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.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Vice (2018)

My mother asked why someone would make a movie about a vice president.  That’s how seriously the job is taken.  I was trying to find a joke to lead off this review, but I think that’s the best lead I can find.

Then again, this is Richard Bruce Cheney we’re talking about.

He’s been called a lot of things.  I don’t imagine most of them were nice.

The movie’s timeline starts with him being pulled over for driving under the influence of alcohol.  That and a fight land him in jail, meaning that his wife, Lynne, has to bail him out.  She puts it to him to clean up his act.  He promises to do so, and does he.  This doesn’t get him back into Yale, but he does go into politics.

This leads to another turning point.  As an intern, he’s given the choice to work for a Democrat or a Republican.  After seeing Donald Rumsfeld speak, Cheney knows who he wants to intern with.   The two work well together, leading to more turning points and decisions.

The movie is said to be based on the true story, but I think the actual narrative falls somewhere between satire and sarcasm.  I got the impression that certain parts weren’t literally true.  (Take, for example, a claim that Cheney won the Iron Man competition.)  When his name is floated as a possible contender for president, he turns it down.  Part of it is that he doesn‘t want to expose his daughter to media attention because she‘s a lesbian.  It also doesn’t help that his odds of being elected put him two spots below Dan Quayle.

You do get the sense that Cheney is not a nice person.  The line goes that power corrupts, but Cheney may have been corrupt already.  He was just looking for the next opportunity.  When presented with the possibility of being vice president, Lynne won’t hear of it.  It’s a nothing job.

Sure, it might serve as a springboard to the presidency.  (From the 1980 election until 2008, either the sitting President or Vice President sought the office of President.)  Still, Vice President?  Instead of turning it down, Cheney looks into how he can make the job to his own liking.  It’s like Anakin Skywalker being trained in The Force.  It’s just a matter of time before he becomes Darth Vader.

I will say that the casting is spot on.  To see Cheney, you don’t even realize that it’s Christian Bale.  When you see George W. Bush, you’re not thinking of Sam Rockwell.  Sure, Steve Carell is a little obvious as Rumsfeld, but that’s actually forgivable.  (Having seen pictures of Runsfeld, I would say that Carell is a pretty awesome choice.)  Even having Jesse Plemons narrate the story was the way to go.

So many things come down to random events.  Imagine if Cheney hadn’t flunked out of Yale.  Suppose he hadn’t married Lynne.  What if Rumsfeld hadn’t spoken to the interns that day?  It would make for an interesting alternate-history story.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Escape Room (2019)

Most stories operate on the premise that you’re supposed to care about the characters.  At the very least, you should have some connection with the protagonist.  I don’t think that anyone involved with Escape Room got that memo.  Six people are trapped in a series of rooms, each one a puzzle.  Solve one puzzle and they find themselves in the next room.

Each person is different.  Zoey is a student that‘s rather shy.  Ben is a stock boy who can’t seem to catch a break.  Danny is a huge escape-room fan boy.  Jason is a trader.  Amanda is a war veteran.  Mike used to be a miner.  Each one was given a box with an invitation to the escape room.   Whoever survives will be given $10,000.

At first, the contestants assume that they won’t actually be killed.  Who needs that kind of a lawsuit, much less six of them?  Danny meets his demise in the second room.  I reveal this for two reasons.  First, it’s that kind of movie.  This isn’t some big team-building exercise where everyone remains friends for years afterwards.  People are going to die.  The second reason is that Danny’s death didn’t have the emotional impact that I’d expect.

Part of this is because I knew it was coming.  (Most of the movie operates as a flashback.)  Another part is that Danny isn’t really set up as a character I cared much about.  He’s that annoying, super hyper guy that’s enjoying it way too much.  It’s not that I wanted to see him go.  It’s more that it was a horrible way to go.

This also applies to most of the subsequent deaths.  Anything I felt was about not wanting to be in that situation more than not wanting to see the person die.  (You feel bad for the people, but not really.)  There’s no real tension.  There’s just the expectation that at least one person will make it to the next room.  There’s not even the longing for the reveal.  We get that it’s kind of a sick person who would do this.  All we have to do is wait until the end to get the all-revealing monologue.

I definitely think the movie could have been done better.  Only Ben and Zoey have any real growth during the movie.  None of the characters play well off of each other except that they were probably meant to bicker.  We don’t even get that much back story except to explain what they all have in common.

I would have thought that the worst thing you could call a movie was uninspired, but I was wrong.  This movie is derivative of other movies without learning anything from them.  They say that all stories borrow from other stories, but you have to improve on it.  Give it a new context that makes it more enjoyable.

This didn’t do that.  Some of the scenes were entertaining, but I didn’t walk out of the theater really liking it.  I can’t even recommend waiting for it on DVD.  If this movie came on television, you’d probably do better changing the channel.

Monday, January 07, 2019

How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943)

Everyone has had to see an instructional video at some point in their lives.  It might have been for work.  (I think there’s an old Blockbuster video floating around Facebook.)  Maybe it was in school for your health or phys. ed. class.  Even the United States Government made a few.

Back before we had the CIA, there was the OSS, which stood for Office of Strategic Services.  They were the agency that sent spies out into the field.  Before you could become an undercover asset, you might have had to watch this film.

It’s pretty basic in every regard.  It shows two students as they’re being deployed into the field.  Student Al is the better student.  Al follows all the rules and pays attention to detail.  His cover story isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that a changed detail or two is enough.  Student Charles is less than perfect.  He knows his stuff, but is too confident.  He’d rather be hitting on the pretty barmaids than doing his job.

The movie also shows other spies, like one who tries to use outdated currency.  Another spy is caught when he uses hair grease that’s nearly impossible to come by.  It’s not meant to impart all of the important information.  Rather, it’s meant to give a brief review.  It might help a future spy make sense of their training.

There appear to be two different versions of the movie.  One was called How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines.  It was subsequently edited into Undercover, which might also be called Undercover:  How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines.  I’m not entirely certain what the difference is.  (I think it’s that Undercover is framed by an introduction and an end scene.)

I don’t think that this will be making any general-interest must-see lists.  I think it’s going to be limited to students taking classes and former OSS spies showing their kids or grandkids what they did for a living.  The fact that it’s public domain will make it easy to come by.  I found it on Netflix, although I imagine you could find several thousand copies on YouTube.  The fact that it was once classified means that the information is probably no longer totally relevant.  I’m sure that a current video would be a lot better and go more in depth.

(Note:  I'm not entirely certain which version Netflix has.  Since they list the year as 1943, I'm going with How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines.)

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Aquaman (2018)

I remember watching Heroes and thinking how awesome the superpowers were.  People could fly or read minds.  Everything was extremely useful.  No one had a really crappy superpower.  Some of them came close towards the end.  But, there was no one that had, say, the ability to press clothing as their power.  It’s like, “Great.  Hiro can travel through time and Claire can regenerate.  On the bright side, at least I never have to buy an iron.”

I kind of wonder if Aquaman started out as a conversation along those lines.  Don’t get me wrong.  Being able to talk to fish might be cool and all, but I think the novelty might wear off after a while.  I’d also never be able to enjoy salmon again.  I went into the movie wondering what the most recent take on the character would look like.

It looks a lot like National Treasure.  Think about it:  A man of important lineage has to go on a hunt for a special item/set of items while being chased by a bad guy.  If he gets the item, which we know he will, it will alter the course of events, presumably for the better.

That’s basically it.  If you’ve seen the coming attractions, you know the plotline.  Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry, was born to a land-dwelling father and a sea-dwelling queen.  He eventually has to reconcile his aquatic heritage by defeating his half-brother.  To do so, he must find a special trident.

Sure, there are some great fight scenes and the CGI was at least halfway decent.  (Although, there were a few shots that looked a little off to me.)  Still, it wasn’t a great movie.  It was almost like it was written by a brooding teenager.  The movie wants to be taken seriously, but anyone trying to take the movie seriously is like, “Nope.”

One thing that kept bothering me was Arthur’s trident.  What’s wrong with the trident?  It has five points.  Aren’t tridents, by definition, supposed to have three points?  Every time I saw it, it stood out.  I think it was supposed to look cool or something.

That was the thing. The movie seemed to be all show and spectacle.  There seemed to be very little substance.  The movie was an excuse to string together scenery, CGI and fight scenes.  It was enjoyable, but it was the least enjoyable of the superhero movies so far.  I’m kind of hoping that if Aquaman comes back to the big screen, it’s part of the Justice League.  It’s going to take a while to write a better standalone movie for him.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

The Mule (2018)

Earl Stone is not a nice person.  He’s the kind of father that would skip out on his daughter’s wedding to talk with strangers.  It’s not that he couldn’t make it.  It’s that he didn’t even bother.  He seems to like his flower business and the attention that it brings more than family.

Years later, both his marriage and his business have dried up.  His house is in foreclosure and other businesses moved to the Internet.  Again, it’s not that Earl couldn’t keep up.  He just didn’t seem to think the Web was going to pan out.  Enter someone who knows someone who needs drivers with clean records.  Being that Earl is an old, white male, he’s perfect for the job.

As you might infer from the title of the movie, Earl is given a package to hide in the back of his old pickup truck.  The friendly guys at the garage want to make a compartment, but Earl won’t hear of it.  He has them just throw it in with the rest of the stuff back there, assuming no one will think twice about it.  (He’s right.)  Earl is told to park his car at an arranged address and leave it there for an hour with the keys in the glove box.  He returns an hour later to find $10,000 in cash, which he uses to get his house out of foreclosure.

If you’re familiar with drug use in movies, you may have heard the claim, “I can quit any time I want.”  Earl can quit any time he wants.  Except that he doesn‘t.  He could certainly use a new truck.  Then, his VFW post needs renovations after a fire.  So, Earl moves more product, which earns him more cash, which gets attention from the cartel’s management.

Earl seems like he knows what’s going on.  To an extent, he’d have to.  Except that he doesn’t.  When picking up a delivery, one of the guys at the garage gives him an address that happens to be where the drugs are going after he parks the car.  Earl decides to go there directly on a whim.  He is either really bold or really stupid.

He seems to be the only one that doesn’t seem to care how things will end for him.  He’s getting the money he needs.  He’s also getting the attention he wants.  He’s even invited to a party with beautiful women who seem very friendly.  (This is the one scene where your kids might actually cover their own eyes.)

I’m not sure what to make of the movie.  On one level, it’s very cliché.  You have someone that’s prone to making bad choices.  He’s more than eager to sign up for more, though.  It’s not until the end of the movie that he really reforms, but it’s too late by then.

There’s also the drug cartel that does things exactly like you’d expect.  They move large amounts of drugs and have lots of money to throw around.  They’re even persued by an agent that wants to make a name for himself.  It’s just a matter of time before everything comes tumbling down.

There’s also a sense that the movie was supposed to be more than that, but I’m not sure exactly what.  Was it supposed to be funny?  There are a few scenes that would play on stereotypes, but it’s hard to read them.  I could see them meant as a joke or as some sort of message.  When Earl’s handlers are stopped by police, Earl is able to get rid of them by claiming that the two other men are his employees.  It shows how Earl can take advantage of white privilege quite easily.

It’s based on a true story, but not all true stories make for good narratives.  It’s hard to say that the movie has potential.  It could have been done better, but I’m not really sure how.  That’s how low-key it is.  The movie went for such a deep level of subtle that the plot went into a coma.  I wonder if anyone other than Eastwood would have gotten the movie made.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Star Trek -- Season 1 Episode 27 (The Alternative Factor)

Some science-fiction stories are heavy on the science.  Others are heavy on the fiction.  Either you rely on science to explain things or you use science as a backdrop to differentiate it from pure fantasy.  The Alternative Factor would seem to lean towards the latter rather than the former

The episode starts with existence winking out for a moment or two at a time.  The Enterprise traces the cause to a planet, where they find a man named Lazarus.  Mr. Lazarus is chasing a planet-killing monster.  He’s chased this monster across all of time and space.  What does this monster look like?  We soon find out that the monster looks exactly like Lazarus.

You see, both versions of Lazarus come from different versions of Earth, each in a parallel dimension.  It’s not clear if those universes are products of our own, as both men come from the future.  However, only one can exist in our universe at a time. If both meet, they annihilate each other.  One is said to be matter while the other is antimatter.  I suspect that this is meant not to be taken literally, as antimatter doesn’t need to meet its exact opposite to have a destructive reaction.

It’s the goal of one Lazarus to trap both of them in a corridor between dimensions.  If this happens, the two of them will fight each other for eternity, but both universes will be safe.  (It’s not clear why they won’t annihilate each other in the corridor or what they’ll do for food.)  However, they do end up in the corridor and all is well.

I think this may be one of those episodes where the story got lost in the message.  Both versions of Lazarus look the same.  One acts crazier than the other, but it becomes harder to tell which is which towards the end of the episode.  That may have been the point, though.  We’re always the sane one in any argument.  It’s the other guy who’s crazy.

The episode seemed a little rushed.  Take, for instance, the effect when the two Lazaruses switch places.  It looked like one of those animations where the newspaper comes up to reveal a headline, but is reversed before we get the text.  And what, exactly, is this blinking out of existence?  The episode could have been better.