Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Malevolent Robot

The first thing I thought after watching Ex Machina was that I needed to disengage myself from all of my social networks.  Did I do that? No (of course not).  But just what is being done with all that data?  Surely there must be a use for it beyond just trying to sell us stuff.  What if all that data was being funneled and archived to create the most sentient artificial being imaginable?  This question is one of the thought-provoking premises addressed in Ex Machina.  The story follows Caleb who has just “won” the opportunity of a lifetime to spend a week with his reclusive employer Nathan.  Nathan is some sort of coding prodigy who has built a social networking empire called BlueBook.  [Really? Facebook much?  Not only is this the partial name of a car-buying guide, but it’s also the name of a legal citation guide published by my alma mater.  A big fat D for originality on this bit.  But I digress.] Nathan asks Caleb to test his latest and greatest creation, Ava, an artificially intelligent robot, to gauge her human-like qualities.  But like all dystopian thrillers, Nathan isn’t quite what he seems and neither is Ava.  And Caleb, to his detriment, is the last to know.

It occurred to me that in many stories about intelligent machines, the circumstances of human beings take a turn for the worse.  Is this because all machines are inherently evil or because machines inevitably take on the worst characteristics human beings who build them?  Pinocchio was a liar before he was a real boy, after all.  Are we gods creating superior gadgets, or are we men creating flawed apparatuses?  The Terminator series films answered similar questions with sturm und drang; Ex Machina, in contrast, is quiet and subtle, but just as dire in its examination.  In a year that has so far been unsatisfying in its cinematic offerings to date, Ex Machina is a welcome respite from mindless fare cluttering the cinemaplex.  
[In addition, the  visuals are quite striking, including the Norwegian mountainside used as the site of Nathan’s home.  Also, listen out for echoes of the chords from Close Encounters of the Third Kind throughout the score.]

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Thief in the Night

In the first five minutes of Nightcrawler, we meet Louis Bloom who is in the middle of stealing a wire fence to sell it for scrap.  While he's at it, he also attacks and steals a watch from a security guard who catches him in the act.  So right off the bat, we know that Louis, as embodied by a eerily emaciated Jake Gyllenhaal, is not the most scrupulous person on earth.  Yet Louis is not content with being a petty thief as he repeatedly asks any and everyone he encounters for a job.  But no luck--he is a bit creepy and a thief, after all.  But then he stumbles upon a profession he actually has a knack for--riding around L.A. at night and trolling the police scanners to get video footage of crime scenes and accidents to sell to a television news producer played by Renee Russo. As Louis gets more successful at "nightcrawling" and his business becomes more lucrative, the lines between documenting the news and creating the news begin to dissipate.  Indeed, Louis is not above blackmail, sabotage, obstruction, and murder to get the best footage first.  As Louis states, if you see him hovering about, you're probably having the worst night of your life.  I thoroughly "enjoyed" Nightcrawler as a dark character study of a talented "twerp" with no moral compass and a perverse view of the world.  [Just imagine if Bill Gates had used his genius for evil; you'd get someone like Louis Bloom.]  Nightcrawler is also somewhat of a critical social commentary about the television news media.  Nina, the t.v. news producer played by Russo, is convinced her viewers only want to see violent suburban crimes with rich white victims and horrific accidents.  Is that all we want to see or is that all we're shown?

Nightcrawler is currently playing in Atlanta at Phipps Plaza.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Costume Change

I was underwhelmed by Beyond the Lights.  I think it was because the film was mostly focused on the point at which the protagonist Noni had already achieved mainstream success as a singer in the fickle music industry.  While the messages about the negative  trappings of fame and the misogyny in the record business rang true, I didn’t feel I had much vested in Noni as a fully-realized character.  Rather than experiencing a full character arc, we are treated to what is essentially a costume change where Noni goes from a Rihanna/Nicki Minaj mash-up to Corinne Bailey Rae.  I get the sentiment of an artist’s struggle to be true to herself, but I would have liked to have seen more of how Noni achieved her success and what made her tick.  As I walked out of the theater, I still had no idea why Noni was contemplating death just at the moment where her career is about to rocket forward. And while the romantic relationship between Noni and Kaz, the cop that saves Noni from herself, is sweet, it isn’t that dynamic. [And the subplot of Kaz’s dalliance with a career in politics is never fully fleshed out either.]  Also, for a movie about the music industry, the music in the film was decidedly lackluster. [The only musical bright spots were a few emotional renditions of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” a song which has great importance to Noni in the story]. Despite all the negativity that’s going on in this review, I will say that I really like the lead actors--Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni and Nate Parker as Kaz. Their acting abilities are far better than the material they were given in this film.  I also like the film’s director Gina Prince-Blythewood who, over the years, has managed to bring universal stories featuring black people to the big and small screen.  But, if you want to see the true force of her work, Love & Basketball is the far superior film and has a better soundtrack to boot.