REVIEW: Ex Machina

3 05 2015

Ex MachinaEx Machina,” from writer/director Alex Garland, marks yet another fascinating entry into the technophobic science-fiction genre – or, at the very least, the film has a skeptical stance towards the beneficence of technical advances.  Over the course of a week, Domnhall Gleeson’s Caleb must determine whether a robot, Alicia Vikander’s Ava, can pass the Turing Test.  (For those who skipped “The Imitation Game,” that exam measures whether an artificially intelligent being can pass for a human.)

The deceptively simple set-up gets more complicated when factoring in Ava’s creator, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan.  An irascible genius in the mold of Mark Zuckerberg (at least how “The Social Network” portrayed him) crossed with the unsettling articulation of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nathan has little regard for standard operation procedure or tradition decorum.  He handpicks Caleb to administer the test under unorthodox conditions as well as tight supervision.

Given all these factors, “Ex Machina” becomes highly unnerving once events start taking a turn for the unexpected.  Not since Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” five years ago has a film made me so distrusting of every character’s motives or uncertain of whether an event was actually happening.  Remarkably, Garland achieves this terror with little more than the basic building blocks of cinema: tight editing, controlled and sparse staging, crisp camerawork.

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REVIEW: Clouds of Sils Maria

2 05 2015

Clouds of Sils MariaBackstage-style dramas about actresses are common enough nowadays that an elided shorthand could almost certainly be employed to convey background information about the character in the spotlight.  In “Clouds of Sils Maria,” however, writer/director feels the need to relish the viewer with a whopping 36 minutes of exposition before getting to some real forward motion.

This gesture ushers in not only an aura of tedium but also an attitude of hubris.  Juliette Binoche’s Maria Enders, a star of stage and screen resisting a natural aging into a new generation of roles, is hardly a novel creation for cinema lovers.  Heck, just four days before the premiere of “Clouds of Sils Maria” in Cannes, David Cronenberg unveiled his “Maps to the Stars” with Julianne Moore playing an actress in an almost identical career conundrum!

Assayas’ film, on the whole, most closely resembles a Cannes competition entry from the year prior, though.  Like Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur,” much of the action (and inaction) consists of running through lines for an upcoming production and shifting imperceptibly in and out of character.  Maria, banishing herself to a Swiss mountain home with personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), must now get inside the headspace of the mother character in the play that made her famous for her interpretation of the daughter part.

The concept is certainly intriguing but is executed rather marginally.  Had the play “Maloja Snake” been real and not a fictional invention of Assayas, watching Maria struggle with the text might have been riveting.  Without a point of reference to the play, her verbal exercises benefit the character far more than the audience attempting to understand her.

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REVIEW: Lost River

1 05 2015

Lost RiverRyan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” opens with a crooning Americana theme (“In the Still of the Night”) playing over alternating images of alternating suburban decency and urban decay in Detroit.  It might be the strongest sequence in the entire film – and definitely the most lucidly realized.

Gosling clearly aims for David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn (the DNA of disastrous “Only God Forgives” is obvious) but winds up in borderline nonsensical territory.  He has beautiful visuals and haunting soundscapes yet no discernible theme or thesis underlying the film.  “Incoherent” might be a little strong to describe the experience, but the images have the cohesion of a two-day-old bandage and the logical progression of a Tumblr feed.

“Lost River” also falters by introducing an aspect of magical realism into the proceedings.  Given that whatever semblance of a plot the film possesses takes place in a very real city of ruins, the ambience feels contradictory.  This reliance on mood becomes first obvious, then annoying, since it has to essentially replace story in the film.

The narrative is also rather fragmented, seemingly two short films layered over each other.  They have an obvious familial connection, as the protagonists are a mother and her son, but they go in wildly different directions.  Christina Hendrick’s matriarch Billy goes to work at a Club Silencio-esque joint to repay a loan, while young Bones (Ian de Caestecker) faces down a neighborhood criminal overlord Bully (Matt Smith) to protect his love interest, Rat (Saoirse Ronan).  Their struggles are supposedly illuminating the subconscious of the ghost town they inhabit, although I found them mostly illustrating the vacuous expanses of hipsterism.  C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 30, 2015)

30 04 2015

A Touch of SinSadly, I missed Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” when it screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.  I caught up with the film recently from the comfort of my living room thanks to Netflix, though to just an audience of one.  What I would not give to go back and be able to experience this film with a crowd full of strangers – particularly the press screening at Cannes, which draws a diverse crowd from nations all over the globe.

The omnibus that is “A Touch of Sin” tells four stories of desperation and anger turned violent in modern China.  (And each has a real-life counterpart, to boot.)  Each explosion of rage triggers an odd mix of feelings, running the gamut from shock and disgust to schadenfreude and relief.  I would have loved to gather reactions by listening to the viewers during the screening and then stood out in the lobby to break down the responses by country.

But beyond a pseudo-social science experiment, “A Touch of Sin” still works well on an individual level.  These are not crazy vigilantes with a screw loose mentally – they are just mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.  Whether an average citizen who serves as a vocal critic of governmental abuse or a woman forced to endure constant demeaning by men, everyone has a reason for righteous anger.  Jia populates the film with a memorable cast of characters worth our attention and concern who also serve as surrogates for ourselves and the entire nation of China.

This is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it manages to resonate on the personal and political wavelengths, at once specific and broad.  “A Touch of Sin” shows how the improperly, unsatisfyingly stitched social political and economic fabric of China can be ripped apart in one cathartic violent gesture.  Yet it’s easy to reimagine the action taking place in just about any country where inequalities based on wealth, power, and gender exist.  (Hint, hint, bold American filmmakers.)





REVIEW: My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

29 04 2015

My_Life_Directed_POSTER_FINAL_A_AIM.inddFor a while, I debated whether or not Liv Corfixen’s documentary “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” merited a review on my blog.  Clocking in at 59 minutes, the film falls in the gray area between short and feature.  But given its interest to fans of “Drive” and haters of “Only God Forgives,” I figured I could spare a few hundred words for the sake of cinephilia.

After being put to sleep in Cannes by Refn’s critically reviled 2013 film, I described “Only God Forgives” as “a fetish meant only to please Refn and a few others who share his bizarre – and borderline irresponsible – penchant” while also claiming it lacked any internal logic.  This behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process, anchored by Refn’s wife, alerts us to the fact that Refn himself saw the trainwreck coming on set and found himself helpless to prevent it.

For the moviegoer, the film’s squandered opportunity represents a loss of 90 minutes and maybe a few dollars.  But for Refn, however, the flop of “Only God Forgives” jeopardizes his very livelihood.  I might have felt sorrow or pity for the director after “My Life Directed” had Corfixen allowed the documentary to function almost entirely as an apologia.  Yet she insists on using her footage as partial vindication for the project, a choice that makes her movie better and leaves his in stasis.

With the exception of its resigned and defeated (rather than triumphant) tone, “My Life Directed” more or less resembles a standard making-of special.  Since Refn allegedly would not let Corfixen shoot his blow-ups on set, it falters as a portrait of a director losing control of his film and as an autopsy of a failed filmmaking venture.  The film would make a decent Criterion Collection extra, if “Only God Forgives” were ever to get that treatment … though I do not think anyone expects that day to come.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Song One

28 04 2015

Song OneThere is really not too much to say about a film like Kate Barker-Froyland’s “Song One,” which seems to be the very definition of a film as trifle.  The story follows Anne Hathaway’s Franny as she tracks down a musician that her estranged brother intended to see, had he not fallen into a coma.  A forced romance with singer/songwriter on the brink, James Forester (Johnny Flynn), ensues, along with all the usual notes any film about grief and troubled families is supposed to hit.

“Song One” contains no notable screeches or strains, although it never makes a sweet sound either.  Barker-Froyland seems afraid to take a bold step and assert something unique about her film.  As a result, the movie becomes forgettable even as it is being consumed.

At this level of safe mediocrity, an actress like Anne Hathaway should be able to step in and effortlessly elevate the material.  Yet even her presence, a far cry from the raw torment she wore on her sleeves in “Rachel Getting Married,” cannot give this dull, dour ditty any character.  Like the rest of the movie, Hathaway is not actively bad, but the passively pedestrian “Song One” disappoints nonetheless.  C2stars





RiverRun 2015: the best (and worst) of the rest

27 04 2015

RRI wound up seeing 10 films (plus an archival screening of “The Wild Bunch”) at RiverRun, far more than I should have seen given how busy I was that week.  Was it all worth it?

Depends on what movie I was walking out of when you asked me the question.  There were some great films that I was glad to see, but there were also some rather miserable films.  Here’s a sampling of them both.

Stray Dog

Stray DogDebra Granik’s documentary “Stray Dog” follows biker and Vietnam veteran Ron “Stray Dog” Hall as he goes about his business in America’s heartland.  Granik throws us right into the action, providing no context or commentary to set the stage.  Her presence is never acknowledged and seldom felt throughout, making for a documentary essentially without a documentarian.

As a result, the film feels like a rather free-form portrait of salt of the earth americans like Stray Dog and his young Mexican wife Alicia.   Granik’s subject is just … there.  There is no need to provide standard documentary conventions like talking heads to provide information, though there ought to be something to approximate its effect.  Without anything to signal any importance in the proceedings, the film starts to feel like an interminable home video.

“Stray Dog,” all observation and no insight, might have been more aptly titled “Stray Narrative.”

Still the Water

Still the WaterIn one of the first images in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a young Mason plays with the corpse of a bird in his backyard.  An audience of decent intelligence watching the film picks up on this symbol and intuits that it prompts the character to meditate on life and death.  No discussion, no line is necessary.

Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water,” however, makes a two-hour film about what follows the discovery of a human corpse on a beach in Japan.  Its effect is largely measured through two teenage characters who begin to see the interconnectedness between life’s beginning and end.  Kyoko deals with the illness of her mother, while her boyfriend Kaito comes to grips with the separation of his parents.

The film mostly mills about as the unsteady couple trades empty philosophical musings amidst a beautifully shot landscape.  (Water as a metaphor?  Groundbreaking.)  Kawase’s direction is tender and sincere, to be sure, but it all goes to the service of a fairly banal story.

Welcome to Leith

Welcome to LeithA documentary like Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s “Welcome to Leith” is the stuff of nightmares.  In a small North Dakota town, described by someone as “B-roll for ‘The Walking Dead,'” an aging neo-Nazi buys up parcels of property to attract his followers and gain civic influence.  And it’s not just any white supremacist, either; Craig Cobb was kicked out of countries as far-reaching as Estonia and is monitored by the Southern Poverty Law Center for leading hate groups.

Nichols and Walker document from both sides battling for the soul of the soil, resulting in a fascinating perspective on the events.  They begin with the conception of town’s denizens – all two dozen or so of them – as decent, humble, and rational people.  The residents of Leith basically consider the mayorship a “family business,” for heaven’s sake!

Watching Cobb and his cronies exact a toll from them makes for a tough watch.  Whether justified or not by the threats and vitriol lobbed their way, Leith’s citizens abandon the moral high ground to wrestle in the mud with those terrorizing their town.  After being pushed to the edge, they decide that the only way to fight insanity is with insanity – a choice likely influenced by the influx of attention on their municipality.

Gripping and downright terrifying, “Welcome to Leith” follows a volatile situation to the brink of explosion … and its impact cannot simply be shaken off by dismissing it as a movie.  This is reality, and even the most upright idealists cannot emerge from it unscathed and unbruised.

Yosemite

YosemiteJames Franco’s short story collection “Palo Alto Stories” has proven a very fertile source material for up-and-coming feature filmmakers.  Actually, that sentence should read, “Anything with James Franco’s name on it these days can find some financial backing and a few film festivals willing to exhibit the final product.”

Granted, the majority of indie projects Franco takes on possess sufficient quality, including Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.”  Gabrielle Demeestere’s take on Franco lore, “Yosemite,” is far less impressive.  This interlocking triptych of short stories offers a far less effective portrait of a fractured, disaffected suburbia than Coppola’s take on the material.

Much of Demeestere’s work on the film is solid, such as the precise sound design and attention to period detail.  She also draws three solid performances from the pre-pubescent boys leading the segments of “Yosemite.”  Where the film falters is in her patient, casual pacing.  Such a languid tone without sufficient payoff feels like quite a drag, especially because the normalcy observed along the way offers little accompanying profundity.  And do not even get me started on the painfully obvious mountain lion motif…








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