Man of Steel (2013)

What with all the Michael Bay–style explosions and destruction, you might not have noticed that Man of Steel is a thorough dialectical exploration of the nature/nurture debate. It totally is, though.

I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t think I was going to like the movie at all because I didn’t remember hearing good things about it. It was fine, though, apart from being longer than I realized it was going to be, clocking in at almost 2.5 hours.

For what it was (a superhero origin story that could have been its own miniseries), it was really pretty good. It painted a clear and thematically strong picture of an admirable character and how he got to be who he is. In this rendition, Superman is not a lighthearted, perfect figurehead who proclaims belief in “truth, justice, and the American way”. He is a sensitive and largely anonymous but steadfast protector who stands for hope and choice. (I much prefer these kinds of themes to the ones associated with Spiderman, which tend be things like sacrifice and duty.)

I generally liked the sharply contrasting sci-fi and Kansas sets, the cast, and the costumes, though I always imagine Lois as Teri Hatcher, and until now I’d never imagined Kal El’s suit as made of the same stuff as those grippy rubber things you use to open jars.

No thanks, I got this one, Kal.

If you have a long enough attention span for another 4000 words on this movie, keep reading for more on the nature/nurture theme and some other thoughts as well as 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 Man of Steel (2013)

Frozen (2013)

Oh, where to start. I’m stuck. I am, as it were, frozen.

Right. Well, when all else fails, go back to the beginning.

Frozen, like The Little Mermaid, is a Disney adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen story. As a child I watched the low-budget Faerie Tale Theatre Snow Queen, which is a lot closer to the Andersen story. The Disney version of the tale has some stunning visuals and one good song, but—for reasons having nothing to do with other versions—I think its story is deeply flawed.

Though some say it’s a story about the problematic relationship between two sisters, I’d say Frozen is one girl’s coming-of-age tale or rite-of-passage story. Rite-of-passage stories have a life problem, a wrong way of addressing it, and a moment of acceptance. Anna’s problem is her sister’s unwillingness to face the world. Anna spends the whole movie wrongly acting as if she can soothe her sister’s fear, and totally fails because Elsa has to master her fear herself. Anna grows up when she accepts her sister as-is. Seems simple, right? Disney went and made it all complicated.

See below for more on why I thought Frozen was disappointing, including 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 Frozen (2013)

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman captured the attention and approbation of hordes of moviegoers interested in seeing a heroic female fantasy character. It wasn’t personally meaningful to me the way that it seems to have been to a lot of people. I think the movie was pretty and entertaining but that, like many others that don’t have a well-crafted core story, it could have been thematically stronger.

Keep reading for more on the movie’s many possible themes and some questions I had (possibly because I’m not familiar with the source material) and things I liked, along with 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 Wonder Woman (2017)

Thumbelina (1994)

“Let’s get out of this stinking weather before we’re statistics. I can’t even feel anything in my feelers anymore.”

That’s a brilliant pun. It’s the best line of dialog in the whole movie, and like all the best lines in Thumbelina, it belongs to the beetle, who sounds like Iago in Disney’s Aladdin. (Both characters were voiced by Gilbert Gottfried.)

Unfortunately, “can’t feel anything” describes the effect the movie had on me. In spite of all the supposedly empowering messages in it that could have been meaningful, it left me numb.

If you saw and enjoyed Thumbelina when you were little, maybe you can see and enjoy it now. Otherwise, I’d say the odds are slim to none.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/thumbelina-1994/id694969660

Keep reading for more (MUCH more) on why I didn’t like the movie, along with 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 Thumbelina (1994)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

The best part of Dead Men Tell No Tales was the hilarious dry-land bank robbery scene. The runner-up was the failed-execution scene, which was also, notably, a scene on dry land. The CGI was impressive and all, but the ocean consists of entirely too much water, albeit fake water, if you ask me.

This is a tough movie to summarize in that there are five main characters, all with their own goals and conflicts. It’s an easy movie to summarize in that the whole plot is basically just “get control of the magic stick”. (It’s best not to think too hard about how the magic stuff works.)

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 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

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.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/maos-last-dancer/id424153088

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)

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.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/ghost-in-the-shell/id1213171514

Continue reading Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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)

Annie (1982)

Huh. Well, I really don’t know what to think of Annie. On the one hand, it’s really long, and as some reviewers point out, it doesn’t really go anywhere or mean anything, but on the other hand, I’m super nostalgic about the songs! I had fun watching it, but I have no idea whether a child or adult who has never seen it before would enjoy it.

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.

Also below: Some things about the movie that surprised me, and the history of the character as she has appeared in a wide range of media from 1885 to 2014.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/annie/id281680630

Continue reading Annie (1982)

Looper (2012)

Looper has a time-travel premise, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. It was better.

I was perhaps expecting something like Edge of Tomorrow, if only because I read a reference to this movie when reading an article about that one a year and a half ago. But no, there is hardly any Groundhog-Day style repetition, just two simultaneous versions of one guy: a younger one (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an older one (played by Bruce Willis).

As I was watching it, I started to think maybe Looper would be like Paycheck, a sci-fi movie in which a hunted, mind-wiped character has to figure out some mysterious clues he gave himself, or Predestination, a time-travel movie in which there are some really strange relationships between the characters. But although it’s just as flawed as any time-travel movie, Looper isn’t really that complicated.

Looper has some dystopian futuristic stuff and some magical sci-fi stuff (mostly done with practical effects and not overbearing CGI), but the heart of the movie is not sci-fi, it’s drama. The themes include justice, redemption—and motherhood, of all things! The resolution of the conflict doesn’t hit you hard because it’s a clever gimmick, it hits you hard because it’s a deeply felt moral choice.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/looper/id575490887

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 Looper (2012)