Friday, September 02, 2016

First Draft of the Book is Essentially Done

I am just going to go ahead and say that the first draft of the book is done. Essentially. The only "real" section that I haven't written is the forward.

Unfortunately, now comes the work of the second draft:
  • Several sections have to be majorly rewritten. Most sections have to be lightly rewritten. Repetitions have to be moved and consolidated in their relevant sections.
  • I'm going to go through all of the research I went through the first time, as well as additional research I have collected in the last 3 or 4 years, and see what I need to add or correct. This may result in a new section or two.
  • I'm going to take a lot of the fun contents from my blog, create many more similar content items, and add them as flavor between the sections. Raph Koster, I'm looking at you. :-)
 At what point do I start looking for a publisher? Or do I first ask for people to review and critique?


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Poem: Headstrong

O golden robed Moses, divinity-defier, is that you levitating in a wavering nimbus under an absent moon?
Where do your open soled sandals of glory fly tonight?
Come black-bearded shepherd, passionate prophet of awesome consequences,
Come perambulate among the remnants of your descendants in their stateless state, a dead line drawn from your flame-haloed bushtop to decades of dispute.

Come tap your magic staff on children tussling in the dirt you were denied, earthen and iron idols in their hands, hunting for virtual gods. Their leathered footsteps have trod every centimeter of this land.

We built your broken tablets into silicon halls, shopping malls, and supermarkets. Come walk the aisles of our exile, where artificial orange heads push cartons of crembos, occlusions of cantaloupes, cheese loaves and labane for Friday night beach blankets. Your stiff-necked people heed scribbled signs about 10 items or less as surely as they heed your engravements about 10 commandments.

We built your pitched basket of tar and reeds into roads that would amaze you, but we drove out the white haired goats and dripping honey dates. Come argue with our reckless chariot drivers who peel sunfruit by the yard, mustaches spitting stolen olive pits and politics. We plastered those gossiping spies carrying grapes and bemoaning the inhabitants onto every brochure as our national symbol for welcome.

If you are wondering what happened to your omnipresent ever-protective clouds of smoke and fire, they are still belching as the sun burns red-orange over Haifa bay.

Did the leaders you so carefully picked to minister to the hundreds, the fifties, and the tens sell their favors for hundreds, fifties, and tens?

Come swing your compelling compass needle to the backgammon players, sunflower seeded sabras and saviors, baby angels learning all night instead of living all day. Here the Arabs dance as Jews, the Jews dance as Christians, and the atheists patrol the watchtowers.

Here knives stab without hands (apparently), bullets spring miraculously from bodies (allegedly), Midianite spears pierce the wombs and genitals of righteous zealots, and hatred is the cream in our morning coffee.

How quickly can we rush to birth to offset our rush to death? Bodies struck down and buried in the sand don't stay buried here for long.

(I take your hand and pat a jagged stone wall, wet with blood and papers and thorny brush falling to a discordant dissolution. Your sister's tambourine was knocked out of her hand by a folding chair.)

Dear introvert, shy shepherd, wolf-tamer, what do your circumcised lips utter so softly in your trembling lisp? Is this the vision of the borders of Israel that the Almighty showed you as He cupped you in His palm and raised you over the majestic mountains of Gilead?

Copyright 2016 Yehuda (Jonathan) Berlinger

Communication Blackout

I'm going on another little communication blackout vacation - this week I will be at the Dead Sea working on my book: no phone, no internet while I'm working. Unlike last time, I will open the phone in the morning and evening, so it won't be total radio silence. My kids agreed to come with me under these conditions; they will be on their own as far as entertainment goes during the day.

Of course, this supposes that I will survive an early Sun morning dental appt that may result in a root canal or tooth extraction. I have been in pain for a few weeks now. Owie. I may spend my first day/s at the hotel actually sick, rather than writing anything at all.


Monday, August 08, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (XIII): Review

See all of my movie reviews.

Star Trek Beyond is the third in the Star Trek alternate universe reboot, and the thirteenth overall. (6.5 of The Original Series, 3.5 of The Next Generation, and these 3 which are not based on a television show at all.)

Previous Star Trek reviews: 1-3, 4-6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.

Plot: in the opening scene, Kirk offers a piece of a dead weapon as a peace gesture on behalf of some race of beings to some other race of beings (in a familiar looking "arena" like hall). The offer is not accepted and he is chased back to his ship. The Enterprise heads for some R&R after three years into their mission: Kirk is tired and ready to give up his command in exchange for a promotion if he can leave Spock in charge, while Spock (unbeknownst to Kirk) is ready to go back to Vulcan and do Vulcan things. Sulu has a man friend and a daughter at the R&R spot, Uhuru is ready to give up on her quest to bed Spock, and so on.

An alien shows up at the R&R spot, requiring assistance to get her stranded crew off of some planet inside some nebula (and so out of contact with the Federation). Kirk and co go to rescue them. But they also get attacked, abandon ship, and are stranded, and most are captured (losing the Enterprise, yet again). Meanwhile, by strange coincidence, the enemy that attacked them is after and eventually finds that piece of a dead weapon; he has the other half and intends to use it to kill many people, for reasons.

Will Kirk and Spock rescue all of both of the stranded crews that are still alive? Will they find a way off of the planet? Will they stop Mr Bad Guy from killing anyone, after he has killed his fair share of red shirted characters? What do you think?

Reactions: This was a fun movie, one of the best of the Star Trek movies, which proves that there is still life in the franchise, and also proves that it will never be as good as Star Wars.

This movie is far more like Star Trek than either the first in the reboot (11), which was a fun but generic sci-fi movie, or the second (12) which was a boring, generic, and needlessly kinetic and violent sci-fi movie. This movie doesn't mention the prime directive, but it returns us to the sense that the Enterprise and crew are on a mission on behalf of a larger organization. This movie is also more like Star Wars than any of the previous ST movies. The crew crash on the planet and get separated, meeting up with various aliens - good and bad - and then reuniting with the purpose of rescue and sabotage - a lot like Return of the Jedi. The various life forms and interesting worlds are Star Warsian. Even a few of the lines are lifted from Star Wars; a male character says to a female one "I'm here to rescue you", only to get a look of bemusement and a soft rebuke. Where have I seen that before ... twice?

The plot is solid and moves well, leaving time for character development and reflection, but never dragging. The much ballyhooed scene of Sulu's partner is short and insignificant, but feels nice and natural. There is plenty of action, but not unending or insensible. Funny lines are naturally funny in the right places, and not thrown in just so that they will appear in the trailer. Acting, directing, and cinematography are universally polished. The tech is cool without being overwhelming. You care for the characters by now - they all have strong scenes in the plot (unlike 11) - so the tense scenes are gripping and only occasionally over-the-top.

That doesn't mean that the movie is without flaws. The bad guy is only so so, and his motivation is weak. The relationship between Spock and Uhura continues to be ridiculous. The ability for centuries-old technology to continue to function and work impeccably (without a full repair shop and crew) is beyond belief. It's still rather convenient when the bad guys choose to kill, or when they just choose to take prisoner. And just as stupidly, when a good guy allows a bad guy to talk long enough to let himself get distracted; the movie could have ended neatly if the good guy had simply shot the bad guy at the first opportunity (on stun), locked him up, and listened to his life story at a later time.

So why can't this franchise compete with Star Wars. Many reasons. One, it doesn't have ligthsabers. Sabers are not only far more cool to watch in battle than firing spaceships (which everyone has) or fist fights, but they also represent a level of class and nobility that this and other sci-fi franchises can't match. Two, although it has some funny lines, the entire universe of Star Wars is just more fun: more furry creatures and ridiculous droids. Three, the characters in Star Wars are also more fun, more roguish, more independent. Four, the whole Star Wars story has an endless stream of locations and personalities, but they are all fighting and facing the Big Bad empire and much cooler bad guys. Five, The Force. The fantasy of the Force gives us more personal involvement and nifty make believe than an entire crew of boring humans (or the equivalent) having to work together. Six, the most you're even going to get from Star Trek are lessons about bravery and the strength of friendship and working together. Star Wars brings in so much more, with mystical elements and classic storytelling techniques mixed with the new ones [1]. Seven, every Star Wars movie is part of a continuing story, while every Star Trek movie is essentially an independent adventure (ST's 2, 3, and 4 are all slightly better because they formed a continuing story).

But anyway. If you were waiting for ST to be good again, this is probably as good as it's going to get.

My ranking: 4, 13, 11, 9, 8, 2, 3, 12, 10, 7, 6, (5 and 1 which are both the same and horrid).

[1] Update: This is true ever since we lost the Vulcan mythology, which was a part of ST universe until the 4th ST movie. If they bring it back, it would re-add a key missing element of the ST universe.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Movie Reviews: Jason Bourne, Me Before You, Cafe Society, Sing Street, Ruby Sparks, What If

See all of my movie reviews.

Jason Bourne: I liked the original Bourne trilogy, even though I'm not a fan of Matt Damon. It certainly beats the Bond reboot movies, and it is close to the MI movies. I didn't see the Bourne reboot movie from a few years ago.

I went back and forth while watching this movie. Was it really necessary? Not really. It's a retread, the way that the new Star Wars movie is a retread, but the new Star Wars movie is at least setting up something new and different. This movie's only excuse for newness is to have Bourne unable to remember yet one more thing - his father's death and how he died - so as to set up the same sequences - and give us an excuse for continuing the manhunt. We liked the tense scurrying around in public places in the first three movies, so we get an even larger percent of them in this movie. It turns out that the first three had just the right percent of them; the extra percent of them in this movie kind of drags on.

The camera is even shakier here, but the acting and directing are steady.  Although, Alicia Vikander as the maybe-good girl seems to have walked right off of the Ex Machina set on to this one.

The car chase sequence at the end is ridiculous: a swat car, whose frame is higher off the ground than a typical sedan, literally plows through rows and rows of cars, tossing them off the front hood out of its path; uh, that can't happen, physically. And anyway, come on. At some point these cars and their occupants can't take all of this damage and keep driving.

As usual, anyone who knows anything about computers will find some of the computer sequences laughable. I don't know how Jason has the money to live or travel like he does, or where he gets his weapons, or how he smuggles them across borders, or why he is never stopped by immigration (even with fake passports), but whatever.

You won't be missing out on much if you skip this one, but you also won't feel cheated. It's the least of the four, but it's still Bourne. There's a lot of shooting, crashing, fist fights, and tossing about the word "asset". Politics are a thin smear in the background.

Me Before You: Yet another book based on a Nicholas Sparks book ... excuse me, a John Greene novel ... no wait, someone named Jojo Moyes. Whatever. A happy-go-lucky down-on-her-luck young British woman from a working class family lands a job with a ridiculously wealthy family to be the social companion to a ridiculously wealthy young man who is quadriplegic (due to an accident), surly, and depressed. The young man looks like he is heading toward suicide. Will they fall in love? Can she stop him?

Do surly, pampered people in books/movies suddenly stop being surly when, approximately a quarter of the way through the book/movie, the unhappy, recently introduced, fetching opposite sex protagonist yells at them for being spoiled, surly, and pampered?

I'm assuming the book was better. The movie was very shallow. It's okay to have a predictable movie, if the acting is deep and engaging, the characters smart and poignant and emotional (c.f. The Age of Adeline). It's okay to have a shallow movie if it's entirely original, very funny, or has something else going for it. This movie has a few things going for it - Emilia Clark has a big smile or a perky pout and is fun to look at, Sam Claflin is totally in that wheelchair, and the scenery is adequate - but it's less original, and about as deep, as Fifty Shades of Grey. Speaking of 50SoG, what's with the lazy storytelling of romance movies with a shlub of a woman and a super-rich man? I know it's a Big Fantasy for women to be desired by rich men who can fly them on private jets, but it makes for a very small story when it involves rich people who can do whatever they want with no limits. Part of the enjoyment of movies is struggling with limitations, and when all but the single, central conflict of the story is removed - and the rest is fairy tale perfection - it makes for dull story-telling.

The characters, including the supporting characters, are weak. The story is perfunctory. I guess the resolution will take some people by surprise (I guessed it when the girl's token, unsuitable jock boyfriend was unceremoniously given his predictable exit), and the movie contains some moments of pathos in its second half, due to the strength of the directing in a few key moments. It's fun to watch Emilia smile and pout. But that's about it.

Cafe Society:  I'm a little wary of supporting a Woody Allen film, and anyway I'm not exactly a big fan. I find his earlier period a little juvenile, I love Annie Hall and Manhattan, and I like some of his eighties films. Most of his films since then have been passable, at best. Still, this one seemed like it might be ok, and the alternative was seeing Jason Bourne, which I already saw.

This is another passable, not great, movie. Slightly better than To Rome with Love. with a few storytelling and character flaws - I expected character flaws, but I was surprised by the writing flaws. In short, it's the 1930s, and a Jewish boy Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is sent to get a job at his uncle Phil's (Steve Carell) in Hollywood. The uncle is a big time producer. The boy's family in New York includes his nebish parents, his uncle who is a gangster, and his aunt who is married to a communist. The uncle doesn't know what to do with him, so he passes him off to one of his secretaries Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him around. Boby eventually hobnobs with big society, moves back east and manages his gangster uncle's nighclub. Before that, Bobby falls for Vonnie.

Spoilers: Unfortunately, Vonnie is having an affair with Phil. Phil won't break up with his wife, so she eventually is sympathetic to Bobby's entreaties (but not apparently in love with him). Phil finally ditches his wife, and Vonnie chooses Phil over Bobby. Bobby married a different Vonnie (2) in New York (Blake Lively), and has a child, but some emotions are stirred up when Phil and Vonnie 1 visit New York for a short time.

End spoilers.

The movie has a talented cast and director (of course). I have always admired Kristen and here she gives a good show. I fell in love with Blake in The Age of Adeline, and she's fine here, too. Steve and Jesse handle themselves fine. Cinematography is top notch. The music is lovely. Most scenes - except when the gangster uncle is around - flow well, and you feel some sympathy for Bobby.

Bobby is the Woody Allen here - I think I speak for most of humanity when I say that I'm tired of Woody Allen stand-ins in his movies. Allen is a tired comedy writer; comedy has evolved past the one line zingers and shallow philosophical quotes that he espoused in the late 1970s, but Allen is stuck there. Writing the same character into every damn film is lazy writing. Furthermore, his situation comedy is fine, but his punchlines are boring. When he quotes philosophy, and then follows the quote with a twist ("Life is a comedy ... written by a sadistic comedy writer", or "Socrates said 'The unexamined life is not worth living' ... but the examined one is no bargain."), I wonder: really? That's the tired quote you're going to use? That's the best you can do for a punchline? Worse, these lines don't even fit in with the conversations happening in the movie; it's like he collected a bunch of them and really wanted to use them, so he threw them out of context in the movie (and then they end up out of context in the movie trailer).

The gangster and the (to a lesser degree) the communist uncles are pitifully flat and one-dimensional. Every line that comes out of their mouth screams "gangster" or "communist". The nebish father is nearly as bad; at least the nebish mother has some funny lines. The other characters are better.

The main problem is that the central plot conflict is badly written.

Spoilers: The end of the movie has Bobby and Vonnie 1 staring off into space, apparently wistful for the love they gave up because she married his uncle instead. But  - apparently - still loves Bobby? Loves Bobby more? That seems to be the only conclusion that one can draw from those looks, but Woody never showed us that she loved Bobby at all: she felt sympathetic to him and was - maybe - willing to marry him, since Phil wasn't available, but she never said she loved him, and she never showed or looked like she loved him. So what's with the wistful staring? Where does she have any conflict? Maybe that got dropped from the script.

End spoilers.

All in all, the movie doesn't fit together, but it's often passable entertainment with some funny moments and pretty outfits.

Sing Street: By John Carney, the same guy who made Once and Begin Again, two of my favorite movies about a girl and a guy, each in their own lapsed or near-lapsed relationships, making a record together, comes a story about a much younger guy making a record, who finds a girl in a quasi-relationship to star in the music videos for it. The girl is 16 or 17, the guy is 15. The decade is the 80s and we're back in Dublin.

This is a very good movie, though not quite so good as the first two. But I may feel that way only because a) it's the third movie with a similar theme, and b) I didn't like the music as much. Still, it's very good. The boy is a writer and a bit of a guitar player and vocalist, and he recruits the usual suspects of friends to create the band. He suffers from parents who fight with each other and are likely headed to a separation and from in an Irish Catholic boy's school, where both the head priest and some other students are bullies. He takes a chance and befriends the girl, who lives across from the school in a home for girls with dead or absent parents.

Ireland is always so pretty on film, even if everyone in the movie who lives there thinks it's a hellhole because "somewhere else", such as London, has more opportunities. The boys learn about music through MTV and his brother's records. With each new band they see on MTV, the boys imitate the musical style of that band, down to the musical beats, the clothes, and the ridiculous hair and makeup. Meanwhile, the girl is a model who may or may not head off to London with her boyfriend before our hero can get her.

A nice movie, sweet characters and connections, and a good date movie. It goes about where it should go in the end, which is fine. One element of the story bugged me: the boy is supposedly too poor to buy the black shoes that are required for school (his parents took him out of private school to send him to this free Catholic school), but every time he changes his band's image he shows up at school with an entirely new outfit, including overcoat, sunglasses, and a new hair style. Similarly, the girl is in an orphanage, yet she always dresses top notch-Madonna (or Duran Duran babe) style with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and pounds of trashy jewelry; that was a bit hard to swallow. But you can ignore that little detail and enjoy the movie anyway.

Ruby Sparks:  An odd romantic comedy somewhere in the same ballpark as Stranger Than Fiction. Calvin is having trouble writing his second book, so he writes about a girl haunting his dreams who suddenly manifests into a live girl who is his girlfriend. This takes some getting used to. He tries hard not to write anything else about her, but when things go sour and he becomes afraid of losing her, he resorts to writing changes to her personality. Unfortunately, this takes her into the uncanny valley where she no longer seems human. After a final, horrible confrontation, he is forced to do the responsible thing.

It starts out as a male wish-fulfillment. He is supposed to learn that you can't dictate your desires onto someone else who has their own life; you have to deal with him or her as he or she is. The screenplay was written by the girl who plays Ruby, who is the granddaughter of Eli Kazan.

When we got to the point where things began to go sour and I knew - I just knew - that Calvin was going to start trying to change her, I stopped the video and didn't want to see the rest. I hate slavery, especially mental slavery, and I knew where the movie had to go. But I forced myself to continue, gritting my teeth, until the end. The Scene goes on a tad too long, and there were a number of other ways it could have gone, but thankfully it ended okay.

The magic behind the main theme is never explained, which is fine. Some rather odd ex nihilo objects and events don't bear the weight of analysis, so I tried not to go there. The main characters are sweet and have a nice chemistry, but the supporting characters - his brother, mother, other friends and relations, his agent and fans - are even better. They were complete characters, and I would have been happy if they had their own stories in play. California provides a pretty backdrop to the action. The director creates some beautiful camerawork with heads poking over staircases and bodies positioned for just the right effect.

The movie provides fruit for some interesting questions and discussions, though it's a bit lightweight.

What If: This is a pretty standard romcom, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Wallace and Zoe Kazan as Chantry. Chantry is in love with Ben, Wallace meets her at a party, and they agree to just be friends. Ben spends most of the movie working abroad, and obvious things happen. Wallace's friend and his wife tease and taunt Wallace about his secret pining; Wallace almost sleeps with Chantry's sister.

The strength of a good formula romcom is in exceptional dialog or exceptional scenes or acting, but this movie doesn't have that. Really bad romcoms have stupid characters, slapstick, or people you couldn't care less about, but this movie doesn't have that either. It's just unexceptional, that's all.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Necessary Invention: Mobile Mode in Desktop Browser

My mother, and many other elderly or non-power users, would have a much easier time browsing the internet if the web-sites on her desktop defaulted to the way they appear when you browse the web on your smartphone.

WebbIE is a browser for low-light vision or blind people, which cuts out all the pictures. And there are add-ons that let you simulate your user-agent (I couldn't get the one for Firefox set up properly). I don't think these are what I'm looking for.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Movie Reviews: X-Men: Apocalypse, Clouds of Sils Maria, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Finding Dory, Love and Friendship

See my complete list of movie reviews on my movie review page.
X-Men: Apocalypse: This movie had a lot going for it until it made a monstrous stumble about midway. It nearly recovered, but in the last quarter it became simultaneously entirely ridiculous and completely boring for the rest of the movie.

The story is not much to write home about: we've seen it before. A big baddy gets buried in Egypt and then awakens in modern times (ala The Mummy). It assembles a bunch of mutants as henchmen in an attempt to destroy the non-mutant world (ala X-Men). Bad guys assemble here, good guys assemble there, and then they fight.

Some of the good guys have some backstory that nearly works. Nearly. They give a good attempt to underscore how mutants try to live normal lives but always end up getting tormented cruelly. Unfortunately, Magneto's excuse for joining the bad guys is that his family is killed - yet again - but making a Holocaust survivor become, in turn, genocidal, is a mistake (come to think of it, that was one of the problems with X2, also). The other mutants are so much stronger than normal humans that you would think they would be worshiped or imprisoned, not harassed by morons. Quicksilver and Cyclops nearly had backstories, but possibly these were cut. Quicksilver is given a nifty scene like the one he had in Days of Future Past; it's fun, but it's the same fun we had in that movie.

The monstrously bad decision is to have Magento rip down Auschwitz: it's the same kind of awful decision that basically wrecked the denouement of The Fault in Our Stars. You do not bring in The Holocaust for your entertainment, no matter how respectfully you think you're treating it: you're not treating it respectfully. It's the real, recent history and memorials of millions of starving naked men, women, and children burned, poisoned, and gassed to death or killed slowly of disease in a rotting torture hellhole that was enacted by the consent, indifference, or deafness of the world. You don't devolve that into a fictional story where your heroes face their personal pain of not getting everything that they want, or come to realize that it can all be better if we just love one another (or knock down a Holocaust memorial).

I nearly recovered from that idiocy and was ready to consider it yet another standard Marvel movie when we got to an ending that left me shouting at the screen.

Spoilers: First the ridiculous parts: How does Apocalypse learn anything from touching a TV set? It's just a 1980s TV set, not a DVD ROM with an archive of everything that was ever broadcast; he can't see what was broadcast 50 years ago on it, no matter what his powers. If Jean is in a cage where her powers are turned off, why don't the bad guys in the helicopter see her (since she can't block their minds)? Similarly, if the X-Men are in the cage where their powers are blocked, how does Professor X's telepathy reach them?

Magneto creates MASSIVE gravity waves around the world, enough to tear metal out of the buildings and bridges. I don't know much about planetary physics, but I'm pretty sure the entire world would have been destroyed by that, and pretty quickly. If the moon can cause tidal waves, he pretty much just drowned the world. What about all the airplanes and so on? What about the metal nuclear missile orbiting the Earth? Why are super-magnetic powers in movies so selective?

The movie shows Magneto only killing about several million people. And when it's over, he just walks away smiling and friends with everyone, and no one tries to bring him to justice. Wha? And why does everyone smile when Professor X returns that woman's memories to her after he tells her that he raped them out of her mind in the last movie? I would be pissed off, not grateful.

Now the boring parts: Apocalypse is entirely non-human, and his power is so destructive that there is no possible end to the movie that does not have him totally destroyed. That setup makes for a rather predictable ending. Yet, the end goes on for 40 minutes (or it felt like it). 40 minutes! I don't mind a movie with multiple finale scenes; Back to the Future had several, and they were all cool, because each one was the finale to a different problem. Same thing with Lord of the Rings. But this was the same scene, over and over, with five or six different finales. People throw things at him really quick and he expends energy disintegrating the things as fast as possible. First two guys throw everything they have at Apocalypse. He's losing, he's winning. Then a third guy. He's losing, he's winning. Then another guy. He's losing, he's winning. Then oh my god, slow motion?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Please just end this already. NOTHING is HAPPENING. Here are a few shots of his henchmen fighting some other good guys ... but those fights are boring. And that guy who's about to crash and die in the airplane: can't he FLY?? And oh look, back to Apocalypse and another guy in slow motion. Just end this already!!! I don't care about any of the characters, anyway. Ugh. 40 minutes of this.

Clouds of Sils Maria: This is a fascinating movie in a few acts. It's major theme is an older actress struggling to come to terms with her age vs the parts she has to play. That's not an entirely new theme, but it is incredibly well done here.

The main focus is on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a forty year old actress who launched her career twenty years ago playing a twenty year old seductress of a forty year old woman, and her twenty year old assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), who plays girl Friday to Maria nearly 24/7. The movie starts out with Val managing Maria's calls, Maria's social life, and Maria herself. Maria reluctantly accepts the part of the forty year old woman in a re-staging of the same play that made her famous. She spends the bulk of the movie running lines with Val, determined not to understand the motivations of the part or the talent of the young twenty year old Hollywood actress (Chloe Grace Moretz) who will be playing Maria's original role. Val spends that time having her own vocal ideas about the role, the young actress, and Maria's stubbornness, while stealing a few precious hours here and there to live her own life.

Maria and Val run dialog in ways that bleed into their real life conversations; the roles begin to affect real life. More interestingly, the real life roles that both Juliette and Stewart have played (outside of this movie) also seem to creep into the conversations, making it surreal; that had to have been intentional.

Both characters are complex and involving. Juliette is one of my favorite actresses, and Kristen is an actress who I always thought could be. Here she does a fantastic job, narrowly stealing the movie from Juliette (despite Juliette being the "main" character and being featured more prominently on the movie poster); even when Val isn't on screen, her absence is palpable. Chloe doesn't have much to do, but she does it effectively. The script is not predictable.

Probably the best thing about the movie, other than the fine actors and the odd and engaging script is the interesting cinematography: the director fades out or tracks scenes at unpredictable times and in unpredictable movements. The scenery is beautiful, but that's only part of it. The metaphor of the movie - the snake-like clouds that surround the remote house where most of the action takes place - is rather obtuse, but here goes: these cloud formations have rolled in since time immemorial. Like people, they follow a natural course. They form and perform like a thing of beauty, but then they fade and dissipate. They can't go back in time. The next day brings new clouds.

This is not a perfect movie, or a movie for everyone. It goes places that will leave you wondering what just happened, it has a few uneven spots, and it doesn't wrap up neatly. It's a rare glimpse into the life of actors and their assistants, and a fine, thoughtful movie.

Alice Through the Looking Glass: The first movie came out in 2010, but I didn't get around to seeing it until last week, since it had mixed reviews and I'm not a fan of Tim Burton's: it was fantastic. It was quirky, unpredictable, charming, wondrous, and fantastical. It didn't talk down to you and it was sweet and winning. (Its one major misstep was telegraphing that Alice was going to fight the jabberwock right from when Alice enters Underland, which made the major tension of "O! Who will fight this jabberwock for us?" a rather uninteresting one.)

This movie is just a disaster. Instead of all the unpredictability and charm, we get a story so bad that it is hard to see how this could have gotten out of development. Something uninteresting but annoying is happening in the real world to Alice (who is a sea captain of her father's ship), but she falls into the proverbial mirror. There, the Mad Hatter is sad because he thinks his family is alive, but no one believes him. Alice steals a doodad that destabilizes the entire world in order to go back in time to change the past or at least learn what happened, in order to make the Mad Hatter happy again. Really? That's your premise? Make the Mad Hatter happy again?

All of the characters you knew and loved in the old move are back in this movie without a single interesting thing to say. They wander around bumping into each other, falling down, and wringing their hands hoping that Alice will save them. The premise - that Alice will destabilize the world so that the Hatter will smile again - is so dumb, that it makes Alice the bad guy in the movie. She is chased by Time who wants the doodad back to prevent the universe from dying, and who can blame him? But that's not the big problem - the big problem is that the movie gracelessly wanders from place to place with Alice doing nothing on her foolish quest, while people bump into each other narrating what's happening on the screen ("O, Alice has to get back in time or we will all die!" "O! The clock is falling apart! I will now run around in circles and then fall over!") and that's that. Like the X-Men movie, the end is a foregone conclusion and it takes wayyyyy too much screen time to do it already.

Finding Dory: Honestly I wanted to dislike this, but I couldn't. Interspersed with flashbacks to when Dory was little, Dory sets off to find her parents with the help of Marvin and Nemo and some other helpful do-gooders, including a way too patient camouflaging octopus. All of the obstacles are environmental; they head to the coast and navigate a marine life institute to find her parents, assuming they are still there.

It's a decently funny movie; it's more intense than Finding Nemo, Ellen Degeneris gives a fantastic, heart-rending performance as Dory, and everyone else is fine. I thought perhaps that it made no sense for Dory to believe that her parents were still alive a year after the events of Finding Nemo, but it turns out that blue tangs live 10-20 years, so I guess that's okay. It was kind of ridiculous that these fish know how to find a marine institute (and what a marine institute is), understand what signs, pipes, and other human inventions are, and can even read maps, let alone read English, but whatever. The story has too many coincidences and exactly the Right Thing in the Right Place too often (those fish should be dead twenty times over), but the sequences were well crafted, so I was amused by them most of the time. It has a cool sequence that parodies a scene from Alien, which almost went over my head but then I got it.

I have one major problem with the movie: the use and misuse of memory loss as the driving plot device. Disney ignores the basic idea of what chronic illness is and presents the message: if you try hard enough you can do anything, including wish your illness away (or lessen it's effect). Well smack my hind with a melon rind and call me Nancy. Is that really the message we want to give kids with diabetes or who have no legs? A person with chronic memory short term memory loss from birth isn't going to start remembering things from her childhood just because she "tries harder" and it will move the plot forward.

Of course, this movie could not have any plot if Dory didn't remember things; how would she commit to her quest? Or remember who her friends are? Or that she has parents? But then the movie shouldn't have given her the severe prenatal condition in the first place. Watch 50 First Dates, a movie whose plot is about short term memory loss and one whose plot doesn't require the victim to regain her memory in order to work (and the only good Adam Sandler movie). This movie even makes the mistake a second time, with a shark who has lost his echolocation; the shark tried and tried, but couldn't regain it. Yet, just when the movie needs him to, he "tries harder" and wham. He has his echolocation back. And it happens yet again in the ending.

If you can ignore the above, and you don't mind a sequel that is really just another take on the first movie, it's enjoyable.

Love and Friendship: Whit Stillman crossed with Jane Austen. This movie is actually based on the novella Lady Susan, which is not one of her six major novels. In this movie, Lady Susan tries to handle her deceased husband's family and she tries to get her daughter married off and perhaps herself, as well. Susan secretly feels superior to everyone, including her daughter, but excepting one close American friend, so she manipulates everyone around her. Some of them fall for her manipulations and some see right through her. The movie is a comedy, with some hilariously stupid people, and the kind of personalities that generally populate Stillman movies.

In particular, Susan prattles endlessly with great authority about what other people are feeling and thinking and how she is in complete control, can easily manage them, and does so for their own good, which is the familiar character trait of certain main characters in Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress, or any movie featuring Greta Gerwig. Naturally, these self-deceiving characters must always come fact to face with some kind of thwarting of their plans and some kind of self-realization. In this movie, less of this eventually happens than in the other above-mentioned movies.

It was hard to follow the first third of the movie, and the loud classical music cues were often too prominent. Susan is certainly not sympathetic, but neither is she thoroughly dislikeable, which is good, because this allows everything to turn out okay. In contrast, Emma from the eponymous book/movie suffered from the desire to perform the same kind of manipulations and lack of self-awareness, but was thoroughly likeable and quite serious about doing good in the world; the other characters around Emma were good characters, drawn out fully. Emma provided classic scenes, lovely dialog, and excellent lessons. This movie/book has some partially drawn characters, average scenes, some nice quotes and put-downs, and covers much of the same ground already covered by Emma. So it's not really a necessary movie. Watchable.