Archive for the 'movies and TV' Category


Iron Man 3 is Awful

I’m pretty upset. I liked Iron Man a lot, and Iron Man 2 started to get pretty cheesy, but was ok, I guess. The suit battling wasn’t that cool.

In Iron Man 3, I started to get really angry. What a load of garbage! The ground for complaint are endless I feel, but there is a special sense of anger I have for being sequelized, for being turned into a hapless dupe of Hollywood’s franchise machine. The idea is simple: if people liked it, then the formula has legs, and so, run with it.

Here are some of the things that bugged me about Iron Man 3.

First, the main bad guy is not someone I am familiar with from the comics. I don’t think that villains have to slavishly follow the comics, but I know Iron Man fairly well, and did not know of a close analogue to Killian, the head of A.I.M. In fact, A.I.M. in the comics is a shadowy organization that is usually associated with the evil Modok. Instead, they used the comic book enemy, the Mandarin, but then turned him into a joke, played by an actor. The fake Mandarin didn’t even purport to have any of the comic book Mandarin’s powers. You don’t want to use an outdated comic book villain, fine, but at least put some juice into the A.I.M. as enemy idea. Give them a boardroom, introduce some boardroom drama, and maybe a different technological theme, not BIOLOGICAL. Iran man’s universe is supposed to be about tech.

Then there is the laughable attempt to add dimension to Iron Man’s character. He is supposedly vulnerable to panic attacks because of what happened in the Avengers. Really? Iron Man faced some tough stuff, but nothing that a superhero psyche, at least in the marvel universe, is not supposed to handle. Besides, the emotional paper mache job here is so thin. WHAT specifically traumatized Tony? We are never shown a dream or given an explanation. He’s just supposed to be on edge somehow from a previous movie in the expanding marvel franchise.

Last. There is a ridiculous almost satirical feel about the movie. I honestly don’t know what they were going for. The movie has funny parts, but it’s not particularly funny, but every scene involves wise-cracking by Tony and the action sequences hover between cartoon violence with slapstick absurdity to technological babble. Is this supposed to be an action movie? I came to see one and was really disappointed. Even the scene with all the other types of armor is horribly wasted. These robots were available the whole time? And because of the way the plot goes, we never get introduced to the abilities or special features of all of those suits of armor, which in the comics have definite identity.

There was also the weird stuff about Tony controlling his suits from remote control. Who cares. Pepper is kissing the robot, remote control versions at least 3 or 4 times and it just comes off as weird.

A really unfortunate end to what I thought could be an interesting look at a classic marvel hero. My guess is that Hollywood did the same thing to Wolverine, which will be a crying shame, since he’s one of my favorite heroes.


Nostalgia and Oblivion

Nostalgia is a powerful force. We don’t often acknowledge it, but it pervades our politics and art in subtle ways.

Recently, I had two causes to reconsider nostalgia. One cause was DisneyLand advertisements I see when I watch Hulu, and the other was the movie Oblivion.

You see, when I watch TV on hulu, I am shown MANY advertisements about how fun disney world is, however, the funny thing is that the advertisements are not mainly for young children. You might think that since some of them show little children being happy, but that would be a shallow reading of what’s going. One clue is that there is an advertisement of a young married couple who goes to DisneyLand to rekindle their love. Personally, I find it incomprehensible that two married people who be even remotely interested in spending their hard earned money on a trip to the world’s larget tourist trap. But judgments can be a nasty thing. Fine, they like Disneyland. But if these adults  are the target in one commercial, it makes one suspicious that a pattern is to be found. And there is definitely a pattern. Namely, that the commercials play on the parents.

The one that sickens me the most shows a young girl putting her arm around her father, and the voice says something about how this young girl will not be 9 forever, and now is the time to make memories with her. I would rail and rant about the destructiveness of trivializing memories by selling the feeling that one is a good parent: you can feel like a good parent if you just come to our theme park! But that would be a waste. There’s nothing new about trying to cash in on the insecurities of others. Sadly, I’m starting to believe that capitalism, an economic system I think highly of, has really become predominantly that.

These commercials though also contain a potent amount of nostalgia, asking the GROWNUPS in the house to remember their time at disneyland and how “magical” it was (the sad thing is that with technology, disney theme parks just aren’t that magical anymore, because gets are maturing faster and their not phased by some of the animatronics that really impressed my parents). Nostalgia is different than reminiscence, though they are related. Nostalgia asks us not just to remember the past, and to revere it, and to treat it as a fragile but important aspect of the present. Rather, nostalgia is cheap because it asks to seek a “past-feeling” and to try to remake the present in the image of a more comfortable, simpler time. But such a feeling always hides the complexity and sacrifices that are present in every age of ourselves (or our country if politics is the issue). Sure, I could go back to my summer after high school. That was a wonderful time for me, but it was also a time that’s imperfections are only revealed after having lived a little bit longer. The roots of various insecurities took hold at that time, and I was naive about many things. To want to “go back” to that time would be a blind acceptance of a time period that I know in my heart has just as many flaws and difficulties of my “present” stage of life.

Oblivion, the new movie with Tom Cruise, is really well done I think, but it uses Sci-Fi for it’s cheapest end at some points, which is to generate an extremely potent type of nostaliga, which is nostalgia for the era WE ALREADY LIVE IN. Consider Cruise, who lives in 2077, but goes around wearing a Yankees hat. This set-up asks us to project ourselves into the future and then to look back, along with Cruise’s character, with love at our 2013 century civilization. But this “looking backward” covertly ratifies the status quo. We overlook, when we look along with Cruise at 2013 in the framework of the film, all of the difficulties and contradictions of our time. We remember the Yankees cap, a symbol of Americana amid the rubble of an Alien-human war.

All Sci-Fi can do this, or perhaps, more specifically, all post-apocalyptic Sci Fi. This is one reason why Sci-Fi is reassuring and fun: we get to see our civilization from the future, and to yearn nostalgically for what already is the case. This is sci-fi’s cheapest use, and it can, if allowed to roam unchecked, overshadow sci fi’s very valuable function of showing us what we could be, and what problems we must anticipate.


Big Data and Creativity

I was listening to a podcast the other day from public radio international. The show was Warren Olney’s To the Point. I’ve listened to probably thirty or so episodes of his by now, and I’m growing more and more frustrated. His questions are pretty good I guess, and he’s civil and smart. All plusses, but more and more, I notice that he’s kind of a hack. The stories that he chooses to follow are almost UNIVERSALLY stories about income inequality, environmental problems, or just some conservative mistake (like the challenge to the civil rights act that’s ongoing).

It’s very hard to quantify media bias, in fact, I think impossible, because one side’s bias will always be considered the other side’s honest truth. However, I have noticed a persistent streak in the way that Warren treats guests, positions, and stories. And this is a shame, because it’s not that I want to hear one side be right or wrong, I just want to hear the best arguments from one side, and the conservative guests can rarely deliver. So I leave thinking that their position is silly even though I know, from being exposed to countless philosophical and public policy arguments over my lifetime, that the issue is probably much too complex for simple solutions.

ANYWAY, Warren’s stories about cultural topics are usually much better because this stuff doesn’t get in the way. He talked about how massive agglomerations of data (“big data”) are being used to create novels and TV shows, the prime example being NETFLIX’s show “House of Cards.” Apparently this show was commissioned by Netflix after it found out that a certain director, set of actors, and plot point, would be enthusiastically received by viewers, BASED ON THEIR PAST WATCHING HABITS.

There are arguments that this is both good and bad, for creativity and culture. Good arguments that I’ve heard for the “pro” side are that this sort of targeted and ex ante investment in a show increases creativity. The director of “House of Cards” got the freedom to write a set amount of episodes as well as the ASSURANCE that there would BE x episodes. This is very different from network shows which are written on the fly and must fight to stay justified in their time slot or whatever. With predictability, a director can focus on telling a story. Also, there’s the fact that a lot of people will probably like the show. That’s what big data says.

Then there are counter arguments about cultural literacy. Is there anything important about the fact that a show is not usually available all at once. I’ve heard people talk about the effect of watching a show AS IT EVOLVES because other people are often engaged in the cultural activity as well. When all the episodes are available at once, there is the spoiler risk, but also the cultural disconnection of the fact that there is no event surrounding the time-constrained progression of the episodes. Also, some of the guests on Warren’s show talked about how some books are being written with alternative endings that change based on marketing information about you or about your mood. And if shows become just algorithms, where will creativity go? I don’t think we’ll see the end of creativity — more and more I’m convinced that that is impossible because the urge to create is such a fundamental part of human society. However,   there’s no doubt that something will change about the cultural landscape when computers spit out the actors and plot points for shows.


Warm Bodies

I saw Warm Bodies, and I really liked it. It’s well done and the metaphor it’s playing with is obvious and powerful without needing to be constantly remarked upon. The narrative is tight and simple. There are really only three or four characters, and the dialogue is pretty minimal too. The movie kind of speaks for itself, and it’s self-speaking style is made all the more powerful by the fact that the production value seems below other hollywood fare (not way below, just unmistakably below).

So the overall metaphor of the movie is pretty clear. It’s from the perspective of “R,” a zombie who has little tinges of consciousness. He’s not quite a corpse, but he can’t articulate any thoughts. He just has this nagging thought that there’s something more to life than shuffling around and moaning. The other zombies that R shuffles by are zombies, but in reality, they’re standing proxy for ORDINARY PEOPLE and ORDINARY LIFE. The idea is that ordinary life can become corpse-like, a possibility that I appreciate and fear. People can, if things are just dehumanizing enough, be only going through the motions. Enter R, who wants more. He has a spark of feeling and slowly grows more human as he falls in love with Julie, a human he rescues on a whim.

What I think is the real story and the real artistry of Warm Bodies is the way that it finishes out the arc of the interest we have in zombies, vampires, and other things. What makes zombies compelling is the mythos that surrounds them. They are scary and they are the other. They are completely non-human, inhuman, anti-human. Whatever you want. And there are a TON of movies and tv shows (walking dead on AMC now, land of the dead, dawn of the dead, 28 weeks later, quarantine, night of the living dead) that explore the tension that a zombie world creates for human beings. For instance, do we become a garrison society? To survive, must we become in turn somewhat dead? Deadened to things that we take for granted in non-zombie life. There have been explorations of zombies as biological weapons gone wrong, pointing to the way that humans create their problems for themselves. Other movies explore the pure horror of facing something that is already dead. Some movies, like Shaun of the Dead, even use zombies to make jokes (as does Warm Bodies to an extent)

Sooner or later though, a theme and a mythos runs its course. Zombies are reflections of ourselves, a reflection of our flawed nature, our opposite, our future, our past, but in Warm Bodies, the mythos returns to ground zero — in Warm Bodies WE ALREADY ARE ZOMBIES AND ALWAYS HAVE BEEN. We return to the perspective of the zombie and enter their consciousness and we find out that in fact, not only are zombies like us, but they are JUST LIKE US. They have hopes and dreams and want to succeed, if only they can get the chance. It is the risk of intolerance from the humans that keeps them, almost, in their half-alive state. In this, the movie is pure genius, because it responds to an artistic tradition with poise: our entire fascination with zombies is reinterpreted and distilled into the character of the general. The movies asks us why zombies could fill all the roles that we made them play over the years and asks to consider the simple possibility that they might have feelings too. The movie asks to question the fundamental premise we used to create zombies: that they have nothing “inside,” and so have no use or value other than as threats to life and instruments to horror.


This is 40

A while back I expounded on my approval of Apatow’s 2007 comedy, “Knocked Up.” I really enjoyed it and I thought there was something very current and contemporary about it.

Apatow’s recent movie, “This is 40” is not, in my mind, as funny as it’s predecessor, but I think it is a step forward for Apatow, and a fantastic film in it’s own right.

The movie is supposed to be a sequel, and in a sense that’s right. Chronologically, it takes place after “Knocked Up.” In reality though, it’s more of a companion movie or an alternate univers that nonetheless has the same cinematic rules and characters. The reason I say that is because it seems to be less concerned with exploring anything that must necessarily happen after “Knocked Up,” and much more concerned with exposing the complexities of Debbie and Pete’s relationship.

Stylistically, there are some interesting things to note. First, the movie leaves nothing on the cutting room floor. There are unconnected subplots and digressions. Second, the cast is like an Apatow movie fan club. Basically, anyone from a previous Apatow film is there, but no toes are stepped on: everything works. Third, the movie is long and without much of a plot. You could summarize the whole movie by saying that Debbie and Pete have screwed everything up in their lives, which is to say that they are completely normal.

And therein lies the essence and the genius of the movie. The movie reveals the individually insignificant but collectively monstrous web of ethical, social, and economic pressures that the modern family lives under. Everything you can think of is presented as a difficulty and then placed into larger and larger webs of difficulty.

For example, something as banal as eating ends up growing into a significant problem. Pete eats too many cupcakes. He’s addicted to them, and his wife pesters him about it but she pesters him about it because she wants him to be healthy, and he himself sees the importance of staying healthy, but we find him struggling throughout the movie. Sometimes he succeeds in keeping the fat and the sugar out of his life, but sometimes he turns to it for comfort and support. Debbie on the other hand is a smoker, and her quest to hide it brings her into conflict with her husband and her kids. In fact, she’s smoking despite being pregnant at one point. You get the idea that she won’t smoke anymore — she’s just having one smoke and she understands the importance of not smoking for the health of her kid — but that’s the point. She’s facing this one temptation and overcoming it just traps her in a bunch of other little problems. You imagine that she’ll be on edge and more difficult with her kids and her husband if she can’t just have a smoke.

And then there’s the financial problems. The family owns a BMW, a Lexus, and a gorgeous house. They take vacations and have all the trappings of a prosperous family. But they’re tottering on the brink of financial disaster. They are an American family that is poor despite having everything one should need to be rich, and the clear depiction of a decaying consumer society is reflected in Pete’s injury by a man who opens his car door on him while he’s biking. The man rejects the idea that he should be responsible for the harm he causes others. He’s just a great exemplification of the mercenaries who sometimes live next to us, masquerading as ordinary people, but couldn’t care less about the dignity or well-being of others and look only to their own aggrandizement.

To further emphasize this point, Apatow brings in a horde of devices. This is a nice touch, but maybe only for the audiences of 2012. In 50 years, the countless and symbolically loaded references to computers, tablets, iphones, dvds, headphones, and the like will seem dated, but in my mind, this movie is the only one that is wrestling with the excessive thinginess of our day to day life, and the way that iphonization of every daily task creeps into our idiom and into our sanity. Pete pretends to go to the bathroom just to get some alone time to play scrabble (or words with friends, it’s not clear).

But all this is really just window dressing for the core brilliance of the movie, which the way it portraits our modern relationships with each other. Pete’s Dad is an incorrigible mooch, Debbie’s dad isn’t even around, and they fight constantly with each other and then worry that their kids are cursing and fighting. They’re worried about all the right things, but they’re overwhelmed about the right way to deal with them. For example, Pete and Debbie spend one night reading through their elder daughter’s online conversations. They find what they think is evidence that a boy is bullying her and Debbie takes drastic measures, abusing the child to the point of tears at school. Not only are her methods, well, horribly immature, but she doesn’t even have the right information. The boy has a crush on her daughter.

A motif that is used to drive this cycle of failed maturation home is that of the “Lost” episodes that the elder daughter is watching. She’s following the show (which is an representative of modern pop-culture, and appropriately named to boot) and assures her parents that she can handle its emotionally heavy themes, while simultaneously preventing her sister from watching. In the end though, she can’t handle the show’s ending alone. Later, she masters her emotions and agrees to show it to her younger sister, making the audience hopeful that they may break the dysfunctional cycle that Pete and Debbie are caught in (though the state of Deb and Pete’s marriage is far from hopeless).

By the end of the movie, almost nothing has happened; just a lot of fretting and worry. The main characters are right back where they started, thinking about what it is to be happy, and pursuing their vision of the good life in the endearingly confused way that only humans are capable of doing.


Was the Ferry Scene in the Dark Knight Really a Prisoner’s Dilemma?

I was thinking about Batman a little bit today and how much I wanted to see the one coming out in a few weeks.

This made me think back to the second Batman and the ferry scene. Many people label it as an instance of really smart philosophical sensitivity in a film. It’s a thought experiment isn’t it? Yes, and I was happy to see it in the film.

However, I don’t think the situation is really a prisoner’s dilemma. Rather, it’s just a simple example of direct competition or rivalry. If there’s only one apple and we can fight for possession of it, then whoever wins will be better off, but that doesn’t mean we’re in a prisoner’s dilemma. It just means we’re fighting over the single apple.

Let me be more precise. Usually a prisoner’s dilemma indicate an example in which individual rationality leads to collective irrationality, i.e., that total social utility is lost because of the parameters of the game. But in the ferry example, if both sides to cooperate and don’t blow each other up, they will both die at the end of the time limit. This would lead to less total happiness than if one side had detonated so that they would get to live in perpetuity (or at least beyond the specific ferry situation). So, if one side had quickly detonated the other ferry, not only would they have been better off (they would live and the other boat would explode) but society would be better off as well. The people who did the detonating would get to live and return to their loved ones.

One thing also that makes the ferry situation a little different than ordinary prisoner’s dilemma is the way that options are dominated. Usually, the way a prisoner dilemma is understood is that one option is dominant over the other. What this means is that by picking the dominant option, one always does better. If you don’t confess, then I should confess because I’ll go free and you’ll be punished. If you are going to confess, then I should STILL confess, otherwise I’ll go away for much longer than if I don’t cooperate.

In the ferry example though, if I know you’re going to detonate me, then none of my choices matter anyway. All detonating will do is just bring me with you, which won’t make ME any better off. So, strictly speaking, detonating is not the dominant strategy. However, I might look at the situation this way: if the other person denotes, it doesn’t matter what I do, so I should think about the case in which they don’t detonate. And in that case, I should detonate first to survive the Joker’s set up. So, on the off chance you don’t detonate, I should just detonate. So in a way detonating is kind of the dominant option. But critically, detonating does not cause a loss in total social welfare, but rather preserves it.


Review Prometheus

There was a showing of Prometheus starting at 12:01 am today, and some friends were seeing it and urged me to go. I confess I was pretty pumped about the movie just from the trailers, but I wasn’t sure how much of a relationship the movie had to Alien, which was also a fine Ridley Scott film (see here for my thoughts on the Aliens series).

It turns out the movie is VERY similar to Alien, but it is a prequel to that movie. The similarities are numerous. The main protagonist is a strong woman, the action takes place aboard a ship (the Prometheus in this case, the Nostromo in Alien) and an unexplored site (very similar to the exploration of the outpost in AlienS), the characters are far removed from human civilization, hypersleep is used, the mission is organized by a shadowy megacorporation, and there is probably much more. I found this to be one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a long time.

There is a lot of smart commentary about a range of deep topics going on. One of the primary themes of the movie that is almost impossible to avoid is the arrogance of the human need to know. From the mission briefing in which the crew scoffs at the fact that an entire mission was organized to see our creators when there is no clue as to why this race created humans or why they gave up on their project. All of this is blended nicely with the fact that our obsession with our creators mirrors the prejudice and insensitivity shown to David, the synthetic human (he’s not quite a cyborg) of the group. The theme is further driven home by the name of the ship, which was the name of the human being who tried to steal from the gods — in this movie, to know the secrets of the gods and of life itself — and the quest of the eccentric trillionaire who dragged everyone out to the remote planet just so he can get a shot at immortality. He cannot be satisfied with a limited human life (and this becomes important later, in my analysis of FECUNDITY).

The captain of the ship on the other hand becomes distinguished by his resistance to this flawed attitude embodied by the expedition. He doesn’t want to know his creator and couldn’t care less about dabbling in such profound questions.

He is the nihilist hero. He cares for nothing as a response to the fact that he literally woke up on a foreign world. His final act is a destructive one as he suicides into the enemy ship, but in this way, he saves all humanity. That act  dramatizes an extremely Nietzschean point: that human survival will depending on rejecting many old questions that hold sway over us, but not perhaps, believing that EVERYTHING is valueless. Dr. Shaw asks the captain “don’t you care about anything,” and it turns out he does.

So much more is woven into this basic narrative as its secondary aftershocks in the world of these characters.

For instance, the callousness shown to David is mirrored back as he rebels against human beings. He is, in contrast to the cyborg Bishop in Aliens, very hostile to his creators. The line when he tells Shaw that he “watched her dream” in hypersleep was well-delivered by Fassbender and really creeped me out.

Then there is the way that religion is also put into this despairing and nihilistic situation. Dr. Shaw, the strong woman at the heart of the movie carries a cross around her neck and David continually mocks it and tries to remove it, but after all the movies, she still holds on to it. She refuses to give up her faith and her scientific curiosity, which again, I thought was the target of much of the movie (this movie is one of the most powerful interpretations I have seen of the glib phrase “playing god.”)

In Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film, he analyzes the Alien movies a meditation on our relationship to our own fecundity, to our relationship to our bare reproductive capabilities. It’s not hard to see that humans have a very special psychic relationship to our own reproduction. Sex is surrounded by a host of rituals, taboos, and unspoken conventions and this may be related to the fact that sex and our sexual organs remind us that we are not just persons who study and manipulate the natural world according to evidence and rationality, but animals who are simply part of the natural world, and subject to all its cruelty and arbitrariness. The captain, when asks to have sex with Vickers, is a way for Ridley Scott to suggest that we must become comfortable with sex in order to flourish. The creatures, as Mulhall I think persuasively argues, represent our bare animal nature. They reproduce and feed simply to reproduce and feed. They have no other purpose and the main characters’ reaction to them throughout the Alien series has been a kind of chastity. Each character (all female in Prometheus, Alien, and Aliens) fights against penetration. Each practices a kind of chastity. The captain is the other side, suggesting that embrace and not careful control of our fecundity may be fruitful as well.

It goes without saying that the notion of procreation is shockingly explored in Dr. Shaw’s alien pregnancy.

Two bonus points.

When the Engineer is woken from hypersleep, he brutally kills the people that have brought him back (I guess because he was programmed to go on a genocidal expedition to earth and wants all the humans dead), but what is fascinating is that he DOES NOT immediately try to kill the humans he sees. David, the synthetic human tries to communicate, and from the facial features of the Engineer, he is successful. But there is not translation or subtitles. WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WAS SAID TO THE ENGINEER. I find this fascinating because given David’s anger towards his human masters and calculating nature, he might have said something very provocative or downright deceptive. The Engineer only starts killing everyone after David speaks, and the use of a foreign language as a way to shield what was said from the audience is brilliant.

Second bonus point. The art of the movie is stunning, epic, and well imagined at every stage. One thing that was very powerful was the image of humans trying to seal themselves from their environment via their suits, and helmets, and tanks, and containment devices, which are repeatedly breached. Particularly, the scene in which the two dudes are down in the structure on the planet and come across a tentacle-like alien. At first, they are protected by their suits, but then the alien gets INSIDE the suit, and there is the image of the alien curling around his head, and he’s INSIDE his protective bubble. His protective gear has been breached, making his destruction so much more intimate, personal, and frightening. This is replayed later in the surgery machine. Dr. Shaw has just extracted the alien fetus from herself and is face to face, inside the glass cocoon, with a horrible tentacled creature.