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Ex Machina

April 17, 2015
Ex Machina

I should love movies about artificial intelligence. From an early age, I’ve found the questions about consciousness and our place in the world fascinating. And yet, every time one comes along I’m critical. I hated Transcendence like everyone else, and I hated CHAPPiE despite the cheerleading efforts of no less than William Gibson. Each time I can explain what it is in particular that doesn’t work for me, but I can finally explain in general why I’ve been so down on AI movies: I’ve been waiting for Ex Machina.

This isn’t to say that I knew Ex Machina was coming, and I was pre-judging all the rest in light of what I expected from it. But of all the times I’ve seen filmmakers try to really address the ideas raised by the prospect of strong AI, Alex Garland’s film is the one that finally gets it right. CHAPPiE can moulder in the dustbin of cinematic history; Ex Machina is among the best films of the year so far.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is an up-and-coming programmer at a world-dominating search engine which is totally not Google, you guys. He wins a chance to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive genius who owns the company, at his remote estate (filmed at and around Norway’s Juvet Landscape Hotel). There he finds out that Nathan wants to show off what he’s been working on. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is a humanoid android with what Nathan hopes is a viable strong artificial intelligence. And Caleb is here to test that question.

The first really satisfying moment as a fan of AI thought experiments is slightly after they trot out the Turing test. Alan Turing’s “imitation game” — yes, like the movie — expresses the idea that if you can’t tell from interacting with an intelligence whether it’s natural or artificial, then for all practical purposes they’re interchangeable. Usually this is set up with a text chat involving some humans and some putative AIs interacting with human testers; if an AI is routinely mistaken for human, we’d have to admit it’s doing something equivalent to what our brains do. Equivalent, but not equal; human brain-scanning helmets would not work on the computer because it’s implementing a similar pattern in a different medium.

But what we see in Ex Machina isn’t the Turing test, and it’s really satisfying that the movie itself knows it. This is something even more interesting: even though Caleb can see that Ava is obviously a machine, will he still feel like she’s a person, rather than an elaborate simulation of personhood? Is there really a “she” going on inside the algorithms?

That’s only the tip of the iceberg of questions Garland’s script raises. Even past the litany of AI philosophy, there’s a huge — and very much intentional — plotline about a man who thinks he can own and control a woman, and her efforts to break free and define herself on her own terms. And we must confront how easily our own biases can be turned against us to tell stories about what we want to be true rather than what is.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Garland has no trouble getting these ideas across so compellingly where other writers stumble. Between 28 Days Later and Sunshine and Never Let Me Go he has to be the smartest science fiction screenwriter working today. He even came as close as anyone could to finding something really worthwhile in the reboot of Dredd.

And in his first time as director, Garland’s eye proves just as sharp as his pen. He’ll be the first to dismiss the idea of director-as-author, but at the very least he has assembled a fantastic team. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is breathtaking, offering up one gorgeous, striking shot after another, and they’re not all variations on the same composition and lighting. The mood is backed perfectly by the score from Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow.

The cast is every bit as good as the crew. Gleeson balances between confidence, excitement, and a growing sense of dread as he realizes a fantastically wealthy recluse trying to create a whole new kind of person might not be completely mentally stable. Isaac disappears into his role, as usual, proving yet again the fantastic range that makes him one of the best actors of this generation. And ballerina Sonoya Mizuno is an inspired choice as Kyoko, Nathan’s all-but-mute assistant, who must communicate everything to us through her graceful body language.

But of course it’s Vikander that we’re all watching as she kicks off her own annus mirabilis, and she does not disappoint. Her affect is ever so slightly off, as is her gait. Everything is a little too precise, with the slightest hitch and halt adding that much more to her character without ever being too pronounced. Caleb is astonished to meet a machine that convinces him that it’s a person, but the audience will be amazed to see a woman that convinces them that she’s a robot.

Worth It: yes, absolutely
Bechdel Test: it’s an odd corner case, but I’m going to say yes.

Clouds of Sils Maria

April 17, 2015
Clouds of Sils Maria

I have to start out this review with a moment of humility: I may have been overly harsh on Kristen Stewart. I still say the whole Twilight series is trash, but I’ve already forgiven Robert Pattinson for his part in that. Snow White is still the worst part of Snow White and the Huntsman, but I was probably too harsh on Stewart there; it’s hard to go up and over the way Charlize Theron does, and Snow White just wasn’t written as well as Ravenna. I still don’t think Stewart really got Joan Jett in The Runaways, but she wasn’t really bad, and I actually rather liked her in Still Alice.

So it’s been a process, but it’s Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria that has made me publicly recant some of my harsh words like this. And that’s not just because her performance is the best I’ve seen in her career; it’s also because there’s a whole scene where Stewart apologizes for Twilight, even as she defends her place in it.

Stewart plays Valentine, the personal assistant to the actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). Maria’s career was jumpstarted when she originated the younger of the two female leads in Maloja Snake, by a Swiss playwright with whom she has remained close. In the wake of his death, she is tapped to play the older woman in a London revival of the play. Maria and Valentine move into the playwright’s house at the end of an alpine lake in Sils Maria to prepare for the role. And as they run lines, with Valentine taking the part of the younger assistant who wraps the older businesswoman around her fingers, the lines between the women and the characters in the play seem to blur.

Things are further complicated by the actress tapped to take over the part Maria first portrayed. Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a tabloid fixture who most recently starred in a CGI-heavy sci-fi blockbuster with a script that can at best be described as “dubious”, despite its riff on more classic stories. The echoes of Stewart’s own career are deliberate, as Assayas blends layers of the narrative not only with each other but with real life.

Casting Moretz as the shadow-image of Stewart continues the pattern, as her performance in Let Me In stands as an artier version of the vampires from Twilight. Assayas himself built a reputation on another film-within-a-film story in Irma Vep, about a filmmaker trying to remake Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires. And Binoche’s early career even includes Leos Carax’ Mauvais Sang, which is all but a vampire movie itself.

All this seems like so much trivia and coincidence, until you see the central relationships in Clouds of Sils Maria bearing out the same theme. The younger woman, hungry for her place in the world, sucks the life out of the older one who has past her prime. Or is it that the older woman attaches herself to younger women to siphon off their élan vital and maintain her position as long as she can manage it? Maybe everyone is a vampire, feeding off of whomever they can.

Assayas spins out so many layers of the story, then arranges them delicately to echo and resonate with each other. It’s an endlessly fascinating, ever-shifting landscape, like the Maloja Snake itself, the mysterious pattern of clouds that creeps over the lake of Sils Maria, shrouding the landscape in its mists.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Unfriended

April 17, 2015
Unfriended

I have to admit, for a horror movie hung on a single motivating gimmick, Unfriended could have been a lot worse than it was. With cyberbullying as a hook, the whole movie takes place on a computer screen as the characters interact over Skype and other social media sites. Still, it continues a streak of Timur Bekmambetov backing projects on the basis of a neat idea that never really goes much of anywhere.

It’s the one year anniversary of the day Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) killed herself. Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) watches the LiveLeak video of Laura’s suicide, and then starts to watch the video that humiliated her so much. She’s interrupted a few seconds in when her boyfriend, Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm) calls her on Skype. They start flirting a bit before they’re interrupted by three more friends — Adam, Jess, and Ken (Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, and Jacob Wysocki) — along with an unnamed caller using Skype’s default icon. Weirder, they can’t seem to disconnect the mystery caller; the normal interface controls aren’t showing up as usual.

Then messages start coming in on Facebook chat, seeming to come from Laura’s account. Blaire thinks it might be another friend, Val (Courtney Halverson), but when they loop her into the call it’s clear she’s not behind the weirdness they quickly dismiss as “hacking”. But of course it isn’t hacking, at least not in the traditional sense. Laura Barns is back, and she’s out for revenge.

Setting the whole thing on Blaire’s screen turns out to be a fairly interesting choice, as gimmicks go, and director Levan Gabriadze uses it for a fair amount of side-channel communication that helps build Blaire’s character. We get to see her Spotify playlist, and her open Chrome tabs include the Forever 21 site and the site for MTV’s Teen Wolf series, as a nod to another of Hennig’s projects. The chat videos provide a nice replacement for the found footage genre’s usual shaky-cam, with cutouts and compression artifacts providing much less nauseating visual fuzz.

But aside from Blaire and her occasional iMessage chat with Mitch we don’t really interact with any of her friends except through a little Skype window, and it’s really hard to develop much of a character like that. They’re little more than sketches. Ken is into computers and technology; Adam’s a rich kid with even more of a budding alcohol problem than the rest of them. Beyond that, there’s not really much to say. Mitch has little to distinguish him behind the “boyfriend” stamp, and even Blaire is only slightly more shaded in than the rest.

And that’s a problem because we really don’t get enough contact to care about them one way or the other. Are they a bunch of kids who made a stupid mistake and deserve our sympathy? or do they deserve every torture Laura serves up? The movie doesn’t seem to care either way, and doesn’t give us any reason we should either. We’re so disconnected from them that the tone comes off more comical than scary.

It’s clear, at least, what the movie is trying to do. These kids interact effortlessly as digital natives, but they don’t really understand their landscape any better than their parents do. Ken is a possible exception, but even he seems willing to blithely dismiss strange occurrences as “weird computer stuff” that “happens all the time”.

As unconvincing as Unfriended is, it does manage to lay bare the idea that the internet does present new and unfamiliar dangers that, if we’re not careful, can and do ruin lives. Maybe it’s not as scary to me because I grew up before my entire life and every stupid decision I ever made was recorded and preserved forever in digital amber; it may well resonate with today’s teens more than it did with me. Cyberbullying is clearly fertile ground for stories these days, with A Girl Like Her and The Sisterhood of Night coming out right around the same time, and hooking that into a teen-friendly horror story is only natural.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Fehér isten

April 10, 2015
Fehér isten

At some point, usually somewhere in high school, most Americans at least hear about The Jungle. And though they tend to get over it soon enough, most of them are shocked by Upton Sinclair’s depictions of the unsanitary conditions and animal cruelty. That’s all well and good, but Sinclair was really trying to write about wage slavery and exploitation among Chicago’s poor and immigrant workers. To this day I know more about the living conditions of the pig that ended up in pieces under the meat counter at Whole Foods than I do about those of the people who picked the apples I buy two aisles over. It’s a simple fact: we as a society care more about animals than we do about people.

And so it should come as no surprise that screenings of Fehér isten — subtitled in English as White God — are preceded by special warnings about the graphic content. We are reassured that not only was the animal action held to the same production standards behind the American Humane Association’s trademark “No Animals Were Harmed” slogan, but the filmmakers also worked to make sure that all the non-professional dogs involved were adopted. And still more people walk out in disgust over depictions of animal cruelty than do when seeing actual humans subjected to the same inhumane treatments on screen.

If writer/director Mundruczó Kornél decided to tell his story as an allegory with dogs because he thought people would be too shocked and horrified to see the way immigrant and “mongrel” populations are treated in central Europe depicted with human victims, it may have backfired. On the other hand, when the dogs do eventually fight back the remaining audience may still sympathize with them in a way they might not for a small army or racial or ethnic minorities rampaging through the streets of Budapest.

Fehér isten has drawn comparisons with The Birds in the scenes where hundreds of feral dogs have driven the humans off, but it’s closer to a modern fast-zombie movie. The dog pack even symbolizes the same ravenous, swarming masses of “outsiders” that the zombies in 28 Days Later evoke. The difference here is that we spend much of the film following one particular dog on its journey of abuse from beloved pet to rebellion leader.

The beautiful golden retriever Hagen comes with 13-year-old Lili (Psotta Zsófia) when her mother leaves her with her father, Dániel (Zsótér Sándor) for the summer. Her father doesn’t want to pay the “mongrel” registration fee — paralleling discriminatory measures against immigrant populations gaining ground in many central European states — or deal with the hassle from his neighbors, so he leaves Hagen under a highway overpass. Hagen wanders, chased by people who see him as a pest on the order of a street rat. He falls in with a man who trains him for dogfighting, only to escape into a concentration camp of an animal shelter.

But recasting the oppressed immigrant and minority populations as a pack of feral dogs might help maintain an audience’s affection for them, it comes with one critical flaw. No matter how they rebel, the dog pack is not a culture. This is not The Planet of the Apes, where one species takes over after humanity’s failure; these dogs are motivated only by destruction and revenge. We can feel pity for their abuse — and by extension for the people they represent — but it leads to no real respect for them as a culture to be engaged with on the same level as our own.

And in the long run this kind of allegory can raise awareness, but won’t help us actually solve the problems it highlights. We may now fear retribution for the way we’ve mistreated this population — indeed, look at how antebellum American whites feared slave uprisings, or the way we still fear black activism today — but we still won’t value them and their culture if we see them as nothing more than a roiling mass that every so often gives rise to a rampaging mob. To avoid mistreatment — whether of animals or of people — merely because it may some day come back to bite us is a poor moral code. But maybe we’re so far down that ladder that even appealing to a slightly less narrow self-interest is still a step up.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

The Sisterhood of Night

April 10, 2015
The Sisterhood of Night

As I skimmed the advance press coverage of The Sisterhood of Night, I saw one odd pattern repeated over and over again. To read most articles about this story of a modern-day witch-hunt instigated by one group of teenage girls against another, you’d think that it’s really about their male guidance counselor. Here’s a hint, guys: the story’s not always about us. When there’s only one significant male character, that might be a tip-off.

And the film itself is actually pretty good. In abandoning the faux-verité style of A Girl Like Her, it manages to feel truer. The salacious genre trappings blow these conflicts up to outrageous heights, which lets us more clearly probe the emotional truths underneath.

It all starts, as it must, on the internet. Emily Parris (Kara Hayward), feeling alone and unnoticed, has a blog that nobody reads. She tries to take a shortcut to notoriety, stealing text messages from Mary Warren (Georgie Henley) and posting them out in public. Like most bullies, Emily isn’t one of the most popular kids around; she sees humiliation of someone even further down as an easy way up.

The twist here is how Mary responds: by pulling the plug on her social media accounts and going electronically “silent”. Her friends, Lavinia Hall (Olivia DeJonge) and Catherine Huang (Willa Cuthrell), pull tight around her. They take a “vow of silence”, providing each other a safe place to say those things they’d fear being exposed from any online forum. And they invite other girls to join, carefully curating their membership and meeting in small groups in the woods at night to share their secrets.

By the next school year, Emily is envious of the growing Sisterhood. She follows one group into the woods one night, and the next day makes a public accusation that they molested her. It’s no surprise that rumors of a teenage lesbian sex cult go over like gangbusters, especially in an upstate New York town where everyone seems to go to the same church. Other girls echo Emily’s accusations; things begin to snowball into some very pointed questions, and maybe even formal charges.

But Mary and the rest of the Sisterhood take their vow seriously, refusing to explain to the aforementioned guidance counselor (Kal Penn) who really does mean well and could have cleared the whole mess up. Meanwhile, Emily gets the fame she thought she wanted. It comes first from other kids at her school, but then her blog becomes a clearinghouse for real molestation victims across the country to come forward about their own trauma. Things on both sides start spinning out of control.

The Sisterhood of Night manages to find sympathy for Emily, as A Girl Like Her would suggest, but Hayward brings her character around in a more gradual and believable way. Mary, on the other hand, gets to be a strong leader and an independent young woman, but Henley still has the space to show her need for vulnerability. Lavinia and Catherine each have their own side arc, filling out and shading in the varied experiences that drew these girls together, and both DeJonge and Cuthrell deliver touching performances. And Penn finds good use for his comedic talents, particularly in one charming scene with Lavinia’s mother (Laura Fraser).

In adapting Steven Millhauser’s short story, screenwriter Marilyn Fu and director Caryn Waechter offer us a messy, nuanced world where nothing is either wholly good or evil. It suggests compassion both for everyone who lacks the perspective to see when they’re making a mistake, whether it harms themselves or others. Despite the occasional off-notes and moments that push the scenery-chewing a little out of balance, it’s a story that sticks with you, growing in your mind long after the credits roll. And most importantly it’s one that lets these girls speak for themselves.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

Kill Me Three Times

April 10, 2015
Kill Me Three Times

I want to be clear, I have nothing but respect for Simon Pegg. He’s got top-class comic talent, and his performance in The World’s End was great for any actor. But since then he’s been on kind of a down streak.

It’s not really his fault; Pegg is still firing on all cylinders, but the material he has to work with is a far cry from what he got from his partnership with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. Hector and the Search for Happiness was a disappointing rehash of much of the same ground that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty covered. And now Kill Me Three Times is a largely by-the-numbers hitman comedy straight out of the ’90s, but without the depth of character Pierce Brosnan found in The Matador or the metafictional angle Martin McDonagh exploited in Seven Psychopaths.

Pegg is the hit man Charlie Wolfe here, complete with the same handlebar moustache Jude Law wore in Dom Hemingway. Of course he’s a ridiculously self-assured jackass, and he’s been hired by even bigger jackass — conveniently named Jack (Callan Mulvey) — to spy on and later kill his wife, Alice (Alice Braga). She’s finally tired of Jack’s abusive crap, and is about to leave him for her lover, Dylan (Liam Hemsworth), after stealing a quarter of a million dollars.

But first she has to go to a dental appointment for a cracked tooth. And it turns out the dentist, Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), and his wife, Lucy (Teresa Palmer), are also planning to kill Alice after switching her records with Lucy’s so they can fake Lucy’s death for an insurance settlement to pay off Nathan’s gambling debts to his bookie’s enforcer, Bruce (Bryan Brown), who also happens to be the local police officer. How and why they decided to kill Alice in particular isn’t really explained, but maybe it’s because she seems to be the only other woman in this sleepy little Western Australia town.

Of course, true to form, there’s a gimmick: we pass through parts of the story three different times — hey, thus the title — from different points of view, adding more information each time. That said, it’s not like each one keeps very strictly to a single character’s perspective or anything like that. Maybe that’s what first-time writer James McFarland intended, but didn’t quite manage to pull off, or maybe something got lost when director Kriv Stenders translated the script to screen. Ah, but a filmmaker’s reach should exceed his grasp.

I will give Stenders credit for one thing: the picture looks fantastic. Comedies tend to be shot brighter than dramas in the first place, but Stenders’ frames burst with color in a way most films just don’t even attempt. A red car pops out against the green foliage as it drives along a rich, brown dirt road, with a tropical blue beach at the top edge of the frame. So at least we have something very pretty to look at while we wait for Pegg to find another project worthy of his talent.

Worth It: yeah, for a rental.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn

April 7, 2015
Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn poster

Within the first five minutes of watching Tom Saywer & Huckleberry Finn, I was prepared to hate it. Two moppets affecting atrocious southern accents rush in and cajole an aged Mark Twain — portrayed by no less than Val Kilmer is some truly awful makeup — to tell them a story about days when the Mississippi river past their sleepy Missouri town was thick with riverboats.

I never really understood this impulse to inject Twain himself as a framing device into adaptations of his stories. Only the bizarre 1985 claymation feature The Adventures of Mark Twain seems to have done much good with it, and it’s easily the weakest part of this movie. But when Twain harrumphs into recounting this version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, it does get a little better. All the classic pieces of the story are in place, with few unwise embellishments. By the end of the movie, the biggest complaint is how phoned-in, boring, and unnecessary it all feels.

Of course we’ve got Tom (Joel Courtney), begrudgingly accepting the constraints of school and civilization, if only because that’s where all the girls like Becky Thatcher (Katherine McNamara) are. Huck (Jake T. Austin) lives the unsupervised life Tom wishes for, and they get into all sorts of trouble together.

In particular, Tom follows Huck to a graveyard one night, where they accidentally witness a murder. The wrong man is arrested the next day, but Tom speaks up at the trial that the killer was really Injun Joe (Kaloian Vodenicharov), who promptly escapes with a grudge against Tom.

I will give adapter/director Jo Kastner credit for not trying to water down Injun Joe’s character, or to talk around his name. That’s the way Twain wrote it; that’s the way it would have been in antebellum Missouri; and that’s the way it should stand in an honest adaptation, ugly and racist as it might come off. Then again, Kastner seems to be a German producer who hasn’t made a film in twenty years, so maybe the idea to bowdlerize the name just didn’t occur to him. The one clip from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he includes at the very end is too short for him to court even worse trouble.

Overall, Kastner proceeds strictly by-the-numbers, depicting all the key scenes of the story adequately enough, but with no real flair or imagination. It should keep children entertained, but it’s no substitute for the wonderful texture of Twain’s prose. If you use this to introduce your kids to his stories, be sure to follow up with the real book.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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