Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Project 365: Movies 123 - 129

123 / 365: Her (2013)
© Warner Bros.

I must have a budding interest in artificial intelligence movies, since it seems I've been drawn to watching them recently. More likely, though, is that Hollywood is simply drawn to making them. I missed this Oscar-nominated film during its theatrical release, and despite my fascination with the concept, I certainly wasn't scrambling to see it.  Spike Jonze's film is as much about loneliness as it is about love, and it rides a very fine, tragic line. Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is a letter writer in a not-so-distant future where handwritten letters hold a romantic nostalgia, though no one has the skill to actually write any themselves. The overly empathetic and increasingly lonely Theo, however, is the Michelangelo of word-smithing. His divorce papers from wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) are burning a hole in his pocket, but he can't bring himself to sign them.

That is, until he downloads a new operating system called the OS1... the world's first artificially intelligent, conscious OS. In the blink of an eye, tailored to Theo's preferences, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) bursts into existence. Theo's reliance on her as an OS, at first, mirrors what we'd all expect, but as she begins to plow through the wealth of knowledge the internet holds, Samantha grows considerably more complex. As a result, Theo's feelings of attachment grow as well, and love inevitably blossoms.

The role of Theo is a tough one to navigate, but Phoenix does it with just the right amount of pathetic sniveling. That sounds like an insult, but it's not. The transition towards Theo dating Samantha—and the discovery that they're not the only human/OS couples out there—is aided by Phoenix's ability to make us believe he needs someone, anyone, in his life. Johansson does a spectacular job endearing to all of us, her best moments (or maybe the script's?) come from the tragic conversations where she says nothing at all. There is so much revealed in her silence, and likewise, her wonder. The film stalls out about halfway through, the energy getting a bit sluggish as it tries to hint at more of the outside world. A world Samantha is discovering and one Theo is happy to leave alone.

Jonze's touching first-person perspective shots—memories and flashes that are full of emotion—stand out to me. These are not part of the movie; they're reactions to the movie by the characters themselves. This was my favorite detail. It felt private and personal, separate from the immediate story line, but hugely informative. Theo's existing longing for Catherine, Catherine's affection mixed with disappointment for Theo... I wanted more of that, because it gave the film life, light, and energy, something that it sorely lacked overall, despite the plethora of emotions.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: No

124 / 365: Duck Soup (1933)
© Paramount Pictures

This movie was the #60 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: Yes

125 / 365: The Crow (1994)
© Miramax

The Crow's mythology may outweigh its cinematic value, but regardless, behind-the-scenes tales of death and tragedy would follow any film like a dark shadow, whether you want it to or not. The truth behind star Brandon Lee's untimely death during the film's final weeks of shooting mirrors the stuff of legends, so my expectations for the film were as follows: The Crow reached cult levels of adoration for that very reason—and that reason only.

But I was wrong. The film's Gothic artistic direction and decaying urban setting might be heavy-handed, but it's gorgeously realized and shot. The fact that it's less glossy and "matte painted" makes it more authentic and gritty then similarly styled movies. Based on the comic series by James O'Barr, the film's plot reads like Ghost had a baby with Pet Sematary, and we all get to enjoy a revenge film disguised as a dark fantasy. Eric Draven (Lee) is brutally murdered when he tries to stop home invaders from attacking his girlfriend. Both of them now dead, the power of a magical crow (it's suggested) rises Draven from the grave for one reason only: to avenge his death by bringing down the crime syndicate responsible.

It's human, it's over-the-top, and there are a bevy of side characters that flesh the movie out when it needs a bit more heart amidst all that falling rain. Nothing beats watching a Gothic avenger take out the bad guys one by one, though, and nobody makes a better villain target than Michael Wincott. I wish the martial arts component was a bit more pronounced, but at the same time, it's not a martial arts flick. It's a 90's classic for obvious reasons, I certainly think this is a must-see, even just to say you have. Who knows? You might get pulled into the film's mythical following, as well.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

126 / 365: Ex Machina (2015)
© A24

BEWARE SEXY ROBOTS!, the film's advertisements warn. Many might be surprised to learn that one of the year's most compelling dramas is in fact a science fiction thriller about said "sexy robots," but nevertheless, here it is. While it is certainly not flawless, Ex Machina lets its ideas about humanity and intelligence take precedence over flashy visual effects that would otherwise be meant to distract us from the fact that movies in a similar vein rarely present new or interesting ideas at all. Unlike Her, reviewed earlier in this post, writer/director Alex Garland takes the sexualized artificial intelligence and gives it a physical form. What could be so dangerous about that?

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a lowly engineer at a technology mega-corp, is selected in an Island-esque lottery to spend a week at the secluded home of the company's genius CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Immediately, it becomes clear that Caleb is there for more than just fun and games. Nathan has been developing a new project, in secret, and needs an intelligent but impartial participant to determine whether he and his new discovery are on the right track. That discovery? A dynamic, artificial intelligence named Ava (played in delicate fashion by Alicia Vikander). Caleb, naturally, is curious—and more than a bit reckless in exploring it—and his naivete is on full display as Nathan explains his only role is to engage with Ava, the human component of a Turing Test. Can Ava pass for human, even if the questioner already knows that she's not? Wouldn't that, in and of itself, be the most uncompromising evidence of true A.I? As it turns out, of course, everything is not as it appears between Nathan and Ava, and Caleb must decide whether he will remain an impartial observer, or intervene on Ava's behalf.

Garland makes his directorial debut here, and while his writing style remains remarkably consistent, he doesn't make any major waves on the direction front. This style is unassuming and calm, with presentation and aesthetics at the forefront, but overall allowing it to take a backseat to his own script. That script, like many of Garland's before it (his debut 28 Days Later... and one of my all time favorites, Sunshine, come to mind), excels at building intrigue and suspense, but falters a bit in the delivery of a well executed and cathartic climax. Everything may come together seamlessly, but it never peaks beyond its second act reveals. It is midway through the movie that everything feels the most taut, the most compelling... and regardless of what some may consider a shocking ending, it just doesn't hold enough gravitas for me considering the build-up.

Gleeson splits his screen time between Isaac and Vikander, the latter two rarely sharing a scene. Calab as a character is sympathetic and self-righteous, a dangerous combination that may or may not have been the reason for his invitation to Nathan's secret lair. Despite the energy plateaus, it's hard not to enjoy the theoretical and scientific conversations between the three characters, hefty though they might be. Garland doesn't appear to be in a rush to reveal anything to the audience, just as Caleb doesn't lament his slow and methodical Q&A with Ava—rather, everyone seems to enjoy shooting the shit, debating ideas, and engaging in some obviously risky snooping. The ideas are just thought-provoking enough to make up for Garland's need to wrap the movie up in a nice, little bow. He is a science fiction visionary for that very reason.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

127 / 365: First Position (2012)
© Sundance Selects

This film has many similarities to the like-minded documentary Spellbound from 2009 about a group of young kids preparing for an equally stressful and life-consuming competition (in Spellbound's case, the National Spelling Bee). This time around, we follow six young ballet dancers training for the Youth Ballet Competition--an international gathering of the best dancers battling for scholarships, awards, and recognition from the world's most reputable Dance Academies.

There's 12-year-old Aran Bell and his sweet little counterpart, Israeli dancer, Gaya Bommer Yemini. Pristine ballerina, Rebecca Houseknecht. Determined acrobat and bendable Gumbi doll, Miko Fogarty, and her less than enthusiastic brother, Jules. Add in the unconventionally stunning, Michaela Deprince, and international hopeful, Joan Sebastian Zamora, and you've got yourself a competition! The individuals rarely cross paths, if at all, unless they're introduced together, so it becomes increasingly clear how isolated these dancers are. The competition really separates them from each other, and it adds a suffocating intensity.

The most interesting approach the documentary takes, between training sequences, travel, preparation... it breaks from that main story line to talk about the sacrificial cost, both financially and physically. I could watch these dancers pushing their bodies to the limit all day every day, cringing the entire time. Utterly fascinating. It's astounding how much it costs to pursue the dream of being a ballet dancer, so pairing that with the absolute destruction of the body and strain on the mind, it is nothing short of a labor of love. A simple documentary, ambitious in scope, but in true "sports movie" fashion, it really delivers on that final game promise.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

128 / 365: The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
© Universal Pictures

Watching things out of order a bit, I'm realizing. Is it strange that I don't have a strong opinion of this film, one way or another? Jurassic Park (which I'll be reviewing next month) is a masterpiece of cinema, and the camp of the 3rd film has more than enough moments to deride and delight in. But The Lost World... I find I land right in the middle. It's not bad. But it's not good. And more often than not, it's kind of boring. All the pieces are there to give it that breathe of life--unrestrained dinosaurs, poachers, science, and of course, The Goldblum—but those pieces never fall into place. They're all just mixed up and shaken out, dropped randomly through the story with the hopes that it'll entice the audience into gasps of fear and delight.

This time around, we find ourselves on a very different prehistoric-infested island. Jurassic Park's research facility, located on what is called "Site B", was left in shambles after the disastrous events of the original film. The dinosaurs bred for research on the island were released and allowed to overrun the island, under the stipulation that no human ever set foot on it. That is until someone does. Park mastermind and kooky old man, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) enlists Jeff Goldblum Dr. Ian Malcolm to head a research team to meet up with Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), an biologist studying how the dinosaurs adapted to being unattended, who also happens to be Malcolm's girlfriend. It doesn't take long, of course, for peace and tranquility to be disrupted when a group of poachers descends on the island to collect specimens for a new attraction on the mainland.

What happens next is a cross between King Kong and Six Days, Seven Nights, and it all becomes a bit tedious. The action sequences are impressive until you realize you've seen them all before. Trapped in a car surrounded by T-Rex? Check. Mad rush to turn on the power at a location infested with Raptors? You guessed it. The only sequence that feels fresh and new in the Jurassic Park canon is the T-Rex rampaging through downtown San Diego... but even that is recycled goods in the grand scheme of cinema. That being said, we do get to enjoy Vince Vaughn and a baby T-Rex, so it's not all for nothing. I'm looking forward to Jurassic World having the awe-factor of the first film and the camp of the third... leaving the middle-of-the-road features of this one alone.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: DVD
Seen Before: Yes

© London Film Productions

Another Best Picture Oscar nominee, one of the earliest biopics to be up for the Academy's top honor. The film begins on the day of Anne Boleyn's execution. A very unsentimental, almost lighthearted recount of this tragic moment. The women and servants at the castle hustling and bustling about, gossiping about King Henry VIII's affairs and Anne's fate. There's a fittingly ironic moment of a maid commenting about Anne's unfortunate beheading, when the King (Charles Laughton) approaches and asks her name. "Catherine Howard," she replies. Devilishly pointed, indeed.

The title tells you everything you need to know about this movie: it is about Henry VIII's private life, and nothing else. It never delves into the politics, the tumultuous religious fervor at the time, nor does it even hint at the future of his equally famous children. What makes it unique—it is, I think, that only film I've seen to do this—is that it skips over his most famous marriage to Anne Boleyn entirely, focusing instead on his 3rd-6th marriages, which I knew significantly less about. It also doesn't waste any time jumping from wife to wife, which actually makes the film more enjoyable. It never drags, and it tries desperately to find the humor in it all. Thankfully, it succeeds.

I couldn't help but cringe though, as the film ends on a punchline, spoken by Henry: "Six wives... and the best one's the worst," referring to Catherine Parr, his final wife. Hardy-har-har. An all-too-modern, anti-feminist view that uglier, bossy, meaner women make the best wives, since they act more like mothers. Ugh, movie, why? I was really with it up until that moment. But I can forgive it, because it was 1933 and Charles Laughton is such an undeniably entertaining talent. A fun, albeit shallow, royal romp.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: TV / Turner Classic Movies
Seen Before: No

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