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Palm Springs (2020)
7/10
Updated Groundhog Day with a twist
28 November 2020
It is hard to write about Palm Springs, without comparing it to the classic 1993 Harald Ramis film Groundhog Day. I don't think the comparison is unfair - I have no doubt that the Palm Springs script writers watched Groundhog Day and realized there was still a lot of unexplored potential in the main plot device. The characters are stuck in a time loop. Whatever they do, when they sleep or die they just wake up at the beginning of the same day.

The main innovation in Palm Springs is that when Sarah (Cristin Milioti) gets trapped in the time loop, she has Nyles (Andy Samburg) to act as her guide. Nyles has been trapped in the loop for a long time, and he is able to show Sarah how to pleasurably frit away her unlimited time. Having two people in the loop allows for both new hijinx, hilarious banter, and more characters to development. In the time loop genre, only the characters who repeat days can really grow.

Palm Springs succeeds as a fun, unassuming comedy film, but it doesn't have the lasting impact of Groundhog Day. What made Groundhog Day memorable was the growth of Bill Murray's character from a self-obsessed misanthrope into a generous community man. Groundhog Day is a funny movie, but the movie isn't really about the laughs.

Palm Springs is the opposite. There is some character growth, some minor plot twists, and a Deus-ex-machina ending to tie things up. But the story is secondary to the comic set pieces. There are some great gags in Palm Springs. I laughed out loud several times. Both Samburg and Milioti shine during the zaniest moments. Both are natural comic actors, and both their acting and the script provide lots of entertainment.

The humor is also much raunchier than in Groundhog Day. Sex and drugs are major elements, and the language is definitely adult. It was the perfect film for a date night with my wife. It was light and funny, and made for a fun end to our evening. Then we went home, and fell asleep, and in a year I'm sure we won't remember a thing about it.
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Another Round (2020)
8/10
A drunken apology
11 October 2020
Another Round is a protest film. The film protests against prohibitionism. Denmark has a culture of drinking. Traditionally Danes drink when they are celebrating, and they drink to break the ice. Having a beer with a working lunch would not have raised an eyebrow as little a decade or two ago. It isn't uncommon for highschoolers to drink heavily on weekends. A Swedish character in the film says, 'everyone in this country drinks too much.'

But Danish drinking is on the decline. Today Danes buy half as much alcohol per person as they did twenty years ago (based on my own calculations from Denmark Statistics). In the last six years I have been at Copenhagen Business School, the university has banned drinking on campus except with special permission, and more or less eliminated Intro Week, a heavy drinking series of ice breaking events which is tradition at Danish universities.

The film is about four high school teachers who only go through the motions work, and are unsatisfied with their home lives. When the main character Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) asks his wife if he has become boring, her evasive answer tells him all he needs to know. Early in the film one of the teachers quotes Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skaaderud, that people are born with a bit too little alcohol in their blood. Martin sneaks some vodka into the school the next day, and his teaching goes much better than usual. The friends meet again, and decide to use themselves as test subjects for Skaaderud's theory.

It isn't only the characters who are intrigued with the hypothesis that alcohol can improve our lives. Thomas Vinterberg, the director and co-screen writer, is completely on board. The film is a paean to how drinking can make us more fun and more interesting. It makes the teachers more creative and braver. It reduces students' anxiety. It reignites the characters' dying romantic relationships, and strengthens their bonds with friends.

There is, of course, another side of alcohol, as the characters find out when they up their doses. Alcohol is associated with crimes of many sorts, from petty crime like vandalism to violent crimes like assault. Drunk driving makes roads less safe. We all know people whose lives have been destroyed by too much drinking. The economist and cultural critic Tyler Cowen has written that it is appalling that we drink such a dangerous substance in front of our children.

Another Round does not ignore the negative consequences of alcoholism. Later in the film, alcohol causes some serious consequences for one of the characters. But for the most part alcohol does not create problems for the characters as much as solve them. Heavy drinking is like a coming of age ceremony. Not everyone who goes through it comes out unharmed, but those that do are changed for the better. The thesis of the film, in a word, is that alcohol is good for people, most of the time.

The film is worth a view, if for nothing other than the provocative point it makes. It does not hurt that Mads Mikkelsen's performance is spectacular, as we have come to expect. So, do as the rest of the audience in the Danish movie screening I saw did, and watch the film with a beer in hand. Will drinking benefit your experience? Probably.
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4/10
Preaching to the choir
28 September 2020
The Social Dilemma is an unlikely hit on Netflix. Most of the 94-minute documentary is simple interviews with worried former tech-industry executives. The interviews are interspersed with a dramatized story about Ben, a teenager whose life is controlled by personified AI algorithms. Rather than building up to a climax, the documentary examines several problems with social media one by one. The heavy focus on interview snippets and the laundry-list approach is a recipe for a boring movie, but The Social Dilemma has garnered nearly universal acclaim.

Early in the The Social Dilemma, several of the former tech execs are asked by the interviewer to describe the problem with social media. The execs are momentarily tongue-tied. The impression the documentary wants to give is that there is so much wrong with social media that the experts don't know where to start. But maybe the answer is just hard to summarize. In the last decade, social media has been associated with scandal after scandal - Russian vote tampering, the livestreaming of the mosque shooting in New Zealand, the promotion of extremist conspiracy theories, etc. The documentary assumes that its viewers already agree that social media has a problem. Like the execs being interviewed, we just can't say exactly why.

One recurring point in the documentary is that social media companies don't have the best interests of their users at heart. A text frame announces that 'if you don't pay for a product, you are the product.' In particular the user's attention is what can be sold to advertisers. (Another text frame quotes data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte: Only two industries refer to their customers as users, illegal drugs and software'.) Social media companies do whatever they can to attract and hold the attention of users. The companies employ powerful artificial intelligence to predict what will bring a user to the app, and keep them there.

If we stop there, the way social media keeps us connected sounds dystopian. But companies never have the best interests of the customer at heart. 'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest,' wrote Adam Smith. Even if social media companies are out to harvest our attention, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The outcome is what matters, not the motive. If social media companies keep our attention, it may be by giving us content that we find entertaining or informative. Maybe we go back to Youtube because we are addicted. Or maybe those dystopian algorithms suggest media we find worth watching. We all have choices about how we spend our time. The Social Dilemma suggests we don't have any choices to make.

The word 'manipulated' came up again and again in the documentary. Users of social media are being manipulated to use the apps in a way that is not good for them. In fact, many users are 'addicted' to social media. This language reminded me of Marxist language about the 'exploitation' of workers. The word itself tells us how we are supposed to feel about the practice. If we instead said users are 'persuaded' to spend time on social media, the whole market sounds less ominous, but the meaning of the word isn't much different.

As a little aside, I watched The Social Dilemma with Netflix closed captioning on. Closed captioning contains both subtitles, and also a description of non-dialogue sounds as well. When the discussion was related to suspicious practices of tech companies 'ominous music' was played. When a character in the dramatization suggests that we use less social media, 'energizing music' was played. The captioning parted the curtain a little bit so I could see behind the scenes how the film makers aimed to 'manipulate' or 'persuade' the audience into certain feelings by using musical cues.

This isn't to say that there is nothing worrying about social media. The effect of social media on children emphasized by the The Social Dilemma is genuinely worrying. Children, especially pre-teen children, are not mature adults. Children are often gullible, and make poor decisions. We cannot expect them to make decisions which are in their own best interest. Social media for children should be regulated similarly to how children's television is regulated. Short of that, parents should limit their pre-teens' connections to social media, and regularly look through what they are doing online.

The documentary ends with a short discussion of the existential risk of social media. That is, the chance that unregulated social media will lead to the end of humanity as we know it. This far-fetched idea is endorsed by a couple of the experts who appear repeatedly in the documentary. I am not sure I understand exactly the mechanism by which social media would end the human race, but I think the fact that several of the interviewees support it is telling. The former execs that are interviewed in The Social Dilemma all spent much of their careers thinking about social media. Since social media is their life's work, they might think it is more important than it really is.

The Social Dilemma is a long diatribe, with some interesting ideas and observations thrown in along the way. I think it could have been cut down significantly, and I did not find the dramatization helpful. The mediocre documentary is boosted by plugging into the current widespread skepticism about the role of social media in our lives. If you enjoyed this review, don't forget to smash that like button.
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