Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Miss Bala (2019)

I’d like to think that people go to movies for a thought-provoking narrative.  Certainly, some moviemakers would spin their product that way.  A person grows as they go on a harrowing journey where they make life-long friends and discover themselves.  The audience even learns a little bit about themselves or a different culture.

But who am I kidding?  Give us a trailer with some attractive women and an explosion or two, and we’ll buy tickets.  Take Gloria Fuentes, an American who grew up in Mexico.  She’s visiting her friend, Suzu, to help her win a beauty pageant.  Gloria is a makeup artist, which helps.  Suzu has to impress the local chief of police at the local night club.  (He would seems to be able to fix the pageant.)

Armed gunmen enter the nightclub, chaos ensues and Gloria barely makes it out alive.  Suzu isn’t anywhere to be found.  You’d think at this point, the movie would have Gloria go through some elaborate plot to find Suzu.  Maybe she even meets someone who can help her.  If you’ve seen any movie, you know not to go to the police.  You especially don’t go to the police when you know that the chief is the least bit corrupt.

When Gloria goes to a local police officer and explains everything, the police officer takes her straight to the same gunmen that shot up the night club.  They take her passport and ID and have Gloria drive a car to a building.  (This is the scene from the trailer, wherein she blows up the safe house.)

This draws the attention of the DEA, who would flip Gloria into helping them take down the gang.  Sure, they could help find Suzu.  It’s the same offer that the gang made.  What the DEA have as leverage is the ability to lock her up and/or leave her to the gang, who might very well kill her.  So, yeah.  Gloria has no options.

There’s a part of me that would like to have been around while the movie was being written.  I’d like to know the thought process.  I get that Gloria doesn’t know the area that well.  I would think that she would have had at least one other person to turn to, even if it was one of Suzu’s family members or friends.  Instead, she does the one thing that most people in her situation should have at least thought about avoiding.  (At least keep information to a minimum.  If your primary objective is finding your friend, don’t offer up the fact that you can identify the criminals.)

Another bothersome aspect is that there are basically three main groups of people:  Beautiful women, corrupt police and gang members.  I wouldn’t think this is something Mexico would want to be associated with.  Well, the first one is debatable.  No one likes being called ugly, but women should have more to offer than their appearance.  Either way, I don’t think I’d want my country associated with violence, drugs and kidnapping.

On the bright side, there are some really good action scenes.  We get a few gun fights and whatnot.   There’s also the explosion.  With all the death and destruction, though, there’s not much for the kids.  Oh, and the drug references.  Like I said, corrupt police and gang members make up a good portion of the movie.  Yeah.  I’d leave the young ones at home.  Even with teenagers, this is a movie you’re probably going to have to have a discussion on the way home.  It’s a watchable movie, but it doesn’t make for a very good message.

Monday, February 11, 2019

On the Basis of Sex (2018)

You wouldn’t think of a Supreme Court Justice as being popular.  Sure, they may get some news coverage during the confirmation hearings, but that’s generally it.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems to have gotten a lot of attention in the movies lately.  There was a documentary about her last year.  She got a mention in Deadpool 2.  She even had a cameo of sorts in The Lego Movie 2.

Before she was on the Supreme Court, she was a lawyer.  Before she was a lawyer, she was a law student in a class of almost all men.  She had to face the challenges one might expect.  The dean of Harvard Law, Erwin Griswold, thought she was wasting a space that could have gone to a man.  Once she graduated, she was offered all manner of excuses as to why she shouldn’t be hired.  So, she’s relegated to teaching about law rather than practicing it.

At least she has a supportive husband.  No, seriously.  Marty Ginsburg brings her a case wherein Charles Moritz was denied a $296 deduction related to caring for his elderly mother.  The reason?  He’s a man who has never been married.  Had he been a woman or a widower, he would have gotten the deduction, no problem.

Some might say that it’s not worth fighting.  Even Moritz needs a little convincing.  ($296 in the early 1970s would probably translate to about $1800-$2000 in today’s money.)  To Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it’s about the principle.  Moritz was denied a deduction on the basis of sex.  That’s not right.  Winning this case would set a precedent for other, similar cases.  No pressure.  Right?

Well, the other thing she has going for her is actual skill.  She doesn’t have the experience, but her husband is willing to help her.  She also has another lawyer helping her, which makes for a strong team.  We get the fumbles and setbacks and everything.  In the end, the good guys win and Mr. Moritz gets his deduction.

The movie does a good job of showcasing Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I think this has to do with balancing her with the supporting characters.  If you focus too much on the main character, it can become too intense.  If you try to work in too many additional characters, it can become a circus.  Instead, the movie focuses on the story and how Ginsburg had to work that much harder because she was a woman.  (She not only did her own coursework at Harvard, but helped with Marty’s when he was sick.)

I’ve often wondered if the sexism was really that bad.  In this case, I’m inclined to think so.  I know that lines are put in for the sake of storytelling, but there was a time when women weren’t welcome in law.  When Griswald has a dinner for women, he almost seems aware of the sexism.  He asks the women why they would want to take a man’s place.  It should come as no surprise that she eventually transferred to Columbia.

It’s hard to believe that something like this went on except that it still does.  (How can you graduate first in your class and still not be able to find a job in your field?)  I’d say that maybe husbands and boyfriends would be dragged to see the movie except that it does have a popular and powerful main character.

It also does a good job of illustrating the disparity.  When you’re the beneficiary of discrimination, it’s easy to justify it and put it out of mind.  It’s easy to say, “Oh, yeah.  The wives would be jealous,” when you’re saying it to someone who has no recourse.  There is a scene with a cat call, but the movie does do more than that.  I don’t think this is a movie you should feel like you were dragged to.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

First Man (2018)

There were 17 missions named Apollo.  In addition to these, there were 12 Gemini missions, all in low-Earth orbit, all as a way of testing what would be needed for the lunar missions.  There have been all sorts of movies made, like Apollo 13.  Other motion pictures, such as Hidden Figures, have brought the support staff to our attention.   This isn’t even getting into miniseries and books.

It occurred to me while watching First Man that it‘s impossible to capture all of it in one movie.  In fact, the movie left a lot of it out, focusing on Neil Armstrong.  It caught me off guard.  Then, I remembered what the name of the movie was.  A movie called First Man should focus on Neil Armstrong.

The movie starts in 1961 with Armstrong testing an X-15.  Upon attempting reentry, he bounces off the atmosphere, but is able to get everything under control and return safely to the ground.  Regardless, he finds himself grounded.  He’s distracted, and with good reason.  His 2-year-old daughter is being treated for a brain tumor.  No one can do anything and it’s weighing on him.

The movie moves forward to major events, starting with his applying for the Gemini project.  Throughout, there are major historical events, like the Soviets beating America to several milestones.  Several fellow astronauts die, which doesn’t sit well with his wife, Janet.  (It’s not easy to see her husband and father of their two children go into space, knowing how many unknowns there are.)

Being that this is based on historical events, I’m not going to worry about spoilers so much.  The movie doesn’t rely on any sort of shock value, nor does it play up any sense of tension.  Plus, Armstrong lived until 2012.  Saying that he makes it back to Earth isn’t ruining any part of the experience.

It’s somewhat difficult to get my head around the scope of it all.  The movie does convey that people didn’t make it home safely.  Apollo 1 didn’t launch due to an electrical fire, killing all three occupants of the craft.  Wives have to deal with the reality of their husbands not coming home.  Even when everything goes right, it’s not over until they walk through the door.

There is also a muted feel to the movie.  There are arguments, but it’s not uncomfortable.  There is excitement, but it’s not overdone.  There’s a very even pace and tone throughout.  I’m not sure that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not good, either.  It seemed like the movie was stripped down to just the facts.  I will say that there was a decent flow to the movie.  It seemed long, but it didn’t seem boring or jerky.

I’m not sure that any one project could do all the space missions justice.  Even to focus on one mission, like Apollo 11, would have to cover a lot of ground, including all the research that went into it and all of the people that were involved.  Even a miniseries would be hard pressed.

There is a value in watching it, though.  I could see people of high-school and college age watching it.  It would be interesting to see the opinion of those that lived though the 1960s and know more about it.  As I’ve indicated, I’m sure that there’s a lot that was left out.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man (2018)

Working at Wolf Camera, I came across a few famous names.  One customer was married to the grandson of Franz Kafka.  (She was surprised that I recognized the name.)  Another was an actress who had appeared in a lot of Spanish-language television. 

There was one story that sticks out most in my mind.  It was during the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas when the store was really busy.  We had more customers than we had employees, which meant that people had to wait.  As I’m helping someone, I see who I think is Tony Soprano milling about.  I want to give my full attention to the person I’m helping, but I can’t help but glance over.  Unfortunately, we were so busy that he ended up leaving without being helped.  That was the time that I almost met James Gandolfini.

The experience of meeting a celebrity can vary.  Some are nice.  Some aren’t.  They tend to be regular people going about their business, which makes for a normal assortment.  Then, there are celebrities like Bill Murray.  He’s almost taken on an Elvis-like aura.  People have seen him at parties.  He’s done dishes.  The first one I heard had him taking a French fry and saying, “No one will ever believe you.”

Tommy Avallone got the idea to make a documentary.  This is how widespread the stories are.  It’s not an easy task, though.  Bill Murray has no agent.  He has a phone number with an answering service that he might occasionally listen to.  (It’s not clear if Avallone made the documentary with Murray’s consent, as the director is not shown having contacted the actor directly.)

You’d think one man making this sort of documentary wouldn’t be interesting, but it is.  It doesn’t have the glitz and polish of a big studio, but it does have a story to tell.  This is probably due in no small part to the fact that Bill Murray is a fairly recognizable name.  There are a few documented events shown and the majority of the people present knew who he was.  Despite this, everyone had a good time.  He even crashed someone’s wedding photos.

The documentary paints Murray in a fairly good light.  I’m sure there’s another side to him, but it’s also kind of nice to hear a good story.  Most stories I hear of celebrity encounters tend to be negative.  (Celebrities seem to have their fair share of bad people.) 

This would make for a good movie to watch when you need something a little different.  While there are interviews with a lot of people, it’s hard to believe that all the stories are true.  It does also appear that Avallone was sticking to the stories that had some sort of verifiable documentation.  The wedding photographer has the photos, for instance.  There are also cases with grainy video footage.

I hage to seem unenthusiastic about the movie, but I think this is going to be mostly for fans of Bill Murray.  It’s a good movie and I think most people might find it at least a little interesting.  However, I don’t see this being something of general interest.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

2036 Origin Unknown (2018)

WARNING:  I’m going to discuss details that will probably spoil the ending.  If you’re not into that, you might want to hold off on reading this review.

It’s been said before that there are no new stories.  Every book or movie you might come by is simply a different version of some other story.  The settings and characters may change.  Usually, a writer is good enough to come up with enough new details to entertain the reader.  At the very least, one wants to avoid making it look like an obvious rehash of some earlier story.

Take 2036 Origin Unknown.  I wouldn’t be the first person to draw comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  You have a few human characters dealing with an AI that comes across as just a little suspicious.  There’s a mission to another planet.  The AI is given some control over the mission, which worries at least one of the humans at some point.  Oh, and the ending is really confusing.

The main human is this case is Mackenzie ‘Mack’ Wilson.  Her father was lost on a mission to Mars.  Now, she works at a secret location as part of a secret mission to explore Mars and maybe figure out what happened.  When I say part of, though, she’s working primarily with ARTI, an artificial intelligence that’s been given a great deal of control.  In fact, ARTI has replaced most of the humans.  (Aside from Mack, only a few guards seem to be present at the secret ground-control location.)

Instead of a monolith, Mack and ARTI find a strange cube on Mars.  It has writing on it, which ARTI could identify, except that access to the database of strange symbols has been restricted.  The monolith seems to be made of nanites and would seem to be of alien origin, except that it might be of human origin.  It can also teleport itself to Earth in an instant.

Much of the movie seems to want to make you think about things.  For instance, what role would AI have in our lives?  Would it be our servants or our equal?  How long before it would replace us?  This takes the form of some banter between Mack and ARTI.  (Mack points out that ARTI might have one the Nobel Prize, except that he’s not human.)

The movie started out with a good deal of promise only to look like something that was slapped together.  First off, the AI is called ARTI.  This isn’t something one of the characters calls the program offhandedly.  This is the actual name of the AI.  We see ARTI on a wall.  If you want lazy writing, there’s lazy writing.

Also, ARTI came up with some sort of hyperlink signal that allows for instant communication, regardless of distance.  ARTI is at a loss to explain how he did it, as his memory has been wiped.  Oh, and his origin is also hazy.  It would seem that ARTI programmed himself.  At least, that’s what I gather.  Are we to gather that he just came into existence?  Is he his own Alpha and the Omega or something like that?  (If you understand it, please leave a comment.)

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie left me with a few questions.  Where they differ is in the fact that I really wasn’t as motivated to think about them.  It would seem that the entire narrative takes place in a simulation.  (I knew that instant communication was too good to be true.)  The movie doesn’t say who is running the simulation, though.  Is it aliens?  Is it ARTI?  Did ARTI or aliens subdue humans?

This wasn’t even one of those movies where I things occurred to me hours or days after I watched it.  It sort of faded from memory.  I’d say that I could go back and pick up new things on a second viewing, but I think I got most of it the first time.  I think that the movie could have been so much better.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)

Making a sequel means walking a fine line.  How do you capture the magic of the first movie without doing a remake?  To be, again, yet to not be again.  That’s the problem.  The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part almost gets it.  In fact, I can see a lot of people being polarized.  You’ll either think it was a natural successor to the first movie…or not.

The Second Part picks up five years after the evens of the first movie.  (If you haven’t seen it, you’ll probably want to.  Certain aspects of this movie will make more sense.)  The Duplo invaders have all but laid waste to Bricksburg.  Anything new is destroyed shortly after it’s built.  Nothing is awesome anymore.  Wyldstyle is brooding at the loss of her former life, although Emmett is still as happy and clueless as ever.

Enter General Sweet Mayhem, who kidnaps Batman, Wyldstyle and three other characters.  They’re to be taken to the wedding of Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi.  Being that the queen is a Duplo creature, this can’t happen.  Emmett decides to go after them and stop the wedding.

Like the first movie, the Lego plot is the result of real-world events.  We discover that the story was created by Finn, who was controlling the Lego pieces.  The Duplo characters were controlled by his sister, Bianca, who was seen as an invader.  The Second Part continues this dynamic.

At first, this may seem like an oversimplification, especially considering that both siblings are now five years older.  However, the movie does make use of it with some skill.  Sure, you’re going to see some things coming, like Ar-mom-ageddon.  This doesn’t mean the movie can’t be fun.  I’m not saying the script will win any awards.  Rather, I would advise you to not take it too seriously.  The movie doesn’t even seem to take itself that seriously, which works to its advantage.

When we walked out of the theater, one viewer found it to be confusing.  It’s possible that he didn’t see the first movie, but there were also a lot of references to other movies, such as Back to the Future and Aquaman.  The dialogue can come at you in rapid succession at times and it may be a little difficult to keep up if you’re not expecting it.  Overall, I found it easy to follow.  Then again, I was able to catch a lot of the references.  (I don’t think it will be a problem for most people.)

I would say that this is definitely one of the better sequels.  It doesn’t rely on the original movie too much.  Rather, it does seem to follow the first one, much as a sequel should.  It also has a slightly different message than the first.  If you’ve seen the first movie, I think the coming attractions should give you a good idea of whether or not seeing The Second Part will be worth your time.

(For those wondering, A few of us theatergoers stayed past the credits so that you don’t have to.  There was no post-credits scene.)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

It’s strange to think of how inventions can change things.  Movies by mail or kiosk wouldn’t be possible without the invention of the DVD.  (When I was your age, we had these things called VHS tapes…)   Then, Internet speeds became fast enough to allow for streaming.  Not only were we able to watch movies on a whim, it allowed for a different kind of movie.  The concept of choose your own adventure isn’t new.  It was a popular line of books back when I was in elementary school.

I keep meaning to watch Black Mirror.  That’s why when Netflix released a stand-alone movie called Bandersnatch, I thought I’d take a look.  It was basically a Choose Your Own Adventure movie.  I was a little nervous because Choose Your Own Adventure books had multiple endings.  Paths didn’t cross back on themselves, so this meant that I might be watching the movie several times.  The movie is actually closer to the Time Machine books.  There’s only one true ending.  If you make the wrong choice, you have to go back and make the correct one.

The story follows Stefan Butler, a 19-year old in 1984.  He wants to program a game based on his favorite book, called Bandersnatch.  You start off with two basic choices, neither of which seem to affect the game.  (You have to choose your breakfast cereal and which tape to listen to on the way to a meeting.)  Then comes an important choice.  Mohan Thakur offers to produce and distribute the game through his company.  Do you accept?

To give away the plot would be pointless for two reasons.  First, there’s so much of it, it would be impossible.  It also wouldn’t be fair, as that’s the whole point.  To give you an idea, I’ve read that not making a choice (or making all the right choices) will make for a 40-minute run time.  Given a moderate number of ‘wrong’ choices, you could expect somewhere around two hours.  Supposedly, over five hours of footage were recorded for the title, so you could be there for a while, depending on how you decide.

If you don’t have NetFlix and are think of signing up because of this, I should warn you that you may not be able to watch this on your laptop.  I have an ancient desktop and was told that I’d need to use another device.  Fortunately, my iPhone was up to the task.  I’m not sure about devices like Roku, but Bandersnatch will display a special icon if the device can play it.

I would imagine that this has to do with the technology that allows you to make a choice.  You are given two choices at the bottom of the screen.  On the iPhone, I tapped my selection.  You’re supposed to use the remote if your device has that for input.

Despite Choose Your Own Adventure books being marketed towards children, Bandersnatch is much darker.  It involves things like drug use and murder.  Even the book Bandersnatch has a morbid origin story.  Also, Stefan slowly descends into madness.  He begins to question what reality is.  He has a very nominal awareness of the fourth wall in that it exists.  He just doesn’t know where it is.  (This leads to a nice bit of self-referential humor if you don’t go straight to the credits.)

This movie isn’t going to be for everyone.  I can see a lot of people my age going in for the nostalgia.  We grew up on those books and on the video games of that era.  We remember titles like Zork.   This is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book written for adults.  In that regard, I would suggest watching it alone the first time.  As I mentioned, the fun is in making the choices.  Each choice has to be made in ten seconds, so it’s not the kind of thing you can discuss.  Given the amount of footage, I would say that it’s possible to watch again, so watching it with a group might be fun the second time around.