“Ex Machina” Is a Beautiful Inarticulate Object

Ex Machina - XL

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

The first film directed by screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days LaterNever Let Me GoDredd), Ex Machina is not nearly as profound as it seems to think it is (despite its high marks on Rotten Tomatoes, but is still (mostly) very watchable and filled with enough strange and unexpected twists to keep the viewer guessing up until the very end. It can never quite figure out what kind of film it wants to be, however, mixing deep thoughts about artificial intelligence (A.I.) with crazy drunken synchronized dancing (which, I will admit, was extremely fun to watch), and although it has fine cinematographic elements that are reminiscent of the best of Stanley Kubrick (slow tracking shots, some done on Steadicam), if one ponders the subject matter for more than a minute or two, it all seems very dumb.

With a pumped-up Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) – always extremely watchable – as Nathan, a software billionaire who has been working to create a fully functioning human-like robot, and an ethereal Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as Ava (that robot), Ex Machina has much to offer in those two marvelous performances. Unfortunately, it also has Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) – an actor who tends to bore me to tears (with the occasional exception) – in the central role as the young protégé whom Isaac invites to his top-secret hideout to run a Turing Test on Vikander. The idea that anyone would take this kid seriously as either a genius programmer or love interest for a fledgling A.I. is hard to swallow. Still, the movie’s final moments are simultaneously chilling and moving, and appeal to the sci-fi geeks in all of us, so I offer a qualified recommendation.

Cinematographer Rob Hardy (The Invisible Woman) and Production Designer Mark Digby (Never Let Me Go) deserve a lot of credit for what works here. Both Ava’s design and the design of Nathan’s remote laboratory/home set the tone – clean, efficient, sterile, yet somehow also organic – that pervades every frame of the film. It’s too bad that so much of the dialogue is expositional. Visually, the movie approaches greatness. Verbally, not so much. Odd, for a movie directed (and written) by a writer.

Sebastião Salgado is “The Salt of the Earth”

Salt of the Earth

The Salt of the Earth (Juliano Ribeiro Salgado/Wim Wenders, 2014)

Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” Special Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and a 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary FeatureThe Salt of the Earth (which I saw at this year’s SXSW Festival) is an ethereally beautiful tribute to renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Co-directed by Wim Wenders – prolific maker of both fiction (Wings of Desire) and documentary (Buena Vista Social Club) films, much like his countryman Werner Herzog – and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado (Nauru, an Island Adrift) – son of Sebastião – the movie takes us on a lyrical and affecting journey through time, place and the deep truths of our existence as we learn about Salgado’s work, its evolution, and its impact. Originally trained as an economist, Salgado has always highlighted important social issues – poverty, violence and genocide – in his stark black-and-white images, and we revisit all of the milestones of his career. Some of the photographs are incredibly graphic – especially those taken in the middle of the Rwandan atrocities in the 1990s – and though it can be difficult to look at them, seeing the work reminds us of the power and necessity of visual art to illuminate that which cannot be put into words. The Salt of the Earth – at times dreamy, at times shocking – is a film that everyone must see.

What I have always admired about Wenders is his ability to tell universally accessible stories that nevertheless feel both deeply personal and experimental. In Wings of Desire, the poetry-reciting melancholy angels that watch over Berlin force an often painfully slow aesthetic on the narrative – time is meaningless to them – but the viewer is still drawn into the touching love story at the center. In The Salt of the Earth, Wenders (with Salgado, Jr.) often places Salgado’s talking head – floating free from the body – in the middle of one of his photographs, making the artist truly one with his work. Now over 70 and mostly bald, Salgado still has fine sculpted features, and his charismatic bust looks like its own piece of art. It’s like listening to an ethereal deity meditate on the meaning of life.

The Salt of the Earth opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre.

In “White God,” Dogs Are More Than Just Co-Pilots: They’re Flying the Plane

White God

White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2014)

In White God, the animals rise up against their human masters. No, this is not a Hungarian answer to the rebooted (in 2011Planet of the Apes series. Instead, what we get here is an intriguing (and, especially, intriguingly directed) parable about slave uprisings – or about resisting authoritarian rule, at the very least – with dogs in place of the slaves. I see your Spartacus, and raise you one Fidocus. 

13-year-old Lily begins the movie in possession of loved (and loving) mutt named Hagen. But when her mother drops her off with Dad for a spell, it turns out that he – bitter and spent – can’t abide the animal, and soon, in a fit of pique when the dog’s presence causes trouble in his building, he abandons Hagen in the street, locks Lily in the car and drives away. From then we have two parallel stories, as Lily struggles against paternal authority and Hagen struggles to survive: without Hagen, Lily loses her moral compass; without Lily, Hagen loses everything. Before long, Hagen is captured by a dog-fighting ring, renamed Maxie, and pumped full of muscle-building food and drugs to prepare him for the ring. Lily turns away from her music (she’s a trumpeter) and gets involved with drugs of her own.

After his first (victorious) fight, Hagen breaks away from the dog-fighters, but is captured by dog-catchers and thrown into the pound, where his now-vicious manner earns him a spot next-in-line for euthanasia. But just as he’s about to be put down, he grabs the arm of his executioner and yells, “No!” OK, I made that up. But he does fight back, and soon Budapest is overrun with rampant dogs who exact a mean revenge on their former tormentors. Since the film opens with an image of Lily, on her bike, pedaling away from a pack of these canines, we know it’s only a matter of time before she reunites, in some way, with Hagen. Will she be able to stop the carnage before it consumes her?

So, all silliness aside, there is much to recommend in this film. For one, the director has achieved something quite remarkable in his direction of the dogs. In the movie’s official press kit, director Mundruczó (Delta) details how he used over 250 rescue animals, all of whom were found homes at the end of production. The two most amazing of these dogs (with the exception of one scene-stealing Jack Russell), Body and Luke – brothers, from Arizona – play Hagen. Even though I know that much of what we see on screen is a product of smart training and even smarter editing, it is still amazing to see how natural and believable these canine performances can be. Except in the chasing scenes, where, to be honest, it looks like the dogs are just having a great time running through the streets (I bet it was fun!), the interactions between animals and animals, animals and humans, is perfectly staged. My hats off to the team.

Does it work as a parable? Yes and no. There is no question – with stunning sequences evocative of zombie films like 28 Days Later (those opening deserted streets) and disaster films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds – that the movie has great visual power, especially since it’s set in Budapest, site of the great anti-Soviet Hungarian uprising of 1956. But it’s also rather obvious. We get it. Dogs = slaves. Cute idea. And the title, “White God,” while clever (think of Sam Fuller’s White Dog and European colonial attitudes towards their subjects), adds no great further insight to the topic. So what’s new? Great dog performances. Anything else? Oh, music cures the savage beast, too.

Speaking of those amazing, lovable mutts … have no fear. There is a huge disclaimer before the film begins, stating that, no, no animals were harmed during the filming of the movie. So you can sit back and enjoy the spectacle of beasts biting the hands that (once) fed them without worrying about what happened to them, in return.

White God opens today at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre.

“While We’re Young” Overcomes a Generic Title … Before It Gets Old

While We're Young

While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2014)

The worst thing about this movie is its incredibly generic title, “While We’re Young.” Really? The writer/director of The Squid and the WhaleMargot at the Wedding and Frances Ha – among others – couldn’t do better? It sounds like it belongs on a tacky romcom starring Jennifer Aniston. Fortunately, the best thing about the film – its charming ensemble cast – largely makes up for this. Unfortunately, the writing isn’t always up to the talents of that cast, and breaks down in the last third, resulting in cringe-worthy expositional arguments on street corners where feuding characters explain all of their past history and grievances for the audience’s benefit. So it’s a mixed bag. But when it works, it’s delightful. Save your bathroom break for the final act.

The movie opens with title cards showing dialogue between Solness and Hilde in Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play The Master Builder, in which the two discuss the passing of the torch from an older generation to a younger one. Right away, that’s a problem, since it hits us over the head with the movie’s theme. But then we’re immediately taken away from this clumsiness as we meet Josh – played by a nicely restrained Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) – and Cornelia – the ever-luminescent Naomi Watts (St. Vincent) – a married couple in their 40s, both documentary filmmakers (he a director, she a producer). Cornelia works mostly for her father, famed cinema vérité director Leslie Breitbart – played by the great Charles Grodin (Midnight Run) – a man out from whose shadow Josh cannot seem to emerge. Watts and Stiller have an easy and believable rapport, and when we first see them they are in the apartment of new-parent friends. Awkward with the baby, they return home to their blessedly child-free place, happy to have no such burden, free to pursue their work. Or are they happy? Yes, you can probably see the movie’s resolution at this point, which brings us back to that final-act problem.

But before we get there, we also meet aspiring documentarian Jamie – played by the effortlessly charismatic Adam Driver (Adam on “Girls“) – and his wife, Darby played by a sweet Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood). They’re the free spirits that Josh and Cornelia wish they still were (childlessness notwithstanding), and soon the older couple is abandoning their age-appropriate friends of the opening to spend more and more time with these twenty-somethings. And why not? Josh can’t seem to finish the movie he’s been working on for almost 10 years, anyway. This generational collision provides much of the film’s humor and wit, as we watch the still-attractive and fit – but no longer 25 – Stiller and Watts do their best to keep up with Driver and Seyfried. Soon, though, it turns out that Driver’s Jamie may have an ulterior motive to his friendship, since his own career ambitions require the kind of access and legitimacy that these older folks (and, especially, Cornelia’s father) can provide.

And until the film devolves into those unfortunate screaming matches and an all-too-pat ending, Jamie’s manipulative machinations lead to all sorts of interesting observations about the changing nature of filmmaking ethics and attribution in our modern world of sampling and reality television. What is allowable in a documentary that purports to be about truth? Is truth even a value that we still celebrate? It’s a worthy discussion, placed neatly in the center of a funny comedy about middle age. Too bad the movie has all that extra filler. Then again, with its nondescript title, perhaps it was inevitable that the final result would be less than satisfying. So enjoy the well-acted and well-scripted moments that exist, and do your best to ignore the rest.

“The Longest Ride” Could Be a Lot Shorter (and Better)

Longest Ride

The Longest Ride (George Tillman, Jr., 2015)

What, oh what, is young Miss Britt Robertson doing in this movie? With co-stars such as Scott Eastwood (son of Clint), Jack Huston (grandson of John) and Oona Chaplin (granddaughter of Charles) – not to mention Alan Alda, who is his own pedigree, at this point – she stands out simply by virtue of being unconnected to any legacy. Thank goodness she’s in the film, however, as she gives the most winning (and natural) performance of the lot. Perhaps she can soon have children of her own who will then, years from now, star in films, too, and be less interesting than their mother (or grandmother).

What, also, is George Tillman, Jr., doing as the director of this movie? One of Hollywood’s rare (though a little less rare than in the past) African-American directors, he is best known for 1997’s Soul Food, a film steeped in African-American culture and with an all-black cast. Yet here he is making a film set in North Carolina with an all-white cast, in which rodeo bull riding plays a major role. And it’s all based on a novel by Nicholas Schmaltz … I mean … Sparks. How white can you get, story-wise? Which fact, actually, makes the film a little more interesting than it deserves to be. Perhaps we can take this as a step in the (right) direction of color-blind directing. True, the movie is pretty ridiculous, but more power to Tillman for making it.

Robertson (Cake) plays Sophia, an art major and senior at Wake Forest University who meets cute and falls in love with Luke – played by Eastwood (Walk of Fame) – a star rodeo rider (and rancher) recently recovered from a serious head injury. They have nothing in common, yet are irresistibly drawn to each other by the powers of chemistry and Hollywood casting. Robertson is adorable (if a little generically blonde), and Eastwood is the spitting image (only hunkier) of his famous Dad, so it does not strain credibility to imagine that they are hot for each other. What does require a suspension of disbelief, however, is accepting Lolita Davidovich (Blaze – remember her?) as Luke’s mother (though she is certainly beautiful enough to have produced him). She has city written all over her (nothing wrong with that) and does not, in anyway, look like she belongs on a farm or ranch.

Anyway, on the way home after their first date, they rescue an elderly man from a car crash and take him to the hospital. Meet Ira, played by the great – if here very hammy – Alda (“M*A*S*H“). Soon, Sophia is spending time with Ira and reading, out loud to him (his eyesight is poor), letters he once wrote to his now-deceased wife, Ruth. These lead us into flashbacks, in which Alda miraculously morphs into Jack Huston. Neither men are Jewish, so you can be the judge of how silly they each look in yarmulkes, but one thing is certain, which is that they look nothing like each other (Alda has Italian ancestry, Huston’s grandmother was an Italian model, and there is a long history of Italians and Jews playing each other in film, so there’s that). However, this kind of gene-pool randomness happens all the time in films. The real problem is the letters, themselves, as well as the awkward and forced juxtaposition of Ira’s and Ruth’s story with Sophia’s and Luke’s. Each letter reads as if it were crafted by the screenwriter specifically as expositional voiceover narration, rather than as an actual piece of correspondence between two lovers. No one writes missives that break down, in such detail, events that have been shared by both parties. No one. Only in a (bad) movie.

It’s in the past that we meet Chaplin (Talisa Maegyr on “Game of Thrones“), as Ruth, and she is fine enough, if saddled with an unfortunate Austrian accent. She’s supposed to be Ira’s Sophia – art lover to his philistine – though the chemistry between Chaplin and Huston is virtually nonexistent. By the end, the love stories come to their (mostly) happy conclusion (this is Sparks, after all, he of The Notebook fame), and we struggle to remember much of what we’ve seen. Since each parallel story needs to justify its existence, the film drags on far longer than I had patience for, expounding on plot contrivances that merely served to justify the title: this is, indeed, one long ride.

“Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” Offers Visual Gold (but Sometimes Leaden Script)

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014)

This past weekend, I presented the new film from the Zellner BrothersKumiko the Treasure Hunter, at Baltimore’s Cinema Sundays series. I had previously seen it last year at the 2014 Maryland Film Festival (it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2014, and then also played at SXSW). The film has received mostly positive reviews, though I had very mixed feelings about the movie after my initial viewing. Still, I found it visually quite compelling – and liked it a little more after viewing #2 – and think it is a must-see for fans of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 Fargo. It opens today at the Charles Theatre.

For those of you who are fans of Fargo, or of the FX series inspired by it – or both – Kumiko offers an interesting riff on the original story. Based on an urban legend that arose after a Japanese woman was found dead in a frozen field in Minnesota in 2001, the movie tells the tale of young Kumiko, living in Tokyo with her pet rabbit, who becomes convinced that the buried treasure featured in the Coen Brothers’ film actually exists. So she abandons everything and heads to Minnesota in search of that thing dreams are made of, that may only be the stuff of dreams. The movie is rich in atmosphere and features a wonderfully offbeat performance from Rinko Kikuchi (BabelPacific Rim) as Kumiko.

Unfortunately, the film also features a severely depressed central character, and watching her spiral downwards eventually becomes a chore. I loved the initial set-up of her dead-end existence at home. We get just enough sense of former promise – a happy childhood friend she meets, hints of former loves, references to a soured attitude – to make Kumiko’s present existential despair especially poignant. As Kumiko gives into madness and travels to America to track down the fictional treasure, the movie struggles with tone. Is it funny? Is it sad? Is it horrible? The answer is a combination of all three, and while there is nothing wrong with juggling cinematic texture like this, when the ultimate outcome is as melancholy and lonely as it is here, then the laughs, at the end, feel hollow.

Still, there is much to admire in the effort, and I found this film a major step up in production value and performance from the previous film I had seen from the Zellners, Goliath (which also deals with loneliness and despair). One sequence, in particular, still haunts me, and that is when Kumiko – about to depart on her quixotic quest – tries to set her beloved bunny, Bunzo, free. It’s too bad that her relationship with Bunzo is the most meaningful one in the movie, however. Once he’s out of the picture, a little part of me was, too.

Happy Brandoday: Midday on Film Celebrates Marlon on April 3

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast!]

Happy Birthday Marlon

Born in Nebraska in 1924, Marlon Brando revolutionized theater acting in the 1940s, and film acting in the 1950s, as an exemplar of the new American “Method” school championed by the likes of Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, among others. His raw physicality and ability to completely inhabit a character made him the poster child for a new post-World War II order. In many ways, the 1950s were defined by Brando and his star power (a star power with which he was deeply uncomfortable), in such classics as A Streetcar Named Desire (as Stanley Kowalski, the role he had originated on Broadway to great acclaim), Viva Zapata!, Julius CaesarOn the Waterfront (for which he earned his first of two Oscars), and Guys and Dolls. In the 1960s, his box office appeal may have declined, but he never stopped innovating, turning in nuanced and moving performances in One-Eyed Jacks (which he also directed, in his only time behind the camera), Mutiny on the BountyThe Chase and Reflections in a Golden Eye, to name but a few films.

Later, in the 1970s, even as he battle weight issues which would increasingly plague him (and, some might say, overtake him) as the years wore on, he still amazed in movies like Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather (for which he won his second Oscar), and, depending on one’s tastes, also in Apocalypse Now. In the 1980s, he more or less disappeared, though he popped up in the wonderful comedic thriller The Freshman in 1990, spoofing his own iconic turn as Don Corleone. And even though the films he made after that, up until his death in 2004, were hardly of the same quality as his earlier work, his passing signaled the end of a momentous era in American movie history. He is still missed.

Join host Dan Rodricks and Midday film critics Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair and Professor, Department of Film/Video, Stevenson University – on Friday, April 3, at 1pm, as they discuss the life and remarkable career of Marlon Brando, on what would have been his 91st birthday. Which films of his are your favorites? What does Marlon Brando mean to you? Tune in to hear what we have to say, and add your own voice to the conversation by listening live and emailing your comments and questions to midday@wypr.org, or by calling in at 410-662-8780 (locally), or toll-free at 1-866-661-9309. If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the show on-line. If all else fails, you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show!

“Get Hard” Mostly Doesn’t Get It

Get Hard

Get Hard (Etan Cohen, 2015)

So, all right, I chuckled, and once or twice I laughed out loud. In fact, I emerged from the theater feeling as if what I had just seen had surpassed my low expectations. Why low expectations? Well, for starters, there was a certain general critical consensus against the film. And then, on top of that, I am no particular Will Ferrell fan, as I am one of the few people in my circle of friends who did not like Anchorman (though I loved Elf and Stranger Than Fiction, which are admittedly atypical of his usual vulgar output). My recent positive experience with Kevin Hart in The Wedding Ringer led me to hope that he, indeed, might be funny, and what true laughs came my way here were courtesy of him. But over the few days since I saw the film, the jokes have faded, and all that remains is the bitter taste of stale stereotypes mined for lowbrow humor. Helmed, in his feature directorial debut, by screenwriter Etan Cohen (Men in Black 3), the movie is mostly a clumsy attempt to make mirth out of homophobia and racism. While it opens with the promise of a modern take on the 1983 comedic classic Trading Places – which featured some truly biting racial and social satire – Get Hard rapidly devolves into nothing more than a sorry excuse to trot out the stereotypes it purports to subvert.

Ferrell plays James, a corporate hedge-fund guy, who is tried and convicted of financial impropriety and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in San Quentin (the judge decides to make an example of him). Terrified that he’ll die in prison – correction, that he’ll be raped and forced to give blow jobs in prison – James hires Darnell, the only African-American man he knows, to make him “hard” enough to survive jail time. And so the homoerotic jokes begin – “you make me so hard,” etc., along with every other bad pun you can imagine – along with the racial ones. James’s initial mistake with Darnell (who has never been to prison, but is in fact a happily married middle-class small-business owner) opens the door for a serious (or seriously funny) examination of white assumptions about people of color. But then, when every other non-white character – Latino landscapers and maids, African-American gangbangers – conforms to the very assumptions lampooned in the opening, that satirical door is slammed shut. So much for that. And let’s not even get started on the heterosexual fear of gay sex . . . Go if you must, but expect very little.

Sunday, Funday: I Present “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” and “24 Days” at Two Different Venues, Back to Back

Kumiko 24 Days

Howdy! Do you feel like seeing two completely different kinds of films this coming Sunday, March 29, 2015, which share a presenter (me) in common? If so, then head on down to the Charles Theatre in central Baltimore to see the first one, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, 2014), at the Cinema Sundays series, at 10:30am, and then head on up to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore (JCC) in Owings Mills to the see the second one, 24 Days (Alexandre Arcady, 2014), at the Jewish Film Festival, at 3pm.

Kumiko – which I saw last year at the 2014 Maryland Film Festival (it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and then also played at SXSW) – has received mostly positive reviews. I had very mixed feelings about the movie, but found it visually quite compelling, and a must-see for fans of the film Fargo. For those of you who are, indeed, fans of that film, or of the FX series inspired by it – or both – it is a very interesting riff on the original story. The movie, based on an urban legend, tells the tale of young Kumiko, living in Tokyo with her pet rabbit, who becomes convinced that the buried treasure featured in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo actually exists. So she abandons everything and heads to Minnesota in search of that thing dreams are made of, that may only be the stuff of dreams. Made by another pair of brothers – David and Nathan Zellner – the movie is rich in atmosphere and features a wonderfully offbeat performance from Rinko Kikuchi (BabelPacific Rim) as Kumiko.

I haven’t seen 24 Days yet (though I will before Sunday), but the JCC selection committee always chooses great movies.

I hope to see some of you at one of the screenings, if not both!

SXSW 2015 Review #7: Friday, March 20

I am back home in Baltimore after a crazy week of 29 screenings (27 features + 1 episodic series + 1 collection of title sequences)! After 4 days in a row of 4 films a day – Monday through Thursday – I spent my final day at SXSW topping that crazy rhythm by seeing 6 films in a row. It helped that the weather turned nasty. Who wants to walk around in heavy rain and flash floods? For the first time, I stayed up late for one of the midnight screenings, which was a blast. Before we see what that film was about, let’s revisit the first five of the films of the day. As always, you can check out my post about Saturdaymy post about Sundaymy post about Mondaymy post about Tuesday, my post about Wednesday and my post about Thursday to see how I spent the previous six days in Austin.

6 Years

6 Years (Hannah Fidell, 2015)

For anyone who was in a serious relationship in college and saw that relationship disintegrate under the competing pressures of future-life worries and evolving personalities, Hannah Fidell’s 6 Years will present a familiar story. That is both its strength and weakness. The young writer/director of A Teacher has a fine sense of structure, camera placement and performance, and is not afraid of tense and uncomfortable drama. Both Taissa Farmiga (“American Horror Story“) and Ben Rosenfield (A Most Violent Year) invest their characters with life and genuine emotion, making us believe in the comfortable intimacy of their long-term romance. That’s the good. And while there is no bad – all the elements on display are perfectly wrought – for this viewer, the story, itself, is neither groundbreaking nor fresh. By the end of the screening I was, I will admit, a bit bored, despite the rising conflict. Still, the movie has just been picked up by Netflix – more power to the filmmaker (whose directing skills promise great things down the line) and her producers – so clearly some people were less bored than I. It’s all good.

Peace Officer

Peace Officer (Brad Barber/Scott Christopherson, 2015)

As I watched Peace Officer – winner (deservedly) of one of the SXSW Audience Awards – I felt an increasing sense of awe at the grand luck of the filmmakers in meeting William “Dub” Lawrence, the main protagonist of this powerful documentary. A former lawman, Lawrence has made it his life’s mission in recent years to uncover signs of excessive use of force by the police. He’s a classic boy scout, with a sense of right and wrong that excludes the idea that anyone is above the law (as a young policeman, he once wrote himself a parking ticket). The catalyst for his current investigations? His own son-in-law was shot and killed by police in 2008 after a tense standoff; in fact, he was killed by the very S.W.A.T. (“Special Weapons and Tactics”) team that Lawrence had founded back in 1974, in his first term as Sheriff of Davis County, Utah. Today, Lawrence gathers evidence and applies his investigative experience to assist families who have similarly suffered from the rising militarization of our nation’s law enforcement. He is the perfect subject, since he is hardly anti-police, and is extremely thoughtful and measured in his statements: he thinks deeply before he speaks. The directors also include interviews with many police officers who do not share Lawrence’s beliefs, as well as interviews with victims of police brutality, making this more than just a polemical exercise. True, they clearly have a point of view (and what’s wrong with that?), but they try to include differing opinions. A must-see film.

Manson Family Vacation

Manson Family Vacation (J. Davis, 2015)

Like Charlie Manson? Think he had (or has, since he’s still alive, albeit in prison) something to offer the world beyond nihilism? If so, then this might just be the film for you since, intentionally or not, Manson Family Vacation (which was also purchased by Netflix at SXSW) ultimately ends up romanticizing the man, the myth and the legend that is Charles Manson. Ostensibly about two brothers – one a successful lawyer and the biological child of their parents, the other a drifter and an adoptee – spending a day together after time apart, the film, for whatever reason, takes a wild tangent into Manson territory, using the grisly cult leader’s story as a metaphor of familial abuse and isolation. Conrad – our adoptee – has felt angry since the arrival of his baby brother caused his new parents to neglect him; Nick – the biological child – doesn’t get this, and can only react with disgust to his older sibling’s obsession with Manson, the ultimate outcast. Their journey – physical and metaphorical – takes them to some very dark places, and though the film has elements of gentle humor that leaven the proceedings – and two fine performances from Jay Duplass (“Transparent“) as Nick and Linas Phillips (Young Adolescents) as Conrad – we can never get away from the uncomfortable fact that writer/director Davis (editor on Duplass’s documentary Kevin) has made a conscious decision to put a mass murderer at the center of his story. <shiver>

Deep Time

Deep Time (Noah Hutton2015)

If I thought Manson Family Vacation took a wild tangent beyond its initial premise, my next film made it seem brilliantly structured, by comparison. Here is the summary of the film’s subject, taken from the SXSW catalogue: “Ancient oceans teeming with life, Norwegian settlers, Native Americans and multinational oil corporations find intimacy in deep time. Following up his 2009 feature Crude Independence (SXSW), Deep Time is director Noah Hutton’s ethereal portrait of the landowners, state officials, and oil workers at the center of the most prolific oil boom on the planet for the past six years. With a new focus on the relationship of the indigenous peoples of North Dakota to their surging fossil wealth, Deep Time casts the ongoing boom in the context of paleo-cycles, climate change, and the dark ecology of the future.” That sounds pretty amazing, and I went in hoping for a film that combined elements of Koyaanisqatsi and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Instead, I found myself watching a movie without direction. Noah Hutton may think he has made a movie that ties all of the issues listed above together, but what he has done, instead, is make a rambling documentary about the oil boom in Stanley, North Dakota, and tack on a loosely formed coda about climate change. If he wanted to make a movie about humanity’s role in warming our planet, that would have been fine, but the attempt to add global relevance to his story feels, here, like an afterthought. Which is too bad, since the devastating effects of unbridled corporate greed in the world of oil drilling needs to be examined. Unfortunately, Deep Time is not the film to do it.


Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

The first film directed by screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days LaterNever Let Me Go, Dredd), Ex Machina is not nearly as profound as it seems to think it is, but is still (mostly) very watchable and filled with enough strange and unexpected twists to keep the viewer guessing to the end. It can never quite figure out what kind of film it wants to be, however, mixing deep thoughts about artificial intelligence (A.I.) with crazy drunken synchronized dancing (which, I will admit, was extremely fun to watch), and although it has fine cinematographic elements that are reminiscent of the best of Stanley Kubrick (slow tracking shots, some on steadicam), if one ponders the subject matter for more than a minute or two, it all seems very dumb. With a pumped-up Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) as a software billionaire who has been working to create a fully functioning human-like robot, and an ethereal Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as that robot, Ex Machina has much to offer in those two marvelous performances. Unfortunately, it also has Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) – an actor who tends to bore me to tears (with the occasional exception) – in the central role as the young protégé whom Isaac invites to his top-secret hideout to run a Turing Test on Vikander. The idea that anyone would take this kid seriously as either a genius programmer or love interest for a fledgling A.I. is hard to swallow. Still, the movie’s final moments are simultaneously chilling and moving, and appeal to the sci-fi geeks in all of us, so I offer a qualified recommendation.

Turbo Kid

Turbo Kid (François Simard/Anouk Whissell/Yoann-Karl Whissell, 2015)

Wow! Excuse me … gross-out wow! I had never heard of the RKSS Collective, but the buzz from earlier in the week was that Turbo Kid was ridiculous fun, a sort of retro The Road Warrior. So I went, making it my one and only midnight movie of the week. And … the buzz was right on (and the film won a SXSW Audience Award to prove it). A gory good time was had by all.

Set in a parallel-universe post-apocalyptic 1997 (reminding me a bit of last year’s Space Station 76, which I saw at SXSW 2014), the film rocks a 1980s aesthetic, including the design of the fictional comic book, Turbo Rider, that inspires the young main character to dream of a better life. “The Kid” (Munro Chambers of “Degrassi: The Next Generation“), as he is called (though he will soon become … “The Turbo Kid”) survives in a drought-ridden landscape by scavenging abandoned wastelands for artifacts and food from a better time. Soon, his comfortable loneliness is shattered by the friendly advances of a young (and very strange) girl named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf of The Little Queen), as well as by the evil machinations of Zeus (Michael Ironside, hamming it up beautifully). The bulk of the film is about the battle of good vs. evil in a world without hope, and while there’s nothing really new in that story, the real reason to see the film is to revel in its unbridled joy in cheap carnage and mayhem. Bodies are dismembered, guts are disemboweled, heads are severed and much blood is spewed everywhere, all in a way that is more cartoonish than gruesome. It’s disgusting, but that kind of becomes the point. Unlike in Ex Machina, there is no attempt at profundity. The excess is part of the fun. Clearly, the filmmakers are fans of low-budget horror, particularly that of the Silent Night, Deadly Night (not the Santa Claus part, but the obviously fake blood-and-gore part) variety. And if you’re in the mood for a movie that does what it does and never takes itself too seriously, then Turbo Kid is the film for you.

Thank you, SXSW, for a fun week. I look forward to next year!