Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Another film that Walter liked more than I did was Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I enjoyed watching the TV series when I was young (spy shows were my favourite at the time) and Gareth had enjoyed the film, so I decided to give it a try.

Henry Cavill stars as Napolean Solo, the womanizing ex-criminal super-spy sent by the Americans to stop an international criminal organization from destroying life as we knew it back in the 1960’s. Armie Hammer plays Ilya Kuryakin, the disturbed KGB agent forced to join Solo. Their only lead is Gaby, the daughter of a vanished German scientist. Gaby, played by Alicia Vikander, is working as a mechanic in East Berlin. And away we go!

The film starts well enough, impressing me with its wit, locations, cinematography and score, but it goes steadily downhill, ending with a ridiculous chase scene which disgusted me at every level (cinematography, action, sound, acting, etc.). I am not a Cavill fan and, for me, he failed to be convincing as Solo (Walter disagrees). Hammer was better but I didn’t warm to his character either. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum worked a lot better for me. Vikander was the brightest spot in the cast. 

While there were some fun moments, I was bored for much of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and have no interest in seeing it again. **+. My mug is down.

Friday, 25 September 2015

A Walk in the Woods

This is another film about two men spending some tense and intense time together, but A Walk in the Woods feels very different than The End of the Tour

Robert Redford plays Bill Bryson, the aging travel writer who decided to try walking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. His wife (played by Emma Thompson) thinks that’s a pretty crazy idea, finds a series of trail horror stories on the internet and insists Bill take someone with him. But the only person willing to join Bryson is Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend he hasn’t seen in decades and who can barely stay on his feet when he gets off the plane.

Bryson knows it will be a challenge but he takes the chance and he and Katz set off on their hiking adventure through the forested mountains of Georgia. It’s a slow start for them (though a great start to the film), made worse by their encounter with Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), a woman hiking  by herself (for good reason) who tells them everything they are doing wrong and keeps them awake at night with her horrific singing. But the old men trek on, enduring a series of adventures (some very dangerous) while putting a lot of miles behind them.

Their encounters and discussions are rather lightweight, but there are a number of precious moments between Bryson and Katz, like when they are discussing the state of their lives and suddenly get their first view of the mountains before them or when they talk about life while looking up at the stars from a mountain ledge or when Katz talks about his drinking problem (and why he’s been dry for a decade). 

Unfortunately, there are also some awful moments, like when they stop in a small town and Bryson briefly gets to know a motel owner (Mary Steenburgen) while Katz has a romantic encounter with a large woman named Beulah (Susan McPhail). The lowest point in the film is when Beulah’s husband comes looking for Katz. Although he has no idea in which room Katz is hiding, he manages to break down the correct door as Katz escapes out the window. It’s the kind of lazy stupid writing one might expect in the worst Hollywood comedies. The entire scene in the small town felt wrong and should have been edited out. It alone would prevent me from considering giving A Walk in the Woods more than ***. The way women are treated throughout the film deserves condemnation, though clearly the film is meant to be watched from the point of view of the two men, so allowances must be made. 

On the positive side, A Walk in the Woods is a gorgeous film to watch and Redford (who has wanted to make this film for years) and Nolte are well-cast and do a great job (especially Nolte). It’s a lot of fun watching these aging actors work together. So I will give A Walk in the Woods ***. My mug is up, but I prefer a heavier brew inside.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The End of the Tour

So we had a rare opportunity to see a movie together, viewing The End of the Tour while I (Walter) was in Winnipeg. We both thought it was an excellent film (especially me), and we decided to write this review together. (It seemed fitting.)

Vic: The End of the Tour stars Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace, the writer of the novel Infinite Jest, which became a major literary event in 1996, and Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky, the Rolling Stone reporter who joined Wallace for the last five days of the Infinite Jest book tour across the U.S. Lipskys interview with Wallace was never published in the magazine, but Lipsky wrote a book about those five days called Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is the basis for the film.

The relationship between the two men starts tentatively (Wallace was a strong introvert) and there was tension throughout their time together, but they do find some connection and their long conversations provide considerable insight into their characters. Its those intelligent conversations that make The End of the Tour such a great film, and yet they were also the source of my biggest disappointment. I had hoped for more dialogue involving Wallaces ideas and less about the day-to-day experiences the two men have together.

Walter: Yes, I get this. There were a few shining moments when Wallace's penetrating insights into some aspect of culture emerge. One of those times was fascinating because you watch Lipsky completely miss the significance of the analysis being offered because he is so focused on his own agenda.  

However, what made up for the lack of focus on Wallace's ideas (for me) was the interplay of the relationship. The potent juxtaposition between the intellectual sparring on the one hand and the reaching out for friendship (sometimes feigned, sometimes genuine?) on the other was unique and fascinating.

Vic: I can agree with that. Certainly the dialogue remained entertaining throughout. It was often quite funny and, even apart from Wallace’s ideas, involved important reflections on the cult of celebrity and the meaning of life (Note: Wallace committed suicide in 2008 after a long struggle with depression and the medication prescribed to fight it).

Im not a huge fan of either Segel or Eisenberg, but they seem perfectly cast for this film and they perform brilliantly, with the help of solid direction from James Ponsoldt. A solid ***+ from me.

Walter: Yes, the acting was amazing - particularly Jason Segel. I've read a critique from one friend of Wallace who was not impressed with the depiction (nor the film as a whole), but frankly that article comes across as much less convincing than the film (he seems to have his own biased agenda). I'd be interested in hearing from a broader swath of those who knew Wallace. Eisenberg's performance (which seems typical for him) is of a less attractive character, but it very much captures the complex mix of admiration, jealousy, vulnerability and an insight of a kind quite different than Wallace's, which seems to mark Lipsky's role in the ongoing conversation. 

In the end, it's the mutual vulnerability that emerges, largely made possible by Wallace's longing for real awareness and authenticity beneath the culture's temptations and superficiality, that made the film for me. Oddly, a powerful moment was the setting of an early conversation: driving in a car down a typical Midwestern commercial strip - framing the intellectual and existential hunger of two bright, young minds (which we tend to convert into abstract thought) against the backdrop of the (gross) reality of franchise-dominated, meaningless commercialism. It's what we're all up against.
(Vic: Couldn’t agree more.)

I found I could connect with each of the characters and feel the pull of the ideas and the truth of the emotions and longings. I found that a deeply satisfying experience and give it ****

Monday, 21 September 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl, written and directed by Marielle Heller, is a very adult indie drama about a fifteen-year-old girl who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend in 1970’s San Francisco.

Bel Powley plays Minnie, an insecure young artist (graphic novels) looking for love who becomes involved with the 35-year-old Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard) and decides to narrate her adventures into her cassette recorder, unwisely hiding her cassettes in a shoe box under her bed, with a note to keep out. Kristen Wiig plays Minnie’s mother, Charlotte, a woman who wants to be a good mother to her two daughters but is too busy partying (with lots of drugs and alcohol) and struggling as a single parent to realize what is happening under her roof (though she has suspicions). 

Monroe is understandably uncomfortable with his sexual relationship with a minor twenty years younger than him (not to mention that she is the daughter of his girlfriend) and tries to break it off. Minnie, who doesn’t think much of herself, begins to question whether Monroe really cares for her and various believable crises ensue.

The acting by Powley (who is perfectly cast), Wiig and Skarsgard is outstanding, the dialogue is funny and smart, the use of drawings/animation provides unique opportunities for intelligent commentary and the cinematography and score are excellent, providing a great 70’ feel. Most extraordinary, however, is the way this nonjudgmental coming-of-age story feels more honest than most and doesn’t create the kind of screaming melodrama that such a story would generate on TV.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up. But be warned: this film is rated 18A in Canada for a reason.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Mistress America

Another Noah Baumbach film for Walter not to like, and another ***+ from me (the usual for Baumbach). My review of Mistress America can be found at Third Way Cafe:

Friday, 4 September 2015

Ex Machina - Another View

Ex Machina is a great film and top notch for starting discussions. In fact, I need to talk about this film so bad that I’m filling this review full of spoilers (and it's long). See Vic’s if you want a review more carefully written, but PLEASE DON’T READ THIS ONE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ SERIOUS SPOILERS!.

I love really thoughtful films with small casts and a controlled set – films that are more like a play with heavy reliance on dialogue and nuance. One nuance worth noting: Caleb and Ava clearly have a lot more “human connection” than any other dyad in the film - clearly a point of irony given the film as a whole. Interestingly, Nathan is as manipulative as Ava, but rather than basing this manipulation on connection, he does it by continual game-playing and keeping Caleb off balance.

The only breaks from the controlled (and claustrophobic) set are the majestic outdoor scenes, which are beautiful, expansive and primordial. Enhancing the symbolic of a moment prior to creation is the lack of any animal life at all in these scenes (no birds, squirrels, fish that I noticed). That lack of life can be either expectant or ominous – just before creation or after an apocalypse.

The film powerfully draws the viewer in – in spite of its cool and disturbing feel. I couldn’t help but be drawn into the “Turing Test” to assess the success of the artificial intelligence. How would I feel responding to such a robot? Part of being human is wanting to humanize or anthropomorphize something as near-human as Ava. Does crossing that line mean passing the Turing Test or does it represent the sabotaging of it?

One of the most brilliant moments in the film is the sudden emergence of the question (for Caleb), “Am I a robot.” After all Nathan has insisted to Caleb that he is as programmed (in his sexuality) as Ava. His test is a graphic blood-letting (and I can’t quite understand fully the suicidal trope of the wrist-slitting). But surely even after he establishes his bodily humanity, the question of what separates us from robots is now more focused on us than on Ava (and AI). The ambiguity at all points of who is being tested (and in control) accentuates this as well as the flip-flop of the ending with Nathan destroyed (as were the early models of AI) and Caleb trapped behind glass (like Ava).

All the characters are a mix of good and evil – narratively speaking. But the truth is that actually Ava is not “good” at all – she’s functional. She is only (understandably) self-focused. Her actions were entirely focused on escaping just as she’d been programmed to do. Human death and suffering meant nothing (except as something interesting to be learned from). All previous human emotion on Ava’s part was in fact “seeming” for the sake of her goals – though one might ponder the expression of wonder as she explored new territory. Here was the expression of emotion that served no obvious purpose.

Some have suggested the film is “about” sexuality and gender, but that does not seem true from Alex Garland’s perspective (writer/director), and to me this perception implies a complete missing of the central points of the film. Certainly the film poses many open-ended questions about sexuality and its role in human motivation and behaviour. It makes sense (especially from Nathan’s utilitarian and misogynist perspective) to “use” sexuality as he does, making the “use” of her sexuality a core part of how Ava is programmed to explore, learn and manipulate others. It’s also a key part of being perceived as human and central to drawing emotional connection from humans.

It’s so important to remember that there are no women in this film at all. There are only robots simulating some aspects of being female. The fact that these aspects happen to be ultimately seductive and deceptive are not because she’s designed to have a female gender but because she is, in fact, the ultimate psychopath. The choice of her appearance and programming says a lot more about perceived male weakness (both as deceived [Caleb] and as the one with power [Nathan]).

As Vic has suggested, some of the nudity in the film feels gratuitous, and I won’t argue, though I wonder if even that perception is important to the film. Isn’t there something necessarily pornographic about creating a simulated human. Isn’t porn all about seeking a human connection with something artificial? Are AI developers (those really aiming to replicate humanity) inherently pornographers?

The seduction we feel as viewers, for the most part, is not about the act of sex, it’s about sexuality in the broadest sense – of seeking connection, intimacy, safety and affection with someone seeming to seek those things from us. I can’t imagine getting much from the film if I did not feel somewhat seduced by that because that experience underlines the danger – the fantasy of attributing humanity to circuitry. It’s our humanity that opens us up to this danger, yet hopefully it’s our human wisdom that can prevent us from taking stupid risks with our future.

I am definitely on the side of the wary (with Stephen Hawking and many others) when it comes to AI. I think we need to move from film and literature to reality when it comes to thinking long and hard about the very real concerns with AI (and the role of technology in general). This film does a far better job of raising those questions than recent attempts like Transcendence or even Her (though, of course, the latter already does a much better job than the former).

Garland reports being closer, "allied" to Ava than Caleb by the end of that film, which is fair enough. I suspect that Mary Shelley felt closer to Frankenstein’s monster than to Dr. Frankenstein. But that monster and Ava are still monstrous and deadly. In either case, it would be a great wrong to create them. When will we learn the lesson and slow down our technology until our ethics and wisdom try desperately to catch up? (And part of that wisdom is giving long and hard thought to what does make us different from a robot with AI.) This film gets **** from me and a mug held high.