty beasts fly around in the other dimension, people do martial arts and people fight. Sacrifices are made.

The movie attempts to give a backstory and character to Shang-Chi - a bit more than we saw in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 - but this is still a Marvel movie, so the backstory is comic-worthy. Much of the plot setup and story is told in jerky walk-and-talks between fighting scenes. Like Black Panther, the directing and choreography try to honor Chinese culture with appropriate costumes, fighting styles, music, and landscapes, but, unlike that movie, it doesn't all gel. It feels paint by numbers and jumbled. Still, points for trying.

The ten rings are in the movie, but they come from nowhere, mean nothing, have no definition, and add nothing but glowing balls of light. There is a lot of annoying deux ex machina before the ending, and all of the fighting basically runs by itself; the people are mostly observers. The return to our world is satisfying, and some other MCU characters show up as a nice touch. This is one of the lesser entries in the Marvel canon, kind of boring, and not a film that I plan to see again.

Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) - A documentary by Questlove about the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival, a series of music festivals celebrating Black culture. Owing to Woodstock, and to the media's generally ignoring Black culture, the event is not well known about outside of the Black community. The concerts had a combined attendance total of around 300,000 people, and the performers included Sly and the Family Stone, BB King, Glady Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and, perhaps most notoriously, Nina Simone. Simone gave a long speech about how she would like to see violent revolution and armed conflict by the Black community to fight against racial injustice.

From the hour-plus of the movie devoted to actually hearing the music, the music appears to have been good to great. Maybe there was not much more footage of the music, or maybe Questlove simply decided to use the rest of the movie to present the politics around the event. The movie is important in presenting an overlooked event of Black culture. Other than this, and Sly's performance and Simone's speech, the movie is just a standard documentary: it's fine, not great.

The Last Letter From Your Lover - Like Me Before You, this movie is high on sweetness and potential, but low on depth, which I assume, like Me Before You, is a betrayal of a deeper novel by Jojo Moyes. In the 1960s, Jennifer wakes from a car crash with little memory of what happened before, to relearn about her rich lifestyle, absent and problematic husband, and possible lover. In the modern era, journalist Ellie, who has her own commitment problems, discovers a series of love letters that uncover Jennifer's story. Will love triumph in the past and in the present?

The film is shot and costumed beautifully. It is watchable and well produced, but it does not present real characters well enough to engage our sympathies. Why did Jennifer marry this guy to begin with, and what is her life story, other than her husband and her possible lover? What else do we know about Ellie? It's all so shallow and pretty, that we don't learn much.

Which is a pity. The plot is easy enough to follow through the different time periods and the different happy and unhappy relationships. Shailene Woodley, Felicity Jones, and their various male counterparts do fine enough jobs given the script. I suspect that if you have read the book and already sympathize with the characters and their stories, that the movie is more enjoyable to watch. Or maybe just as frustrating in its lack of truly bringing the complete book experience to the screen.

The Man Who Knew Infinity - A sturdy biopic about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who, unschooled, formulated thousands of insights into mathematical formulae in his youth in India in the early twentieth century. He (Dev Patel) wrote to Cambridge University in an effort to find others who could understand his work, and so was brought over to England by G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons). There he encountered many things in his short life before his untimely death: some of the usual racism of that period; contentious but highly respectful colleagues who insisted that he present proofs for his insights (most of which were right, but not all); a separation from his wife and culture in India and and a very different, atheistic culture in England (to his very religious Hindu one).

The math explanations are kept short and tidy, but their importance - other than that they are mathematically important in some way - is never explained. The film is also rather bleak and cold, even if it is the usual celebration of triumph in some small way. Everyone plays their part well, but, other than Ramanujan's decline in health, the occasionally amusing or troubling conflicts are eased through without much on-screen tension. As a result, the film is colder, less enjoyable, and somewhat more forgettable than other recent films, such as The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game. It is worth watching, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

The Red Turtle - An intriguing myth in the shape of a movie from Studio Ghibli. A man is washed onto a deserted island. He tries to escape by raft a few times, but each time is stopped by a mysterious red turtle that keeps him trapped (safe?) on the island. In revenge, he attacks the turtle and flips the turtle over. Before the turtle dies, he tries but fails to make amends. He goes to sleep beside the dead turtle, but wakes up next to a woman in the turtle shell. They eventually make a life together and have a son.

There is no dialog, other than the occasional grunt. So what is the movie about? A treatise about nature? A metaphor about life, birth, and the womb? Pre- or post-lapsarian? All and more?

This may be a little slow for some viewers: although most of it moves as a good pace, a few of the sequences go on a bit long. The story, such as it is, doesn't hit you over the head with its meaning, so you have to bring your own. I'm a little annoyed at the use of a woman as a kind of object for the man, rather than as her own person, but this is only a problem depending on how you interpret the myth. It's not a tour de force, but it's fascinating, dreamy, and beautiful. Worth watching.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Holocaust Games

Not everyone shares my objection to Holocaust used as a subject in fictional films, but the concept of a Holocaust game draws near universal confusion and condemnation. This is simple enough to explain: most people understand "game" to mean "toy", "play", or "fun", something they don't think should be associated with the Holocaust. (Yet a film being "entertainment" doesn't bother them, go figure.)

To explain this more fully, consider the objective of a player in such a game. You don't want them to play a victim who dies or is tortured, because, even as an educational tool, that is too intense. You don't want them to play a victim who easily survives, because that is not the lesson of the Holocaust. That's just a revenge fantasy. You don't want them to play a Nazi, for hopefully obvious reasons; and anyway, most fictional portrayals of Nazis complete bury the point of how mundanely clean and rational they behaved. And playing as a gun-shooting liberator, such as an American or Russian, barely conveys anything real about the Holocaust.

That does not exhaust all options, thankfully. You can make question and answer games about the Holocaust; a game based solely on questions probably won't be too much fun (or worse, will be too much fun). You can make small, limited games that, through exploration, teach people about specific events of the Holocaust in passing, such as the deportation of a single town. This allows you to keep the game light enough while lightly educating and, perhaps, stimulating a desire to learn more (supplemental reading material, or links, should be bundled with the game, ideally).

Here are a few games that have tackled the Holocaust. I don't include major franchises that touch on the subject within broader WWII fighting games, such as Call of Duty and Wolfenstein. I don't include games where you take on the role of Nazis. I also don't include games that are designed but not yet published, such as Light in the Darkness.

  • Attentat 1942: This walkthrough game intersperses interviews, animation, footage, and stories by survivors with simple gameplay elements. For example, the survivor might describe how she had to hide paper before the Gestapo arrived, and then you are given the choice of where to hide the papers in the room. You job is to be a historical researcher and learn what happened to your grandfather.
  • Through the Darkest Times: This walkthrough of animated scenes depicts Berlin around the time that Hitler is voted into power until the end of WWII. It's narrative presents how his rise to power included the support of the population. You do various small tasks of resistance, although, of course, the end is the same.
  • My Memory of Us: A video game with a fantasy version of WWII, where two kids who are best friends are separated when an evil king (with robots) comes to power. They impose harsh restrictions on one of the kids (the girl) forcing them to wear certain clothing, mocking them, and creating dangerous situations. They only want to play together, and only by working together can the kids reveal their true power.  The game uses cute graphics against black and white dystopian steampunk backdrops of ghettos, garbage, and barbed wire. The story is narrated by Patrick Stewart.
  • The Journey: A children's based story app from the UK's National Holocaust Centre, about a boy who must navigate Nazi rule in the early 1930s until he gets to Kindertransport. Discover hidden objects and fulfill minor objectives.
  • Witness: Auschwitz: An interactive VR experience about the Holocaust, not actually a game as far as I can tell.
  • Rosenstrasse: A tabletop RPG about the only mass public protest by Germans during the Holocaust: non-Jewish women protested loudly and long enough about their Jewish husbands and successfully obtained the release of these 1,300 men.
    memoiAR, a CMU research team, created an augmented reality version of the game called We Choose Each Other.
  • Train: Brenda Romero's fascinating and controversial thought experiment, which is more of an interactive art piece that can be "played". You have to squish little yellow figures into trains until, at some point, a reveal is made to indicate that you are trying to send Jews to a death camp. At this point, the reactions of participants vary: some keep playing, some quit, some try to subvert the game's goals. While this game has been criticized for whitewashing the complicity of the perpetrators of the Holocaust (who knew what they were doing and volunteered to do it), I think the criticism misses the point about people blinding doing things until they receive a moral wake up call. It's a thought piece, in any case.
  • Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah: A supplement for White Wolf's Wrath of Oblivion/World of Darkness RPG. A prime example of what you should not do for a Holocaust game. The book gets some points for seriously describing some of the history and suffering of the Holocaust to people who might otherwise never learn about it. It loses all of these points by weaving in fantasy game elements, statistics for NPCs and campaign settings, and essentially (not intentionally, I'm sure) giving neo-Nazis a platform to roleplay the murder of Jews and other undesirables. Not well thought through.

Cardboard Genocide is a research paper from Poland with some other thoughts on the topic.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Movie Reviews: My Salinger Year, No Time to Die, Palm Springs, The Sparks Brothers, Spider-Man: Far From Home

My Salinger Year - This is a fine little literate comedy about a woman Joanna (Margaret Qualley) who, in 1995, takes a job at a literary agency run by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver). The agency's main important client is J.D. Salinger. Joanna's job includes responding to anyone who writes seeking anything from Salinger with a form letter and then shredding whatever they sent. A subplot involves Joanna and her obviously soon-to-be-history boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth). Joanna Rakoff wrote the book based on hr experiences at this agency.

It's a simple plot. Joanna is an aspiring writer of her own and wants to grow out of her position and her relationship. Meanwhile, she takes pity on some of the letters that she receives from Salinger fans. Sigourney does a light impression of Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. You won't learn anything about Salinger, and The Devil Wears Prada is a better and more important movie, but this is still worth watching on a small screen.

No Time to Die - The fifth and final film of Daniel Craig's take on James Bond (Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre, and this one), of which all of his movies form a single story arc. Craig has been the most serious of Bonds, with much grit and gravitas. Unfortunately, his films also have the most violence. I liked Casino Royale quite a bit, I didn't particularly like Quantum (bad cinematography and confusing story), I literally laughed out loud (in a bad way) at various points during Skyfall (the insanely ridiculous plot of the bad guy and the multiple, insanely ridiculous misunderstandings of how computers, technology, and security work), and I was not overawed with Spectre. I think I liked this one well enough, if not as much as Casino Royale.

Bond is unsure whether to trust Madelaine, the girl he ostensibly loves, when Specter finds him in a remote part of Italy. Meanwhile, some bad guys want to kill Bond, or maybe also want to kill people who belong to Spectre. In the meantime, the CIA and MI6 are both trying to stop someone who stole an insane biosignature nanobot weapon from MI6 that can kill specific people with DNA traits by spreading from person to person like a virus (once again we have the trope of the "good guys" inventing a killer weapon for "good reasons", and the bad guys stealing it in order to kill massive amounts of people). Meanwhile, Bond is retired from MI6, and his own loyalty is in question. He ends up running from place to place to kidnap, steal, or rescue people, and attempting to stop someone from using the weapon against the world.

The plot is somewhat confusing if you have not seen previous films in this series, but only a little confusing if you have. I followed it pretty well. The emotional stakes are somewhat higher, with characters getting some dimensionality on screen. The acting is superb, the plot not too bad, and there are very few idiotic misuses of computer security (Q actually plugs an enemy's disk-on-key into a sandbox computer instead of, as he did in Skyfall, the main networks of MI6, yay). Rami Malek is delicious as the villain, and Lea Seydoux is good as the "Bond girl" with a bit of spunk (although she runs in perfect high heels a few times too often). This film also features a few more Black female 00s than we are used to, as well as Ana de Armas as a giggly but ultimately kick-ass CIA agent assigned to help Bond in Cuba. Cinematography is excellent, and so is the sound and music.

But I had a few problems. One is that the violence, particularly near the end, is so relentless, artless, and gratuitous that I felt like I was watching a war movie rather than a spy movie. It is numbing and dehumanizing; it was not entertaining after a while. Second is that while there is some characterization, there could be a whole lot more. We really don't come to care much about these people. Also, like in other Hollywood movies dating back 100 years, Bond must be in his 60s while his love interests are in their 20s an early 30s, which remains a sexist and unsettling trope.

I watched this on the big screen. If 15-20 minutes of the shooting were taken out, and maybe a bit more of Bond as a person were added, it would have been a great Bond film, but it was good enough for an action film.

Palm Springs - In this romcom, Nyles (Andy Samberg) is stuck in a time loop at a wedding he doesn't want to be at, waking up each day to a girlfriend who is cheating on him. Cristin Milioti is the similarly miserable woman he accidentally traps in the same loop (after also accidentally trapping someone else (Roy, played by JK Simmons). Eventually one of them discovers a risky path to exit the loop (or die trying); should they take it? Standard romcom tropes ensue.

And this is an above average romcom, especially considering that I had low expectations of an Andy Samberg film. Thankfully, it is not too over-the-top. The acting and cinematography is adequate. The explanatory plot is sort of ridiculous, as time loops tend to be, but it is the kind of ridiculous you can ignore in favor of the comedy and drama. The leads are genuinely sweet. Worth watching on a small screen.

The Sparks Brothers - This is a documentary about an influential but obscure band, nothing special. Sparks tended to choose originality over commercial success, which is respectable. However, IMHO their music is not very enjoyable; they don't have the raw musical talent of weirdos like Frank Zappa. For some reason, this documentary got really good reviews, but I can't fathom why.

Spider-Man: Far From Home - The next Spider-Man movie is almost upon us, so here are a few words about this followup to Avengers: Endgame from 2019. It's a Marvel movie. The stakes feel particularly low, and the plot feels more cookie cutter than ever. The fights are repetitive and forgettable As for the plot, for some reason Tony Stark willed all of his weaponry over to Peter Parker, who is duped into giving it over to an unhinged ex-Stark employee who hopes to take over the world. They fight, and guess who wins in the end?

Tom Holland, Jacob Batalon, and Zendaya are all fetching, but Jake Gyllenhaal is not believable as the bad guy. Skip, or watch if you are a Marvel completist.