Sunday, July 26, 2015

Best of the 2000s: A.I. Artificial Intelligence

3.5 Stars

Writing of the film My Fair Lady in 2006 Roger Ebert remarked, “Many viewers would rather discuss the film that wasn’t made.” The same can be said of Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

A little back story. A.I. Artificial Intelligence is based on the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” by Brian Aldiss. As a film project, it began life under the aegis of Stanley Kubrick in the 1970s. He divested himself of the project twenty-odd years later and handed the rains over to Steven Spielberg. In 2001, when it was released, most reviewers spent their reviews trying to determine which portions of the film were still Kubrick’s and which portions belonged to Spielberg. Much speculation remains about the version of A.I. Artificial Intelligence that Stanley Kubrick might have made.

This is, of course, a fool’s errand. Kubrick’s film doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because Kubrick could never make it. To make a successful version of A.I. Artificial Intelligence would require a director who believed that the true lasting proof of humanity’s genius was in their children. Kubrick didn’t even want to cast a child actor in the central roll. Part of the reason the movie languished for twenty-something years was Kubrick’s unwillingness to work with a child. He was hoping for CGI to reach a point where he could create a synthetic child to star in this film.

That was my long way of saying that Spielberg’s film should be approached on its own merits. There are many.

Set after humanity melts the polar ice caps and floods New York City, governments have adapted to the new world by strictly limiting the number of children. Meanwhile, advances in robotics and artificial intelligence lead Professor Hobby (William Hurt) to believe that it is finally possible to create a “mecha” child so real that it could fill the void in the lives of the many childless families on earth. He creates “David” (Haley Joel Osment), an artificial intelligence eleven-year-old boy as a test model. He places David in the home of Henry (Sam Robards) and Monica Swinton (Frances O’Connor) whose son, Martin (Jake Thomas) is in a coma/suspended animation. Monica bonds with David and begins to treat him like a son. Henry can never quite get over David’s unreality. When Martin wakes and returns home, a series of misunderstandings cause the Swintons to abandon David in the woods. David,  inspired by Pinocchio, believes that if only he were a real boy he could regain Monica’s love and sets off on a quest to find the Blue Fairy, so she can make him a real boy. Along the way, he is aided by a talking robotic teddy bear named “Teddy” (voiced by Jack Angel) and a sexbot (because porn is responsible for all technological advancement) “Gigolo Joe” (Jude Law).

There are big ideas here. What does it mean to be alive? Can a machine be alive? What exactly are the responsibilities that creators have to their creations? The only apt comparison we have is the comparison of parents and children, but is that fair? Is love real? Is it simply a series of physiological responses? Is it something more? Is there something unique about the human spirit? Can we learn the answers to these questions from the process of creation and/or child rearing?

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a meaty text. It brings up many questions but it never really finds the time to explore any of them in very great detail. The ending, seems to assume some answers, but the ending takes place thousands of years in the future of the main narrative – in a world devoid of humans and populated by machines. Machines that now believe the answers to those questions was inside of us the whole time. Too bad we eventually killed ourselves, or got killed by our machines – which is really the same.

Spielberg correctly resists the urge to make the robotic characters too charismatic. Under his direction, the actors playing robots, especially Osment and Law, are firmly in the uncanny valley. They have perfect posture, unblinking eyes, inappropriate levels of emotional response. Gigolo Joe in particular is a near parody of the perfect man, combining the lightness and romance of Fred Astaire with the strangeness of David Bowie. David and Gigolo Joe could be real people, but the actor’s wisely hint at their falseness. As a result, viewers can understand why characters might like them and why characters might be uncomfortable around them.

Spielberg, perhaps channeling Kubrick (to whom the film is dedicated), resists the urge to do too much exposition leading many American critics to conclude that the ending depicts an Alien civilization that has colonized earth when it actually depicts the children of our machines. Spielberg takes a risk, drawing his line between David and the Alberto Giocometti inspired future bots through a single visual expression at David’s entrance and trusting his audience to follow that to the end. It’s a move worthy of a post-impressionist. Spielberg should have the courage to do more like this. Unfortunately, other aspects of the film are dispensed with using long, boring, expository monologues. I can assign that problem to Spielberg because, in addition to directing, he is credited the screenplay.

I think perhaps that first image of David, distorted into a long limbed shadow, is the key to the whole film. A.I. Artificial Intelligence argues that the true nature of humanity, the true meaning of our existence, is too opaque to pin down. The mechas of A.I. Artificial Intelligence all know their purpose. That knowledge has diminished them. Our constant search for purpose, by contrast, has only made us great. Ultimately, that may have been too positive a worldview for Kubrick, but it’s a story Spielberg knows how to tell. He told it well in A.I. Artificial Intelligence an ambitious, if flawed, film that maybe could have been a masterpiece.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence finds itself on this list because Kyle Smith of The New York Post listed it as the best film of the decade. Additionally, A.I. was listed as one of the ten best films of the decade by two other reviewers. Next time I post, I’ll begin reviewing the twenty-five (okay actually twenty-six) the reviewers determined were actually the best films of the decade.

From Out in the Void


Monday, July 20, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The Royal Tenenbaums

3 Stars

I don’t love The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson’s 2001 film purports to be a film adaptation of a novel (typed in Anderson’s beloved Futura typeface) of the same name telling the story of three siblings: Chas Tenenbaum (Ben Stiller), Richie Tenenbaum (Luke Wilson), and their adopted sister, Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their father, Royal Tenenbaum (a brilliant Gene Hackman in a Golden Globe winning performance), abandons the family, and they are raised by their mother, Etheline Tenenbaum (Anjelica Huston). Under her tutelage, the children become extraordinary talents in various fields ranging from mouse genetics and business (Chas), playwriting (Margot), and athletics (Richie).

As adults, they experience profound disappointment. Margot, desperate for the approval of her absent father, marries an older man (Bill Murray) who she routinely cuckolds with Richie’s best friend (Owen Wilson). Richie, most tragically of all, finds himself in love with his adopted sister, and haunted by the memory of the time that they ran away from home and camped out in a museum “sharing a single sleeping bag.” Chas, the most successful Tenenbaum sibling in adulthood, has dedicated his life to the destruction of his father, resulting in his father’s disbarment, imprisonment, and subsequent insolvency. Then he loses his wife tragically in a plane crash. All these disasters conspire to bring the entire Tenenbaum family back to the family home, where they must confront their various sins, indiscretions, misdeeds, and foibles.

The Royal Tenenbaums has a tremendous script, co-written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson. It proves that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson together have the ability to state truth as only absurdists can. The dialogue is provocative, not only reinforcing themes of family dysfunction, marital strife, emotional distance, and the inability to forgive, but providing amazing moments where characters demonstrate the high standards they hold for everyone except themselves. I particularly like the moment where the adult Chas criticizes his father for not being on his side after having spent a lifetime destroying his father. Unfortunately, for themes (or moments) like these to work without exhausting an audience, they need to be approached with a lighter touch. Most of the cast chooses instead to lean too heavily on the emotional weight of the material, dragging down the truly stellar script.

Among the cast, only three members (Hackman, Murray, and Owen Wilson) really hit the right notes with respect to their particular characters. Their performances are characterized by a lightness, providing an effervescent zing to material otherwise worthy of a dirge. Hackman is actually brilliant here. He even has the ability to infect other cast members with his sensibility, drawing out a playfulness in despair momentarily from fellow cast members like Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, and Ben Stiller. Other cast members, especially Stiller, Paltrow, and Luke Wilson, miscalculate their performances – showing too much and too little emotion all at once.

Still, Anderson shows his greatness here. He plays with aspect ratios. He places the camera strategically to pick up angles and reactions we would otherwise miss. He holds the camera on the actors and lets them do their work, so that when The Royal Tenenbaums is firing on all thrusters, the movie is breaking our hearts and making us laugh all at once. At other times, Anderson’s camera technique seems to be to simply drop the camera in the corner of the room and allow mice to crawl past it – enforcing visually the sense that these characters were never brilliant; they just appeared that way by accident.

Then, of course, there is the music. The soundtrack features the Stones, John Lennon, Beatles covers, Van Morrison, and Paul Simon. Like all of Anderson’s work, the soundtrack is spectacular, but risks becoming the star.

On the whole, I find The Royal Tenenbaums to be merely above average. It’s an excellent script, undone by lackluster performances (excluding those that I have already praised). It’s not that I wouldn’t recommend The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s that The Royal Tenenbaums doesn’t quite live up to the great film that it could have been.

The Royal Tenenbaums is nonetheless beloved. It was ranked the 159th best film of all time by Empire magazine, and was, by his own account, a formative experience in Alec Baldwin’s film career (encouraging his transition to becoming a more comedic actor and directly influencing his character, Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock). The Royal Tenenbaums finds itself on this list because it was ranked as the best film of the 2000s by Lou Lumenick of The New York Post.

I’ll note that The Royal Tenenbaums features a location that I’ve actually been to (a first for this project). The Tenenbaum’s house, purportedly on Acher Avenue is actually located on Convent Avenue near Sugar Hill in Harlem. If I have any readers on Manhattan island, you can check it out. (Ironically, while I have seen the relatively obscure house, I’ve still not made it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Go figure).

From Out in the Void


Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 150, or "Profundity."

After a long absence, we are back!!!!!

Special thanks and shout out to Steven Johnston for keeping content on the blog while we were having issues. Thanks, Steven!

In this episode of the Void Zone, Dakota is now the master of motorcycling, Brit believes in individual justice (we don't know why), and Nick is trying to figure out K-Mart Cary Grant.

They also reviewed The Station Agent, Houseboat, and Magic Mike XXL.

Get it here or stream it below!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Best of the 2000s: City of God

5 Stars

City of God is one of two films on the Best of the 2000s list that I have previously reviewed for the Void Zone Podcast during my younger days. (It was eight months ago).  The other film I will be reviewing as part of this project that I previously reviewed is Spirited Away.

I don’t remember precisely what I said about City of God when I reviewed it. I know that I loved it, and I believe that I gave it 5 Stars. If I didn’t, I don’t know what I was thinking.

City of God follows the lives of several young men growing up in Cidade de Deus, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Rocket (Luis Otavio), Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), and Benny (Michel de Souza) know each other as children in the City of God. Rocket loves photography and longs to be a journalist. Benny shows the signs of a budding romantic, even as a young boy, and Li’l Dice envies the lives and adventures of hoodlums in the City of God – especially “The Tender Trio.”

Li’l Dice plans a heist for The Tender Trio at a local hotel, but on the night of the heist, the older boys treat him like a child and force him to be a lookout. Li’l Dice scrambles the heist and uses it as an opportunity to unleash his sadistic tendencies through mass murder, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead The Tender Trio to disband, and to Li’l Dice’ rise to become a powerful crime lord in the City of God under the new moniker, Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora). As his empire grows, Li’l Ze comes into conflict with a smaller rival gang and makes an enemy of an inspiring, seemingly honorable army veteran known as Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). As an adult Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) must navigate the City of God as it descends into total gang war.

City of God is adapted from the novel of the same name, and loosely based on true events in the history of Rio de Janeiro’s organized crime. (Archive footage of some of the men who inspired characters in City of God play over the end credits).

City of God is quite simply one of the best films I have ever seen. A frame story featuring extensive narration, City of God never feels slow, never pauses to allow poetic musings on the inner life of its narrator. It is propulsive. Every single action, reaction, and choice made by every single character has consequences that radiate across the rest of the film. Some of those choices aren’t even apparent, until the film reaches its dramatic final reel depicting the climax of the gang war in the City of God.

Fernando Meirelles’ and Katia Lund’s direction keeps the film moving, even as the cast of characters expands adding gang members, police officers, weapons suppliers, journalists, and victims without overwhelming the audience. Their decision to populate City of God with actual residents of the Cidade de Deus lends City of God an authenticity often absent from the films culled from real history. These are real people telling their story, the way they remember it.

I want to single out for particular praise Douglas Silva and Leandro Firmino da Hora who play the same sociopathic person as a boy and a man respectively. The level of thought and detail put into the performance, including gestures, smiles, and the slight jut of the chin that carries through from one actor to the other makes Li’l Dice/Li’l Ze one of the most singular and well-conceived villains of this new millennium.

Just for the fun of it, I went back and reviewed the episode where we reviewed City of God. I loved it. Gave it 5 Stars, and I responded very positively to the pace at which the movie tells this sprawling tale of urban crime.

City of God finds itself on this list because it was selected as the best film of the 2000s by Paste Magazine. They may very well have gotten it right.

From Out of the Void


Friday, July 10, 2015

Terminator: Genisys

3.5 Stars

When I learned of the title for the now fifth Terminator film, I joked, “How much did Zack Snyder have to pay the producers of Terminator to come up with a title worse than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?” (This is something you can verify in back episodes of the Void Zone Podcast).

It turns out that the title is the worst thing about Terminator: Genisys after all.

The film, as always, centers on a war between humanity and the machines. The humans of 2029 are led by John Connor (Jason Clark), and have just achieved a decisive victory – one that may well lead to humanity reclaiming the world, but the machines rig the game. They send a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 Los Angeles to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), before John can ever be born. In the future, John sends his trusted friend, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back to protect her. Fans of the franchise will recognize this exposition as the plot of The Terminator. However, when Kyle Reese arrives in 1984 everything he has been taught to expect is wrong. In addition to the Terminator sent back to 1984, several other Terminators have been sent back to various points in the past. At least two versions of the T-1000 (the villain of Terminator 2: Judgment Day) were sent back in time – one to 1973 and one to 1984. And there is an elderly T-800 who has been protecting Sarah ever since the first attempt on her life in 1973. Time travel antics continue, and Kyle Reese finds himself conscripted into Sarah’s plan to travel from 1984 to 2017 to stop Judgment Day once and for all.

The effects work is staggering. Taking a page from Back to the Future, Part II, Terminator: Genisys finds itself time travelling back into 1984’s The Terminator and depicting the present day Arnold doing battle with his beef-caky younger self. There’s an odd poetry to this moment, but the brisk pace of Terminator: Genisys doesn’t permit us to dwell on it.

Emilia Clarke, who in this movie looks enough like Linda Hamilton to convince me they might be related, turns in a surprisingly nuanced performance. She is torn between her desire to choose her own life for herself and her knowledge of the future.  Arnold, of course, nails this role. Playing the Terminator is probably the thing that Arnold does best in the world. He’s not at his physical peak anymore, but he makes good use of our comparisons to the previous entries in the franchise and our good will for this robotic murderer turned foster father. Similarly, Jai Courtney finally turns in a performance worth watching here after a string of middling performances in previous summer action films.

I don’t know if Terminator: Genisys was necessary. This series has already peaked with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no room to revisit this material when it’s done, as Terminator: Genisys was, surprisingly well.

From Out in the Void


Best of the 2000s: Kings & Queen

3.5 Stars

When Kings and Queen introduces us to Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) she appears to be the perfect woman. She’s beautiful, smart, engaging, sexy for a mom, and has an interesting job. We learn she was widowed young, during a pregnancy, and by all appearances she truly loved her husband. Her son seems happy, well mannered, appropriately attached to his mother. Her life seems very good, even if stained by tragedy. Nevertheless, it’s a happy enough time. A well to do business man who seems to truly love her has asked her to marry him.

She tells us that this will be her third marriage. She speaks somewhat fondly of her second husband, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric). We begin to wonder, what kind of a man lets a woman like Nora get away?

We think we learn the answer when we meet Ismael, an artist with a troubled relationship with his family and a noose hanging in his apartment. He is behind on the rent, and committed to a mental hospital. It was his troubles that drove these two lovers apart. Or was it?

As we learn more about Nora, the film reveals details that suggest a certain darkness in Nora. She has a very strained relationship with her father and her sister. There are questions surrounding the death of her first husband, and the circumstances that led to her posthumous marriage to him in order to legitimize her son. She seems dismissive of her new husband to be, and she is actively trying to get Ismael to adopt her son.

I want to be clear that I liked all of these elements. I think Kings & Queen is an absolutely beautiful movie, and I admire greatly the performances of Emanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric. That said, I think Kings & Queen is just a bit too sedate for my taste. There is tension surrounding the truth about the death of Nora’s first husband and the propriety of Nora determining the fate of her ailing father and her son, but the movie lacks a sufficient antagonist for Nora. No one is trying to get at Nora’s secrets. She is simply passively letting them slip out in a beautiful, reassuring voice. As a result, Kings & Queen never finds a dramatic engine to carry it through to its finale.

Kings & Queen also seems somehow unbalanced as a film. The narrative is divided between Nora’s preparations for the wedding and her attempt to convince Ismael to adopt her son and Ismael’s romance with another patient at the middle hospital. Ismael’s plot never quite finds a reason to be in the movie. It’s very well executed, told beautifully, and acted superbly, but it doesn’t seem to be adding very much to the overall picture. Instead, Kings & Queen feels like two very separate ideas stitched together. In this way, it might be an excellent reflection of real life because all of our lives are our own stories that occasionally intersect with other peoples in interesting ways.

I liked Kings & Queen, but it’s not without its flaws. I don’t think that I will be naming it as one of the classics of this first decade.

Kings & Queen finds itself on this list because it was listed as the best film of the decade by Andrew O'Hehir of Salon. Kings & Queen appeared in two of the 37 lists consulted by meta critic.

From Out in the Void


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jurassic World

3.5 Stars

Steven Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster in 1975 with the film Jaws. He may have invented the post-modern blockbuster in 1993 with Jurassic Park.

There is a scene in Jurassic Park where the camera lingers over merchandise ostensibly from the gift shop of the theme park that gives the movie its name.  Of course, the merchandise on the screen was the very same merchandise available for purchase in the store next to the theater. The line between film and merchandise was blurred. Jurassic World, the third and best sequel to Jurassic Park, seems inspired by this scene more than any other in Jurassic Park.

The plot centers on a new park, Jurassic World, now open and serving twenty thousand visitors a day on the same island where the ill-fated Jurassic Park has been reclaimed by the jungle. Faced with flagging attendance, the InGen scientists concoct a new – never before seen dinosaur. It will be larger, scarier, and it will have more teeth. It will be called the Indominus Rex, and surely, no one will be bored.

The dialogue surrounding this creature seems like it came from a Hollywood production meeting. "Make the dinosaur bigger and scarier." "It should have more teeth." "We need a name that is easier to say." "Nobody cares about authenticity except hipsters." Honestly, I think the script of Jurassic World is just verbatim notes the writer/director got after the pitch meeting (no wonder Hollywood producers gave it the green light, huh?).  And there is something truly fascinating about watching a big budget action picture show you how the sausage is made, but in doing so, the movie commits an error that prevents it from being the sterling picture that the original Jurassic Park was. It forgets that dinosaurs are awesome. All the other Jurassic Park films feature characters truly awed by dinosaurs. Jurassic World features characters referring to them as "assets", or inserting themselves as the alpha in the social order of the raptors. They’ve lost the since of wonder and majesty that made the original film what it was. That doesn’t make Jurassic World bad, but it doesn’t play the same notes as its predecessor. The film even features a character who makes this very point.

The performances are good, but they are unlike the performances in the original Jurassic Park. Where Richard Attenborough, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and even Wayne Knight disappeared into their roles, one never quite loses the movie star luster that has attached itself to their modern counterparts, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and even Judy Greer in a small roll.
I can recommend the film by saying this: Jurassic World is a pretty good film, but it doesn’t provide the experience of Jurassic Park.

I am tempted to end my review of Jurassic World there, except that I feel the need to defend it against the feminist backlash that the movie has received. Most of this backlash has been centered on the fact that Judy Greer’s and Chris Pratt’s characters criticize Bryce Dallas Howard’s character for not wanting to have children. This is actually not an accurate statement. Judy Greer’s character does criticize Bryce Dallas Howard’s character for not wanting children (at least implicitly). Chris Pratt’s character criticizes Ms. Howard’s character for showing no interest in the family she does have until they are nearly eaten by dinosaurs. That criticism is a very good and worthy critique of Ms. Howard’s character. One of the lessons that Ms. Howard’s character learns as the film progresses is the importance of family. In this way, she is like a certain male paleontologist from the original Jurassic Park. Dr. Grant didn’t like children, and his love interest forced him to interact with two children during a visit to a dinosaur park. As the adventure progressed, it awakened surprisingly paternal instincts in Dr. Grant. Ms. Howard’s character has a similar (if less well developed) arc. If feminism is about the equal treatment of women and men, then this is a feminist movie. Jurassic World puts Bryce Dallas Howard in Sam Niell’s shoes. Well, not precisely. She wears high heels for the entire movie, meaning that she does everything Sam Niell did backwards and in heels.

What Jurassic Park had in the feminism column that Jurassic World lacks is girl power dialogue. There are two examples in Jurassic Park that spring immediately to mind. The first occurs when Ellie interrupts Malcom’s ruminations on the consequences of bringing dinosaurs back from extinction. Ellie chimes in, “Woman inherits the Earth” because all the dinosaurs are female. This line prompts uncomfortable looks from Drs. Grant and Malcolm. Then later in the film when Hammond points out that he should go turn on the power instead of Ellie, Ellie retorts that they “can discuss sexism in survival situations when she gets back.” Basically, Jurassic Park wore its “feminism” like a chip on its shoulder. Jurassic World is much more comfortable with its female hero. When the dinosaurs attack Chris Pratt, she bats the dinosaur away with a gun, turns the gun around and fires two shots into the dino’s face. Christ Pratt gets up and kisses her in a reversal of the classic damsel in distress story beat. Jurassic World doesn’t need to have Bryce Dallas Howard tell us to hear her roar. It trusts us to hear it for ourselves. I guess those criticizing the Jurassic World's gender politics heard something different than I did.

Luckily, they can address this controversy through veiled dialogue in Jurassic Solar System in 2018. I've got it. They could name the next dinosaur they cook up in the lab Feminist Rex.

From Out in the Void,