A Reasonable Approximation

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Brief movie reviews

This is a draft. Please assume that I would prefer you not to share it, unless I've told you otherwise. Comments are appreciated, but they will not be carried over to the published version.

I don't expect anyone cares about what I think about the movies I've seen lately, so I'm bundling those thoughts into one post to be less annoying.

The Lego Movie

This is the most pure fun I've had watching a movie in a long time. It's going for funny, and it is, the whole way through. As I write this, I saw the movie almost a month ago, and remembering some of the jokes still makes me smile.

The attention to detail is also impressive. I think that if I rewatched this, I'd catch a bunch of stuff that I missed the first time. Going frame-by-frame would help at times.

Highly recommended.

Divergent

I found Divergent decent while watching it, but no more than that; and thinking about it afterwards only makes it worse.

It's pretending to be a failed-utopia story: at some point in the past, someone came up with a really dumb idea ("let's end conflict by separating everyone into five factions based on personality traits!") and apparently society rolled with it. Now the heroine, along with the audience, learns that it's a really dumb idea ("oh hey, it turns out that some people have more than one personality trait, guess we'll have to kill them"). So far, so Gattaca.

But in this case, just in case you weren't convinced that the faction idea was dumb, you get to see what happens when the faction system meets mind-control drugs. The answer is "pretty much what happens when mind-control drugs enter any society", but because it's happening to the faction system, it's the faction system that looks bad.

There's also a sort of Mary-Sue thing going on, but a viewer insert rather than an author insert. In the film world, people supposedly have only one of the traits brave/honest/friendly/selfless/clever, except for the rare divergents. So the message is "if you have two or more of these traits, you are rare and special and immune to mind-control drugs, and people will hate you for it", which is probably a message that will appeal to angsty teenagers.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This is an action film. It has people shooting people, and punching people, and jumping through glass windows. I have it on good authority that a lot of people enjoy that sort of thing.

There's a political-thriller plot in there, as well, but not a particularly interesting one. Director Fury recommends delaying the project to create a doomsday device that will only be used to kill bad people. Director Fury can't be trusted, because he recently hired a merc to hijack a ship owned by SHIELD (I never quite worked out why he did this). Also, someone has just killed Director Fury. Full speed ahead on the doomsday project!

There's the standard trope that when things seem hopeless for the heros, we find out that they set things up in advance to control for this very circumstance. And the same with the villains. This keeps the tension high, or something.

Brain uploads are possible, and have been possible since the seventies or so, but no one really cares, and only one person has been uploaded. The upload commits suicide to try to kill the heros, where any normal villain would have an escape plan, or at least some lines about how he's giving his life in the service of Evil; we don't get that here, because people aren't people unless they're made out of meat. (Actually, I assume that the Marvel universe has many people who aren't made of meat, but are still given personhood-status. Maybe the rule is "unless they look like us, except that they're allowed to be a different color"?)

(There's a similar thing with cryonics, but it's not clear whether normal humans can be suspended and revived, or just superhumans.)

The Winter Soldier thing feels tacked on. He's an assassin who is approximately as good at fighting as the hero is. It also turns out he's the hero's brainwashed childhood friend, returning from the first movie. The hero gets kind of sad about this, but they fight anyway. In the end, the Soldier saves the hero's life, but he only gets to do it because the hero was trying to save his life, and they don't have a big moment of reconcilliation, it just kind of happens. I guess the idea is to set something up for the third movie, but in this one, there was no reason that character couldn't have just been someone new, or even completely removed from the film.

Really though, I think the main thing I'd like to change about the film is: to a first approxmation, nobody gets hurt. People fight, and everyone who isn't a named character dies, and the named characters don't have a scratch on them despite getting repeatedly punched in the face. I know some people enjoy watching this, but I find it kind of boring, and I think that if we saw the hero sustain a split lip and a bloody nose, I might find it a lot more engaging because suddenly it might feel like he's actually in danger. (I can forgive that people don't get cut when they crash through glass windows. If they did, they would be a lot less willing to keep doing it.)

Of course, this film is only a 12A. If you show people getting hurt in fights, kids might not be allowed to watch it any more.

I did like how there was no romantic subplot.

Also, faceblind world problems: a minor character suddenly unleashes some ass kicking. Everyone looks at her like wtf. She presses a button, her face shimmers as a hologram disappears, and suddenly she looks exactly the same. (She then proceeds to remove her wig, so it's not too confusing.)

Noah

Everybody in this film fails ethics and/or metaethics forever.

Spoilers ahead, even if you've read the Bible. I can't be bothered to mark them all.

Noah thinks the world would be better off if all the people were dead, including himself and his family. He thinks his task is to save the animals and then to die.

I can accept the hypothesis that the rest of the world is evil. It's a stretch, but I think we don't see anyone outside Noah's family do anything good, so let's roll with it, and say that sure, they deserve to die.

What about Noah and his family? He explains this to his wife, Naameh, pointing out their flaws to her. Their youngest son, Japheth, seeks only to please. Or something like that. I agree that that's a character flaw, but if it's the worst you can say about someone, they're a pretty good person. I don't remember what he said about Shem and Ham - I think maybe Shem's flaw was being sexually attracted to his girlfriend Ila (in Shem's defence, Emma Watson), and Ham wanted a girlfriend too much - but it definitely wasn't "deserves to die" grade stuff. And Noah and Naameh would both kill to protect the children, which apparently makes them just like everybody else.

I'm not being entirely fair. The world is beautiful, humans ruined it once, and however good Japheth may be, we can't trust that his kids will be as good as him, and their kids will be as good as them, and so on. We can turn this into a parable about AI safety and the Löbian monster, but I don't think that was the intent.

Okay, fine. Humans need to die off. That's not Noah's problem. Noah's problem isn't even necessarily that he thinks God is talking to him, because that does happen. I'm not sure I can pinpoint exactly what Noah's problem is. Maybe it's that he seems to think that he and he alone is vital to God's plans.

When Ham tells Noah that he wants a wife, Noah tells Ham that God will provide everything they need. Later Noah goes to look for a wife for Ham. When he fails, he decides that God doesn't want Ham to have a wife, and that's when he works out that his family isn't meant to repopulate the Earth. When Ham finds a wife for himself (well, a scared lonely little girl, but in those days, what was the difference?), Noah abandons her to die.

Noah's thought process seems to be: if God wants something to happen, He will do it himself or He will work through Noah. So when Methuselah blesses Ila, and Ila subsequently becomes pregnant, the idea that this might have been God's will doesn't cross Noah's mind, and he proclaims that if the child is a girl (capable of repopulating the Earth), he will kill her.

(Incidentally, Methuselah blesses Ila when Ila is looking for Ham, who needs to be found fairly urgently. Their conversation wastes minutes, and after he blesses her, she goes and finds Shem - also looking for Ham - for making out, leading to an implied offscreen shag. Ham is forgotten.)

This brings us to the problem that most of the other characters share: they are far too passive. No one apart from Noah is cool with the human race dying off, but when Noah announces his plans, they don't do very much about it. Naameh tells him that if he kills the child, she will hate him. Japheth sends out one bird at a time to try to find land before Ila gives birth, maybe so that they can run away from Noah? Shem and Ila build a small raft, with food for a month, and plan to desert the Ark. But they neglect to make any secret of this, and when Noah burns it, they're surprised.

I am probably a little too quick to say that fictional characters should be killed, in circumstances where that wouldn't fly in the real world. But in fiction, the stakes tend to be a lot higher. In this case, the stakes are the survival of the human race. The obvious thing to do is to kill Noah.

Don't run away on a raft. The Ark is safer. You are the last hope for the human race. Kill Noah.

When Noah has attempted to kill your children, and discovered that he can't do it, kill him anyway. He hasn't changed his mind about what God wants, he just thinks he's failed God, and do you trust him not to try again? Kill him. (Eventually, Noah does change his mind, when Ila suggests that maybe God deliberately left the choice to Noah. Now Noah believes he's not only vital to God's plans, but is permitted to shape them.)

Well, Shem eventually makes a cursory attempt, at least. But it's not good enough. NPCs, the lot of them.

There are two more characters. Tubal-Cain is the villain. He thinks that man should have dominion over nature. He also decides that since God has forsaken them, so much for ethics, and he'll kill anyone he wants.

Ham is the only one of Noah's sons to express any independence. His motivation is that he wants a wife. When Noah fails to find him one, he goes to find one himself. He rescues a girl from the human settlement, they run away back to the Ark together, and when she gets caught in a bear trap with the bad guys in hot pursuit, he tries to save her. Noah arrives to save him, and he trusts Noah to save her as well, which he doesn't.

When Tubal-Cain breaks on to the Ark, Ham finds him and becomes his protégé. Sort of like Anakin Skywalker being turned against the Jedi Council by Senator Palpatine. But when it comes down to it, Tubal-Cain and Noah are fighting, and Ham decides to kill Tubal-Cain instead. (At this point, Tubal-Cain tells Ham, he has become a man. Tubal-Cain returns the magical glowing snakeskin that he took when he killed Noah's father. It's the skin shed by the snake that tempted Eve. It's all very significant, presumably, but I don't know what it signifies.)

Meanwhile, God is classic Old Testament God. He's not very communicative, which causes Noah no end of confusion; He only ever intervenes at the last minute, because He loves a fight scene as much as the rest of us; and apparently "flood the world" was the best plan He could come up with for making everything cool again.

Apart from all the ethics, the film is still pretty bad. The script is uninspired. Tubal-Cain gets some villainous monologues and a rousing pre-battle speech, but they pretty much consist of him talking about how much killing he's going to do. I did enjoy the visuals, and Russell Crowe and Emma Watson do the best they can.

I do not recommend Noah.

Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Eight Basque Surnames / Spanish Affairs)

This reminded me a lot of Intouchables. That was a French feelgood comedy-drama which ended up making a lot of money. This is a Spanish feelgood romcom which is making a lot of money. Both are heavily based on the cultural divide between the main characters. Both are well-made, but very paint-by-numbers.

Apellidos features the boy and the girl meeting. The boy thinking there's something Special between them. The girl disagreeing. The two of them getting up to crazy antics. The girl changing her mind. The boy rejecting her, and then changing his mind. The assumption that these people, who first met a week ago, and now think they're in love, will live happily ever after.

In this case, the boy is Andalusian, and the girl is Basque. I don't know much about Spanish politics, and the film doesn't go out of its way to explain (why would it?), but I get the impression that there's a great deal of tension between the Basque people and everyone else in Spain; much like Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, back in the days when the IRA was bombing pubs and cars and stuff (okay, I don't know too much about local politics either). Accordingly, just about every character in the film is incredibly casually racist. Sometimes that's played for laughs, and probably exaggerated; other times it seems entirely plausible. It was kind of distracting: I kept thinking there is no way you could show this if you substituted Basque for Black. But then, maybe you could if you went for Irish instead.

I found the subtitles hard to follow at times. There were some words which weren't translated (I think maybe these were spoken in the Basque language), and they were easy enough to pick up but required slightly more effort than normal. And there were a number of references to things I'm not familiar with, which I had to piece together from context; again, not difficult to do, but not effortless.

Mostly, I thought this film was funny, sweet, and forgettable.

This is a draft. Please assume that I would prefer you not to share it, unless I've told you otherwise. Comments are appreciated, but they will not be carried over to the published version.

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