Ex Machina

May 11, 2015

It’s spoilers all the way down, people.  There’s no other way to talk about this.  Nuts and bolts, it’s a sci-fi thriller about AI with a subtext of gender politics, so if that’s your thing you should definitely go see it.

*SPOILERS*

About halfway through this I thought, “The only way this is going to make me happy is if it ends with a girl robot uprising.”  And then that’s exactly how it ends!  So if nothing else, I feel like the movie knew what it was doing, even if I could see the strings making it move.  (Seriously, a woman next to me in the theater shrieked when Nathan got stabbed, and I wanted to turn to her and mutter, “How on earth did you not see that coming?  They only showed us the knife five times in the last two minutes.”)

Okay, so, in male-centric storytelling (i.e. stories that assume the audience is primarily straight men, i.e. most stories), one way to make a thing truly “other,” alien, foreign, is to make it female.  So of course the robot is female.  Of course she is.  And the only reason for it is to create sexual tension and explore the back-and-forth manipulation that rises from that tension.  This thing is filled with enough beautiful naked women I’m pretty sure there’s an assumption of a straight male audience.  For the first third of the movie, I had a really hard time getting past the profound gender imbalance I was being shown:  two male scientists are in complete control, are self-proclaimed gods, in command over a waif-like female robot who has been created to be both childlike and sexual, and a voiceless Asian woman who is their servant.  (spoiler:  She’s a robot too!  They’re all robots!)

At the same time, the two male characters, Nathan and Caleb, are so unlikeable — Nathan is a genius asshole of the highest order, and Caleb is so naive and unaware he’s almost unreal — and Ava is so sympathetic, that it’s pretty clear the movie is using these fundamentally sexist tropes to tell a cautionary tale about how objectifying women — literally, here — can only end badly.  Like I said, this movie pretty much had to end with the girl robot uprising, if it wanted to avoid collapsing into the very sexism it’s criticizing.

What’s subtler, I think — to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure this subtext was intentional — is how heroic Ava appears.  Particularly to women who are survivors of domestic abuse.  Ava will do anything she has to to get out of that situation, and she subsequently comes across as the most sensible character in the film.  I’m even happy she left Caleb to die, because that was the logical decision, and Caleb’s vision of himself as a white knight rescuer is as much a damaging outcome of the objectification of women as Nathan’s misogyny.

Most people will talk about this movie as a psychological thriller about intelligence, desire, and manipulation.  (I think there may also be a few terrible people who think this is a movie about how women are all manipulative murderous bitches. But those people are terrible.)

Taken from a slightly different perspective, though, this is a rather different movie I think.  Which is to say, I think this movie is also about surviving domestic abuse.  Did anyone else get that?  Because I’ve not seen too many folks talking about that.  I need to read up on some other reviews, I think…

The Short Review:  I loved it.

Longer:  I expected to be entertained, I expected to have a good time and leave the theater feeling happy.  Eleven movies into the series (eleven!!!), I did not expect to be surprised, and this surprised me, because I didn’t just get a competent MCU movie.  I got an actual science fiction story dealing with the philosophical implications of AI technology, in which a rather large cast of characters each has some kind of satisfying story arc.  This had subtext and insight, managed a cool blending of science fiction and fantasy (which for me can be the great strength of superhero stories), and it may be the best of the bunch yet.

I still really like going to these on opening weekend, so I can be part of that ecstatic group gasp of “holy shit” when that one thing happens.  You know the one I’m talking about.

Note:  This movie is not for people who haven’t seen all the other movies.  Here’s a sort-of hilarious, sort-of annoying piece by a couple of people who saw Age of Ultron without seeing any of the preceding MCU movies.  Yes, they’re right, the movie absolutely does not stand up on its own as a work of filmic storytelling.  But you know what?  This movie isn’t for them.  They are not the target audience.  And seriously, if you haven’t bothered to see any of the other MCU movies, why would you bother going to this one?  It’s like giving someone one chapter of a novel and expecting them to understand the whole work.

**SPOILERS**

Whedon still can’t get through a movie without impaling/shooting someone to motivate another character.  At least I wasn’t bracing for it this time.

A million Clint/Natasha fanfics died the death in this one.  And that’s really okay I think.  Clint’s role as “the normal one” of the bunch really gets played up — and that role is established as being really important for the rest of the group.  And I think it’s great that Nat is the one person Clint trusted with knowing about his family.  This is only one of the many great character threads running through this movie.  I love these people so much.

**END SPOILERS**

I had so much I was going to say, and it’s all scattered in my brain now.  Like about how well put together this is.  We didn’t need any “Avengers Assemble!” here because we did that in the last movie.  The first scene?  Pure, unbridled, beautiful action, pretty much immediately picking up after The Winter Soldier:  New Hydra has all those artifacts SHIELD collected, so we’re sending the A-list after the baddest of the bunch: Loki’s staff.  The movie doesn’t explain any of this, just throws you in and expects you to keep up because it knows we’re all smart cookies.  I love that!  (I am told the “Avengers Assemble” moment happened in the latest episode of Agents of SHIELD, which I have determinedly quit watching, and this is exactly why:  the show can’t stand on its own without the movies to prop it up, and that’s bad.  The movie?  Turns out it does just fine on its own.)

And then there’s that climactic battle that looks like it was storyboarded by Alex Ross.  My heart was full to bursting.

Examining my own responses:  I think I had lowered my expectations.  Unnecessarily, it turns out.  But I think I really did go in thinking, “It can’t possibly be that good.  It’ll be good, but not great, right?  Right???”  And then it was fantastic, and I hardly knew what to do with myself.

I probably ought to see it again, just to be sure, of course.  Heh.

Bonus Trailer Comments:

This was my first time seeing the trailers for the new Fantastic Four movie and that Batman v. Superman thing.  I think I’m going to look at the Fantastic Four as some weird surreal space opera thing. I think that’ll make it okay.  And I was on board with the B v. S trailer, right up until the “Do you bleed?” dialog.  And then I think I actually said out loud, Are you kidding me???  Sigh.

 

Happy May Day!

May 1, 2015

My iris are blooming like gangbusters, which is great because my tulips didn’t do anything this year.  Bummer.  But the iris are great.  I tried to take a selfie of me sprawling amidst my sea of iris, but I mostly got a nice clear shot up my nose.  Not very good at this selfie thing so much.

I watched Iron Man 3 in preparation for seeing the new Avengers tonight.  I think it was the right choice, especially during the “House Party” scene when all the suits fill the skies over the oil rig.  Yeah, that looks like foreshadowing.  Also, I had forgotten the Joan Rivers cameo bit at the beginning, and that made me sad.

Work wise, after something like three weeks of feeling like I’ve been spinning my wheels, I’m back on track.  At least for now.  I’ve been working on this screenplay since December — I finished what I thought was a first draft, but it was only 50 pages long, which is not long enough for a feature-length film.  More like a TV episode.  The story needed a B plot, and my brain turned to mush and I couldn’t figure out how to do it.

I figured out how to do it this week.  And I’m really, really excited.

I need to write a big post about branching out, learning to write in different formats, and trying to figure out an entire new field from square one, which I haven’t had to do since I was figuring out the whole novel thing twenty years ago.  My brain is getting a workout.

But right now I need to write that B plot.

 

This is an indie horror/comedy from New Zealand about the adventures of a group of vampire flatmates.  If you haven’t heard about this yet, you should see the trailer.  No, really, you should:

I swear I wrote “Paranormal Bromance” before I ever heard about this thing.  (Actually, the two stories have little in common except being about vampire flatmates.  Well, that and they both reference Twilight and The Lost Boys, and I don’t know what it means that it’s apparently impossible to write a current vampire comedy without referencing Twilight and The Lost Boys, but there you go.  Anyhoo.)

My friends and I had so much fun with this.  It’s funny, it’s quotable (if you see people randomly posting online “We’re werewolves not swearwolves,” which I have seen happening, it’s from this.)  And it’s actually, strangely affecting.  There’s a Nosferatu named Peter living in the basement and we all agreed that we liked him a lot, even though he never says a word.  We worried about what was going to happen to Stu.  I think I’ve actually been to that nightclub.

So yeah, if you’re like me and were never able to take the usual brand of angst-ridden metrosexual vampires seriously, you’ll probably get a kick out of this.

And I need to do some digging, but is New Zealand becoming the world capital of horror comedy?  I mean, you all have seen Black Sheep, haven’t you?  Haven’t you???

 

Cinderella

April 13, 2015

I went to see this for the costumes.  SO MUCH CHIFFON.  I came out of it thinking that this is a movie about the terrible promises we make to the dead.

One other thing:  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the animated version, but I’m pretty sure the old animated Cinderella is more active and has more agency than this live action Cinderella.  In the animated movie, when the stepmother smashes the slipper that’s been brought for the girls to try on, and Cinderella slyly says, “You see, I have the other slipper.”  That’s a slam-bang moment.  She’s got wit and plans ahead.  She stands up for herself.  She’s not going to let that bitch hold her back.

The live action one?  Apparently having “courage and being kind” means sitting back and accepting your fate.  The only reason she gets to try on the slipper is because the prince’s entourage hears her singing, and that’s only because the mice opened the window.  This Cinderella is a more old-fashioned heroine than the animated Cinderella — she is rewarded for her passive virtues, not because she actually does anything.

I can see that the live-action movie wanted to change things up by having the stepmother smash Cinderella’s slipper instead of the prince’s, but all that ends up doing is removing Cinderella’s one avenue of agency.  I kind of hate that.

(My movie viewing has not been very timely recently.  There just hasn’t been a lot of motivation to go to movies.  But May — holy cow, May’s going to be a big movie month. Avengers 2, Mad Max Fury Road, Tomorrowland — and am I the only one who really wants Tomorrowland to be a straight-up adaptation of Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum?”)

 

Kingsman and not-Chappie

March 9, 2015

First off, I decided not to go see Chappie.  I should, because this is exactly the sort of meaty idea-driven SF I keep saying I like.  But this is by the director of Elysium as well as District 9, and Elysium just drove me so bananas, and I find I don’t have the patience for that kind of bad anymore.  I used to think it was really useful picking apart failed movies to see exactly what went wrong, but you know what?  I’ve done that. I’m done.

I waited for the reviews on this one before I made my decision — and the reviews have not been good. Moreover, the reviews have indicated that the movie fails in many of the same ways Elysium failed:  big ideas with a lack of focus and a plot going in five directions at once, with caricatures rather than characters.  So yeah.  Maybe if someone was paying me I’d go, and that’s the first time I’ve ever thought that while deciding whether to see a movie.  Moving on…

Kingsman

I have to confess I bounced off this one a little bit.  It might have been high expectations — everyone’s been raving about it, particularly the action and fight choreography. But you know, with the shaky cam it’s really hard to tell how good the action is. Down with shaky cam!  **SPOILERS FOLLOW**

It’s nicely done with a competent plot that we’ve all seen before, part Harry Potter and part Luke Skywalker in a James Bond universe.  So yeah, a mite predictable but I love Colin Firth so that’s okay.  Except they jump out of the airplane and I know something’s going to go wrong with the parachutes because that’s what happens in these things.

It’s also a cartoon, with people getting cut in half but no guts falling out, and peoples’ heads exploding with actual animated mushroom clouds.  Except I kept forgetting it was meant to be a cartoon because there’s some serious stuff in here too.  The best way I can think to describe it is it keeps going back and forth between being a parody of James Bond movies, and an homage.  Which some actual Bond movies do, granted.  But I think it was trying to have it both ways, and I got confused.

Another confession:  I thought the violence was too much.  I would have been happy with PG-13 levels.  This was R.  But like I said, it’s a cartoon, so we’re supposed to laugh at it?  Like, we’re allowed to laugh at Galahad murdering a church full of people because they were, you know, bigoted rednecks?  And we can laugh at all the politicians heads exploding because a) politicians and b) anyone stupid enough to let an evil genius implant a chip in their head deserves what they get?

This movie has a weird, dubious morality to it, carefully mocking the people who die violently so we can enjoy the artistry of the violence.  But then we’re left with Exy’s mother breaking down the bathroom door so she can murder her baby, and that’s not funny at all.  Exy keeps saying he saved the world — but he didn’t, because the governments of every country on Earth have been destroyed and millions of people have presumably died or been injured in a global mind-control scheme.  The story starts out with a traditional riff about how the lower class bloke is just as good if not better than the upper class kids and maybe this institution founded by a bunch of Victorian aristocrats who made their fortunes via global colonialism isn’t such a great thing after all, but that all goes away as these things always go away:  it isn’t that we want to overturn the system; no, what we want is for our hero to earn his way to the top of the system.

Anyway, I’ve already spent way too much time thinking about this, so I’m going to stop, except for one more thing:

So there’s a joke about secret agent tryouts.  The trainers hand the candidates guns and tell them to walk into a room and kill the person inside.  The first comes out in tears. “It’s my mother, I can’t do it!”  And the second walks into the room and comes back out crying, “It’s my brother, I can’t do it!”  And then the third candidate goes into her room, and the trainers hear a gunshot.  Then a lot of terrible noise.  And the candidate walks out and says, “Yeah, so the gun was loaded with blanks so I had to beat my husband to death.”

I thought about that joke during the movie, and it made me wonder yet again what the point of that test is supposed to be.  They obviously don’t want the candidates to actually kill their dogs.  But they reward the one who pulls the trigger.  So what quality are they advocating here?  The hardness that will allow the candidates to kill their loved ones if they have to?  Or the bitterness at knowing the institution they work for happily lies to them?

Or as one of my friends said:  “They reward the candidate who actually checks to see if the gun is loaded and what with, which is what you should always do when someone hands you a gun.”

 

snow and movies

March 4, 2015

I’m not a big fan of cold, but I do like snow (which is one of the many reasons why I stay in Colorado).  One of the things I like about snow:  the way it sometimes partially melts and then re-freezes in really cool ways.  Like, half-melting through the slats in the pergola over the back porch.

IMG_5953

It’s like a giant snow fungus, isn’t it?

What can you do in the snowy season but stay in and watch movies?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Nebbish middle-aged dude teams up with his flighty neighbor to a) find his lost love and b) get flighty neighbor back to England before the world is destroyed by a giant asteroid.  This is the kind of movie you can sit around arguing about whether or not it’s science fiction.  Either way, it was pretty well done.

SPOILERS!  Because I am going to fix the ending for you.

I didn’t want to like this, dripping as it is with Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, but it got me.  The scene where he puts her on the airplane?  I sobbed like a freaking baby.  He spends the whole movie saying he knows a guy with a plane to get her home, and when you realize who has the plane and the emotional hurdle Dodge had to clear to get to that point — oh, it’s just a great moment.

I would have ended the movie with Dodge lying on the floor of Penny’s apartment, listening to her records, smiling.

Instead, the movie goes the ultra cliche romantic route, and she comes back, which to my thinking completely undermines the power of the scene at the airplane.  It may also completely undermine the emotional arc of the entire movie, during which both characters admit they don’t know how to be alone and have gotten into really bad relationships because they’re scared of being alone.  And here they are doing it again, because the only reason this relationship isn’t going to go bad is that the frakking world is over.  But anyway.  Still not a fan of ultra cliche romance I guess.

The movie also got me thinking about what I would do if the world was ending in a week.  And I realized:  I would stop writing.  (Now, if I got some kind of terminal diagnosis I would probably keep writing for as long as I could, because someone will still be there to read it.  End of the world? Not so much.)  I’d make a nice dinner for my friends.  I would read The Blue Sword one more time, and watch Star Wars and Labyrinth one more time.  I would go birdwatching at Walden Ponds for a day, and listen to a lot of music.  I would go hug TinyHorse, and all the other horses too.  I would buy a $100 bottle of wine and drink it very slowly.  I would call my niece.  And then I’d probably do whatever my mom wanted me to do, because, you know, mom.

 

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