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)

Doctor Strange (2016)

I dare you to find a review of Doctor Strange that does not contain a variant of the word “kaleidoscope”. The special effects are indeed special.

As for the rest, you’ve got a gifted, wealthy, arrogant neurosurgeon, recently come down in the world; he gets his comeuppance from an ancient mystic who he hoped could give him back the use of his hands but who instead involves him in the struggle to protect Earth from some kind of evil purple chaos. Will he learn to suppress his ego, to conquer by submitting, or will he be seduced by raw power and the promise of immortality?

I loved the laugh-out-loud magic-meets-mundane humor as well as the special effects, but if you’re not a fan of fantasy, this Marvel Studios production will probably stretch your patience too far. There’s a bit of that same “the real world isn’t real” stuff that’s in the Matrix, which is fine as long as you don’t apply such fictional logic to the real real world. It’s not very tempting to do so, though, since the movie itself barely even takes the magic seriously.

What it does take seriously is the message. The movie wants us to remember that mental, physical, and mystical talents are all ultimately meaningless—or catastrophically destructive—if not wielded humbly.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/doctor-strange-2016/id1164294784

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

Continue reading Doctor Strange (2016)

Robin Hood (1973)

Disney’s Cinderella has more cat-and-mouse antics in it than us grown-ups tend to remember it having; Disney’s Robin Hood, similarly, seems to have more marching in it than I would have thought possible. It’s a charming story, though, possibly in part because of all that celebratory marching!

I love the despicable babyishness of Prince John, the adorable aspirations of the rabbit kid who wants to be just like Robin Hood, Marion’s demure wistfulness about her childhood sweetheart… and the way the snake somehow has eloquent body language despite not having a body. (Snakes are so awesome!)

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/robin-hood/id656527876

Keep reading for a detailed plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat as well as a few other thoughts on the movie.

This post is part of a series on versions of the Robin Hood legend.

Continue reading Robin Hood (1973)

Inferno (2016)

In Inferno (2016), Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks) and some woman follow a trail of clues that are tied to European religious art and history, as in The Da Vinci Code, only this time the focus is Dante, and Langdon doesn’t know how he got to Italy or why there are people chasing him. The movie doesn’t seem to be popular with viewers or reviewers, but it was plenty entertaining, if you ask me.

What makes the complicated puzzle plot work for me? Partly, it was Langdon’s initial puzzlement about what’s going on, which puts the audience right in the thick of things—we’re not looking over the shoulder of a pompous art expert, we’re looking over the shoulder of a confused victim. We catch glimpses of memories or dreams but, like Langdon, we can’t quite catch hold of them, and whether or not we know where we’re going, we have to keep moving.

Partly it was the amazing Italian settings. I mean, hiring Tom Hanks is expensive, but the filmmakers also apparently rented every major tourist attraction in Florence, and one or two in Istanbul as well, stopping in Venice along the way. Or they just recreated a bunch of famous places in a studio in Budapest, one or the other. (Actually, some of both.)

Partly it was the freakishly believable terrorist, an extremely rich but extremely delusional white guy who gave a bunch of TED talks about how humanity cannot allow the world’s population to double again and who took it upon himself to try to solve the problem by developing a virus that, when released, would cause immense amounts of pain and suffering but also ensure the survival of the race… by cutting the world’s population in half—decimating it, one might even say—like the Black Death did when it made way for the Renaissance.

Partly it was that I particularly liked one of the secondary characters. While I found the villain’s death cult genuinely threatening, I found his pragmatic mercenary quite amusing. (In this much at least, reviewers seem to agree with me.)

Why wasn’t the movie liked?

Maybe it was too cerebral and not actiony enough. Thrillers have to have Bond gadgets in them, not Renaissance paintings.

Maybe, as more than one reviewer says, it’s the related problem that Tom Hanks’ talent is “wasted on the role of Dr Robert Langdon, an academic who is sort of a brainier, duller Indiana Jones.”

Or maybe it’s just that Dan Brown’s novels aren’t very different from each other (or particularly deep), and it hasn’t been long enough since the last installment for people to find his offering very, well, novel.

Anyway, upshot: if you don’t go in expecting the art-historical conspiracy-theory trail-of-clues plot to resemble what spy movie heroes and real-life detectives typically do to prevent catastrophes and solve crimes, respectively, then you may, like me, be entertained. The plot of Inferno is needlessly complicated and fundamentally illogical, but (unlike that of Point Break) it’s still coherent.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/inferno/id463979057

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

Continue reading Inferno (2016)

The Infiltrator (2016)

I expected The Infiltrator to have more tension, violence, and fear than it actually did. At the heart of the movie is (the real-life story of) a friendship betrayed; the core of this movie is not danger, or even justice or remorse, but sadness. I wasn’t expecting that.

They picked the perfect actor for the role; here you have Bryan Cranston again transforming (albeit temporarily) from a mild-mannered husband to an absolutely driven liar, imposter, and corrupt kind of dude (you know, like he did in Breaking Bad).

The deadly game that the character Robert Mazur plays is reminiscent of the antics seen in Catch Me If You Can (2002), only the consequences of exposure aren’t jail, they’re much, much worse. Bob is in the car when a contact he was meeting with is shot dead and the car flips over. So it’s not as if there’s no fear, no tension, and no violence at all.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-infiltrator/id1133650155

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

Continue reading The Infiltrator (2016)