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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (5/6/18) 2:00pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Moonwalking With Einstein
Movies:  Black Panther, Ex Machina, Paprika, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
TV:  <none>

Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer
This is the 2011 book by a reporter who decided on a lark to train for America's national memorization championships.

Ah yes.  Yet another "quirky, nerdy subculture" book, à la Word Freak.  So you know what you're getting with this one: the outsized personalities of a 'small pond' competitive field; ruminations on the larger implications of an impossibly specific hobby; riveting play-by-play of some final competition.  This one adds in the "participatory journalism" mod: the reporter himself decides to train up and compete in the US memorization championships.

Moonwalking with Einstein delivers exactly what you're expecting, and it's done very well.  There are indeed lots of outsized personalities in the memorization-hobbyist scene.  There is a lot to say about memorization -- you can launch from that topic to neuroscience, or pedagogy, or philosophy.  And there is indeed the US memorization contest which both opens the book (in a quick 'teaser') and closes it.

Mr. Foer does his job ably.  It's especially interesting to look at memorizing in terms of the history of education.  It used to be that you just memorized lots of stuff -- like, say, all the fiddly bits of Latin -- just because your teachers thought memorizing was good for you.  It was like doing reps on a weight bench, only for your brain.  And now, culture has become thoroughly dismissive of memorization, except as some kind of party trick, which is its own pitfall -- if you have *nothing* memorized, it's kind of hard to give new information a context, or anything in your head to "attach to".[1]

The techniques really are fascinating.  The root concept behind memorization is something very simple, and something that, for some reason, nobody on earth ever explained to me: there are things you, as a human being, are good at memorizing.  You're good at images, you're good at spaces, and you're *really* good at weird and emotionally-charged events.  If you came home one day to find Mike Pence having sex with a walrus in your kitchen, you'd remember that for a long, long time.

There are also things that you, as a human being, are bad at memorizing.  To wit: everything else.  Numbers, words, dates, faces, dance moves, everything in daily life -- your brain is *designed* let them all fall right out as soon as you learn them.  So the art of memorization is actually a *creative* act: it is the art of translating the things you want to memorize into a format that your brain can hold on to.[2]  So we have, for instance, the fabled "memory palace", which is really just a fancy term for "associating a set of memories with places in a house you know really well" — because you're unlikely to forget, say, where your kitchen is.

(Side note: it's very frustrating that I had exactly *none* of these tools available in school, when I desperately needed them.  I have no idea how I memorized stuff in the days when I needed to memorize stuff.  Hell, nearly everything I've learned about how to get things done, I've learned post-college, so my pity for past!me is boundless.)

And finally, the memory contest is an engaging plot to hang the whole thing on.  It's a relatively short book, it's entertaining, and it seems like a good introduction to useful memorization techniques.


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
This is the 2017 family action-adventure sequel in which a group of teens at detention get trapped in a jungle-themed video game.  As their video-game avatars, they have to lift the curse on the island to get back to their real lives.

(This was one of four movies I watched on the flights home from France.  It all kind of blurs together, so I won’t have much to say about it.)

This movie is delightful.  It is ridiculous, it knows it is ridiculous, it leans into the ridiculousness, and everybody has a good time.

This is not an ambitious movie.  The video game provides a dirt-simple plot -- "bring the jewel to the statue before the bad guy kills us off" -- and the plot goes exactly how you expect it to.  They have to beat various levels of the game by using their abilities and working together.

And that simple, plot-for-dummies storyline serves them well -- they can take it for granted that they've got a plot engine powering this thing forward, and focus instead on character arcs and comedy.  It gives them breathing room, letting them pair of characters for Breakfast Club-style heart-to-hearts and take the time for a really well-thought-through dick joke.  ("Why are you so obsessed with *aiming*?")

And with the character arcs, they also go dirt-simple.  Spenser lacks bravery.  Martha lacks self-confidence.  Bethany is self-absorbed.  Fridge... eh, they're a little vague with Fridge.  I think it's that he's convinced he can't do anything intellectual?  Or that he's turned his back on friendship?  Anyway, three out of four ain't bad.  Generally, they play out the arcs exactly how you'd expect.  Spenser faces down monsters.  Martha learns to flirt.  Bethany sacrifices a life.  Fridge solves problems cleverly.

Again, it's not ambitious, but it's effective and satisfying.  We use that structure for a reason, after all.  It keeps us emotionally engaged while, again, leaving room for the jokes.

There are some miscues along the way.  There's an odd moment where their pilot becomes convinced he can't choose a plane, let alone fly one.  There's also a bit of weirdness at the end where Spencer isn't sure he wants to return to the real world.  I can tell what they were *going for*, story-wise, with each of those moves, but in the moment they felt weird and forced.

They play a little bit with video-game tropes.  Again, it's unambitious — it's clear the writers don't really know much about video games — but the obvious pot-shots at, say, silly and repetitive NPCs, or arbitrary sets of booby traps, are delightful. 

And I feel like they smuggled in some fun notions about gender-as-performance, probably by accident.  They did great by casting Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan, who in pop culture today seem most like endearingly awkward nerds who happen to look like (and *be*) giant movie stars.  And they get so much comedy out of the Rock trying really really hard to *portray* an action hero, and out of Ms. Gillan trying really really hard to *portray* a femme fatale.  I'm not saying the movie is massively subversive or anything, but I do think it plants a hint that our gender roles are not natural but performed, often by people who inwardly stress out over whether they're doing it right.  Fifteen-year-olds walking around with adult bodies and trying to pretend everything is cool is, in some ways, a fine metaphor for what being an adult is like.

Similarly, I wonder if it's planting some hints about transexuality, too.  If Jack Black's character can really be a girl, to the point of being very very uncomfortable with her male body... if nothing else, it gives young viewers a reference point, even an unconscious one, so they don't freak out when meeting a trans individual.

And it's just generally fun watching these grown-ups pretend to be high schoolers.  Partly it's just silly, but also there's the relief of watching the sort of cringe-inducing behavior you might see on Freaks and Geeks, but with enough aesthetic distance that you just have a fun laugh of recognition.  And seeing grown-ups play through these teen emotions reminds you, on some subconscious level, that you live through it, and that things get better.

Anyway, that's probably more thought than a movie about a magical video game (with janky CGI) really deserves.  Just know that it's lots of fun, and perfect for a couple of hours of entertainment on an airplane.


Captain America: Civil War
This is the 2016 MCU superhero film where a conflict over governmental supervision of superheroes pits Captain America against Iron Man, with all the Marvel superheroes picking sides in the battle.

(This was one of four movies I watched on the flights home.  It all kind of blurs together, so I won’t have much to say about it.)

This film is so massive in scope, and so successful at the box office, and so fundamentally important to its franchise, that it feels odd that I can't muster too much to say about it.  It mostly brings to mind words like "solid," "workmanlike," and "satisfactory."

For starters, let's look at the main "Claudio problem"[3] of the Civil War storyline: how do we get these superheroes, who have all been fighting evil together for umpteen years, to fight each other?  The rewards for pulling this off are great: to have a bunch of elaborately superpowered folks squaring off is, if nothing else, *tactically* interesting.  It also means that everybody involved is a really strong character that the audience already knows and is invested in.

And it sidesteps the MCU's biggest problem: their miserable track record coming up with even passable antagonists.

So they take on the challenge, and they do the best workmanlike job they can with it.  The script gives Stark and Steve different philosophical takes on that central "who watches the watchmen?" problem, and lets them argue it out.  The actors embody their (kind of simplistic) viewpoints and do their best to seem emotionally committed to it.  If you stop and think about anything, it seems pretty damn silly that they're resorting to all-out war over this, but it sticks to its schedule of "big fight scene every ten minutes" perfectly, so you don't really get to stop and think about anything.

And of course around act three it turns into "this was all a big misunderstanding so now we can all team up again."  And that's fine; that's what you expect.

They come up with another staggeringly bland villain.  Thematically, at least, Helmut Zero makes sense -- his ultimate goal is not to kill any superheroes, but to lure them into killing each other.  But he's one of those villains who thinks five moves ahead in a way that never actually works in real life.  There were lots of "yes, I *wanted* you to do the last seven things that you just did, because that all plays into my evil plaaaaaanz!"  There were a lot of moments where I wanted to take the screenwriter(s) aside and say, "Okay, so I'm guessing you've never actually *done* a multi-step plan that made contact with reality, have you?"  But again: fights every ten minutes; you never quite think about it; you go along with it for the run of the movie, and it only falls apart in retrospect.

The film also does a solid, workmanlike job of servicing its massive panoply of superheroes.  It even has to introduce new ones: we see Black Panther for the first time, along with Everett K. Ross and Okoye; we see the latest Spider-Man; we introduce (and immediately kill off) Mr. and Mrs. Stark circa 1992.  All the whirligigs and gewgaws of plotting find things to do for Ant-Man and Vision and Black Widow and Falcon and on and on and on -- it's impressive, in that they're solving a hell of a sudoku puzzle to make all that make sense.

And sometimes, the movie does rise above "delivery mechanism for fun fight scenes."  The jokes are great throughout.  Even if the seams show a little bit, the emotions of the central conflict feel genuine and moving, and fighting over (of all things) government oversight actually feels surprisingly relevant these days.  And the fight scenes themselves are gripping and fun -- it's a relief to see fights where I actually can follow the geography of things, and I know where people are doing stuff, and what they're doing, and to whom.

All that said, the Russo Brothers are still somehow awful at mise-en-scène.  It's a bizarre failure -- and one that drives me to a perverse sort of respect -- when a movie shows me Budapest and London and Berlin and New York and *Wakanda* and... they all look kind of the same, and they all look... kinda boring.  It's all that same desaturated blue-gray cityscapes, peppered with anonymous-looking conference rooms.  I wish I knew more about set design, so that I could specify in more detail what this movie does wrong, and so I could use it for object lessons in how to do this right.

Still, the movie's entertaining, both as a movie and as a convoluted-but-effective solution to a massively complicated MCU math problem.  It's fun to see the plot play out, and it's fun to see them strain to include every character, and set up a massive super-on-super airport battle, and spin out every plotline they need to have laid in for MCU Phase Three.  Still, I don't think any of it will stick with me much.  It's a pleasant time that was fading from memory even as I was stepping off the plane.


Ant-Man
This is the 2015 MCU movie about a thief who's tasked with a heist and, for the job, receives a suit that (mainly) lets him change sizes.

(This was one of four movies I watched on the flights home.  It all kind of blurs together, so I won’t have much to say about it.)

I think of this as a pretty good Marvel movie with a somewhat better Edgar Wright movie somewhere inside it.  Edgar Wright, you'll recall, was the original writer-director on the film, but he left after it became clear that (as he puts it) "I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don't think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie."

And it feels like the strengths of the film are the strengths of Edgar Wright movies.  Edgar Wright is really good at binding genre storytelling to character arcs -- so Scott performing the big Pym heist as a way to prove he's a responsible non-custodial parent to his daughter?  That feels like Edgar Wright.  It's not the kind of warm-hearted, small-scale, personal stakes you'd see in, say, a Russo-Brothers MCU film.

The same goes for the -- I want to say "random" here, but that's not right -- the *surprising* and visually distinctive elements that come into play in his movies.  Elements that feel like they're out of left field, and that feel surreal when they're happening — but you can't properly say they're "random" because Mr. Wirght patiently sets them up ahead of time.  I'm talking about the Thomas the Tank Engine wrecking a suburban home, or Scott Lang almost getting killed by a record-player needle at a rave.  They're bizarre moments, and they give you that gasp you associate with something random showing up, but every time, the elements are already set up so that the weird moment *has* to happen.  And, again, this weirdness happens in Wright movies, like the "Don't Stop Me Now" fight scene from Shaun of the Dead, or, well, pretty much everything in Scott Pilgrim.

And there's a sense of this movie having fun -- at times almost Taika-Waititi-level fun -- instead of just patiently putting together another solid MCU movie with the correct number of fight scenes.  The secondary characters often feel like they have better things to do than be in this movie.  Dave, their getaway driver, has a slightly-out-of-phase feel, like he could wander off and guest in an Atlanta episode.  Luis clearly has a sitcom going on that just happens to intersect with this movie.  I'm 90% sure "Disintegration" starts playing, *truly* randomly, in one scene, just because Mr. Wright liked the song and thought it would be amusing.

And the sense of gleeful invention holds with the fight scenes, too.  There's a sense that the fight choreography is going just a little faster than you can keep up with, a constant feeling of "Wait, how is this working?  What are the rules of physics here?"  It's all slickly done and it has this restless feel, like if it ever just relaxes into "two dudes punching each other", then the scene isn't even worth doing.  And I feel like that's how Mr. Wright approaches his fight scenes, in (say) Hot Fuzz or The World's End or Scott  Pilgrim.

The weaknesses of the film feel like weaknesses I've seen in other MCU films and standard-order tentpoles.

First, their villain is boring even by MCU standards.  Darren Cross's motivations are so thin and generic, the movie finally throws up its hands and says, "Uh... the Pym Particles drove him crazy!  Now he's acting crazy!  And murdery, and stuff!"  There's no relatable motivation moving him at all.  And there's no thematic connection to the hero -- at no point could Mr. Cross[4] eye Scott Lang and say, "We're not so different, you and I."  And that's not a good thing -- that makes him less a part of this story and more just some random dude who's being a jackass for no reason.

Second, ugh the "hypercompetent female sidekick" has         appeared again.  You know: there's a dude hero, and he's a random schlub, and he's given a quest to save the world, and he meets the hot girl who's literally been trained to do this quest since she was in the womb, but she can't do it because there's a prophesy or something that says that only random-dude is cool enough to do the quest.  So the hypercompetent female is knocked down to "sidekick with boobs" status, and her job is to roll her eyes at the rambunctious, inept hero, and then throw herself into his arms -- yay, he gets a prize -- once he completes his quest.[5]

That's fun, right?

And here it's Hope van Dyne as the HFS ("hypercompetent female sidekick").  It would take a very good actress at the top of her game, plus very good writing, to make an HFS something more than just dull sneering for the first two acts of the movie.  And with Hope, either the writing or the actress let us down, and we're stuck with "hot girl grudgingly helping out schlub" for that first hour.  They actually do a good job making Hank Pym's decision *not* to give Hope the suit have emotional impact -- okay, he couldn't bear to lose Hope, too -- but you still can't help thinking, "Yeah, the real reason Hope isn't the hero is systemic sexism in the storytelling business."

Side note: there is one actress with the comic chops and charisma to make that character interesting: Judy Greer, who is showing up, yet again, in a 'concerned friend' role.  Her name is practically a punch line at this point, as she's become the canonical HFS of the *acting* world, always playing the BFF or the assistant or (as here) the ex-wife who is clearly the best actress in the room.

God, could you imagine all that banter happening between Paul Rudd and a woman who held her own on Arrested Development, fercrissake?

Anyway, Judy Greer shows up, looks concerned, delivers her dozen or so lines over the course of the film, and leaves you wondering why you're not instead watching the show about her character struggling with balancing married life, her career, and kiddo-raising.[6]

On balance, the movie is fun and pleasant.  Paul Rudd is a great change of pace from previous MCU heroes -- kind of a plucky, "desperately improvising" vibe without the child-like bro-ishness of Peter Quill or the sarcastic insecurity of Peter Parker.  Seeing that noncustodial parents are a thing in the MCU is kind of a relief, representation-wise.  And you tend to ignore the bland "standard MCU" aspects of the movie and focus on the Edgar-Wright inventiveness.

But oh, the film we might have had if Marvel had just gotten out of Mr. Wright's way.


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
This is Kenneth Brannagh's 2017 adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie locked-room mystery, where a dastardly arts dealer is found murdered in his cabin on a luxury train in transit.

(This was one of four movies I watched on the flights home.  It all kind of blurs together, so I won’t have much to say about it.)

Okay, let's talk about that moustache.  It's ridiculous, it's not what you would expect from the adaptation, it's not quite supported by the source material... but it's not completely at odds with it, either.  And it's an interesting, unexpected choice.

This is kind of how I feel about Brannagh's take on the character.  Look, we all know that David Suchet did the definitive take on Hercule Poirot.  That's what's in the book, made flesh for the screen, and every future take on the character will be reckoned against that one.  Brannagh doesn't do that.  He makes idiosyncratic choices with the character that aren't *completely* unwarranted, but are still pretty out-there.  But still, they're refreshing and, well, fun.  Like the moustache.

For instance, Brannagh re-casts Poirot's "fussiness" as a pretty clear case of OCD, in a time when there neither a name nor a treatment for it.  His Poirot is apologetic about asking a soldier to fix his tie, knowing that other people are having to accommodate his odd condition.  By contrast, the book's Poirot was more straight-up scornful about a world that never lived up to his standards.  They also invent a lost love for Poirot, which is nowhere in the books and is not something you'd remotely infer from the books, either.

The net effect is to create a warmer version of Poirot, a kind-hearted, staunchly moral gentleman who regrets his affliction of needing such precise order in his surroundings.  And that's interesting — especially since Suchet has rendered a more faithful take on the character redundant and unnecessary.[7]  And Brannagh's choices make Poirot more sympathetic -- a protagonist we're more likely to go on emotional journey with.  This is good, since Brannagh, unsurprisingly, contorts the story to make it all about Poirot.  See also: his distortion of the ending, where Poirot faces a wrenching moral choice about how to handle the case, once he learns what happened.  (And naturally, because it becomes all about Poirot, the rest of the story suffers by comparison.  More on that in a bit.)

I suspect golden-age murder mysteries just don't work very well as movies.  Part of the joy of an old murder mystery is putting the book down and ruminating yourself over the clues you've seen so far, and letting it spin in your mind while you're going about your day.  Movies are designed to be watched in one two-hour, headlong rush.  You're never given much chance to think over the puzzle, as you've got new data coming in all the time.  And even if you did parcel the film out -- five minutes here, five minutes there -- they have to drastically reduce the complexity of the story, to the point that it loses any sense of "Fair Play" -- i.e., the feeling that you the reader have been presented with enough clues to solve the complicated crime, if you could only sort them out in the right arrangement.

And Brannagh's film has to cut the story even more to make room for Poirot's emotional through-line and for (of all things) action sequences.  So you're left with an ending that has Poirot making some utterly silly leaps of logic.  It makes the storytelling experience utterly different: you're not seeing a puzzle play out, you're watching an emotional arc play out while some uncanny-valley simulacrum of a puzzle runs alongside it.

This film also foregrounds the racism and sexism of the 1930s.  Colonel Arbuthnot is black (and also the doctor) in this version, and the script is keenly aware of the social implications of that.  The Italian Mr. Foscarelli becomes the Cuban Mr. Marquez, and again, there are social implications to that, as well.  And Daisy Ridley's Ms. Debenham seems more combative towards the sexist restrictions of Edwardian England than her literary counterpart.

Again, this is a choice that is not really in the book.  (Remember, Agatha Christie originally titled one of her most famous novels "Ten Little Niggers".)  But it feels to me like the right choice for a modern adaptation: modern audiences don't have the luxury of just ignoring the social problems of the 1930s the way that Christie did, and I think you can represent that period within the realm of historical accuracy without making everyone *monstrously* prejudiced.  And honestly, many golden-age mysteries did examine the social issues of the day -- if you don't think they ever addressed sexism, for example, then I think Gaudy Night would like to have a word with you.

On balance, it's an entertaining film.  Sure, the mystery-story aspect doesn't quite work, but you get a murderer's (heh) row of film actors doing good, quick takes on admittedly-thin characters.  Brannagh's over-directing (he seems awfully enamored of shooting from above or through cut glass) doesn't get in the way too badly.  The emotional storyline, cut from whole cloth though it is, works nicely.  And it has the *feeling* of a mystery story, steadily working through its clues, even if it doesn't quite do that in reality.  Also, the set and costume designs are gorgeous and sumptuous.

It's worth watching; just take it on its own terms and try to keep the book out of your mind.


Black Panther
This is the 2018 Marvel superhero movie where T'Challah, the new king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, tracks a series of international thefts to a world-threatening crisis at home.

This is one of the best MCU movies -- possibly *the* best MCU movie -- but there's one thing that keeps bugging me about it.  And it's that final panther-versus-panther fight between T'Challah and Killmonger.  I remember kind of checking out while watching it, with that familiar superhero-movie feeling of, "Okay, wake me when the CGI stops punching the other CGI."

And that's weird to me, that the *climactic moment*, of all things, would fall short in such a strong film.

Part of it is that, honestly, I was a little underwhelmed by some of the film's fight choreography.  The fights were weirdly inconsistent.  There were fights that worked: the teaser action sequence in the Congo was riveting, and the initial, ceremonial Killmonger/T'Challah fight was brutal, and the car chase through Busan was kinetic and fun.  But then the casino sequence leading into the car chase was oddly... disconnected and choppy.  It's the only time I've seen a thirty-second bravura tracking shot in a fight scene that *felt* indistinguishable from the 'normal' quick-cut material around it.  And that final fistfight just felt like an anonymous sequence of moves.  There was no personality to the fighting styles, and no *story* to the fight itself.

And there's a deeper story problem, too.  The classic structural move in these superhero movies is to match up the hero and the villain early on in the story, maybe early in act two, and have the hero *lose*.  Then, more story happens, the hero addresses flaws, learns about life, faces challenges that lead to growth, yada yada yada.  Then you match up the hero and villain *again* towards the end of act three, only *this* time, the hero is a different person.  They've faced down their problems/fears/weaknesses, and now with this newfound skill/bravery/confidence they can defeat the bad guy.  The two fights serve as a convenient yardstick by which you can measure the hero's growth.

Looking at the two fights in Black Panther, you realize the hero doesn't really grow in this story.  He starts out the story suspecting that Wakanda can do more to support people in the outside world.  He ends the story acting on that suspicion.  There's not really a *journey* there.  And so he wins the second fight because... well, he just gets lucky, I guess.

And so to me, the welcome surprise in Black Panther is that, in spite of these problems -- in spite of occasionally janky action sequences, and in spite of hero that is kind of in stasis -- the movie still works, and works *fantastically* well.

Why is that?

The thing that I keep coming back to is the insane bench of secondary characters Black Panther sets up.  They bring in character after character after character that are all clearly sketched out, well-acted, and given their own arcs to pursue.  It may even have a stronger bench of characters than the first Avengers movie — sure, that's *probably* an overstatement, but it's telling that you have to take some time to weigh the question.

Consider Everett K. Ross.  You can imagine a terribly, *terribly* inappropriate version of Black Panther where Ross is the main character.  Think about it: he's the outsider that learns about this hidden world of superpowered people, comes to accept, after some resistance, that everything he knew about the world was wrong (or at least limited), and then uses their technologies (and his skillset) to help bravely save the day.  That's the standard hero plot for the MCU.  That's Ant-Man.  That's Doctor Strange.  And here, that well-worn, strong, standard-issue is just one plotline, relegated to a third-tier character.

The relationship between Okoye and W'Kabi is riveting, with the two coming down, understandably, on different sides of how to accept Killmonger's ascent.  Okoye's internal conflict, torn between allegiance to the rules of Wakanda and dealing with a leader who opposes everything her nation stands for, is positively Shakespearean.  (And, for many Americans, agonizingly relevant.)

M'Baku is rescued from one of the most racist portrayals in the comic run (they literally call him "The Man-Ape," fercrissakes) and even he gets a journey — from fighting T'Challah for the throne, to grudgingly helping him after Killmonger's victory, to Han-Solo-ing in to save the day at the end.  I'm pretty sure he has maybe two or three dozen lines all told?  But those lines work with jaw-dropping efficiency.  You get his world-view, his attitude, his sense of humor — hell, his tribe's practice of vegetarianism.

They even pull off the "hypercompetent female sidekick" thing with grace and aplomb.  Yes, Nakia is established as, in many ways, better at T'Challah's job than T'Challah.  But this is a far, far cry from the "super-competent woman who is relegated to helping the bumbling dude hero".  She reflects the thorny question at the center of the movie: how does a wildly advanced nation interact with a world that discriminates against the race of its people?  And she gets to lock horns with the hero about that issue.  Plus, I love that they make her a spy, and they let her be good at spying.

I could go on and on, with character after character.  And eventually, you realize just how *weak* other MCU movies are along these lines.  Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel might be the only ones playing the "secondary characters" game at this level.  Ant-Man at least manages a few good secondary characters, but it's mostly full of ciphers.  Doctor Strange might be the canonical example of a movie where the hero barely has a personality and the remaining cast vanish from your memory even while you're watching the film.

The 'secondary characters' MCU problem is a superset of mother of all MCU problems: the villains.  Outside of Black Panther, I have seen one good villain in the MCU, and that's Loki.  Most MCU villains make so little impression that, searching my memories, I can't even remember who they are.  And of course, since Black Panther absolutely kills it on supporting characters, they easily bring the best villain of the MCU so far: Killmonger.

There is so much to like here.  He parallels the hero perfectly.  He's another heir to the Wakandan throne, and his goal perfectly reflects that central theme of the movie: how does Wakanda relate to the world?  T'Kallah wanted isolation.  Nakia wants active involvement.  T'Challah seems unsure.  And Killmonger has his own plan: arm the African diaspora and rule the world.  Michael B. Jordan is one of the best movie stars going these days, and the movie does a beautiful job making his ideas make sense — which is hard to do if your goal is literally "take over the world".

I mean, jeez, Ulysses Klaue has more personality than nearly every other MCU villain.  And that's their *secondary* villain.  That's their henchman-dude.  Think on that.

And on top of that, the conflict feels relevant to the real world.  Even I know that the behavior of "colonizers" towards Africa has left a raw, unhealed wound.  And I see no easy or obvious way to move forward and make things alright.  And that real-life issue becomes the question at stake between the hero and villain.  Do you fight back?  Or do you reach out and provide support?  There's no obvious right answer when you put it like that, and it's not a question you can dismiss lightly.  It's not neatly contained in the movie, left to vanish into the air once the movie is done.

Also, Black Panther might have the best design work of any film in the MCU.  It's like Ryan Coogler is the opposite of the Russo Brothers.  While the Russo Brothers make everywhere feel like nowhere, full of bland, desaturated office blocks and indistinguishable confrerence rooms, Mr. Coogler has made a film where every room and every prop and every costume feels deliberate.  There are criticisms — it suffers somewhat from an "Africa is a country" attitude, and some of the CGI is kinda janky — but it absolutely sells Wakanda as a unique and convincing place.  And Oakland and Busan feel like very, very different places from that.  (It's only in the London scenes that it seems to fall into Russovian blandness.)  It's the only MCU film that has made a tear-jerking emotional moment out of a contrast of *settings* — the lush veldt of T'Kallah's afterlife revealed to starkly contrast the bleak Oakland apartment where N'Jobu has ended up.

Maybe a few other MCU films come close with their designs.  Thor: Ragnarok matches them for being clearly intentional with their design choices.  Doctor Strange gets points for using inventive special effects to spice up their anonymous locations, and Guardians gets points for remembering that color exists and for going full prog-rock-cover with Ego in their sequel.  But Black Panther is still unmatched for making design deliberate and meaningful.

I know I'm ignoring the obvious here: this movie has meant the world to many, many African-American viewers.  Like Wonder Woman, there is a joy to just seeing competent representation in the superhero genre.  For my part as a white dude, even *I* felt relief.  The movie stars black people.  The movie knows how to light black people.  (Sometimes that's a problem.)  The movie feels no need to include white people where they don't belong — consider the first basketball scene, and consider how a lesser movie would have felt the need to include a white kid in the game, even though we're in a run-down part of Oakland in the early 90s.

And not only that, but the movie gives women interesting, meaningful roles.  They get agency.  They get to talk about things besides the dudes in their lives.  Most movies suck at that.  Most MCU movies suck at that.[8]  But Black Panther nails it without apparent effort.

So that was a good film.  It'll be exciting to see how well the MCU manages to live up to this high-water mark.  And I'm very excited to see what Mr. Coogler does next — we seem especially blessed lately with a crop of new directors doing phenomenal work almost right out of the gate.  With everything that's wrong with the world in 2018, at least we can look forward to these auteurs having long, rewarding careers.


Ex Machina
This is the 2015 indie sci-fi drama about a tech employee brought to a remote estate to test an android for sentience.

After I finished watching Ex Machina, I did some reading about the production, and I was surprised to learn that a lot of how that movie is put together was because of budget limitations.  The movie was always going to be a heady, deliberative film about artificial intelligence, and that doesn't scream "tentpole budget", so Mr. Garland limited his script accordingly: small cast, one location, very little action.  Relatively few special effects, beyond the CGI rotoscoping that creates Ava, the android at the center of the story.

The result feels like a play.  Put another way: you could put on Ex Machina on a stage, in a black box theater, and it would still make sense.  It pares away all the spectacle, and action, and technobabble, and leaves you with three entities — two humans, one android — discussing what it means to be human.

What amazes me about Ex Machina is how they give those heady discussions real, gripping stakes.  The tension is there from the very start: the programmer, Caleb, arrives at a very isolated estate.  There is no way out until a helicopter returns for him.  There is no cell reception.  And the CEO, Nathan, is rich beyond imagining.  So instantly we've kicked out all of the safety measures of living in normal society: Nathan could kill Caleb, and Caleb wouldn't be able to get help, and Nathan would never face punishment.  Knowing that about the film's setting makes even a simple conversation about coding feel fraught.[9]

And then they introduce Ava, and the mind game becomes massively more complicated.  Can Caleb trust Ava?  Does it even mean anything to 'trust' an android?  Is Nathan lying about Ava?  Is Ava lying about Nathan?  What is the "Turing test" really for?  Suddenly, this becomes a chess game, and you've got an increasing suspicion that it has life-and-death stakes.

Along the way, the movie manages to interrogate the "born sexy yesterday" trope in a way I haven't seen before.  It shows up over and over again in movies: there's a woman, and she's utterly, movie-star hot, but she has the mind of a child — usually because she was magically created a few days ago.  And she may not know the world, but she knows that, yes, she has feelings for the dude-hero.  So, without any thoughts about whether this is a really monstrously creepy idea, the dude wins this child-esque bride at the end, and they go off to do sexy things together as the credits roll.  This was in Tron: Legacy; this was in The Fifth Element; this is in genre cinema all the damn time.

So Ex Machina starts you down the same road.  Ava was just built.  Ava is played by a gorgeous Swedish ballerina.  Ava says she has feelings for Caleb.

And you think you've heard this song before.

But then they pull back the curtain, bit by bit, on just how creepy Nathan is.  I suspect the reveal that Kyoko is a robot is supposed to be a surprise, but I just took it as given from the start.  So Nathan has a robot.  Nathan treats her like a servant.  Nathan uses her for sex.  Nathan shows no moral compunction about this, or considers Kyoko's agency in any of it.  We find out Kyoko is very, very unhappy.  We find out Nathan has abused robot after robot, finally shutting them all down and storing them in his bedroom.

It makes it very clear that this is the real vibe that underlies the "sexy born yesterday" trope.  It's about the dude getting sex and winning a girl and feeling wanted, without ever dealing with a woman as an individual with agency.  And putting this in the context of a tech billionaire makes it even more hair-raising, because now you can't help connecting it to the misogyny in the modern tech industry.

And of course now you have to interrogate Caleb's feelings for Ava.  Saying "Caleb is the same as Nathan" feels like false equivalence, but you can't deny that it's the same vibe.  Either by a lack of introspection, or by being the victim of very able manipulation, Caleb is trying to get his own "sexy born yesterday" robot, and that's, well, gross.  I don't come away feeling like he *deserves* to get locked up in the compound to eventually die of hunger.  But he isn't blameless or innocent, either.

In a way it feels like the expertly-done twist in episode six of the first season of Dollhouse, where the show reveals that this cliché adventure story you've been watching was actually problematic/creepy as hell the whole time, and now it's going to spend two seasons diving into just how creepy and wrong it is.

Ex Machina also felt like a critique of the tech industry more generally.  You'll recall the line from Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."  In the 90s, that was just a general critique of movie mad scientists.  These days, it feels like a much more timely critique of the big five tech giants that are effectively running our lives.  And Nathan kind of embodies that "move fast and break things" ethos.  When you don't have a moral compass, and only follow the rule of "I do whatever I can't be stopped from doing", that's the behavior you get.  To see a tech CEO portrayed that way is both disappointing and unsurprising.

Just as a piece of construction, the plot works perfectly.  Arguably, it works like a well-made play: most of the action (abusing the earlier models; arranging for Caleb's arrival; programming Ava's goals) happened in the past, and most of the story runs on revealing a set of secrets (what the test is about; what Caleb reprogrammed; what Ava wants), and following the aftermarth.  In particular, I loved the way they proceeded from "Caleb won a lottery" to "Caleb is here because he's the best coder" to "Caleb is here because Ava could probably manipulate him".  It's rare that a series of reversals about a single fact works clearly, and doesn't leave you feeling like the movie is just jerking you around.

All in all, I really dug the film, unsettling though it was.  I should probably check out Annihilation.


Paprika
This is the 2006 Satoshi Kon animé about a team of scientists who invent a machine for entering other people's dreams, and then deal with its unforeseen consequences.

There's a really fiendish way to break a Rubik's Cube.  First, find one of the edge pieces — that is, one of the little mini-cubes that's not the center of a face, and not a corner.  Then, exchange the stickers on the two exposed faces.  Ta-da!  This Rubik's Cube is now mathematically un-solvable.  But if you then mix the cube up a bit, it's not immediately obvious that this is so.  Even someone with some experience with that puzzle will get it most of the way solved, and only late in the game realize that, no, there's one piece screwed up, and no matter how they logic their way through it, they'll never get it 100% of the way done.

I'll get back to this in a bit.

Here's how I summarize Paprika to people: imagine if Inception happened because Christopher Nolan watched a trippy animé film and decided he'd make the buttoned-down version of it that was reasonable, buttoned-down, and above all, made *sense*.

The two films share the basic mechanic: scientists invent a device that lets you step into other people's dreams.  But recall how methodical, how deliberate, how *constructed* Inception is.  How patient it is about explaining to you the rules of the dream incursions.  How it carefully puts into place all the simultaneously-moving parts of its storytelling.  How it provides clean, reassuringly spare mise-en-scène, with simple elegant costumes, tidy suits with four-in-hand ties, and soothing color schemes.

In many ways, Paprika is the nightmare you can create by turning hard in the opposite direction of *all* of that.  Satoshi Kon doesn't give one nano-goddamn about whether you're keeping up, and the whole movie has the manic edge of, say, his intro to Paranoia Agent: *so* bright, and *so* freewheeling, and *so* kinetic, that you watch it thinking, "Okay, this is what it's like to go crazy."

This makes for a movie that, visually, makes Inception look very tame and reasonable by comparison.  Really, Inception's MO is to make most things calm and realistic, so that the moment that, say, a city skyline bends back on itself, it has a sharp, discrete impact.  Paprika doesn't play like that.  With Paprika, the scenes that make logical sense are the exception — and even scenes in the real world are frequently off-putting in their own way, say with Himuro's lab and its shelves and shelves of shadowy dolls.  Its default gear is one where reality itself is falling apart — running down hallways that unravel and disappear; multiple versions of characters, or multiple copies of the same character; bodies disappearing or getting possessed; a bravura chase sequence at the end that has the good guys leaping through pictures and videos to get around the city.

And yet, as you watch it closely, it makes a sort of sense.  Okay, Paprika is an alter-ego of Dr. Chiba.  The detective has a troubled memory of a filmmaking buddy who died young.  The chairman[10] wants to use the DC-Mini machines to take over the world.  The repeated use of the machines causes the dream world(s) to merge with the real one.

There's a sort of sense to it, and the craziness rewards close examination.

But here's where we get back to the Rubik's Cube: no matter how you try, you can never "solve" a Satoshi Kon movie.  You can figure out this aspect, or that aspect, and you can make sense of many of the plot moves, but in the end, it's always just out of reach of logic.  It's always leaving a few questions that don't — that can't — make sense.  How does the Internet factor into this whole mess, and why were those bartenders voiced by the director?  Why did the chairman get eaten at the end?  What kind of arrangement did the chairman have, exactly, with Osanai?  There could be answers to these (and other) questions, but I'm certain I'll never really grok them.

And... there's a weird kind of nobility to that.  To this notion that it's a work of art, and it can never quite be understood, the way you'll never really understand a Rothko painting, or never really understand a great old symphony.  There's the logic, and there's how the pieces come together, but in the end, you're presented with a thing that you can't understand, but somehow still feel to be true.  So it was with Millennium Actress, and Perfect Blue, and Paranoia Agent.  So it is with Paprika.



A brief tangent: it occurs to me that what Mr. Kon did well in Paprika coincides eerily with what bad improv does poorly.  Both have a slippery grasp on characters, and on settings, and on the basic nature of reality.  Both have recurring elements that don't make logical sense in context — improv has its bits, and Mr. Kon's movies have, say, their mad parades.  And both have this freewheeling, chaotic feel to them.

So then I'm left to wonder why Mr. Kon's films use these qualities to make something riveting and moving, while bad improv that stumbles into the same tropes always has me bored and checking my phone.  I suppose it's all down to intent.  There's a huge difference between improvisors trying to do a traditional story and getting interrupted with, say, an inconsistent setting, and Satoshi Kon *weaponizing* an inconsistent setting to knock the viewer's feet out from under them at a critical moment.

(In Paprika in particular, this adds to the movie's mounting sense of danger — it's absolutely terrifying to know that any character, at any time, could go insane, start gibbering about parades, and go running out a window.)

And Mr. Kon tended to make the dreamlike, unstable elements *diegetic* — that is, his stories are actually about this surreal collapse of reality, either via the madness in Perfect Blue or the deadly quasi-hallucinations of Paranoia Agent or the dream machines in Paprika.  So when reality breaks, it means something to the story, in a way that it doesn't for your standard improv "two white dudes in a kitchen" scene.

Also, Mr. Kon picked his battles.  In Paprika, for example, Detective Konakawa is the same character throughout — you know who he is, and how he acts, and, even if you don't know all the details, you know what he wants and is trying to do.  Even at its wildest and most surreal, that character stays the same.  It's still absolutely insane[11] compared to Inception, but even Mr. Kon keeps most elements stable and clear, so the places where things shift and collapse are more meaningful.  In improv, if reality is starting to shift nonsensically, then probably everything else is vague and inconsistent, too.

But I can't help wondering if improv could perfectly nail this sort of "reality going haywire" vibe.


For next week: watching more of The People v. OJ Simpson and listening to an audiocourse about the legal system.  I'm reading two books right now: a collection of noir short stories set in Zagreb, Croatia, and Norm MacDonald's heavily-fictionalized memoir.

_______
[1] He cited a statistic that most American 17-year-olds couldn't place the Civil War within 50 years.  Can you imagine trying to learn anything about our history on top of *that* intellectual foundation?
[2] Wanikani, that kanji-learning app I'm working through, uses these techniques all over the place.  猫 becomes "twenty animals in a rice paddy", and it's very easy to associate that with its definition (cat).
[3] In Much Ado About Nothing, the central hero you're supposed to root for is Claudio.  But Claudio is, basically, an asshole that no audience would like.  So, the "Claudio problem" is how, as a director, you make the audience like Claudio.  I'm using "Claudio problem" more generally to mean "some fundamental problem inherent in your story that you'll have to finesse."
[4] I keep wanting to write
Criss.
[5] Side note: the Sidelined Hypercompetent Female character is a sort of cousin to The Woman Who Always Says No.  That's a trope character in TV -- most usually sitcoms -- that star a dude who gets up to wacky hijinks.  The Woman Who Says No is a woman close to that star -- if he's a fat comedian, she's the hot wife -- whose sole job is to tell him, "No, don't do those wacky hijinks".  This is especially thankless because the wacky hijinks are the only thing the audience has shown up for.  So it's her job to be mean and anti-fun and to serve as a vaguely parental adversity figure.  Isn't *that* awesome?  (Hint: no.)
[6] For the record, that show is Married, a single-camera sitcom that ran for two seasons on FX.  It's well worth your valuable time.
[7] But having a sort of loose take on the book character has precedent.  The best-known movie take on the character was from Peter Ustinov, and his take on Poirot seems to ask and answer the question "What if Poirot were less like Poirot and more like Peter Ustinov"?
[8] Side note: when are we getting a Black Widow movie, goddammit.
[9] "Hey, Peter, welcome to how women feel when talking to dudes all the damn time."  Point taken, voice in my head.
[10] ... who we can all agree looks unsettlingly like Shannon McCormick, right?
[11] I was going to say "it's a madhouse, but I figured I'd spare y'all the pun, at least in the main text.

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