May 2019 news

May 2019 newsletter with links on cloning, DRL, religion, parasites; 6 movie reviews.
newsletter, opera
2019-04-262020-09-20 finished certainty: log importance: 0

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  • (2015; cruelly perfect)
  • (entertaining but aside from great style, has little substance; I spent much of the time thinking about how ‘cheap’ the liquid metal special effects look now but how cutting-edge & excruciating those special effects were to pull off in 1991: “The tech of Terminator 2—an oral history”)
  • (2019; I went to see Pokemon made real via CGI, and for a cynical sarcastic Pikachu, with any plot or character development being strictly tertiary, and I was not disappointed—it is amazing what can be done with fur now. It’s no Enter the Spiderverse, but I think anyone who played Pokemon Red/Blue & watched the anime as a kid would enjoy it. As a Pokemon adaptation, I was intrigued by its staunch refusal to bring in more than the subtlest references to the pre-existing Pokemon universes (eg I don’t think Ash Ketchum or Professor Oak get even cameos) with an exquisite exception made for the anime theme song, and instead going for almost cyberpunk-esque worldbuilding and taking the attitude that Pokemon are simply intelligent animals and normal as anything else. It is also sometimes quite funny: we all agreed that the Mr. Mime torture/interrogation scene was hilarious. The plot itself is debatable: my sister, who was watching it for the second time, argued that the many dead ends or Chekhov-gun-equivalents in the investigation merely made it that much more realistic an investigation and more in the film noir spirit.)
  • (1944; film noir murder mystery which benefits from sharp dialogue and casting, even though the culprit turns out to be precisely who you would guess a few minutes in and can hardly be considered to be a ‘mystery’)
  • (2014; an unfortunate entry into the long list of horror films that would be creepy… if they weren’t so irredeemably dumb and utterly dependent on all characters involved acting in the worst possible way. Particularly striking in this case because it features a monster even lamer than ‘slow zombies’ as it can be evaded by a leisurely stroll, giving the most ample scope possible for sitting for 5 seconds and thinking about what to do. It Follows still manages to evoke enough of an atmosphere, especially before the rules have been laid down, to be a decent watch.)


  • (2011; a girl and a man travel into the center of the earth to find a god who will revive a deceased loved one for them, and succeed–but of course at a terrible cost, and return wiser albeit sadder. Overall a strange departure for Shinkai from his usual films, this one ladles heavily on the lore, combining Hollow Earth mythology with Western occultism with all the ‘descent into underworld’ stories like Orpheus, and veritably plagiarizes from Miyazaki (specifically, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, and perhaps some from Anno’s Nadia as well, with a Gendo Ikari character to boot) in its extensive worldbuilding. The theme and message of accepting death is all Shinkai & a classic children’s animation , but the film felt peculiarly long for all of its action. I wanted to like it, and the ideas are good and many aspects like the Quetzalcoatl intriguing, so why was I so bored watching it? Despite often respectful reviews, I’ve seen few references to Children since its release, so I am hardly alone in being left cold. For Shinkai, it seems, less is more.)

Dialogues des Carmelites

Attractively staged and a compelling premise, but meaning falls flat. opera (Met HD): An unusual modern opera (1950s), based on a screenplay inspired by the play production of a novella (which led to an ugly legal dispute), by some unfamiliar names; I initially was going to give this a pass but the local opera group’s brochure praised it and I liked the visuals of the Met’s preview.

The in question is simple to describe: a convent of nuns was dispersed by the French Revolution’s , but continued religious activities, were caught, and were guillotined; for opera’s purposes, they earned immortality by collectively singing a hymn on the way to the guillotine (amusingly, WP says there is considerable disagreement on what was sung, which one would think would be difficult to disagree on). The opera doesn’t particularly elaborate on this, proceeding linearly from the protagonist entering as a novice, to death of the cloister’s mother superior with ominous premonitions, the expulsion of the nuns by soldiers of the French state, and finally their reappearance in a prison cell prior to the mass execution, which the still-free protagonist witnesses and voluntarily joins at the last second, dying with them.

Eschewing the lavish costuming of Carmen for its cast of nuns and the varied scenes of Ring for almost a single stage setting (a large cross-shaped stone-paved area in the center of the stage), D embraces an intensely austere approach: with sharp stage-lighting on the cross and total darkness everywhere else, the black-white habits of the nuns means they appear by magic when they turn toward the audience and the white flashes, while they vanish into darkness the instant they step off the cross. The cross area, standing in for all locations in the cloister and times in the play (how much time passes? it must be years given the chronology of the French Revolution, but there’s no way to tell), regularly creates uncertainty, and combined with the constant disappearing acts, there is a phantasmagoric feel which emphasizes the monologues and dialogues.

The singing struck me as overall being much less interesting, suffering from a lack of drama (‘dialogues’ admittedly tells you to not expect as much as, say, Wagner), and I was surprised at how apparently little inspiration it takes from traditional Catholic music (which must be one of the richest veins of religious music in existence, particularly for Western music). I can remember the mother superior’s death scene and of course the final march to the guillotine, but I draw a blank on the rest.

I was left less disappointed than puzzled, feeling I was missing a lot, as if the whole opera were simply incomplete. Many subplots which appeared important were dropped without a word (the fugitive priest, the informer blacksmith, the fate of the protagonist’s brother), and characters are badly underdeveloped. The protagonist Blanche initially comes off as so neurotic that one feels she needs less a prioress than a psychiatrist, and is seeking refuge in the Carmelites for entirely inappropriate reasons, with no serious discussion of her personal growth or avocation. The mother superior’s scenes take up much of the opera’s running time, and while they are impressive (it can’t be easy to sing opera like that while lying crippled on top of a bunch of sacks), the upshot seems to be that her death was a difficult one and her decades of faith & virtue & meditation upon death all proved entirely useless, and she had failed to foresee & protect her sisters. Her final act is to order one of her nuns to watch over Blanche and see to her spiritual growth. It is unclear how her death or the overseeing ties into anything else (aside from a vague speculation that her ‘good death’ was karmically transferred to Blanche somehow), and I was further perplexed by how the nuns are depicted as indecently eager and thrilled to martyr themselves, being blocked only by the new mother superior’s strict orders, and finally succeeding when her back is turned—which (like Blanche’s original motivation for entering religious orders) smacks of satire rather than sacredness. Finally, Blanche’s character shows hardly any development, and we ultimately have no idea of why she suddenly changes her mind and voluntarily joins her imprisoned sisters to be martyred.

As much as it invokes the great themes of the religious life and taking orders, religious persecution, the terror of death, and the conflict between living & dying for one’s faith, I find that its name is misleading as it actually says little about any of these themes.