Mike Saulters's blog
Screenwriter Alex Garland is responsible for a number of highly regarded science-fiction screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. With Ex Machina, which opened Friday, Garland for the first time adds directing on top of his writing credits. Ex Machina has taken the film festival circuit by storm and received accolades as a Drafthouse Recommends title. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel this movie is overrated.
Ex Machina is a richly beautiful, smart, thought-provoking work of science fiction that unfortunately suffers from a viciously sexist underlying theme. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a charismatic cyber genius who at the age of 13, wrote the software that would eventually become Google. He invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee chosen by lottery, to spend a week at his remote estate for a kind of sick Willy Wonka-esque robot nightmare tour.
Nathan explains to Caleb that he has been brought to spend the week playing the human role in the Turing Test, a standard of artificial intelligence research in which a human and an AI interact. The AI passes the test if the human can't tell he's talking to a computer. Of course, it should be obvious already that by telling Caleb he's going to speak to an AI that Nathan has blown the parameters of the test.
But Nathan's plan is darker and unclear. He spends his mornings working out and his evenings passing out drunk with very little time in between for any real scientific research, and during ominous power outages Ava (Alicia Vikander) tells Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted. Tensions mount as Caleb is so convinced by Ava that he begins to doubt his own humanity.
So why do I call it sexist? Aside from gratuitous nudity and the fratboy lifestyle Nathan leads, the premise of this film is two men sitting in judgement of an innocent woman, deciding her fate. She lives her very brief life on a leash, completely under the control of Nathan, subject to his whims and frustrations. Caleb falls head-over-heels in love with her in the blink of an eye, and then she is presented as a manipulative stereotype, using her sexual appeal to influence him.
I Dream Too Much, which premiered at SXSW last month, brought former Austinite Katie Cokinos back to town on the festival circuit. Written and directed by Cokinos and starring Eden Brolin, Diane Ladd and Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black), I Dream Too Much is a coming-of-age film and a second-coming-of-age film all in one.
The story focuses on Dora (Brolin), a perky undergraduate with a poetic bent who dreams of joining her best friend on summer vacation in Brazil. Her overbearing mother has other ideas, as she wants Dora to pursue a career in law. Her assignment, then, is to spend the summer preparing to take the LSAT.
In order to satisfy her urge to travel and with the justification that it's a quiet place where she can study, Dora volunteers to care for her ailing aunt Vera (Ladd), a wealthy socialite best known as the wife of an acclaimed novelist. The trip will prove more interesting than Dora expected, and both she and Vera will find in each other inspiration and direction.
This is Cokinos' first filmmaking credit, and she has put together a charming movie that benefits most from likable, believable characters. Some of the dialogue felt awkward, particularly in early scenes between Dora and her mother (Christina Rouner). That all disappears the moment a venerable talent like Diane Ladd comes onscreen. Suffice to say she steals the show as the childless matriarch recluse who hosts a poetry club in her home (but never attends). Her poise and presence are perfect for the character, and you can see Brolin make use of her example to elevate her own performance.
I'm a lifelong non-smoker, and marijuana holds no interest for me, so Mitch Dickman's documentary Rolling Papers would be one of the least likely SXSW screenings to find me in its audience. However, I make a point every year to join friends for at least one or two screenings that I would never have selected myself. It's a great (non-chemical) way to expand the mind, you know? These excursions outside my comfort zone frequently pay off, and the fact you can walk into almost any film at this festival and enjoy yourself is a testament to the SXSW programming staff.
Rolling Papers can be considered as nothing but a complete success. The film is informative, focused and entertaining, generating interest in me for a topic I find generally unappealing. Dickman chose, wisely, to make his film not about recreational marijuana, its legalization in Colorado, or politics -- all tired subjects which have been covered extensively. Instead, his camera is witness to the birth of a ground shift in news coverage.
As newspapers around the country are in the process of closing their doors, the Denver Post takes a chance and assigns entertainment editor Ricardo Baca to create a new section, from the ground up, covering all things pot-related. In short order The Cannabist, as the online section is so cleverly named, is generating publicity, increasing subscriptions and raising eyebrows.
In addition to Baca, Dickman interviews Post editor Greg Moore and Cannabist staff writers including columnist John Wenzel, Jake Browne (reviews) and Brittany Driver (parenting). He also turns a lens on reviewer and photographer Ry Prichard who has distinguished himself as "the biggest weed nerd in town" according to Rolling Stone magazine, and accompanies Prichard to the "Cannabis Cup."
It would be easy to dismiss a marijuana-focused publication as frivolous or fringe, but Rolling Papers documents how Baca has built a serious, high-quality e-zine that even caught the attention of Whoopi Goldberg, who has contributed articles to the site. With contributors covering news, product reviews, recipes, culture and opinion, I find The Cannabist is a respectable publication that serves exactly the mission a news organization is meant to do, namely informing and enlightening its audience. I owe that finding to Mitch Dickman's excellent and entertaining movie.
This is turning out to be a very different year for SXSW, as though last year's tragedy marked a turning point where the city and the SXSW staff realized that things had gotten out of hand with too much going on at once with too little control. The result has been in my own observation that downtown seemed practically dead when I arrived Friday to pick up my badge. Strictly limited permitting for outside events and venues in addition to much of the interactive events being relocated away from the convention center have thinned the crowd to manageable levels, though we will see if that persists as the music portion of the fest kicks into gear.
Movies I've seen:
This documentary by brothers Bill and Turner Ross (who premiered Tchoupitoulas at SXSW 2012) covers 13 months in the border city of Eagle Pass during Chad Foster's last term as mayor. Foster gained recognition as an outspoken opponent of the border fence idea.
Much of the film focuses on the lives of ranchers and cattle traders who purchase cattle on the Mexican side of the border and transport them for sale in the US. Eagle Pass is presented as an idyllic locale where the Mexican and American cultures are so intermingled as to be indistinct. Foster, for instance, in his speeches switches between perfectly-accented Spanish and a completely authentic Texan drawl English mid-sentence. As outside political forces close the border and begin to erect walls that threaten their livelihood, the citizens of Eagle Pass struggle to understand the paranoia over drug cartel violence until it reaches their doorstep.
SXSW Film makes international news with A-list stars and big premieres, but some of the best films come in small packages. Eighty-seven short film titles have been announced -- not counting the music videos -- for this year's fest. Here is just a taste of some of the spectacular shorts from the program.
Animated Shorts (screening info)
All Your Favorite Shows!
This is a stunning and seamless blend of animation, live action and millisecond clips and audio from scores of recognizable hit films that looks like it must have taken decades of work to put together. Not just an amazing visual piece, it includes sound design and storytelling of equal quality. This packs more action into 5 minutes than most features manage in 2 hours.
With a tasty treat that reminds us film folk the root of SXSW has always been music, Julian Petschek takes "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" to the heights of its full hip-hop potential. Flashy and funny, this music video sets a catchy beat against vocals and lyrics by Katrina Recto AKA Kat Knoc, Jacob Gibson AKA C.U.B. and DJ Petroleum Jelly.
Documentary Shorts 1 (screening info)
ESPN isn't only just football, basketball, and baseball. This documentary directed by Gabe Spitzer tells the amazing story -- in her own words -- of Joy Johnson, who began running marathons after retirement and ran the New York marathon 25 times. An inspirational, beautiful and lasting legacy.
The phrase "Hot Tub Time Machine" was such an insane concept I couldn't wait to see the 2010 release. (Debbie's review) Sure, it was a fratboy movie, but it was fresh and edgy at a time when the nation was just learning to laugh again a decade after 9/11, and I loved it. Five years was a long time to wait with such anticipation for this sequel.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a wet hot mess, with bad jokes as frequent as jacuzzi bubbles, and good jokes popping like farts in a tub. It has the same writer (Josh Heald), the same director (Steve Pink) and largely the same cast (John Cusack is replaced by Adam Scott), but it failed to capture the same magic for me. I can't say I hated it, but somehow it felt ... different, like I was watching an elaborately extended Super Bowl commercial.
The original movie was tight, with a relatively narrow scope, but this one felt like Seth MacFarlane had an advising role on set. The characters are not just juvenile and drug-addled. They are absolutely moronic. In particular, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 suffers from too much Rob Corddry, way too much, physically speaking. I don't know if the man deserves recognition for being willing to go so far for a laugh or instead pity for being the guy who will go that far.
The story concerns the fate of the original characters, now returned to a weirdly altered timeline in which they have lived out their lives with future knowledge becoming rich and famous by pre-plagiarizing hit songs and founding their own version of Google. When Lou (Corddry) is shot by an unknown assailant, the group of friends must use the hot tub to again travel back to the past to fix the future. Hmmm.
There really are a number of good gags, and Adam Scott has great chemistry with Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Corddry, better chemistry in fact than Cusack. Chevy Chase is a bright spot for the moment he's there. His appearance feels as if much more of it was left on the cutting-room floor. (Between Chase, Scott, Corddry and Gillian Jacobs, this was practically a Community/Parks & Recreation crossover.) The real heroes of this film are the digital artists, costumers and set designers who designed and executed a really insane version of the present and a far-out version of the near future.
2014 had a lot of great movie releases, as you'll see in our Slackerwood Top Ten later this week. Picking out favorites was easy. Limiting them to just ten choices was much tougher.
However, there's no question the following titles were big losers for the year, and I'll tell you why these are my picks.
10. Edge of Tomorrow
This Tom Cruise-starring adaptation of the Japanese manga All You Need is Kill was one of the critically best films of the year and thus its place at number 10. Unfortunately, due to uncertainty over marketing, the opening weekend box office take was just under $30 million for this $178 million blockbuster. As of September, it had barely grossed $100 million. It failed again with the home video release which had "Live Die Repeat" splashed across the cover causing confusion among people who had seen the marketing for the edgier title. (my review)
Do you science? You'd be a lot cooler if you did. This movie is a controversial pick with many people on the "loved it" side of the debate. Still, Interstellar was saddled with very high expectations that many felt it failed to meet. Notes circulated on some of the original script ideas that had many wanting something more than they got. Much as I enjoyed it, the final act abandoned hard science in favor of fantasy, and the sound problems reported from across the country were a distraction. (Marcie's review)
Another one of my dud entries that was actually a pretty good film. This year, and with this remake, "pretty good" wasn't good enough. Gareth Edwards' heart was in it, but he took too long to build up the action to the point where the audience really felt he should have started. The most common complaint was that the title character doesn't show up for the first 40 minutes of the two-hour movie. My biggest complaint was under-use of Bryan Cranston (and over-use of Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This only has a 6.6 rating on IMDb. (my review)
Filmmaker Matthew Vaughn's already well-established catalog (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) gains a new entry this week with the release of his comedy spy adventure and arguably best film to date, Kingsman: The Secret Service. This James Bond meets Attack the Block romp was scripted by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, and is based on the comic The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.
Taron Egerton stars as Eggsy, a study in wasted potential due to bad influences and an unsteady home environment who's recruited to a secret organization of upper-crust spies by Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth). Only one recruit can complete the training, and Eggsy is at a disadvantage competing with his well-heeled rivals. This theme of class warfare is reflected in the larger story as quirky internet billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) carries out an evil world-wide plot that the Kingsmen must foil.
Let's talk about Jackson for a minute. He is prolific, to say the least, and diverse, but his character Valentine is something entirely, hilariously different, with a comical lisp and vague OCD tendencies. The character is something of a clothes horse, always sporting stylish threads but wearing the same leather baseball hat in different colors to match his outfit. Valentine is an obsessive movie buff and as much a product of pop culture as a shaper of it. He rationalizes his twisted views with grade-school logic, and he's at once the most unique and memorable character Jackson has ever brought to life.
Jackson isn't the only character playing against type. Mark Strong, usually at home as the villain, appears here as Merlin, the technical expert. Firth, however, is as usual the perfect, polished English gentleman. The picture of refinement and class, he explains to Eggsy the origins of the Kingsmen among the elite tailors of London and the virtues of manners and a bespoke suit.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is exactly what you have come to expect from Vaughn. He cleverly riffs on spy films with satire, not spoof, delivering a continuous stream of laughter on top of an action story you can really sink your teeth into. I loved little throwaway lines like the mention of a shoe phone that call back to other spy properties, and spectacular fight choreography and effects lead to an explosive climax that is more over-the-top than anything Vaughn has done in his career.
Lana and Andy Wachowski are two of my favorite current filmmakers. The Matrix rocked my worldview, and Cloud Atlas expanded my worldview, claiming a place as my very favorite movie. We've come to expect the very best from them, but not every movie can rock your world. Sometimes we have to settle for just "really damned good."
Jupiter Ascending encompasses the Wachowskis' grand visions of galactic empire within the confines of a relatively small action-adventure story. Their aesthetic, with a dreamlike quality, seems to draw on influences from every big science-fiction film of the past but mixes them together in new and original combinations. Immediately after it screened for press, Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of complaints from critics calling the movie a mess. It may not be for everyone. It misses a few beats, but it gets more right than it does wrong. If you're on the same wavelength as the Wachowskis, you should enjoy Jupiter Ascending as much as I did.
The story follows a Russian immigrant girl, named Jupiter because of her astronomer father's obsession with the planet, as she is attacked and aided by competing alien forces due to an accident of her birth. Her DNA is a perfect match for the eons-dead queen of a galactic empire, and the queen's heirs, her three children, each approach Jupiter in attempts to woo or threaten her and gain control of her now vast resources.
Mila Kunis is perfect for the role of Jupiter, with her combination of dark gorgeous looks and childlike innocence. In their interview with Hitfix's Drew McWeeny, the Wachowskis discuss their goal to make her a particularly feminine heroine rather than a female character who acts like a male hero. This is one goal I feel they failed to achieve, as time and again they place Jupiter in the position of damsel in distress so she can be rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum). This happens with such frequency that he becomes the hero of the story.
As someone whose alter-ego has a career in IT, I approach a film about hackers with lowered expectations. I don't want to dislike it, but I certainly have a heightened expectation that I will dislike it due to glaringly inaccurate portrayals of people doing things that to a trained eye are utterly ridiculous. What I never expected was that Blackhat would maintain an above-average level of accuracy in its portrayal and that my problems would mostly be the more mundane complaints a critic might have for any film that is just not very good.
My largest complaint is a technical problem that has little enough to do with computers. The film is, even to a lay person, unfinished. A subpar audio mix makes dialogue at times difficult to understand. Poor or incomplete color correction results in inconsistency in the picture, which in the final action scenes looks exactly as if we're watching at home on a television with a 120fps frame rate enabled. This was the first movie that director Michael Mann shot completely without film, but his first digital outing is no excuse for failure to remove the "stock footage" watermark from a shot in the first five minutes of the film.
Reflecting on the experience, it seems as though Mann must have been in a tug-of-war with writer Morgan Davis Foehl, as he takes a methodical, largely boring script with uninteresting paper-cutout characters and tries to pull from late 80s and early 90s influences to liven it up. The camera zooms past a technician onto a keyboard and then inside a computer to a circuit board and then still deeper to a microscopic level where we see pulses of energy travelling through individual transistors in a chip. I could have almost thought for a moment I was watching Lawnmower Man or Electric Dreams.
"Blackhat" is a term applied to computer hackers who use their skills for good instead of nefarious purposes, staying on the right side of the law, a fact not mentioned in the film. The fact is also not precisely applicable to star Chris Hemsworth's character Nicholas Hathaway, a felon convicted for hacks that cause millions of dollars in damages to several banks. Actually, Hathaway, with skills that supposedly make him the only man capable of helping the FBI (in the form of Viola Davis) track down the bad guys, doesn't really do much in Blackhat that even qualifies as hacking. His biggest feat is tricking a director of security at the NSA into clicking an email attachment that wouldn't fool my mother.