Sunday, March 17, 2019

Spring Break Movie Adventure: Mini-Reviews of Captain Marvel, Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, and More!

Today is the last day of my spring break for 2019.  I didn't go to the beach or leave the country, but I did see a lot of movies in what I called my Spring Break Movie Adventure.  In the last week I've seen the following either in theaters or at home: Captain Marvel, Alita: Battle Angel, Glass, Sorry to Bother You, Hellraiser: Judgment, Bird Box, The Hidden Fortress, and Train to Busan.  Onward to the mini-reviews!

Captain Marvel

Goose, Super Cat

This is probably the biggest movie I saw, at least in the sense that all the Marvel movies are juggernauts these days.  One of the ways I'm a bad nerd is that I've never gotten into comic books.  I knew almost nothing about Captain Marvel before going to see this.  At first I was pleased to see the space opera elements (I'm a sucker for aliens and space ships), but then we go to planet C-53, which is ... boring old Earth.  But wait!  It's Earth in 1995, so there's plenty of 90's nostalgia.

I can say I was highly entertained.  I really, really hope the awesome cat named Goose gets its own movie.  There should definitely be more cats in the Marvel universe.

At a deeper level, the movie serves (like others like Wonder Woman and Black Panther) to help me re-evaluate my feelings about the super hero genre, which I have criticized before.  I'm starting to see how the genre can help people realize their own power, especially people whose power is all-to-frequently discounted by others.   Captain Marvel/Carol/Vers is underestimated and devalued by a lot of men in the film, but she emerges triumphant and finds herself in the process (the theme of personal identity is big in a few of the movies on this list).  My favorite non-feline moment of the movie was when she tells a man that she has nothing to prove to him.  Right on, Captain!

Alita: Battle Angel

I didn't have high hopes for this CGI-fest written and produced by James Cameron (but directed by Robert Rodriguez).  But a few people told me it was pretty good, so I thought I'd check it out.  I enjoyed it just fine.  Is it the best movie I've ever seen?  Hardly.  It has some cringe-inducing lines and plenty of tired tropes, but it has at least a coherent plot that is entertaining enough.  And some of that CGI is pretty cool.

Alita (our cyborg heroine played by Rosa Salazar) has amnesia but is adopted by the kindly Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz, who's great as always).  There's a yawn-inducing, but sweet enough love interest (Keean Johnson).  And Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly get to play cool baddies.

Alita eventually discovers who she really is and has to come to terms with it to make her own cyborg identity (cyborg both literally and figuratively, of course).  There's plenty to think about when it comes to personal identity: How important are memories or body for identity over time?  Is there something deeper?  How do other people shape (or even constitute) our identities?  What do we owe others?

And if you don't get into any of that, it seems like it's set up for a fun sequel if such a thing ever happens.


Like many people, I enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable when it came out back in 2000 (was it really that long ago?  Huh.).  And, although I felt squeamish about the problematic depiction of mental illness in the film, I liked 2016's Split, especially James McAvoy's performance.  So I was keen to see Glass as the culmination of the stories in Shyamalan's previous films.

But then I saw some bad reviews and nobody seemed all that excited about it.  But I really liked it.  The depiction of mental illness is not quite as bad as it seems (although it's maybe not great from some points of view).  And it's great to see Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, and Samuel L. Jackson together (Jackson is also great in Captain Marvel so I got to spend a lot of quality time with one of Chattanooga's most famous sons this week).  And I really loved Sarah Paulsen as the doctor doing, well, I won't spoil exactly what she's doing.  

One thing she does bring up is a deep epistemological issue:  If we have two competing explanations, one that goes beyond what science shows us and another that fits within what science already knows, which should we pick?  The epistemic criterion of conservatism has nothing to do with politics, but it does have to do with not going for far out explanations when less far out ones that fit with what we already know will do.  It's also related to simplicity, or as it's sometimes called Ockham's Razor or in classical India the principle of lightness.  If you have one hypothesis that has more assumptions (or is heavier) but you have another with fewer assumptions (is lighter), why not do more with less?  It's fewer things you have to prove, fewer things to go wrong.

Of course, it's a movie where things are rarely simple, but I love that it explores this issue while also dealing with the possibility that "super powers" could be in principle scientifically explicable (I'm thinking less of the obvious comparison of The X-Men and more of the concept of human enhancement and transformation in Frank Herbert's Dune books).

Sorry to Bother You

I've been wanting to see this since I read about it and had students recommend it to me several months ago as kind of like Get Out, but even wilder.  It definitely lived up to the hype there.

Of the many great things about this film (the depiction of call center culture, Tessa Thompson being awesome, Danny Glover getting to say "I'm too old for this shit"), the exploration of the ways African-Americans often have to be simultaneously aware of their own identity and perform another identity to placate white people is a brilliant depiction of W. E. B. Du Bois's concept of double-consciousness.  This especially comes out in the film with the "white voice" that Danny Glover's character teaches his younger coworker (LaKeith Stanfield, who was also in Get Out) how to use.  This is depicted with a literal voiceover in the film (Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross).  Brilliant.

Eventually Cassius (Stanfield) tries to climb the corporate ladder and... well, let's just say things get weird.  Super weird.  WTF's abound in a way that's both fun and disturbing.

Hellraiser: Judgment

Oh, Hellraiser movies.  I can't quit you.  I've never completely understood my love of the Hellraiser movies, especially the ones that went straight to video long after horror legend Clive Barker was ever consulted about anything.  I've actually watched all of the Hellraiser movies (I wrote about the particular hell of 7-9 here).  After the unholy abomination (but not in a good way) that was Hellraiser 9, I wasn't honestly sure there would be another one.  And I was even less sure I was sad about that.

But I can't be the only one who loves pain, because they made a Hellraiser 10, aka, Hellraiser: Judgment.  The good news is that it's not that bad.  Certainly nowhere near the steaming pile of wet garbage that was the previous one.  Doug Bradley is still not Pinhead anymore, but the new guy (Paul T. Taylor) isn't as bad as the previous non-Doug Bradley.

The plot is well, it's not that interesting and not even all that different than Hellraiser 5 (or was it 6?), with the exception of the ending, which I won't spoil but kind of enjoyed.

There are some really weird/disturbing images (like a demented hell bureaucracy) and the idea of judgment and whether we're ever as good as we think we are, and what does it mean to be a good person, anyway?  But honestly I'm stretching a bit to find much philosophy in this movie.  Maybe the series itself raises a deep point about mortality: Does this series show us that artificially extending the lifetime of a series or person isn't always a good thing?

Bird Box

This was all over social media for roughly three days a few months ago, and then kind of disappeared.  I hate that about the new streaming world: by the time I get around to watching something, things have already moved on to something else.  (Another case in point: by the time I even heard that Umbrella Academy existed, it had already peaked.)

Anyway, I put this on my list in those halcyon days of three months ago and just watched it this week.  I was surprised to see Sarah Paulsen (I really liked her in Glass and American Horror Story recently), but Sandra Bullock did a great job as always.  And John Malkovich is even there being John Malkovich (actually he has an interesting role, I just couldn't resist).  

I liked the idea of the aliens who drive humans to murder each other just by seeing them.  It's also a great choice that we never see them directly, just freaky images of leaves blowing around.  (Does this premise make complete sense?  Not really.  But the movie was so well done it worked, anyway).

Another great theme (also in Train to Busan, which I'll get to in a minute) is that idea that we need each other to survive.  Caring about each other isn't a luxury in hard times, it's a necessity.  Not a bad message for our current hard times.

The Hidden Fortress

I'm a fan of legendary director Akira Kurosawa and so is a guy who directed a little film called Star Wars.  I've known for a long time that George Lucas cited this film in particular as one of his inspirations for Star Wars, so I thought it was time to check it out (and also to finally watch the Netflix DVD that had been lying forgotten in my living room for a few months).  This Criterion Collection DVD even includes an interview with George Lucas.

The major thing Lucas gets from Kurosawa is the comedic duo through whose eyes we see the whole film (that's C3PO and R2D2 in case you didn't get that).  There's also a General in hiding (played by Toshiro Mifune rather than Alec Guinness) and a Princess on the run (Misa Uehara instead of Carrie Fisher).  And Lucas totally stole all those screen wipes between scenes from Kurosawa.  Lucas has never denied the influence.  To what extent is creativity making totally new things and to what extent is it making new things out of old pieces?

The Hidden Fortress not really all that much like Star Wars otherwise.  It all takes place much closer to home in medieval Japan rather than long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.  The plot is actually pretty different.  The duo isn't always all that likable.  There's not a hidden fortress in Star Wars, but maybe there is in Empire.  Although much like Star Wars, the duo in The Hidden Fortress probably doesn't get enough credit at the end.  Still, it's a film worth watching on its own merits whether you like Star Wars or not.

Train to Busan

The same night I watched The Hidden Fortress, I thought I'd stick with my East Asia theme and watch this Korean zombie film that I had been hearing great things about for years (including from Stephen King, who has expressed his admiration for it).

I'm really glad I watched it.  It's now one of my all-time favorite zombie movies.  IMDB says that director Sang-ho Yeon is set to make a sequel in 2020, which I am anticipating.  I've been aware of some of the great stuff coming out of South Korea in recent years (like I Saw the Devil and The Wailing), so I'll definitely be on the look out for more great Korean horror films.

It's interesting to see zombies outside of an American or European context (of course, zombies are originally Haitian with perhaps deeper African roots; I'd also recommend the TV series Ghoul from India, which isn't zombies per se, but something close).  

First of all, there are almost no guns in the movie, which drastically changes things from the sorts of plots you get in The Walking Dead and such.  Also, the zombies are fast, but frenetic.  I actually thought it looked like the actors playing the zombies were having a lot of fun flailing around like that (not that it wasn't scary, of course).

The deeper theme that the movie handles really well is the struggle between self-interest and other-interest.  This is played out by several characters in the movie.  As I mentioned with Bird Box above, is caring about others a luxury or a necessity?  Could it be that when times get tough we have even more reason to be part of a community?  Is this a more obvious truth in a Confucian-influenced society like Korea?  Not that all the characters are particularly Confucian (at least one character acts about as self-interested as any American), but as I've argued before, I think Westerners, especially Americans, have lost sight of some really important facets of human nature with our excessive focus on atomistic individuals.

Read my post if you like, but I'm pretty sure a zombie movie like Train to Busan is probably a much more fun way to think about these issues.

So, there you have it!  Spring break is over, but I'm sure there will be more movies in my future.