Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Trying to write down what I think about Mao’s Last Dancer is like unpacking a Russian doll. There are stories within stories within stories.

The reviews tell a story about the film’s reception. Critics were harsher than I expected, oddly saying both that the movie was bland and that it was melodramatic.

Included on the disc is the filmmaker’s story of how the movie was made, which made the whole thing sound like a minor miracle. The casting was challenging because in addition to a fantastic Chinese-speaking ballet dancer who could play Li, they needed a whole set of kids to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 11, and a whole set of teenagers to play Li and his ballet classmates at age 15. They also had to choreograph and stage a bunch of different ballet performances in different styles: a Chinese imitation of a Western ballet, a Chinese revolutionary ballet, Don Quixote, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (familiar to me as the cartoon evolution of life on Earth in Disney’s Fantasia).

In 2003 Penguin published Mao’s Last Dancer, the autobiography of Li Cunxin, who is still alive and was consulted during filming. It must be strange to see your life made into a movie. I don’t think I’d like it.

Two cultures clash: Mao’s communist ideals and the American dream. Unsurprisingly, the movie teaches that it is better to live rich and free in the West than poor and oppressed by Party members who do not tolerate ideas that conflict with their doctrines.

And there is the plot of the movie itself (see below).

You see what I mean about the recursive nature of the story? There’s the story of the reception of this particular biopic; the story of the making of the film; the story in the film itself; the story in the autobiography the film was based on; the memories that the autobiography was based on; and the real-world cultural backdrop of the dancer’s life.

I’m still not clear on the title. The name “Mao” conjures up the Chairman, but Li was chosen by representatives of Madame Mao, not Chairman Mao, to learn ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. I’m not sure why he was called the “last”, unless perhaps he was the last child selected during tryouts.

This movie, like Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Kings of Pastry, was a gift from my in-laws.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (Season 4)

This season was all over the place.

For like the first third of the episodes, there’s a guy (Ghost Rider) who’s possessed by some kind of devil. What happened to science? The show is usually focused on superhero powers deriving from inhuman DNA being acted on by some kind of material transforming agent. Being possessed by a being from another dimension for no particular reason doesn’t fit very well with the science that gives everyone else weird powers. Also, how is it that his car can burst into flames and not burn? Did the car make a deal with the devil, too? Whatever.

Then Ghost Rider pretty much disappears, and we’ve got an android (AIDA) who has some powerful AI and also an evil magic book that looks like a Buffy the Vampire Slayer prop. Is the android the primary antagonist in the season, or is the primary antagonist the man who created her? There’s a lot of back and forth on that issue; I won’t give away the ending.

There’s a digital world called The Framework that’s suspiciously like the one in a certain movie I keep comparing everything to. It was created (with the help of the ridiculous-looking evil magic book) for a specific set of individuals to live in. In The Framework, one major regret was erased from each of those individuals’ lives. I object to the use of the word ‘regret’ in this context because the thing that changed wasn’t something that the individual was responsible for; it was just something that the person wished had been different. That confused me for a while.

It’s great that the characters care about each other, face tough choices, and overcome tough problems, but I enjoy the show mainly because the writing sparkles with humor. Some sci-fi (*cough cough* The 100) is just too serious.

Baahubali 2 (2017)

Baahubali 2, to an even greater extent than its wildly successful predecessor Baahubali (2015), broke all the records for Indian films in India and abroad, for both expense and box office receipts, if Wikipedia is to be believed. This lavish CGI-heavy epic was made not in Mumbai but in Hyderabad—with an entirely South Indian cast and recorded in a South Indian language (two, actually: Telugu and Tamil).

Though the name of the main character is the name of a Jain saint, and the whole thing feels like it’s based on a myth, my impression is that the story is original.

The movie is long, at over 160 minutes, and includes 18 minutes of songs that reinforce, rather than convey, the plot.

Speaking of plot: This second movie serves as both prequel and sequel to the first. I wish I knew why the story wasn’t made into a trilogy; the first part is called Baahubali: The Beginning, and the second part is called Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. (Is it just me, or is that really odd?)

I liked the first half of Baahubali 2, in which the violence is stylized and the hero is victorious, better than the second half, which is more somber and much bloodier, and whose final battle is fought by the main character of the first movie, which I didn’t see.

My favorite sequence was the big battle in the small mountain kingdom, which involved a lot of impressive if exaggerated feats of martial arts.

The scene in which the hero and heroine defend a hallway by shooting three arrows at a time reminded me strongly of the lobby scene in The Matrix. It’s the same idea (boy meets girl, boy fights enemies with girl, enemies all die); only the costumes, props, and colors are different.

Do I compare every movie I see with The Matrix? Yeah, maybe.

If you favor subtlety over spectacle, Baahubali 2 is not for you. Characters’ jealousies, realizations, and thoughts more often than not manifest in spoken words. The characters’ actions, too, are often explained in the dialog. For example, it’s not enough to succeed in framing someone for treason, you also have to tell him you’ve just framed him for treason, even if the next thing you do is kill him.

I don’t think anyone could succeed in making a parody of the movie by exaggerating its notable features; they’re already over the top. Wait, hang on, Robin Hood: Men in Tights did have Robin shooting six arrows at once… if you haven’t taken it up to eleven, there’s always farther to go.

Anyway, overall, I thought Baahubali 2 was worth seeing because it was so spectacular.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

So there’s the silliness, yeah, and the comic book costumes and sci-fi setting and all, but Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is also about… family. There are a bunch of serious emotions in the movie, all relating to what it means to feel a sense of belonging, whether as a sister, a father, a son—or a genetically anomalous member of a tightly knit team.

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Can the movie industry please stop putting all the jokes and surprises into the previews? I would have enjoyed F8 much more if I hadn’t seen so much of it already.

It was still a surprise to me, however, when the villain got away, because that sets up another whole movie, and I was expecting this to be the last one, on account of the rather final-sounding name. I’ve now realized they chose the name because this movie is the eighth, and “F8” sounds like “fate” in leetspeak or SMS shorthand or whatever. (Letters? Where we’re going, we don’t need letters!)

In the first act, the villain (a female super-hacker, yay) tries to make it sound like Dom isn’t really loyal to his team, he’s loyal to his sense of adventure, but that interesting ambiguity doesn’t last long. By the time we reach the climax, the villain is a boring cardboard cut-out who just  stands there desperately gnashing her teeth, ranting at underlings on a comm system, and jabbing buttons on a control panel. I felt sorry for her.

Still, the set pieces and humor were wonderful, and although the movie’s reveal during the resolution was pretty far-fetched, I still found it satisfying. The movie lacks plausibility and emotional depth, but it has lots of antics involving bald dudes and cars. Box office receipts indicate that this suffices.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

I have re-watched the 1995 animated version of Ghost in the Shell, and I stand by what I said before: the English dialog is uninspiring, both for how it sounds and what it says.

Some of the dialog explains too much, and yet the movie is still confusing. The voices are wooden sounding and incongruously American. I should maybe have watched it in Japanese, but then I’d have been dependent on the English subtitles, which are maybe just as bad at representing what’s going on.

What’s going on is some kind of conflict between two different government departments. Something to do with an AI.

The setting is amazing, and beautiful… in a dingy, dystopian kind of way. Doesn’t make me want to move to Hong Kong.

The main character, Major Matoko Kusanagi, has a robot body with no organic human brain inside, but rather a scan of the contents of one.

The theme is how we might redefine what it means to be human—or rather, sentient, since humans are biologically obsolete; evolution is moving on to the next stage.

The theme is what was most interesting to me about Ghost in the Shell, but overall I didn’t think the theme was communicated well. I enjoyed watching this insightful analysis.

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS.

Continue reading Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Though I feel like I may be painting a target on my own back for saying so, I enjoyed Ghost in the Shell. This Guardian article expresses a similarly positive view.

Parts of the movie reminded me of the 1995 version, which I vaguely remember as flawed, bogged down by abstruse exposition. If people don’t like the 2017 version, it seems to be because it feels too personal, emotional, and actiony in comparison. The “problem”, in essence, is that a mainstream American movie doesn’t match the tone of a foreign cult classic. I’m not sure I understand why anyone expected it to, or even thought it should, though I do applaud the suggestion that the script could have been sparser.

Many have complained that most of the cast wasn’t Asian. That doesn’t bother me because the genre is sci-fi; it’s hard to insist that the ethnographic landscape of the future is being misrepresented, especially when everyone in that future is some kind of cyborg.

I like the theme of self as defined by choice, but—as disproportionately dedicated as I am to the life of the mind—I believe the implications of a complete mind/body dichotomy are only philosophically relevant in a fictional future world where brain transplants are possible. Here and now, we are not our brains; we are who we are in large part because of how we are embodied. Injuries, even those we fully recover from, can disrupt an otherwise stable sense of self. (Case in point: A Leg to Stand on, a book about neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recovery from a serious mountain-climbing injury.)

Another way to think about the mind/body theme is from the standpoint of a political prisoner. A government can jail you, torture you, or even kill you, but it can’t change your mind because your mind (the ghost in the machine) remains yours and yours alone—unless you live in Orwell’s dystopia, in which case, all bets are off.

And speaking of 80s, I loved the choice of automobiles for this movie. They didn’t look like cars of the future, they looked like cars of the past. Or science-fiction of the past, at any rate. The setting had a Blade Runner kind of feeling to it; but this time the neon lights were all 3D, none of the skyscrapers were pyramids, and none of the robots were owls or snakes.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Kings of Pastry (2009)

Kings of Pastry offers a glimpse into the lives of those aspiring to the highly respected designation “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MOF)”, awarded in France to the world’s top pastry chefs.

Although there were some aspects of the documentary I found interesting or dramatic, I didn’t think it was particularly good overall.

Logan (2017)

Logan was bloody, morbid, and sad.

There were some darkly funny and grimly satisfying moments, but in general I’m not a fan of the trendy “decrepit superhero” trope, which is what governs the entirety of this 137-minute film, a gritty, R-rated, sci-fi/western production marking the end of the seventeen-year era in which Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine.

I was impressed by the female star’s Hugo Weaving-like frowny face, which she used for almost the entire movie, and the character (portrayed by a digital collage of the actress, her stunt-double, and a laboriously created CGI avatar) seemed pretty capable.

It’s hard to call the movie a triumph for her, though I would have liked to. For one thing, the tone of the movie is hardly triumphant, and for another thing, the movie isn’t about her, or even about her relationship with Logan, it’s about Logan. (It says so right there in the title!) So although she drives the plot, and one or two of the cars in the plot, unquestionably, she’s still second fiddle.

Keep reading for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Continue reading Logan (2017)