“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.