Me: Does Wanda Vision get better?

Friend: Yes, if you're a Marvel fan.

Tenet

There are two ways to enjoy a Nolan film. The hard way is to watch it with your friends, get high, discuss the contraction and expansion of time in a parallel universe, rinse, lather, repeat. The other way is to just let the story wash over you like a poem with modern visuals. Yes, you may not get the nuts & bolts of the Einstein-Rosen bridge maneuver in Interstellar, but that's for suckers anyway. 

Nolan actually makes this crystal clear in Tenet, asking the audience via a scientist (is she a physicist? is that a lab? why is she wearing a white coat?) "Don't try to understand it, just feel it". That's very valuable advice because good luck trying understand dialogs like "They're running a temporal pincer movement". You'd need a masters in physics like Neil (Pattin Robertson, sidekick), who tries to explain "reversing the flow of time". But you know what's cool? The protagonist (John David Washington) drive a car in reverse-time, fight himself all the while villains talk Estonian backwards.

I can try to summarize the plot of Tenet, if I had half a mind to do it. But that doesn't do the world any good. It's a bit of a disappointment that such a wonderful craftsman like Nolan insists on repeatedly alienating a plain vanilla viewer with average intelligence with his nonstop temporal bullshit. If you have to watch a movie at least twice to understand the basic ingredients of a plot, you're not a good storyteller.

Trust & Anti-trust in US and China

US and China have built two vastly different internets that are reflective of their political systems. One is messy, open and chaotic. The other one is heavy-handed, top-down and enforced with an iron fist. The hands-off approach in US let a thousand flowers bloom, many wilted and a handful of them became trillion dollar companies that are critical to world economy. In China, all companies were equal until some were more equal than others. And they got the special care, grew more, had better access to capital, built better backdoors to government databases and got massive. When corporations grow so huge that they rival governments in providing services that they've long controlled (media, e-commerce, logistics, communication, etc), governments are rightful to be scared.

2020 was the year when US lawmakers suddenly realized the size of big tech and the scale of their influence. Congress paraded CEOs of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon for hearings, asked a few irrelevant questions that made for good TV, but mostly asked pointed, but predictable questions for which the executives responded with vague non-answers. By the end of the year, these companies' combined market cap grew at an astonishing pace despite many state attorneys general preparing to file antitrust suits against them. Investors are not only collectively yawning, but they're betting money on these companies to do what they do best: provide value to consumers, grow even bigger and make money for shareholders.

China is a different beast. Their antitrust body, SAMR, formed in 2018, is a baby compared to our legal institutions. When ANT financial, Alibaba's financial affiliate and one of the biggest private fintech firms in the world, was about to go public a few weeks ago SAMR stopped them in their tracks. The talk on the street at the time was that Jack Ma, Alibaba's founder and one of the most powerful entrepreneurs in the world talked shit about Chinese regulators and Xi Jinping took it on himself to put Ma into his place. This week China's state news agency reported that SAMR is looking into Alibaba's alleged monopoly practices and that shaved off a whopping $90B from its market cap. Shares of JD, Tencent and a few other Chinese giants', purportedly under SAMR's radar, have fallen considerably.

US, like most democracies has tried and tested means of buying the politicians, controlling the media narrative and placating the public. Though some of this is possible in China, it ultimately boils down to what the top echelon of Chinese Communist Party wants. Western government and corporations have historically bought their way into the country by bribing CCP officials and they'll continue to do so. But the unofficial bribe policy always has been 'nobody is bigger than the party'. By applying the brakes on Ant IPO and looking into the monopolistic behavior of Alibaba, the party is very clearly telling the consumers of China that they think Ma's behavior is not just ambitious, but also reckless and unsustainable.

In US, for the longest time regulators have viewed monopoly narrowly through the lens of price control. If somebody's able to elbow out competition by pricing low and then start charging higher prices after killing the competition, that's a problem. But now that tech giants control huge swathes of the economy, regulatory bodies are wondering how consumers will end up getting the short straw if there are only a handful of companies that are all worth a few trillion dollars each. Chinese regulators have a different problem. Though their internet is very closed the products have all sorts of backdoors to a government database. As their tech giants continue their undaunted rise, they will pose a formidable threat to the CCP: if a handful of them control the crux of essential services that the party solely controlled until a few decades ago -  then what's the raison d'etre of CCP?

People trust Amazon and Alibaba not only with their payment information, but with their shopping preferences. People trust Google and Baidu to not only deliver search results, but to use their search history responsibly. People trust Facebook and Tencent not only to connect with their friends and family, but to not snoop into private conversations and sell them out. Even as companies find it harder to continue to earn and maintain this trust, ultimately it's the government's job to ensure that these corporations are trustworthy. Regulation is the best way to ensure a level playing field for all entrepreneurs and a good deal for the consumer. But when a government carries a big stick to investigate bad behavior, it helps if they are trusted by the people to do the right thing. If the governments wanted people to rally behind their efforts in curtailing the powers of these giants, it helps if people trust government institutions. Unfortunately, politicians from both the countries have a lot to learn from their respective tech leaders.

Black Musicians & The Purpose of Life

Soul (Disney+) & Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Netflix)

Joe Gardner, an aspiring Jazz pianist who roughs it up as a middle school music teacher, has been waiting a very long time for an opening into the big league. On the day of his big break, he dies, goes to a heavenly limbo, begs and cheats his way back to Earth and performs astoundingly on his opening night. When the concert is over, he walks out feeling empty. Why?

Pixar has never shied away from lifting thematic heavyweights, be it addressing the urgency of environmental deterioration in Wall-E or pursuing your passion after retirement in Up. And they've always masqueraded these themes in funny lines and vibrant colors that kids think they're watching a kids film while the adults squirmed introspectively. But with Soul, the final phase of the film sweeps aside the kids and the punch is clearly directed at all the grown-up Joe Gardners we know: you worked hard for that promotion and you got promoted, but why aren't you satisfied? you waited a long time to move to Paris, but why aren't you excited after your move? you won the lottery, why aren't you happy now?

When Joe (very bankable Jamie Foxx) dies and his soul goes to an intermediate place called Great Before/Beyond, he's tasked with mentoring an unborn soul, 22, which has a reputation for being very difficult. 22 (brilliantly, annoyingly & self-deprecatingly voiced by Tina Fey) comes across as an ultra-nihilist that she doesn't even see the point of life and she's yet to be born. When a freak accident pushes her down along with Joe to Earth, she starts scared and anxious and gradually warms up to the beauty of living; "I like walking, maybe that's my purpose" she says to which Joe snaps back "That's not a purpose, that's just regular old living".

And that's why Joe's empty after his big blowout performance. When words like 'spark' and 'purpose' are sprinkled on your journey to a destination, you forget to enjoy a simple walk and a slice of pizza. During her brief stay on Earth, 22 learns that life is nothing but a continual series of nows punctuated with getting yelled at in a Subway, having an argument with your mother, enjoying a lollipop and having an honest conversation with your barber. If you can't enjoy that, then you're not living. Every religion and your back alley moral philosopher have been saying this for a long time. Soul conveys the message with panache.

*

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in a studio on a hot afternoon Chicago in 1927. A jazz troupe (all Black, if you should ask) are scheduled to record an album. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is a legendary singer who goes to great lengths to be difficult to everyone around her and Levee Green (Chadwick Boseman) is a trumpeter who's difficult because that's just who he is.

Ma realizes that her glory days are behind her and once her voice is captured on a disc the economic exploitation of her talent by the White establishment (recording, distribution, rights, etc) will leave her behind. She's only trying to squeeze the last drop of respect she can demand from her white manager. Levee is a different story. He's young & dynamic and pissed at the world at large that his genius hasn't been recognized. While Ma has cultivated an angry patience (she waits for 'ice-cold' Coca Cola with everyone exasperated around her), Levee is just angry (he repeatedly kicks a door that leads nowhere, literally).

Dialogs sparkle and sizzle as the troupe evaluate and place themselves at different levels on the social strata. Temperature rises, tension rises. By the end of the film, an album is recorded and a man is killed. A young and vibrant talent is cut short and the movie weeps. An additional tragedy to the viewer is that we recognize the loss of Boseman, one of the finest actors of his generation, who delivers a stellar performance. Like the summer of 2020, this film reminds us that the time to confront racism is always now and the work is never done.

Drive

The unsmiling no-name no-nonsense protagonist who talks 3 words per minute, keeps going about his business until fate intervenes and a makes mighty mess his way. Then there are sudden bursts of extreme violence, which leave him mostly unruffled, that add depth, maybe charisma too, to his personality. We've seen Clint Eastwood don some of these in the 60s. Drive, starring Ryan Gosling directed by Nicolas Refn is a mature 21st century reimagining of that genre. While this is undoubtedly more mature and satisfying than the buttered popcorn action flicks that pop out of Hollywood studios, there's nothing for deep introspection here.

Consider this scene: the Driver (the protagonist is unnamed) is taking his neighbor Irene (in a wonderfully understated performance by Carey Mulligan) out on a date. Before they leave we hear the phone ringing. And in the car she says "That's my husband's lawyer. He says my husband will be out next week". A long silence ensues. The husband is in the prison. There's something blooming between the driver and the neighbor. The husband's return is obviously going to complicate things. I hate to use the word 'art' here, but usually in cinemas that allow for long pauses between conversations, like... er, arthouse productions, the director is giving the audience enough time to grasp and absorb what had just happened on the screen - a death or a divorce or an infidelity. Here, it doesn't even take two seconds after Irene's uttering - the audience know beforehand that the husband will be out of prison and the status quo will be disturbed. Why the long pause? This cinema has probably half the number of words compared with any other movie of similar running length. And I admit that the silence is soothing, mostly because it's better than filler dialogues. But it's important to distinguish between this soothing silence and a meditative silence where what transpires on the scene is deep.

The laconic and cold driver makes money as a get-away driver for the robbers who either don't have their own transportation facility or lack the skill to evade L.A.P.D on L.A roads. His rule is to just wait for 5 minutes outside the event, pickup the party and drop them off at a safe place. So when he realizes his pseudo-girlfriend's husband is in trouble to pay off his prison debts, a matter of few thousands, he steps in to help - the husband will steal and the driver will drive. There's no ulterior motive: not to send him to prison again; the help seems genuine. Makes one wonder what would have happened if the heist had gone right and their neighbors lived happily ever after. After all, the driver is, in more than one sense of the word, a hero. But shit hits the fan spectacularly. The husband is killed and the driver is on the run. We learn that it's no job for a small-time crook. A lot of money is involved and the mafia is behind it. Needless to say, some heads roll are pulped.

This film has got style - Ryan Gosling's minimalism, not just words, but expressions, Carey Mulligan's vulnerability as a single mother, the terrific score helping the noirish photography, non-commercial violence, enjoyable silence and more. But at the core, even though Refn has invested enough time in developing his primary characters, I really didn't care if they got together in the end. Now, I don't want a climax where the hero/heroine race through the airport and one of the people in the background say something romantic. But, even by the standards of neo-noir I had the least bit interested in the driver starting a new life with Irene. The objective here seems to be excellent filmmaking, not making an excellent film.

Thorrible

It's hard to get the take-me-not-serious tone. Just not taking the writing & production values seriously doesn't provide the tone. Most of the dialogues are horrible. Sample this supposedly funny line:
Our dear friend is banished to Earth! Loki sits on the throne of Asgard as our King! And all you have done is eat two boars, six pheasants a side of beef and drink two barrels of ale! Shame on you!
Shame indeed. This happens when Thor is getting to know the Earth people and their way of life: after gulping down a cup of coffee in a diner he smashes the cup asking for more. When he's politely reprimanded by the girlfriend that Earth people order in a more gentle way, he nods in an understanding manner. Wow! I've seen superhero movies where the guy comes to our planet and does funny things not knowing how stuff works. But this writing is scraping the bottom of the barrel. This is stuff rejected in a screen-writing convention in Peoria.

When Thor, the god of thunder is stripped of his superpowers and pushed down to Earth, he faces a giant robot sent to kill him. It slaps him and he falls down unconscious. His girlfriend swoops him and cries not knowing if he's still alive. And at this moment, allow me to remark on the range of expressions she exhibits - played by Oscar winning Natalie Portman, she doesn't invest a quarter of the emotional sincerity expected of an actor for such a scene. She plays it like a high school drama and director knows that the audience know it's a tongue-in-cheek outing and doesn't bother to re-shoot the scene. This laxity, a sense "y'all here to chill" awareness on the part of creators works on a good script. But the script is fractured, childish, immature. Ironman nailed it in letting the viewer take a break in a charmingly intelligent way. With 'Thor', the break is a bit long, about 110 minutes.

The Black Swan

Warning: Spoilers.

Aronofsky likes to study characters cracking under pressure. In 'Black Swan' it's the beautiful, timid, perfect, frigid, fragile ballerina Nina Sayers played with exquisite control by Natalie Portman. Her personality makes her a great fit for playing the white swan in Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake', but to play the black swan, she needs to loosen up, get a bit out of the rigid boundaries she has set herself to excel as a performer. Lily, a laid back dancer who naturally embodies black swan in her gracious but beguiling movements threatens Nina, who's constantly worried about being replaced. As a crushing load of expectations begin to fracture her mind, the audience see things through her eyes, to be precise, her mind. (Which is why this is a mind-fuck movie for adults, and the neatly wrapped up 'Inception' is not.)

I don't know if the sex scenes from the movie are on high rotation on Youtube yet. There's nothing explicit - neither a view of a nipple nor a crotch. But the dreamy layer lends an eroticism that's more powerful than nudity. Are Nina's sexual explorations a symbol of her getting closer towards the black swan inside her? I tried to replay the scenes in my head after the movie was over: The ballet producer, played charmingly by Vincent Cassel, indirectly asks her to explore her sexuality so that she departs away her from 'little princess' image befitting the white swan. First Nina tries masturbation in her bedroom; before she can climax, she sees her mother asleep in a chair near her in her room and she stops her act. Then she tries in the bathtub; but this time its not her mother but her mental blockades scare her out of her mood. The director informs us that Nina's ready not only to accommodate, but to be taken over by her complementary twin, Lily, who exudes unshackled sexual energy expected of the seductress black swan, when she's able to fantasize and climax with Lily.

Sex is not the only symbolism in the film, though it was the only one that was quite complex and worked on a mature level. The next frequently used symbolism was the reflecting image. Almost every other shot has a mirror or a reflecting surface. Either the mirror image is doing something the actual person isn't doing (though I have to admit that the director doesn't opt for any cheesy boo shots) or the reflecting surface is a weak black reflection telling us what lies beneath. I thought the director went overboard in pounding the meaning through images. Then there's the expanding goosebump and the disappearing bloody patch, representing the struggle between the white and the black swan; this was the most cheesiest trick in the screenplay.

I particularly liked the interplay between Nina and her mother Erica (played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey). That there be no doorlocks in the house is obviously the mother's decision. In one of the earlier scenes, the ballet director asks Nina if she's a virgin and she responds no. But Portman plays this scene so wonderfully and Aronofsky directs this scene so wonderfully, we don't know if this timid girl is lying. The mother's decision to absolutely avoid all physical boundaries between her and her daughter partly arises from Erica's failure to shine as a ballerina herself because of her accidental pregnancy with Nina. A significant chunk of Nina's 'good girl, no sex' policy seems to be ingrained in her brain by her mother as a cautionary tale.

The director pulls off an expected, but satisfying climax by playing a trick on the protagonist's mind. Was it a cheap trick? It would be, if you're to flip through the pages of the screenplay. But the intensity of the camera, with it's grainy film closing up on Portman's face combined with an eerie background score adds complexity to her character, the narration, the movie as a whole. But I still don't like the very last scene, where the filmmakers leave it up to the audience to write their own ending. Aronofsky did that with Mickey Rourke's character in the 'Wrestler' and he does the same thing here with Nina's fate in limbo. It's not that I'm not capable of convincing myself if someone lives or dies when the closing shot is a bloodied body. It makes me feel cheated when the director strongly guides a viewer all along giving no room to wiggle and in the end shoves him into a wide expanse of possibilities.